Monday, January 14, 2019

Trump's grand box canyon


IT’S A TROPE of American western movies: the arrogant but hapless villains inflict their pain and do their damage, then seek to escape, riding across wide open spaces right into what they think is a wide-open avenue to freedom, only to find something ... completely different.

If you live in a city, you call it a “dead end.” If you live somewhere else where Realtors use highfalutin language, you might call it a “cul-de-sac.” But if you now or ever paid attention to the topography of westerns, you know a box canyon when you see one.

President* Donald Trump, who says he knows everything, may not know what a box canyon is, but he’s in one: a place with an entrance that doubles as an exit, and otherwise inaccessible and inescapable. With his sad, deflated performance in a nine-minute prime-time address from the White House on Jan. 8, Trump made history with the first Oval Office address about an issue of national security that does not exist.

By doubling down in his demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall on the southern border (despite clear evidence that the demand was politically motivated) or he would continue the shutdown of the federal government (a shutdown he created himself), Trump locked himself into a rhetorical course of action that he apparently can’t escape, trapped by his own tweets and his ego, confronting the naked politics behind the emptiness of a campaign promise he never should have made.

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From the start of the address, his first from the Oval since June 2017, it was clear there was an absence of substance, of any real reason for the speech even happening in the first place. Looking like an animatronic facsimile, The Don read from a script he didn’t want to read in the first place, and reinforced the vacancy of his claim of a looming “national emergency.”

I’ll spare you the specifics of the speech; if you want it, here’s the link to the video. Knock yourself out. But the shorthand of the address, its gist, is fairly easy to discern. It’s nine minutes consistent with the Trumpian anti-immigration party line:

With a dour, mechanical delivery more common to the principal of a hostage video, Trump conjured a parade of horribles, a modern hellscape worthy of Hieronymus Bosch: ruthless drug gangs, caravans of stolen children, border checkpoints groaning with undocumenteds, coyotes assaulting women on the brutal march to the north — all of which would be resolved with a multi-billion dollar commitment to The Wall.

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IT WAS a magical-thinking response to what Trump shrewdly described first as a “humanitarian” crisis and secondarily as a “security crisis,” the exact opposite of the White House’s priorities, and intentions, in the region.

At MSNBC, Michael Steele, former Republican National Committee head, called it “the quintessential definition of a nothingburger speech.” And Rep. Jerry Nadler, the incoming House Judiciary Committee chairman, said that “the walls are closing in on the president.”

The media and others have similarly made use of a wide range of self-inflicted spatial-imprisonment metaphors both before and after the speech. You’ll see if you look up “Trump trapped” on Google. Or Trump in a “prison of his own making.” Or “hemmed in.” Or “painted” (or “backed into a corner.” Leave it to Rick Wilson, author and longtime GOP strategist, who, plain as day, told MSNBC that Trump was in “the worst political box canyon I’ve ever seen.”

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ALL THAT was bad enough for the president*. But Trump had already unwittingly shot his own policy prescription in the foot some time ago, back on Dec. 11. That was the day when he tweeted the declaration of status of security on the southern border that indicated everything was already under control. “Our Southern Border is now Secure and will remain that way,” Trump tweeted.

Which provokes the natural follow-up question: WTF happened? What went down between Dec. 11, when all was well and “Secure” on the border, and the day of the speech, when apparently all hell was breaking loose and “crisis” was the talking-point word o’ the day for the Trump administration?

What happened? The right-wing happened. Trump’s confidence on Dec. 11, and a deal to fund the government with a stopgap measure that the Senate approved by voice vote on Dec. 19, were scuttled by the conservative wing of the punditburo, most notably extremist windbags Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, and talk-radio Doberman/former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh.

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That reactionary trio took to their various airwaves and basically threatened to do all they could to undercut Trump’s appeal to “the base” if he gave in an inch on shutting down the United States government. Ingraham, on TrumpTV (aka Fox News) said “[n]ot funding the wall is going to go down as one of the worst, worst things to have happened to this administration.”

Trump, giving in to a Gestapo-spank moment, announced he’d changed his mind the very next day.

On Dec. 20 he said that “any measure that funds the government must include border security,” but he added, just to be clear, that the “wall” that’s been the bane of his existence since his campaign in 2015 needn’t be a wall per se. “It’s also called steel slats, so that I give them a little bit of an out — steel slats. ... We don’t use the word ‘wall’ necessarily.”

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BUT IT doesn’t matter whether it’s about a real wall or steel slats, “a beaded curtain” (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s idea) or electrified Levolor blinds — Trump’s breathless national emergency was undercut again on Jan. 11 at the White House.

The New York Times reported: “ ‘What we’re not looking to do right now is national emergency,’ he told reporters gathered in the Cabinet Room as the shutdown approached its fourth week. Minutes later he contradicted himself, saying that he would declare a state of emergency if he had to.”

All of that inconveniently undercuts Trump’s whole argument. A national emergency isn’t something you switch on and off like a light switch. A real emergency, national or otherwise, exacts its own existential contours. An emergency exists or it doesn’t. It's not something you can schedule.

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And it all shows us where the Trump White House stands, and falters, on the power of his administration’s argument for the government shutdown and the border-wall issue that sparked that shutdown, now the longest in American history. Never mind the lies and inaccuracies in his speech, we’ve come to expect that whenever he opens his mouth. What’s worse is how automatic, how nakedly political it is these days.

What’s worse is our own presumption that the president* is as likely to tell a lie as to tell the truth, and maybe more.

There’s a box canyon in the Oval Office, and Donald Trump can’t get out of it. And neither can at least 800,000 federal workers paralyzed by the president’s shutdown of the American government. And neither can we.

Image credits: Trump: Public domain. Limbaugh: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images. Levelor blinds: © 2019 Levolor Inc.

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