WASHINGTON – Normally, precipitating a federal government shutdown on the eve of a holiday week would be a shot in the foot, politically speaking.
But for President Donald Trump a shutdown, in an all or nothing bid to get Congress to fund a wall on the Mexico border, is a gamble that is likely to go down well with his base.
A Quinnipiac University national poll released on Dec 18 showed that 54 per cent of voters opposed building a wall on the border against 43 per cent in favour. And voters by a 62 to 34 per cent margin opposed a shutdown over wall funding.
But Republicans supported the move 59 per cent to 33 per cent against. In all three cases, the remainder were undecided.
President Trump’s own incoming, interim White House Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, in a 2015 interview, called the wall a simplistic solution to the problem of illegal immigration. Most experts on illegal immigration and trafficking agree. But, with the demographics in the country changing in favour of minority groups, the immigration issue is deeply emotive.
The wall project has morphed to a steel slat fencing, and from being paid for by Mexico to one being paid for by American taxpayers. But it has remained central to Mr Trump since he promised a “big, beautiful wall” during the 2016 campaign for the White House. And this past week he came under unusual pressure from the right wing, led by the strident conservative commentator Ann Coulter – one of the few people Mr Trump followed on Twitter.
Ms Coulter told the conservative Daily Caller in a podcast that Mr Trump’s presidency would be a “joke” if he failed to get the wall built.
“Trump will just have… scammed the American people, amused the populists for a while, but he’ll have no legacy whatsoever,” she said. The President unfollowed her.
Experts, and opposition Democrats, say the wall is not necessary and not a smart use of the billions of dollars it will cost. Also, constructing it along the over 3,000 kilometre length of the border is a gargantuan and complex task which would take years.
“The wall is inefficient and not viable, it will need millions of dollars alone to maintain,” says Dr Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an expert on migration from Central America, who teaches at George Mason University. “It’s not going to happen,” she told The Straits Times.
“The wall is totally about rhetoric for the 2020 election, it’s about maintaining and consolidating the President’s base.”
The real issue is fixing America’s immigration system. There are some 800,000 asylum cases pending in American courts. Congress wants change but in America’s severely polarised political climate there is no agreement on the changes that are needed.
Most of the migrants in the caravans making their way to the US border – painted as an “invasion” by right wing and conservative commentators in the US – are in fact fleeing violence and poverty in their own countries.
Mexico and the US are working on a deal in which third-country asylum seekers’ claims will be processed in Mexico. But Mexico wants American aid in exchange to develop its own poorer southern border regions as well as its Central American neighbours as a holistic long term solution to the issue of migration.
Meanwhile this past week President Trump, who ordered that no asylum claims should be registered for people who crossed at unofficial points on the border, saw the Supreme Court strike that order down.
Mr Trump is ending the year beset with problems, including a plunging stock market, investigations into his inner circle, and now the shutdown.
He is also contending with a backlash from both sides of the aisle over his decision to pull US troops out of Syria and reduce their numbers by half in Afghanistan – decisions which triggered concern among allies and the resignation of his Secretary of Defence. Yet, those decisions were again consistent with his promise to his base of no more American involvement in distant and expensive overseas wars.
The shutdown – which affects roughly 800,000 federal employees, many of whom will go with paychecks, and create inconvenience for the public as services suffer – could last until early January when the House of Representatives will convene under a Democratic majority.
Mr Trump still may not get the funding he wants for his wall, but he will have shown his base he is willing to stick his neck out for it.
That is not without risk. “When you say you are willing to take the blame for the government shut down, people will blame you – and history tells us that is not a political winner,” Dr Glenn Altschuler, professor of American Studies at Cornell University told The Straits Times.
But Mr Trump believes the promise of the wall got him elected, and if he harps on it his base will turn out again and his support will grow, he said.
President Trump’s willingness to shut down the government over building the border wall, and the decision to pull troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, are “powerful reminders that he is a hyper nationalist and isolationist,” Dr Altschuler said.
“He is banking on reducing America’s… international responsibilities, and on support for policies that target immigrants, in favour of freezing, so to speak, the demographic status quo in the United States.”
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