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Ben Roback: Three weeks into a record shutdown and no sign of a compromise

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

As British politics sinks further into a self-enforced abyss of disagreement with no end in sight, it is worth remembering that we are not alone in navigating choppy waters.

The US Government is in its third week of a partial shutdown that it brought entirely on itself.

The shutdown is now entering day 27, and crucially there is little indication of a cooling of tensions that could provide a light at the end of the tunnel. Its implications are octopus-like, reaching simultaneously into complex areas of public policy and people’s everyday lives.

Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are either being furloughed or working without pay, bringing pain to households in commuter towns in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia. Around the country, a lack of airport security personnel means screening takes hours when it should take minutes (scarily, in three weeks, Atlanta airport is expecting over 100,00 passengers coming into town for the Super Bowl).

The longest government shutdown in history shows no sign of ending any time soon. Americans employed by the government and tourists hoping to visit national parks are losing out at the sharp end of the shutdown – but does its continuation in fact suit both parties?

Playing the blame game

Both the White House and Congressional Democrats have been keen to continually lament the shutdown, scathing about its impact on Main Street American jobs and the macroeconomic impact. The longer the shutdown goes on, the more both sides are proven correct – yesterday the New York Times wrote:

“The partial government shutdown is inflicting far greater damage on the United States economy than previously estimated, the White House acknowledged on Tuesday, as President Trump’s economists doubled projections of how much economic growth is being lost each week the standoff with Democrats continues.”

For the President, this brings a significant risk. Donald Trump has prided his tenure so far on the economic impacts he has delivered – a bullish stock market and wholesale tax reform for companies and individuals. Tumbling economic forecasts suddenly undermine that narrative, which will be one of the central features of his 2020 re-election campaign.

It represents a likely battle taking place between the economic and immigration advisers in the President’s inner circle. After all, the shutdown is only entering its 26th day because of the White House’s insistence that fiscal provisions to keep the Government open contain over $5 billion in government funding to build a wall on the US/Mexico border.

With absolutely no surprise whatsoever, Democrats are refusing to acquiesce – immigration became one of their top priorities as an increasingly diverse electorate become ever more important to their electoral coalition. In previous congressional cycles, the focus had been on securing a long-term solution for the so-called “dreamers”, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy. Notable attempts failed under President Obama in 2014. Since Trump made chants of “BUILD! THE! WALL!” a central feature of his election campaigns, that focus has sharply shifted to the issue of the wall.

So, who is to blame? The President has sought to shift blame towards the Democrats, whom he continues to describe as “obstructionist”. Following a televised address to the nation last week, three polls showed that strategy is failing to land:

  • A Quinnipiac University poll (here) found that 56 per cent of voters held Trump and congressional Republicans responsible for the shutdown whereas only 36 per cent said they thought congressional Democrats were responsible.
  • A CNN/SSRS poll (here) found that 55 per cent of Americans blamed the President for the shutdown, compared to 32 per cent who blamed the Democrats. Interestingly, the poll also found that a majority (56 per cent) opposed the deal whilst only 39 per cent supported it.
  • A CBS News/YouGov poll (here) found that 47 per cent of Americans blamed Mr Trump “most” for the shutdown, compared to 30 per cent who cited Democrats. However, 20 per cent allocated blame “equally” on both parties, suggesting neither is gaining as a result of the current malaise. Worryingly for the GOP, these criticisms are held acutely amongst suburban voters – whose votes will be crucial for Republicans in states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia in 2020.

Immigration shaping up to be the biggest wedge issue in 2020

As we enter the lame duck period, so much of what happens in US politics will be viewed through the lens of the 2020 general election. The proof? Since Christmas, three Democrats have launched their early campaigns for the presidency and a fourth appears imminent. On the left, the pressure from the grass roots will be to hold an aggressive line in staunch opposition to the wall. There will be absolutely no political reward whatsoever for riding to the rescue of a President that has buried himself in a bunker. And so:

  • Elizabeth Warren, who was the first to launch her campaign for 2020, has tweeted: “24 days into the #TrumpShutdown and over 800,000 federal employees have already missed 1 paycheck. How many more before Republicans stop crushing working families and re-open the government? Time to end this.”
  • Tulsi Gabbard has tweeted: “Today an estimated 800,000 federal employees will miss their first paychecks of the year. Families are suffering. Our country is less safe. The impact of this shutdown is real.”
  • Kirsten Gilibrand has tweeted: “The emergency at our border is the cruel treatment of children who are still detained. It’s the asylum seekers being shut out. It’s @realDonaldTrump’s dehumanizing attacks on immigrants in need. We need to end the shutdown and get back to solving real problems families face.”

For the President, the strategy of keeping the government shut down unless Democrats vote to fund his border wall doesn’t seem to be working. According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, since the shutdown began the president’s aggregate approval rating has fallen from 42.2 per cent to 40.8 per cent.

No end in sight

The 2018 midterm elections saw the Republicans and Democrats trade on the currency of anger and fear in the American public. Those two sentiments have continued into the 116th Congress and there is no sign it will end any time soon. For that reason, it is hard to forecast a sudden change in sentiment from the White House or Congressional Democrats, one of which would be needed to bring about an end to the shutdown.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

How Trump appeals to unspeakable emotions

Denial: The Unspeakable Truth by Keith Kahn-Harris

Anyone who takes the faintest interest in politics is bound to wonder why, while behaving in a manner so loutish, shameless and disrespectful of conventional wisdom, Donald Trump has managed to form such a close bond with the American public.

