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The Nation, January 23, 2019

The public has so far given Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans the lion’s share of the blame for the longest government shutdown in US history. That’s understandable given that Trump kicked it off by saying on nationwide television that he alone would take responsibility for locking out federal workers if he didn’t get $5.7 billion for a wall that—remember!—he originally said he would strong-arm Mexico into financing within his first three days in office.

We should be grateful for Trump’s incapacity for message discipline, because the traditional media are once again failing to convey what’s going on in Washington. The instinct to cover a standoff like this one as an example of partisan bickering runs deep, but that framing obscures the utter absurdity of this shutdown. Yet again, we’re seeing deeply embedded conventions of neutral political journalism effectively normalizing what are really an incoherent series of moves by an erratic president—abuses of power that are now causing deep and potentially lasting damage to the economy.

If you tune in to cable news, or check the latest at outlets like Politico or The Hill, you’ll learn which party has the upper hand in the polls, which caucus is feeling more restive or more confident and analysis of the latest proposals to bring it to an end. And you will hear, repeatedly, that this is a standoff over $5.7 billion for Trump’s border wall.

That’s not what this is about, or not primarily. It is true that the Democratic base is dead-set against funding Trump’s wall, but Democratic leaders have made it clear that they think that if Trump gets his way under these circumstances, they’ll face two years trying to govern with a president who’s learned he can force his way by taking hostages according to the whims of conservative media personalities. “We cannot have the president, every time he has an objection, to say I’ll shut down the government until you come to my way of thinking,” said Nancy Pelosi this week. “If we hold [federal] employees hostage now, they’re hostage forever.”

That’s really what’s at stake with this shutdown. It’s a test of whether Trump can wrap his head around the fact that Congress is a co-equal branch of government. Trump doesn’t want to fold because it would bruise his ego; Democrats can’t fold without undermining the separation of powers for the remainder of Trump’s presidency.

And contrary to what you may believe from dozens of headlines and hundreds of cable news segments, Trump did not offer the Democrats a deal to reopen the government last Friday. He wants to build a giant wall on the southern border, which Democrats oppose. He reiterated his demand for $5.7 billion to pay for it, but he offered nothing that Democrats want and Republicans oppose in return. ...
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