Trump’s game of chicken
The president’s showdown with Congress has a ruthless logic, argues Paul Demarty
It is one measure of the dysfunction of the American political system that - as 2018 collapsed, exhausted, into 2019 - the US government is literally not completely functioning.
It is a still less flattering measure, of course, that the circumstances involved - the partial government shutdown, which occurs as and when Congress is unable to pass a budget that will make it past the president’s veto pen, or indeed at all - are greeted, at least by those who are not losing wages over the matter, with something like a weary shrug and a despairing, pious hope that it will all be sorted out. For the government shutdown has gone from being a fairly exceptional event - once every five or so years, since the phenomenon was given birth by the legal opinions of Benjamin Civiletti, Jimmy Carter’s attorney general, in 1980. In 2013, when Tea Party Republicans - led by Texas senator Ted Cruz, who always was a couple of ribs short of the full barbecue - imposed a shutdown, the result was widespread contempt and a tactical victory to Barack Obama. Establishment Republican senator Lindsey Graham quipped: “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you.”
But the current shutdown is the third in the space of a year. That is really quite something, and points to the morbid sickness of American bourgeois politics - the usual machinations of executive, legislature and judiciary are exhausted in their usefulness, and so we proceed directly to the taking of hostages.
This time around there is an additional twist. Low political tactics are a little like chess openings. There are two combatants, and both must participate to create the given opening. Yet one opening or another will tend, over enough games played by skilled players, to favour white or black. In the 40-year history of the federal government shutdown, the steps have looked a little like this - facing a hostile Congress, the executive branch manufactures an ultimatum. Congress either backs down, handing considerable advantage to the White House; or calls bluff, causing a shutdown. The president’s people will then blame Congress for its immaturity. The American people may or may not believe it, but it tends to favour the executive.
This time around, the script was followed immaculately, except that Donald Trump did not take the high ground of Beltway cliché. He instead declared, in a bizarre televised showdown with Democratic caucus leaders, that no funding bill would pass without his conditions, and openly declared to be “proud to shut down the government … I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down.” Tactical subtlety is not Trump’s forte, but perhaps he knows something the wise men of Washington do not, and subtlety is catastrophically overvalued by American politicians.
The immediate occasion for all this excitement is the least subtle of Trump’s campaign pledges - that blasted border wall with Mexico. Viewed from another angle, it is so subtle as to be almost invisible - the $5 billion he demands is a rounding error in America’s bloated federal budget. Yet the symbolism is enormous. (It is worth noting what Trump can only breeze over in narcissistic silence: that the very fact of this argument happening is a headstone on his complementary promise that Mexico would pay for it.) The wall is the keystone of his whole worldview, or at least the worldview he touts around like fake designer clothes at a south London street market. It is equally the exemplary case of what all his enemies despise about him - his callousness and cruelty. A fine O.K. Corral for a gunfight, all round.
And so, as the crisis drags on, Trump has only ratcheted up the rhetoric - it has worked every other time, so why not now? During his address from the Oval office Trump poured scorn on the Democrats, blamed Mexicans for the heroin trade and murdering Americans in “cold blood”. However, he did not, as some expected, declare a state of emergency on the US-Mexico border. But such a declaration could come any time - allowing the executive branch to take matters into its own hands.
Trump’s “crisis of the heart, crisis of the soul” is really quite something. The only crisis on the border is the one he created with his last chauvinist barrage, by making out of a convoy of impoverished Hondurans an existential threat to the Greatest Nation On Earth, when surely even San Marino could have found room for them. The intended audience for all this, of course, was US midterm voters; and the intended audience for the current showdown with Congress is voters in the 2020 election, if - as seems likely - he should survive long enough to fight it.
Likewise, we suppose, with the pathetic miniature version of the same events - which unfolded on these shores when Sajid Javid decided, over the Christmas break, that a two-figure number of desperate migrants who managed to cross the channel from France constituted a national emergency. Only a churlish cynic would suggest that his government’s torrid December, and its laughable impotence on the one matter of real importance to the British state before it, had anything to do with this wretched shower of lies. (Theresa May’s ‘my deal or no deal’ game of chicken with the rest of our fair nation’s bourgeois politicians serves nicely as a Mini-Me version of Trump’s art of the deal …)
There is something interesting in this coincidence, indeed with the wider convergence on such vileness in the imperialist world (and out of it, as seen most recently in Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil), in that it has a very stern internal logic. Different regimes of exploitation - from judicialised neoliberalism to open kleptocracy - impoverish and enrage the masses, and therefore demand a political counterweight. The ‘stick’ is the suppression - forcible or merely by marginalisation - of the left; the ‘carrot’ is an alternative political programme of national (or other) chauvinism. The more the stick does its work, the sweeter the carrot - for the quieter the voices with an alternative view actually are.
The trouble with the carrot is merely that it does not work. Immigration controls in rich countries, unless severely punitive (and remember that the baseline standard for a migrant hailing from Libya or Syria, like some of Javid’s hated boat people, is merely not to be part of a failed state), tend not to reduce inflows so much as further marginalise those who do come in and ripen them for exploitation. So the stench of betrayal tickles the nostrils of the people who fall for it, and more punitive measures must be used, until we get to the Trump-Bolsonaro phase of proceedings, when even the positive national self-image is reduced to a phantom and supplanted by open bestiality towards the incomers. Such people tend to be belligerent externally as well as internally, which tends in turn to exacerbate military conflict and thus increase international population flows, precisely among those who have the least to lose. The cycle continues: inegalitarian liberalism generates chauvinism, and chauvinism generates more chauvinism. To regain ground, the liberals make concessions to - what else? - chauvinism. The only result, somehow, is always more of the same.
It scarcely needs to be said that a way out of the loop is direly needed - the question is whether one is forthcoming. In America, the signs are mixed; we have already had cause to discuss the relative bolshiness of the left-liberal and soi-disant socialist wing of the Democratic Party in the last couple of years. Faced with the disaster of Trump, two obvious approaches to their neoliberal-Democrat frenemies are possible: one, in the light of their obvious political exhaustion, is to demand they step aside; the other is to take fright at the horrors inhabiting the White House and double down on self-defeating unity-mongering. It is no small mercy that the former course remains open.
The difficulty is the general poverty of political education. The overwhelming urge of the American left, including its revolutionary wing, to drown itself in hyper-activism and cosy up to every passing fad has resulted only in a pervasive rudderlessness and hyper-sensitivity to reversals. Take the somewhat popular demand to abolish the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. It is suitably radical, and the Chuck Schumers of this world, for whom $1.3 billion is quite enough for punishing migrants, are utterly horrified by the idea. Good! But we can well see where it comes from - these activists try their best to defend the undocumented, and who are their direct adversaries? Who turns up to drag people away from their families? Why, ICE, of course. This instinctive emotional disgust at atrocity has yet to rise to the level of understanding the mechanisms of state power, and that is in the end a problem of the dearth of political leadership on offer from those few Americans who claim the mantle of revolutionary socialism.
Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If there is no comprehensive vision available from the left, sooner or later one will emerge from other quarters. The establishment liberals have, by means of their oh-so-clever political machinations, conspired in their humiliation by the bloviating Trump; but there is a whole other game of chicken to be played between them and their left-leaning critics, and it would be foolish to count them out yet. The siren call of Clintonite technocracy must be resisted, for it promises - by its very dishonesty - only further lurches, at some future date, into the barbarism it purports to fight.