In a matter of weeks on the job, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has managed to checkmate Trump over his government shutdown in spectacular fashion. Not only has Pelosi refused to back down from Trump’s childish threats over his border wall, she has managed to bully the bully and forced him into a completely impossible situation.
While Trump may have been good at ripping people off in business with his winner-takes-all negotiating skills, they have come completely unstuck when confronted with Pelosi’s political acumen. Pelosi has controlled the narrative over the shutdown, enforced strict party discipline to ensure Democrats hold the line, and taken an aggressive approach to exploiting Trump’s weaknesses. Pelosi has referred to Trump’s wall as a “manhood thing,” accused him of throwing temper tantrums, and even wrote to the president and asked him to postpone his State of the Union address until he reopens the government.
Pelosi’s name calling and gamesmanship are designed to unsettle the president and keep him off balance — and it is working. Trump does not seem to know how to effectively respond to Pelosi, and the polls indicate he is losing the shutdown battle badly. As NPR reported, Trump’s support is now cratering with his own base:
- Down significantly among suburban men, a net-positive approval rating of 51-to-39 percent to a net-negative of 42 percent approve, 48 percent disapprove. That’s a net change of down 18 percentage points.
- Down a net of 13 points among white evangelicals, from 73-to-17 percent approve to 66-to-23 percent approve.
- Down a net of 10 points among Republicans, from 90-to-7 percent approve to 83-to-10 percent.
- Down marginally among white men without a college degree, from 56-to-34 percent approve to 50-to-35 percent approve, a net change downward of 7 points.
Trump is now faced with the prospect of three catastrophic choices. The first is to maintain his position and keep the government shut. As you can see from the polling data, this is unsustainable in the long run. His support will continue to drop, and Republican support in the Senate will likely evaporate. Federal workers will only clock in without pay for so long, and the country could quite literally fall apart if there are mass walkouts or big protests.
The second choice for Trump is to declare a national emergency and bypass congress completely in order to build his wall. This would save face when it comes to his supporters, but would set an extremely dangerous precedent that Trump seems, at least so far, unwilling to commit to. If he declares a national emergency, more Republicans will likely turn against him, and he will face an onslaught of legal challenges from the Democrats who will fight to stop him taking money from elsewhere. There are no guarantees Trump would win in court either, and he would simply face more humiliation over his inability to get anything done on his signature issue. Trump will have failed to get the money from Mexico, failed to get the money from Congress, and failed to get the money in a so-called “national emergency.” After making a lot of noise about declaring a national emergency, Trump walked it back and is now saying he will continue trying to find a political solution to the problem. Given Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats are not budging however, Trump is going to have to come to terms with the fact that there is no solution to the crisis he created where he can save face. This brings us to the third option.
The final Trump has is to capitulate to Pelosi completely and re-open the government before negotiating with the Democrats on his wall. If this happens, Trump’s loss of face will be severe, and much of his base will lose faith in him completely. The Democrats are not going to give Trump money for a border wall with the federal government shut down or with the federal government open. They likely will offer him less money for security enhancements along the border than they did before and pressure him into making more concessions to get it too. With no border wall to brag about and a public spanking from Pelosi, Trump’s brand as a master negotiator and strong leader will have completely collapsed.
Nancy Pelosi is acutely aware of the predicament Trump is in, and is not only letting Trump hang himself, she is actively tightening the noose. Pelosi correctly gauged that Trump had absolutely no leverage from the beginning. The moment he decided to shut down the government and declare he would take responsibility for it, Pelosi knew she had him.
Trump appears to think that he can manipulate Pelosi, and as a report in the Washington Post details, has crafted a strategy based on charm:
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign adviser, said the president probably figured he could manage Pelosi just as he dealt with foes in real estate.
“I think that, as usual, he thought he would be able to charm her and that at the end of the day, they would have this great bipartisan type of dealmaking,” he said. “I think it’s completely naive.”
For anyone who has followed Pelosi throughout her career, this should be abundantly clear. Pelosi has navigated a world of bullshit artists for decades, and has almost always come out on top. She is impervious to charm, and unafraid to stand up to anyone who attempts to cross her. Just ask George W. Bush, who was battered by then Speaker Pelosi on every front imaginable. Trump is less politically savvy than Bush and is surrounded by sycophants and inexperienced grifters who are incapable of formulating a coherent strategy or negotiating in earnest. Pelosi knows a fool when she sees one, and is exploiting the weakness in Trump’s political game mercilessly.
The most likely scenario we’ll see is Trump capitulating to Pelosi and re-opening the government in the coming weeks. He will blame Democrats for shutting down the government, and attempt to portray his move to re-open the government as a bold act of leadership. But no one will buy it, just as they did not buy his blaming of the Democrats for his child separation policy on the border. Trump walked back the unimaginably cruel policy after a huge public outcry, and tried to evade blame by claiming the Democrats had created the law in the first place (they hadn’t). It was a PR disaster for the president, and he is facing another wreckage over his border wall.
When Trump submits to Pelosi over the shutdown, the House Speaker will ensure he pays a political price for that too. Because bullies cannot just be beaten, they must be humiliated for the victory to last. It is a tactic Trump is all too familiar with, so he knows full well how this must end.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.