How America’s ailing Constitution is encouraging Trump’s idiotic shutdown


President Trump’s shutdown will stand alone Saturday as the longest in American history.

In the first instance, this is a problem directly created by President Trump. But his outrageous misbehavior is powerfully enabled by America’s ailing and outdated constitutional structure. The structural design of democracy has come a long ways in 250 years; in more sensible countries this sort of shutdown is simply not possible. Probably we will muddle through, but the possibility of constitutional collapse is an increasingly live possibility.

Let’s review: Trump caused this shutdown, as he stated forthrightly himself on national television, by demanding over $5 billion for his border wall. There are many reasons why this was a stupid fight to pick — the wall is a pointless idea, $5 billion would build only a tiny fraction of it, most unauthorized immigrants don’t even jump the border anyway — but perhaps the clearest one is that the Republican Party had unified control of government for two years and Trump barely tried to get big money for it.

The shutdown is continuing for two main reasons, both of them Trump’s fault. First, as Matt Yglesias argues Trump can’t shut up about the wall, which is polarizing both the left and right and making any kind of deal harder. Democrats would probably give him the $5 billion if Republicans gave them something good in return, like permanent legal status for the DREAMers. But the right-wing media is wildly extreme and thrives on conflict, and so the Republican base always demands zero compromise. Meanwhile, the Democratic base is logically demanding the same thing, to prevent the (sadly not unimaginable) idea of Democrats simply folding. Any deal would probably have to be hashed out behind closed doors away from the media, but Trump keeps inserting himself into everything and making bargaining impossible.

Second, Trump is so ignorant and narcissistic that it’s nearly impossible to negotiate with him in the first place. His administration can’t explain what it is going to do with the $5 billion (at a guess, he just made up a big-sounding number), and even with pathetic sycophant Sean Hannity interviewing him he can’t explain what he wants exactly or even what sort of emergency powers he might invoke to break the impasse. Blustering nonsense might get you through a press conference but it doesn’t work for executive orders.

This brings me back to constitutional design. In most modern democracies, this kind of preposterous standoff is simply not possible. In Canada, for instance, failure to pass a budget is an automatic vote of no confidence that triggers new elections (bracketing some complexity). In the meantime, the previous budget is basically rolled forward until the new government can get a chance to pass a fresh budget. Simple, clean, and logical.

By contrast, the American Constitution not only allows for this sort of thing, but encourages it. Democrats just won a sweeping midterm victory on the strength of a strongly anti-Trump message. Yet Trump also won in 2016. Both sides can thus at least claim democratic legitimacy (less convincingly in the case of Trump, since he did not win the popular vote, but still), and as political scientist Juan Linz famously pointed out, it’s easy to get stuck there:

Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically. There is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate. [The Perils of Presidentialism]

Sheer self-preservation would probably be weighing heavily on any other president right now. The Secret Service, the TSA, and the FBI are not being paid — and the latter agency is furious that ongoing investigations are nearly out of cash. Even the most dimwitted dictator would think twice before letting hundreds of thousands of security guards and law enforcement go without pay — let alone one’s personal bodyguard, which is basically like stamping “overthrow me” on one’s forehead.

But all the very real social and political pressure that is piling up from the shutdown has no effect on Trump, because he doesn’t care about anything but himself. While he may not (yet) be the worst president in American history, he is certainly the most oblivious. Because it would require imagining someone’s internal life other than his own, he simply cannot consider the suffering of federal employees forced to work without pay — even if it is the armed men and women who are literally protecting him day in and day out.

And yet, Trump also just starkly illustrated a weakness inherent to the American system. We were in for something like this eventually. Every other country with an American-style constitution watched it collapse eventually, most of them over impasses very similar to the one we are experiencing now. It is not at all impossible that we are in the first stages of that same process. The U.S. Constitution was clearly outdated 100 years ago. It might be time to start thinking about how to replace it.

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