Trump's Bubble Burst

Humiliation results from inhabiting a make-believe reality.

One takeaway from the federal government shutdown is the importance of good information. American presidents are privy to the highest quality data on the planet. Yet Donald Trump, who does not read and who cannot concentrate for more than a minute, gets most of his information from Fox News and the sycophants around him.

This didn’t matter much when the Republican Party ran Washington. It matters greatly now that a Republican president faces a powerful and united opposition. We saw a consequence last week. The president was told for over a month that the Democrats would break. They held firm. Trump surrendered without a wall but with a Democratic Party more determined to stop him from getting one.

Who told Trump the Democrats would break? According to the Post, the Times, and Politico, it was Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. Kushner had “emerged as a powerful adviser during the shutdown” who had been convinced that the $5.7 billion wall would get Democratic support in the Senate. In fact, it got one vote from Joe Manchin of West Virginia. That Manchin was the only Democrat “was a surprise” to Kushner, who had “touted his relationships with Democratic lawmakers.”

Anyone paying just a little attention could see that Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and the Democrats were not going to give in to taking the government hostage. Even if the wall had somehow gotten through the Senate (it needed 60 votes), it would not have gotten through the House. Yet Kushner was confident in his powers of negotiation. “Out of his element,” the Times reported. “Out of his mind” is more accurate.

Being wrong, however, has not diminished Kushner’s influence. The Post reported Saturday that Trump was willing to concede in the shutdown fight, because “he is convinced he can win support from some Democratic lawmakers over the next three weeks." Moreover: “the administration’s negotiating team has received dozens of signals from Democrats that they are willing to give the president wall money."

Kushner is hearing what he wants to hear. When the Democrats say they are for “border security,” which they have stood for for decades, Kushner is hearing “border wall.” The president keeps saying they are the same. Kushner won’t contradict him. But they are not the same. Trump is basing a negotiation strategy on a verifiable falsehood. Is it any wonder he was surprised when things didn’t go his way?

That’s not the only falsehood. Trump believes he can still rely on Senate Republicans, but they see fewer reasons to stick their necks out. During a luncheon last week, some blamed Mitch McConnell for wedging them between the president and his base. Others vowed that another shutdown is out of the question. “None of us is willing to go through this again,” said Lisa Murkowski. Yet Trump insists that if the Congress does not deliver, he’ll shut down the government. He really doesn’t know.

More precisely, he doesn’t want to know. That’s what makes this one unique in the history of government shutdowns. Businessweek’s Joshua Green has a new item explaining the history. Missing, I think, is this factor: Rarely if ever has there been a president so unwilling to hear information contradicting what he believes to be true, and who has access to a media infrastructure ready to abet that unwillingness. As long as Fox News is happy, Trump is happy—until the moment of his humiliation.

Not knowing means Trump can make up whatever reality he desires. He should have struck a deal in December after the midterms made clear he was in trouble. He should have struck a deal after Pelosi uninvited him from giving the State of the Union. He didn’t, because he was living in a make-believe world where everybody loves Donald.

The government is funded for the next three weeks. Will Trump get a wall? I doubt it. The Democrats spanked him. They don’t have incentive to give up now. They will do what they had previously done, which is to offer money for “security,” not a wall.

Meanwhile, Trump’s poll numbers continue to slide. The weaker he gets, the weaker he will become. The only thing propping him up at this point is Fox News (though he’s lost influence there). If he invokes a national emergency, bypassing the Congress, he will face resistance on the part of property owners along the border as well as House Democrats eager to punish a party that formerly championed private property.

Trump has been trying to fudge his campaign promise, sometimes calling the wall a “barrier” or “steel slats.” On Friday, he said, curiously, that lots of the border didn’t need a wall, because there were “natural barriers,” like mountains and water.

But his base won’t be flexible, and neither will the Democrats. Pelosi won’t let him redefine the political meaning of the wall. Though the Democrats will offer money for “fencing” and whatnot, they will denounce “the wall,” thus claiming victory and making it impossible for him to concede gracefully even if he wanted to.

—John Stoehr


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