Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and author, with Kevin Kruse, of the forthcoming “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at CNN.
The Trump shutdown is a fitting way to end the second year of this presidency.
The temporary closure of government was a crisis that could easily have been avoided. Even within President Donald Trump’s own party, there was a strong desire to head it off and for legislators just to go home.
But in the end, Trump couldn’t resist flexing his negative presidential power one last time before Christmas, to demonstrate to the world how far he could go when he wanted to get his way. When the President boasted in his televised meeting with Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer that he would be “proud” to shut down the government, he wasn’t lying.
The shutdown is another demonstration of the way in which the President is eager to use his power in destructive ways – to stop things, to dismantle things, to block things, rather than to get things done.
There is no good reason why many offices of the government are now closed down. A deal to keep the government up and running was in the works. Senate Republicans had been prepared to join Democrats in passing a temporary budget, without $5 billion for a wall that almost no border security experts think is necessary, so they could go back to their states and districts for the holiday.
Many Republican legislators privately agree with Mick Mulvaney, soon to be the President’s acting chief of staff, when the then-congressman said in 2015 that the wall is “absurd and almost childish.” Even the shrewdest of Republicans understood that postponing this showdown until February was a smarter political move since at that point Democrats would control at least one part of the government.
But right now, the GOP will and should take the blame for this breakdown of leadership. Republicans own this government shutdown since it is their party’s President who single-handedly undercut the momentum toward a deal.
The President simply couldn’t take it when the right wing, in the form of commentator Ann Coulter, called him out for giving up on the wall. When Coulter called him “gutless,” the President had to prove that he was not. He went into full Trump mode to prove a point, warning he would veto any legislation that did not have money for the wall and in the final hours of negotiations tweeting out a cartoon picture of the “slats” that would be used to show how the wall would not be an eyesore.
With a November CBS poll finding 59% of the country believing the wall should not be built, Trump imagined that he could convince the nation otherwise if he explained the aesthetics. With many Americans seeing the wall as a monument to nativism and a barrier to people in real need of help, the President turned this into a debate about physical appearances.
Although Trump likes to say he has been a builder since his days in real estate development, it is more useful to understand him as someone who likes to tear things down. This is how he has conducted his presidency.
His starring role on “The Apprentice,” where his calling card was to say, “You’re Fired!” is a more fitting image of Trump than the developer. With a few exceptions, such as the tax cut of 2017 or the criminal justice reform bill of 2018, the President has primarily used his power in negative ways.
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Through executive power, he has rolled back regulations that President Barack Obama put into place. He announced plans to pull out of the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. Through presidential rhetoric, he has used the bully pulpit to attack enemies and seek to de-legitimize opponents. Through legislative negotiations – starting with the effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and continuing right through the shutdown – he has found inventive ways to stand in the way of deal-making. Indeed, Twitter has been his tool of choice to be the road-blocker-in-chief.
There is a reason the President feels emboldened to continue acting this way. Even after these sorts of destructive moments, the pushback within the GOP has been minimal. And his position on the wall retains strong support among voters within the Republican Party (79% of Republicans, according to the CBS poll, support building a wall). So there seems to be a perfect match between the destructive style of the President and the current preferences of the party.
Great presidents, however, build things beyond an illusory wall. They push grand legislation, they help the nation to reach difficult agreements, they push members of their party to go beyond their political comfort level and they put forth bold ideas that transform the way we think of problems.
The Trump shutdown perfectly embodies the severe limitations of the current President, hinting at how he will be seen in the history books: a leader who used his immense power to prevent important deals from actually getting done.