Keith Kahn-Harris touches only in passing on that question, yet succeeds in casting much light on it.

His book has the merit of being short. He examines a phenomenon – the yearning to deny various commonly accepted positions – which could have spawned a treatise of inordinate length.

He manages to write not much more than an extended essay by selecting only a few examples of denial. These include denial of the Holocaust, of the harm done by tobacco, of the link between HIV and AIDS, and of man-made climate change.

One may question how much in common with each other these denials have. The Holocaust has already taken place, while climate change is to a large extent a series of predictions about the future.

And denialism (a term he admits to be “terrible”) as a form of non-argument, where one refuses to listen to the opposing point of view or to take into account strong opposing evidence, and is instead driven by inner compulsions of one’s own, has also been seen quite a bit during our own referendum campaign.

In his frivolous youth, Kahn-Harris tells us in his preface, he developed a love of “nonsense dressed up as scholarship”, and revelled in the “portentous ludicrousness” of books such as Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, which in the 1970s contended that aliens had visited earth and inspired the glories of ancient civilisations.

Kahn-Harris’s Jewish upbringing meant he was conscious of the Holocaust from an early age, but when he heard of people who denied it had ever happened, this too “was all a big joke to me”.

It is easier to be heartless in one’s teens than later on, when he begins to worry that those who challenge “real scholarship” are helping  “something deeply poisonous” to grow, and to produce “diseased fruit in our ‘post-truth’ age”.

In some ways, I prefer the earlier and more heartless Kahn-Harris, who shrieks with laughter at the flat earthers and other cranks he comes across. For as he himself says, these people yearn to be taken seriously, and one should be wary of paying them that compliment.

But one advantage of taking them seriously is that he starts to see that they are not just liberals who have somehow gone astray, and only need a bit of education in order to enable them to perceive the truth:

“Denialism is not a barrier to acknowledging a common moral foundation, it is a barrier to acknowledging moral differences… Denialism arises from being in an impossible bind: holding to desires, values, ideologies and morals that cannot be openly spoken of.”

Later on, Kahn-Harris remarks that “all denialists share a burning desire to continue to appear decent while rejecting the path of decency”.  They cannot say what they really want, and

“politics becomes a kind of shadow play, in which – shorn of of real discussions of real differences – all that is left is a battle over who can really claim the mantle of righteousness, who can rightly claim to embody the values we all sign up to.”

We are all, he points out, anti-racists now. The anti-Zionist Left vehemently rejects any idea that it might be anti-semitic. Holocaust deniers similarly reject with indignation the charge that they hate Jews, and indeed find themselves adopting the ludicrous position that Hitler was pro-Jewish, for after all, in their version of events, the Nazis were not actually evil and the Jews were not actually killed.

Kahn-Harris sees “the pathos, the desperation and the fierce hope” that undergird denialist tracts – qualities one is liable to miss if one just debunks such works as ludicrously unscientific and unscholarly.

And here one starts to see Trump’s appeal. There is no way to be a polite racist. It is an inherently rude position, and in, for example, his attacks on Mexicans, Trump embraces that rudeness, revels in it, is authentically and genuinely loutish, appalls respectable society and thus convinces his supporters that he is on their side.

I have just been reading about the Mexican War of 1846-48, in which the United States made vast gains of territory at the expense of an enfeebled Mexico, which was provoked into war, fought bravely but was thrashed by well-led American forces with superior equipment. It was in many ways a disgraceful affair, and people like Abraham Lincoln said at the time that it was disgraceful.

But at the same time, a strong moral case was made for the expansion. It was, the Democratic Review declared in 1845, “the fulfilment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

The war was popular – democratic, one might say – and no one supposed afterwards that these gains stretching all the way to the Pacific, including what became the states of California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, and a southern border pushed down to the Rio Grande, should be handed back.

One of the heroes of the war, General Zachary Taylor, who had no political experience, was adopted as a presidential candidate in the election of 1848, which he proceeded to win.

Kahn-Harris does not go in to this history, and if he had done his book would have become unmanageable. But he does observe that denialists have beliefs which used to be regarded as morally defensible and now are not.

In the old days, one could win presidential elections thanks to one’s heroic record in unequal wars waged against native Americans and Mexicans. Today one cannot advocate that kind of thing. But Trump, with brutal skill, knows how to show whose side he is on. He is a more traditional figure than his opponents, whose outlook is usually bounded by their own lifetimes, tend to realise.

Throughout his essay, Kahn-Harris touches on the pleasure to be derived from shocking people, behaving in an outrageous fashion, claiming to be in possession of arcane information, and throwing one’s opponents off balance by saying things they never imagined could be said. Trump has a genius for that kind of performance.

At  the end of his essay, Kahn-Harris admits his book has not been particularly helpful in showing how denialism should be dealt with. He attempts, rather unconvincingly, to frame messages for Holocaust deniers and global warming deniers.

But his purpose is to understand, not to cure, and his essay can be recommended not just to anyone interested in denialism, but to anyone dismayed by the narrow limits within which our political debates take place.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com