It was most likely the airports that finally broke the dam. Friday afternoon, as news reports of disrupted flights poured in and the shutdown hit Day 36, Donald Trump finally announced that he would cave completely—if temporarily—on his demands for a border wall. The government will now reopen for three weeks, at the end of which time, he was careful to threaten, he may declare a national emergency if he doesn’t get his way.
Despite weeks of reporting on how the shutdown was affecting workers, Trump still appears to have no idea about why federal employees matter or why their acute hardship is problematic. It’s a fitting coda to what we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks. There was Donald Trump’s buffoonish claim Thursday that federal workers who turned to food banks to feed their families during the shutdown can just “work along” with shops and banks. He was trying to correct for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who had said that he couldn’t fathom how anyone could be unable to negotiate a loan for themselves. Here was Trump’s course correction, delivered Thursday night: “Local people know who they are when they go for groceries and everything else. And I think what Wilbur was probably trying to say is that they will work along. I know banks are working along of—if you have mortgages, the mortgagees, the mortgage— the folks collecting the interest and all of those things, they work along. And that’s what happens in times like this. They know the people, they’ve been dealing with them for years, and they work along.”
And we all laughed at the rich president who used to claim repeatedly that we needed a voter ID to go to the supermarket now claiming that the shutdown wasn’t a big deal for federal workers who had gone weeks without pay because they could just get friendly loans from that same supermarket, which should really be a food bank, which is where many of them had actually already been forced to turn. It’s so tone-deaf it’s almost funny.
But it really isn’t funny. It’s ominous. There’s more to Trump and Ross’ bizarre Norman Rockwell parable of friendly greengrocers and your brother-in-law the jolly bank manager than just the cluelessness of old white billionaires who have never had to run a personal errand. They’re also telling a crappy old story about good old American volunteerism and the beauty of local charity and the gosh-golly spirit of communities caring for their own. If that sounds familiar, it’s because this story was actually the cornerstone of the Paul Ryan vision for America. It’s the story wherein even if you slash government entitlement programs and food programs and health care, what arises—beatifically and from the rubble—to replace it all is good old-fashioned local and religious charities. In Paul Ryan’s telling, there was no crisis a good old-fashioned barn raising couldn’t cure. And so every time Trump minimized the human suffering of the shutdown, he wasn’t just saving himself or belittling government workers. He was also building out a long-running conservative narrative that downplays the need for many crucial government services.
That’s why Trump was always ever only halfway on board about the difficulty of the shutdown. It’s why he retweeted an op-ed from an anonymous writer, claiming to be a senior member of his administration, who trashed federal workers as lazy and disloyal to the White House. The op-ed went so far as to urge that the shutdown continue indefinitely so those workers would leave the government, with the author claiming that 80 percent of federal workers “do nothing that warrants punishment and nothing of external value. … That is their workday: errands for the sake of errands—administering, refining, following and collaborating on process.”
That’s been the drumbeat on Fox News too, with one guest cheering that the shutdown made more Americans aware of “how nonessential a lot of these nonessential workers actually are,” a way of trashing both government workers and government services at the same time.
Paul Ryan—who worked for years to promote his view of a society built around his moral vision of elite “makers” who work and earn good incomes and “takers” who live on government assistance—argued that private charities should do the bulk of the assistance. Ryan warned, in 2012, that the government safety net would turn “into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”
Conservatives tell themselves a story, a fairy tale really, about the past, about the way the world was and can be again under Republican policies. This story is about the way people were able to insure themselves against the risks inherent in modern life. Back before the Great Society, before the New Deal, and even before the Progressive Era, things were better. Before government took on the role of providing social insurance, individuals and private charity did everything needed to insure people against the hardships of life; given the chance, they could do it again.
It’s a story in service of the idea that government services—food assistance and housing assistance and services for the poor—can be readily offloaded onto private, especially religious, charities. To hear Secretary Ross and the president discuss the ways in which all of us can have private arrangements with the banker and grocer who live up the corner from Big Bird is to hear that story told again. Sure, it pinched when the TSA couldn’t get our planes out on time. But work being done around housing, food insecurity, and women’s shelters? They don’t think that should be undertaken by government in the first place.
I don’t believe the president and Secretary Ross and Lara Trump are actually as clueless about the ways in which the majority of Americans, including government workers, live paycheck to paycheck as they sound. I think they were just making their best pitch for their optimal world, in which virtuous people are virtuous and charity solves our problems, rather than government.
It’s too easy to say that the enduring lesson of the shutdown is simply that Trump and his plutocrat Cabinet are hilariously clueless about how most of us live. The real story is much more grim: They are also trying to other us against one another, positing government workers as unpatriotic if they decline to work for free, and lazy for being unwilling to put the president’s interests ahead of their own. They’re making the same bad argument that I wish had stopped when Paul Ryan departed the national stage: that the best source of aid in a crisis lies in the charity of warm and loving communities, not in government services.
The shutdown has mercifully ended, at least for the next three weeks. But beware of old men’s fairy tales just the same. We could be back here again before we know it.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus