Of all the political tribulations that elicit gnashing of teeth from Washington, the most ridiculous has to be the government shutdown. The federal government has been closed 18 times since 1975 over everything from abortion to nuclear missiles to congressional laziness, yet only recently has this rather mundane occurrence been turned by cable news into a ticking-clock serial thriller. The last villain to trigger a shutdown was Sen. Ted Cruz in 2013, and while voters disapproved, they quickly shrugged it off and awarded Cruz’s Republicans control of the Senate that following year. An Associated Press poll from 2015 found the public supporting a hypothetical shutdown if it extracted needed spending cuts.
That being said, Donald Trump was wise to back off his threat of another shutdown earlier this week. Trump had initially signaled that he would veto any budget that didn’t include funding for his wall on the southern border, now such a trademark promise that he’s branded it as just “The Wall.” Democrats are monolithic in their opposition, with Nancy Pelosi on Sunday calling The Wall “immoral, expensive, unwise.” Since Democratic consent is needed to advance any budget through the Senate and the government’s spending power expires on Friday, Trump’s holding firm would have probably triggered a shutdown. So it was good news when he indicated on Tuesday that The Wall could be appropriated later in the year, drawing lukewarm plaudits from Democrats and grateful exhalations from Republicans.
Yes, shutdowns are hardly unprecedented, but doing one now would have cemented Trump’s already-hardening reputation for managerial chaos. “Only Republicans could shut down the government when they control all of it,” the pundits would snark, and they’d have a point. Democrats would have to do little except recline and point. All this over The Wall—more a symbol of Trump-flavored nationalism than a serious policy to advance its goals—which Republicans are reluctant to fund, ostensible Trump allies dismiss as ineffective, and the public opposes by a yawning margin. To pilfer one of political journalism’s favorite clichés, this is one can that should be kicked down the road.
And yet there The Wall remains, stretching across the hazy top of Trump’s policy program, captivating his supporters, who continue to enthusiastically back its being built. More than just a symbol of Trump’s toughness on immigration, it’s also a metaphor for the evolution of the conservative base. Ideologically, The Wall is a synthesis of national-greatness conservatism and closed-doors nationalism, the sort of galvanizing construction project favored by David Brooks employed to achieve the ends of Steve Bannon. Its most unnatural bedfellow is small-state, Tea Party conservatism, which captivated the right for several years and generally frowns upon grand expenditures in times of record debt. The contradiction is hard to miss. Tea partiers shut down the government in 2013 over excessive spending on Obamacare; Trump threatened to shut down the government this year over an absence of spending on his wall.
Some of this is the natural profligacy that seizes any political party upon its return to power. Fiscal conservatism is always more fashionable in opposition than in government, when the lobbyists and interest group legislative directors who between them safeguard every solitary dollar in the federal budget start knocking on your door. Cue anonymous Hill Republicans grousing to Politico that Trump’s and James Mattis’s absurdly wasteful request for more in defense spending isn’t nearly enough. “Rebuilding our military” or “investing in our children” is naturally more gratifying than bringing the federal budget to terms. Basic political drift guaranteed Republicans would be bigger spenders in practice than theory, and since securing the border is a longstanding conservative priority, The Wall hardly comes as a surprise.
But there’s something else at work here beyond the usual U-turns. Because even after winning the White House, there are still plenty of Republicans who are interested in trimming the budget, even Pentagon spending, among them the House Freedom Caucus and others. Not among them is Donald Trump who, though he hired Mick Mulvaney to be his budget director and is at least trying to balance his defense hikes with cuts elsewhere, has never been much of a fiscal conservative. Trump wants a smaller state, not a small state. His objectives—fighting Islamic terrorism, controlling the border, rebuilding blighted deindustrialized communities—cannot be accomplished without Washingtonian muscle flexing. Where he does sound tea party-esque, as on regulations and the corporate tax, he’s motivated more by an impetus to help businesses than to hinder government.
This is a difference in ideology, one that’s positioned Trump and many congressional Republicans at opposite poles (you could even build a wall between them). The GOP is less a majority party right now than a governing coalition, with deficit hawks and defense hawks all squawking, while everyone waits to see where Trump will come down. The internal contradictions of programmatic conservatism have thus been hauled even further into the open, beginning with the fiasco of the American Health Care Act and continuing with this budget tension. Shutting down the government when your party controls everything would indeed be embarrassing, but the GOP’s factionalism means it can’t really be said to exert that level of control. Throw in weak congressional leadership, especially in the House, and I wouldn’t rule out a pan-Republican shutdown in the future.
“See what we Conservatives can do,” says one of the characters in Anthony Trollope’s novel Phineas Redux. “In fact we will conserve nothing when we find that you do not desire to have it conserved any longer.” Republican voters, having watched liberals age under the woodwork of the cultural and political establishments that they long ago seized, have grown out of their conservationist mood and into a radical one. Those elites must be displaced, their institutions overhauled. The problem is that it isn’t clear which radicalism they want adopted. The failures of big government under George W. Bush bred the Tea Party; now the more relatable and emotionally cathartic politics of The Wall are in vogue. The government should remain open next week, but who knows where we are headed next?
Matt Purple is the deputy editor for Rare Politics.