The government is partially shut down, Congress is paralyzed, and Trump is hobbling the economy. Prepare for the worst.
“We are getting crushed!” So exclaimed President Trump to his chief of staff in response to media coverage of the government shutdown, according to The New York Times. This is an accurate description of his political fortunes at the moment. Trump has gone all-in on his demand for border wall funding, and it’s turning out quite poorly for him. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi isn’t budging, and may even thwart his State of the Union address to Congress later this month. Polls consistently show that a majority of voters oppose the wall, while even wider margins oppose shutting down the government to fund it. Now, as the shutdown drags on and its economic consequences grow, Trump’s usually steady approval rating is slipping.
But if Trump thinks he’s getting crushed now, he ought to peek around the corner. The outlook for the remainder of his term is grim—not just for his political prospects, but the country itself. Economists, Wall Street analysts, and even the White House’s own experts are becoming increasingly pessimistic about the economy, which Trump is doing his best to hobble. And the now-divided Congress can’t even manage to fund the government, boding ill for its ability to accomplish much else.
Trump has brought this on himself. He had ample evidence that immigration was not the winning issue that he continues to think it is. In the final weeks before the midterm elections, he attempted to make the contest a referendum on his immigration policy. At a late-October rally in Nevada, he told voters that a Democratic victory “would be a bright, flashing invitation to every human trafficker, drug trafficker,” and that Democrats wanted to give undocumented immigrants health care, welfare, and the right to vote. But voters didn’t listen. In fact, while Trump’s push may have saved a vulnerable Senate seat or two, it had a disastrous impact on the wider electorate. Republican pollster David Winston found that the focus on immigration led undecided voters to break for Democrats by double-digit points.
Trump is consoling himself by suggesting that he will only take a short-term hit because of the shutdown. According to the Times, Trump has told his staff that “he believes over time the country will not remember the shutdown, but it will remember that he staged a fight over his insistence that the southern border be protected.” That may be true, but he’s misreading the extent of public support for the wall. Overall, polling on the wall has remained relatively steady, with support in the low 40s and opposition in the mid 50s.
Trump, rather than his party, is taking the brunt of the blame for the shutdown. Close to half of voters blame him specifically, which explains why his approval rating, which typically hovers in the low 40s, may be dipping into the 30s. While the shutdown has been predictably polarizing on the question of the wall itself—Republicans increasingly support it and Democrats increasingly oppose it—key constituencies that helped elect Trump appear to be abandoning him over the shutdown. An NPR/NewsHour/Marist poll released on Wednesday found that the downturn in his approval rating is being driven by dips in support from suburban men and white evangelicals; his approval rating among Republicans, meanwhile, has dropped from 90 to 83 percent. “For the first time, we saw a fairly consistent pattern of having his base showing evidence of a cracking,” Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Pubic Opinion, told NPR.
The shutdown is also having an impact on one of the few bright spots of this administration: the economy. Trump cannot take all the credit—though he does, of course—for the strong economy during his first two years in office, as he inherited six consecutive years of growth from President Obama. But there’s no dispute that the Republicans’ $1.5 trillion tax cut in late 2017 supercharged the economy—for a time, anyway. As Bloomberg’s Stephen Gandel wrote earlier this week, the cut is “proving to be vastly more generous for corporate America, and vastly more expensive for taxpayers, than expected. Worse, the Trump Slump is erasing the bump the stock market received from the tax cuts. And evidence is mounting that the promised economic boost isn’t materializing.”
Trump himself is dragging down the economy. His escalating trade war has spooked global markets, and could get much worse soon if an agreement with China is not reached by early March. It has also become clear that the shutdown is having a real impact not just on millions of Americans, but the economy itself. Revised estimates from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers show the shutdown “has already weighed significantly on growth and could ultimately push the United States economy into a contraction,” the Times reported on Tuesday. Kevin Hassett, the council’s chairman, said “the impact that we see on government contractors is bigger than the sort of staff rule of thumb anticipated,” and that it’s costing about a tenth of a percent per week in economic growth. As the Times explained, “That means that the economy has already lost nearly half a percentage point of growth from the four-week shutdown.”
There’s no end in sight, either, as Trump refuses to give in on his demand for $5.7 billion for wall construction on the southern border. This has forced Trump’s reelection campaign to reluctantly embrace the shutdown, trying to turn it into the opening salvo of what will surely be a difficult campaign. “This is a really bad spot for him,” a person “familiar” with Trump’s campaign told Politico. “He may just be fighting because he doesn’t know what the hell else to do.” But what did these people expect? The wall is his core issue, one he made a focal point in both 2016 and 2018. He was always going to make 2020 a referendum on it, too.
But the 2020 election will be different from those prior elections in one key respect: America will be in worse shape. When backed against the wall over the past two years, Trump repeatedly has pointed to the economy as proof of his effectiveness. He now seems poised to lose that lifeline, as the economy is expected to cool down and perhaps even enter a recession. Meanwhile, Congress almost certainly will be deadlocked in a brawl. And then there are the wild cards: the trade war with China, the effects of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria (and possibly Afghanistan), and, if the current shutdown ends, another potential impasse over funding the government.
Two years is a long time in politics, and it’s an even longer time in the Trump era. Truly anything can happen. Right now, though, it looks more likely that nothing will happen. That could crush not just Trump, but us all.
~Alex Shephard is a staff writer at The New Republic.