The Shutdown’s Tipping Point

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Racism and Republicanism been bedfellows for generations now, and advocates of both ideals have had their reasons for seeing the government fail. Few things have helped spark racial and economic progress, such that it is, like the bedrock legislation of the 1960s. Court decisions and federal programs have helped inch us closer to eradicating various racial and economic imbalances. In the decades since, either in retribution or in the interest of survival, the conservative movement has only grown whiter and wealthier while seeking to shrink the federal apparatus. They tried to drown government in a bathtub, perhaps, because they felt that they didn’t need it — or because others did. Is it any coincidence that so many wealthy members of the Trump family and administration, including the president himself, have been incapable of exhibiting empathy with 800,000 federal workers furloughed now for more than a month without pay?

The failure of that philosophy may have reached its culmination in the current government shutdown, now in its second month. Spreading racism and eliminating government have similarly harmful, and universal, effects. A Republican-led War on Drugs that was all too happy to incarcerate black people for crack offenses, for instance, left lawmakers scrambling for solutions in recent years as opioids have taken over poor white communities. We all feel the pain eventually.

That is what is happening now. The shutdown is allowing the country to experience a systemic breakdown that feels much like a microcosm of what we see with racism in America. And as with this system that impoverishes and imperils people as if by design, the shutdown will not stop even if someone gets killed. What brought it about certainly will continue. Does the train stop when it runs over the victim who the villain ties to the tracks?

It is not coincidental that this is all in pursuit of a white-supremacist fantasy conjured by the president’s advisers to remind him to slam immigrants in campaign speeches. Now entering his third year in office, Trump has never been more obstinate, refusing to budge from his demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funding. It is a ransom that Democrats steadfastly refuse to pay, not merely because they have all the leverage but because it is morally repellent. The wall, which experts have said will not deter undocumented immigration and will likely cause more migrant deaths, would also be “a modern-day Confederate monument” should it be erected, as Jamelle Bouie wrote in the New York Times. This is the prize for which Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and many of their fellow party members have shut down the government and allowed it to atrophy.

This conflicts with previous incarnations of Republicanism. While weakening government has been a selling point for the GOP for generations now, weakening America has not. Trump has subjected many of these affected workers to a kind of involuntary servitude, one in which they either perform their duties or they lose their jobs. Either they show up, or the nation falls apart at the seams and becomes less secure.

The last two years have brought us to this moment. We have seen Republicans apologize and cover for a president who has repeatedly and openly obstructed justice, cooperated with phony innuendos about political opponents, capitulated to a foreign adversary who interfered in our elections and launched broadsides against the U.S. criminal justice system. Much like the loose relationships that racist power structures of the past had with law and order, Republicans and this administration have worked in concert to subvert what is legal whenever convenient. Public safety has been secondary in a White House where a potential security threat like Jared Kushner gets a clearance. Men like Mitch McConnell care more about getting conservative white judges on the bench than about whether a Russian agent may be in the Oval Office.

It’s not a shock to see Republicans stand idly by while the FBI is neutered by this shutdown. At present, the agency isn’t merely unable to pay its people — causing financial problems that could lead to credit issues that may, in turn, threaten security clearances. The FBI says it also can’t pay some confidential sources that it is losing for good. (That may hurt an ongoing investigation into MS-13, the gang that Trump so often uses as a bogeyman in speeches.) They even canceled their internships, apparently. Yes, they can still raid Roger Stone’s home and arrest him, but there are surely other dangers left unchecked.

The Coast Guard’s top officer released a video Tuesday night lamenting that his “men and women have to rely on food pantries and donations to get through day-to-day life as service members.” A joint statement from the aviation industry warned on Thursday that 20 percent of air traffic controllers, also now working for free, are eligible for retirement and that “there is no plan in effect to fill the FAA’s critical staffing need.” On Friday morning, delays due to staffing shortages reportedly handicapped airports in New York City, Newark and Philadelphia.. “We have experienced a slight increase in sick leave at two air traffic control facilities affecting New York and Florida,” read an FAA statement. “We’ve mitigated the impact by augmenting staffing, rerouting traffic and increasing spacing between aircraft as needed.”

Things are falling apart.

This is not the only danger that the nation now finds itself facing thanks to Trump’s pigheadedness. While February’s SNAP funding was extended before funds ran out for 38 million people, there is no guarantee that such a benevolence will be extended for other programs in need this month — or next, should this madness continue. Earlier this week, the Washington Post noted that many organizations that assist victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence will run out of funding on March 1st should the shutdown continue. Meanwhile, Trump is governing a la carte, dispatching more than 120 workers to fulfill his administration’s offshore drilling goals. They aren’t being paid, either.


In order to get his wall, Trump is willing to risk American lives. How else should we talk about this? Whether in the air, on the ground or at the border that the president claims to hold so dear, the nation is a less secure place today because of his dedication to this ridiculous goal. Trump is losing on every front; his approval is at an abysmal 34 percent and seven of 10 respondents in a CBS News poll said that it wasn’t worth shutting down the government over a wall. Not even that many Americans agreed last year that Trump is racist. He knows that with a Democratic House taking power, his chances to get a wall have all but run out, so he has taken the entire nation hostage, hinting again at an emergency declaration that would surely test the boundaries of the law. Even Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spelled out the gambit in a tweet, writing that a three-week continuing resolution to open the government “would only work if there is a large down payment on the wall.” This isn’t a layaway plan for a sofa at Value City. The barbarity of the White House’s goal is only belied by the lack of seriousness with which they are approaching the crisis that they have created.

This nation is rapidly decaying, and it has been doing so longer than some care to admit or recognize. Trump argues that this has been due to the influx of migrants, therefore we must #MAGA, but the racism he perpetuates is more of a culprit. This president is a sledgehammer to our body politic, and likewise his wall is almost too obvious a metaphor for how efficiently bigotry can destroy us. The same can be said of this shutdown, an ongoing lesson in how the erosion of the federal fabric can make the United States a worse, less secure country.

New Jersey Congressman Tom Malinowski had it right about the Republican plan when he told the New York Times that “if we give in to this tactic in any way we will validate it, and there will be no end to these shutdowns, and the people who suffer today will be suffering again and again and again. We cannot have that.”

He points to Trump’s sole usefulness as president: he has shown us where all his weak spots are, like a raptor testing the Jurassic Park fences. For senators looking for a lesson from this shutdown, they need but look at the Smithsonian contract employee Faye Smith, pleading in tears at McConnell’s office on Wednesday for him to stop the shutdown so that she can avoid eviction. It is the great lesson of this nation — as James Baldwin understood so well, that American fortunes are interwoven with African-American fortunes. We would be smart to treat this all as seriously as though the prospects of Faye Smith’s eviction and homelessness were ours. Her fate is our fate.

What, then, is there to be learned? As this shutdown has given us an accelerated lesson in the consequences of structural imbalance, the urgency with which we have pursued an end to this crisis must also be applied to more systemic ills. And not just racism, mind you. Voters and electeds alike must retain this energy, and not exhale it all in relief once the shutdown ends. We will need it.