Not many people wanted the government to shut down at midnight on Friday—surpassingly few Americans, according to polls, and not many more congressmen or senators. Still, no one could avert it. As negotiations progressed, morbidity set it. “They’re going to blame me no matter what,” the President told his advisers on Friday, according to Politico. Senator Brian Schatz, the Democrat of Hawaii, tweeted just after midnight, “No one is sure if they have leverage or are over a barrel. It’s as bad as it looks.” For two weeks, it had been clear that a resolution was unlikely to pass unless it resolved the status of the eight hundred thousand undocumented Americans brought here as children (the “Dreamers”) but the Republican Party kept watching the President to see if a deal was possible, and the President, conscious of his base, kept suggesting he was open to a compromise and then backing away. As the evening spooled on, the mood turned self-loathing. “This country was founded by geniuses,” the Louisiana Republican John Neely Kennedy said. “It’s being run by idiots.”
Yet our politics have been pointing toward the events of Friday evening for a very long time—not just since last Thursday, when the President rejected a proposed deal worked out by moderate senators of both parties, grumbling that it would invite in immigrants from “shithole countries.” And not just since September, when Congress passed the first of three consecutive continuing resolutions to fund the government in lieu of a full budget. Much of the intensity and the darkness of the 2016 Presidential campaign evolved from the challenge Trump and the Republicans raised to the basic matter of identity—of who counts as an American and under what terms, the central question regarding the Dreamers. The initial recriminations on Saturday morning focussed on contingencies: What if the President had better known his own mind? What if the Republican leadership in Congress had tolerated a short extension over the weekend? What if the summit between Trump and Schumer had included a second round of cheeseburgers, and not just one? But the real obstacle was deeper than tactics, talent, or personality. Neither party could set aside the Dreamer issue because it captures the essential argument of the Trump era, and on this the Republicans and Democrats do not agree.
For a time on Friday evening, the hopes for a compromise (and the hopes of the Dreamers) had rested in the bluff, enigmatic person of the South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who scurried back and forth between the offices of Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer. Reporters caught Graham in the hallway outside Schumer’s office around dinnertime and asked him what he was doing there. “Here for the food,” he said, crisply.
A week earlier, Graham and the Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin had taken a proposal for compromise to the Oval Office (the deal was permanent protection for the Dreamers in exchange for increased funding for border security) only to find that Trump had also invited some hard-liners: his own chief of staff, John Kelly, the Georgia Republican Senator David Perdue, and the ambitious Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. On Friday evening, Graham seemed to sense Cotton’s hand everywhere. “All I can say is we’re not going to end family immigration for daca—the Tom Cotton approach has no viability here,” Graham said. “He’s become the Steve King of the Senate”—a reference to the hard-line Iowa congressman, an immigration and racial demagogue. It’s still unclear exactly what happened, but Kelly, the chief of staff, may have mattered more. Schumer said that during a meeting in the Oval Office on Friday afternoon, he offered Trump funding for the border wall in exchange for permanent status for the Dreamers, and together they sketched out an outline. Afterward, according to Bloomberg News, Kelly called Schumer to say that the framework the two New Yorkers had worked out was “too liberal,” even with the Democrats’ “acquiescence” on the border. Trump himself, of course, may have decided yet again to appeal to his base.
The climate on the right had been sharpening for a few days. On Thursday evening, on Fox News, Tucker Carlson had assumed a look of urgent concern while his guest, the hard-right radio host Mark Steyn (an “actual thinker,” Carlson had noted in his introduction), warned against the “cultural transformation” that immigration would bring. “A majority of grade-school children in Arizona are now Hispanic,” Steyn warned. “The border has moved north,” he said, but the real line he was etching was an ethnic one, between Americans—Hispanics on one side, the rest on the other.
Ideas like this have circulated on the right for a long time. On Friday, the clip of the exchange between a racist radio host and his Fox News enabler circulated on the left. For liberals, much of the escalating menace of the past two years has followed the same line—the President’s insistence that America is less an idea than a specific heritage, that a judge of “Mexican” heritage is less than equal, that Haitian-Americans and African-Americans came from “shithole nations,” and that more Norwegian-Americans would be preferable. Yesterday, Schumer had more votes than he needed, and so four Democratic senators (all of them from states that had voted for Trump by large margins and three who have elections coming this year) voted for the House’s continuing resolution, which would restore health insurance but do nothing for the Dreamers. The rest of the caucus held together. Of course it did. To stand against an ethno-nationalist idea demands more from Democrats than simply calling the President a racist.
“Our country needs a good shutdown,” Trump had tweeted in May, “to fix mess!” It wasn’t clear then exactly what mess he meant—partisan intransigence, it seemed—or what tactical advantage he imagined. But in the shutdown debate his White House has had a clearer sense of the dividing lines. Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted that “lawful citizens” were being held hostage by Democratic demands on behalf of “unlawful immigrants.” On Saturday morning, Trump echoed Sanders, tweeting “Democrats are holding our Military hostage over their desire to have unchecked illegal immigration. Can’t let that happen!” Trump also tweeted, “#america first!” The question is, which #America?