The brunt of the US government shutdown falls squarely on the shoulders of blue-collar Americans, a voting bloc Trump can't afford to lose.
Donald Trump is terrible at trying to be a dictator. The grim federal government shutdown shows just how bad he is at being a dictator. He will never truly consolidate his power. Civil servants cannot survive on Trump’s tweets alone.
When you want to transform a country in your image, create a cult of personality that undermines the rule of law to benefit your allies, it is advisable not to tear food from the mouths of workers you’ll need to see your vision through. But Trump is doing just that.
Outrageous fantasies peddled by Fox News that imagine a non-existent “invasion” at the US-Mexico border occupy the president’s mind. Trump has shut down portions of the federal government to extort taxpayer money, $5.7 billion to be exact, to construct this wall, a monument to himself that most Americans will never even see.
The partial US government shutdown has forced 800,000 federal workers, many of them low-paid contractors living paycheck to paycheck, to stay at home or sometimes to toil without pay.
The Department of Homeland Security is without money to send cheques to thousands of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers. Those are the people who screen baggage at airports. Some have called out sick, or quit. The shutdown has also forced air traffic controllers to work without pay. Humans hurtling through America’s airspace, not all of them Americans, are less safe because of Trump’s obsession with his border wall.
The border wall is not even a popular idea, polls show, with 61 percent of Americans opposed to it, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
Blame for the shutdown also falls squarely on Trump’s shoulders. The president has claimed without evidence (a practice sometimes also referred to as lying) that federal workers want the wall so much that they’re willing to endure the shutdown’s hardships. At the same time, he has also stated that most of the workers affected by the shutdown are Democrats.
The pain is real, and stories emerge on a daily basis about workers without money to last the month. One worker, a veteran and mother of two, told CBS she has to choose between insulin to keep herself alive and making her next mortgage payment. The deprivations extend to whole families.
"I feel like I'm a pawn in some political game," Lynette Gabourel said.
One of the more disturbing things Trump did when he first took office was the attempt to politicise the civil service. Civil employees are supposed to serve without partisan prejudice, through different administrations and entire political epochs remaining loyal to the US Constitution and not any particular president. Since his inauguration, Trump showed disdain for a civil service that answers to the law and not to him personally.
At the beginning of his term as president in 2017, it seemed as though there was a split between the blue-collar federal workers and the white collar ones. The blue collar workers include prison guards, TSA agents, customs officials and anyone else who could be receptive to Trump’s campaign promise that he was going to look out for the little guy and keep the elitist globalists in check. Or whatever. Trump’s enemies, of course, were the white collar federal employees: officials in the State Department, the intelligence community, the FBI, and almost anyone else who sits at a desk.
With this gruelling shutdown, the longest in US history, Trump is destroying what hope he might have had to create a fiercely loyal segment of the federal workforce that would serve him and his party instead of the American republic and its people.
Before he was president, he was a failure of a businessman, notorious for cheating contractors out of pay. That’s fine if your goal is to be a failed businessman, but not if you want to be a dictator.
This is not to say everything is fine, and that Trump will fall flat on his face with his shutdown gamble. He could still take the step of declaring a national emergency to grab defence dollars for the wall, a move that would face an immediate challenge in federal court and usher in yet another constitutional crisis. He could even do that and then refuse to open the government, creating even more misery.
Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton and a professor of public policy at the University of California Berkeley, wrote in Newsweek on Monday that Trump is behaving like a dictator by forcing the shutdown. Reich makes a persuasive case, saying Trump circumvents democracy to get what he wants.
“He is treating the government of the United States as a bargaining chip. He is asserting power by any means possible. This is the method of a dictator,” Reich writes. “A president who claims he has an absolute right to declare a national emergency and spend government funds that Congress has explicitly refused to appropriate for the ends he seeks is also assuming the role of a dictator.”
Reich’s concerns are valid. Trump undermines democratic processes he finds inconvenient. He has stretched and tested the limits of executive power in cruel, racist ways, building concentration camps for migrant children and banning the entry of Muslims from a set of countries to the United States.
White supremacist hate groups, although a tiny minority of Americans, have seen a surge in membership, becoming bolder, and meaner, during his time in office.
But being a dictator is more than just being cruel to your enemies or the weak. A dictator must also reward their friends.
Trump has displayed a habit of abandoning his friends and supporters so he can squeeze out praise from talking heads on Fox News. This kind of nihilistic behaviour gives him the appearance of a dictator, just not one with the brains to become a successful one.
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