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The shutdown boogie

Michael Saltz
January 9, 2019 12:35 am

Thanks to Donald Trump’s desire to deliver Twitter storms and his mercurial and inconsistent mind, news happens so fast these days that one can never be sure that what one writes today will have any relevance tomorrow. It’s a challenge.

Here’s what I know today. The government is partially shut down. The Fake News (by the way, almost every story that has been published by the Fake News has turned out to be right) is reporting that those in the White House weren’t aware that the shuttering of various departments and agencies actually affects people beyond 800,000 federal employees. Really?

Hard as that may be to believe, if you think about it there’s no reason to be surprised. Most people in the White House have never been in government, have never run large companies, or had the managerial responsibilities for the lives of thousands of people. We know that the President doesn’t really think much of people or, if he does, it’s only something he’s realized since he was elected. Certainly, as a business man, with his record of stiffing contractors, welshing on debts, and his insistence on loyalty upwards but never downwards, not to mention his fraudulent charity and other scams, he never demonstrated that people outside his family actually mattered to him. Well, enough of that.

All this is in service to the thing we call The Wall, something most people don’t think we need. I’d bet the truth is that Trump doesn’t think so either, but he’s boxed himself into a corner he wants to be in by his bluster and hasn’t figured out how to get out of it without looking “weak.” God forbid Trump should look weak. Besides, perhaps it suits his purpose. His purpose? To find or create a definable national emergency. He tried to do that with the “caravan” during the recent election. He’s just moving it to a bigger stage.

I should add that the rhetorical necessity of The Wall (it probably deserves to be in all caps, given its totemic significance by now) doesn’t mean that control of our borders isn’t necessary or our responsibility. The fact that our congressional representatives have chosen to ignore that responsibility for at least two decades isn’t Trump’s fault. He’s done other things with it - reprehensible things - but he was handed it on a silver platter by the unwillingness of Congress to deal with the problem when they had the chance and responsibility.

So now we have this pas de deux between the President and the Democrats with congressional Republicans trying to stay out of the way, to keep their heads down). They each say their positions are intractable. Pelosi says The Wall is immoral, which might be a bit extreme. Trump says The Wall is a matter of dire national security and of such importance that he’s willing for the government to stay partially shut down for months, if not years, something which is nonsense.

But here’s where things get really interesting and, perhaps, really scary. The President has said that maybe to build The Wall, he will cite that emergency to assume unilateral presidential control of the government, at least as pertains to The Wall. Suddenly, this begins to look like something else, something that we need to think about very carefully, something we’ve seen before but never in our own country. We need to look at Trump’s whole two years in office and wonder if this is where he has really been trying to go.

For two years we’ve been saying all sorts of things about Trump. We’ve called him immoral, infantile, irrational, mercurial, transactional, a clown, a fool, paranoid, fearful, a bully, weak, the tool of Putin, all sorts of things. Even some of his most ardent supporters think that some or all of them may be true. But in light of his national security comments, you have to wonder if there hasn’t been a more coherent arc to all this Twittering madness then we’ve been willing to admit, a coherent arc that Mueller’s investigation might reveal but which has been hiding in plain sight all along.

From the very beginning, from his inauguration speech on, Trump’s been pushing the envelope, trying to move from the notion of a democratically elected president, one who is not only accountable to the electorate but also to the other branches of government, to a president who is accountable to no one, least of all the justice system and congress. In case you were wondering, that’s what all this talk we’ve been hearing in recent weeks about a “unitary executive” and a president not being indictable while in office no matter what he does is about. That goes along with the claims of the unlimited authority of the president to hire and fire anybody he wants for any reason or no reason, the impossibility of a president obstructing justice, the unilateral abrogation of treaties, the self-declared authority to impose tariffs as a matter of national security, the continual denigration of the justice system, the attempt to portray himself as a victim of hidden conspiracies. And finally, the assertion of a national emergency where none exists. All these things have been done with scarcely a bleat from his fellow Republicans. Yes, the Democrats froth at the mouth but the Republicans? Mum’s the word.

What Trump is saying is that Hispanics are the reason he can/might/should assume at least partial dictatorial control of the country. Did Mitch McConnell say, “Not on my watch?”. Did Romney, the new “hero” of the Never Trumpers? Is there anyone in the administration left who can say, “No,” now that Mattis and the other generals (the supposed adults in the room) have fled? How about the vice president? Has he said anything? They may grumble in private amongst themselves, even to reporters, but say anything out loud?

We’ve seen echoes of this before. If Trump has his Hispanics, Hitler had his Jews and Communists, Stalin his Kulaks (just for starters), Mao his capitalist roaders and on and on. Ultimately, all them were about Me. As Louis IV said, “L’etat c’est moi”. Trump told us at the very beginning of his presidency that only he could fix it, whatever “it” is. He’s demonstrating how to go about doing that by gradually doing away with America as a democratic nation.

Is all this farfetched? Am I just revealing some personally felt anxiety? Maybe. But it strikes me that Trump continually pushes the limits of his authority, trying to find out exactly what he can get away with, which, so far, is quite a lot. Even if not carried out, what Trump is doing is normalizing ideas that no president has ever dared to say out loud, presuming they’ve even had them in the first place.

If anything is clear to me from everything I’ve seen for two years, this dance will keep on, he will keep on pushing until someone, hopefully everyone, says, “No more, enough.”

I hope by then it’s not too late.

Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.