Donald Trump had planned to spend the first anniversary of his inauguration in his happy place, Mar-a-Lago, the gold-plated palace where a mere president can pretend to be a monarch. Unfortunately for Trump, presidents are expected to remain in Washington when the government shuts down. That Trump did not recognize this until the crisis was at hand shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. This president is not merely unfit for office; he is so uninterested in feigning fitness that he cannot be bothered to focus on the most basic responsibilities he swore on January 20, 2017, to faithfully execute.
It is often suggested that Trump tweets obnoxiously and speaks outrageously in order to distract the American people—or at least the White House press corps—from the serious issues at hand. Perhaps. But the more likely story is that Trump himself is too distracted to focus on those issues—be they the budgetary matters that great presidents master, the societal concerns that great presidents address, the disasters that great presidents seek to avert. There is nothing “great” about this grifter’s failed presidency; it has simply confirmed that his 2016 campaign slogan was, like the rest of his promises, a lie. He is not even the mediocre manager that the stupidest pundits imagined he might be. Trump is simply the son of privilege he has always been, steering whatever he touches toward financial or moral bankruptcy and then blaming everyone else for the crash.
The buck never stops with this president, so there was never any chance that he would demonstrate leadership sufficient to prevent a shutdown. He was never going to put any effort into understanding the budgetary balances and political pressures of the shutdown dance that his predecessors understood as the existential crisis of their presidency. This, and Trump’s crude bigotry, is what made the interactions of congressional leaders with the president during the days leading up to the inaugural-anniversary shutdown so agonizingly awful to watch.
As the deadline passed, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer described a last-minute “art-of-the-deal” moment when he thought he had Trump engaged in negotiations to protect beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, while making concessions to the president’s border fantasies. But, the Democrat explained, “He did not press his party or Congress to accept it. Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell, without the commitment of the president, would not agree to accept anything either.”
So the shutdown came, not because Democrats and some Republicans sought to use the moment to resolve lingering debates about the Dreamers or the S-CHIP program or myriad other issues, nor even because the House Freedom Caucus Republicans held out for even more draconian fiscal policies. It came because the United States lacks a functioning, let alone functional, president. This is the first #TrumpShutdown, but it is unlikely to be the last.
Without a president who is capable of leading the party that controls the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, petty hacks who have never cared about anything more about satisfying campaign donors, will continue to run their games. Those games are so destructive—to the hundreds of millions of Americans who rely on government, to the necessary work of setting budget priorities, to America’s image in the world—that they demand a political response. Small deals will be made in coming weeks and months to restore a measure of normalcy. But it will be a brutal measure, crueler and harsher at each turn.
The necessary repair will come only when the players change. Unfortunately, Trump is not on the ballot this November. But Paul Ryan and his minions are. One of Ryan’s challengers, a Wisconsin ironworker named Randy Bryce, offers the best assessment of what ails America when he observes, “Paul Ryan treated this shutdown like an insider political game, using people’s jobs, Dreamer’s futures, and children’s health insurance as bargaining chips. Now, even as thousands of workers are facing suspension without pay and communities across the country are set to lose access to services, Paul Ryan is still playing games, trying to pin the blame for the shutdown on others. We need politicians in DC who won’t play games and who take responsibility for their actions.”