President Donald Trump is excessively sure of his own talents. Yet in the “shutdown showdown” over funding for a US-Mexico border wall, it appears to be his insecurity that’s preventing the reopening of the federal government.
Trump’s remarks on January 19 – which proposed granting temporary “legislative relief” for “Dreamers” (undocumented immigrants who arrived in America as minors) as part of a compromise with Congressional Democrats – didn’t give an inch on his plans for a border wall. The president remains worried that turning his back on the project would signal that he’s abandoning his conservative base.
Yet this much is clear: Trump’s base is with him – regardless of what he does. Indeed, to break the shutdown impasse, evidence suggests he could ditch the wall at any time without further political fallout.
Standing by their man
It’s no secret that Trump’s campaign – and now tenure in the Oval Office – have been dogged by scandal, accusations of corruption, and even indictments of close associates. He’s cosied up to a Russian dictator, allegedly authorised paying off a porn star for her silence, and made fun of a Vietnam War hero. He’s recently made more than 8,000 “false or misleading” statements.
If the Republican base hasn’t deserted Trump by now, there’s no reason to think that it would do so if he put on hold his demands for a border wall. It’s even less likely his supporters would jump ship if he rationalised a new proposal as an improvement on current border security.
The Pew Research Center shows that a full 76% of Republicans and Republican-leaners “somewhat” or “strongly approve” of Trump’s “handling [of] negotiations over the government shutdown”. This is despite Trump claiming that he would “take the mantle” of owning the shutdown before instead shifting the blame to Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats.
One might assume that this high level of support is a consequence of Trump’s adamant fight for his signature campaign pledge – and that it might begin to evaporate if he fails to deliver. But for all his faults and missteps, Trump has always maintained high general approval ratings among his base.
It’s not just the wall
According to a recent Gallup poll, 88% of Republicans approve of the president. That’s a higher number than president Barack Obama enjoyed among Democrats at a similar point in his first administration. This support has also remained consistent. Since assuming office, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans has never dipped below 77%.
Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker has lamented that Trump’s base is so faithful that it’s “becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it?”
In the words of political columnist Andrew Malcolm, “One of the most puzzling, enduring and intriguing questions about the Trump presidential phenomenon is how he maintains such a stubbornly loyal political base despite what a majority of Americans regard as overwhelming evidence of his inconsistencies and incompetence.”
In 2016, Trump himself acknowledged that:
I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible.
A reasonable compromise
The wall, however unrealistic, might be different from Trump’s other challenges. It’s about policy and substance, not style and character. But it should actually be easier for Trump to guide conservatives on the former because there’s so much room for salesmanship. The intricate workings of policy compromise are less tangible to voters than accusations of misconduct plastered all over the media.
The most realistic solution is still the most obvious. Trump could request a slight increase in funding for “enhanced border security”. Those dollars could be used to erect new, modest sections of protective fencing along the most vulnerable areas of the southern border, combined with advanced technology that he could tout as second to none.
Trump could call it a short-term win – and save face – by insisting that his tough stance forced Democratic concessions. Just as importantly, Democrats could agree to the plan because it’s a far cry from the US$5.7 billion that Trump demands for a wall. Going into 2020, immigration could again be Trump’s hallmark campaign issue.
It’s true that Trump would incur the wrath of conservative firebrands like Ann Coulter, who called the president “gutless” for initially not pushing harder on a wall. Yet there’s zero chance that Coulter and the like won’t fall in line behind Trump when it comes to the next election.
For Trump, the shutdown is a tactical misfire. It helps him little with his base (who will support him anyway) – and likely alienates moderate and undecided voters. It also drains the economy and compromises national security.
In his own mind, Trump knows more than anyone about nearly everything. So it’s odd that such a solipsistic president seems to be being led astray by his own insecurity.
For reasons that are hard to fathom, Trump’s base is unwavering in its support. Trump, however, appears to have forgotten that – and prospects of an impending end to the government shutdown may diminish as a result.