Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The longest shutdown in US history has created enormous hardships for 800,000 federal workers and their families, as well as those who count on their work and the communities that rely on their spending. The standoff between President Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress is also casting a harsh light on the Trump administration’s apparent inability to grasp the idea of life without vast personal wealth. Call it the Marie Antoinette effect, with apologies to the beheaded queen famously known by her apocryphal line, “Let them eat cake!”
The President and members of his team have displayed such callousness regarding the struggles of people who actually require a paycheck to stay afloat that the guise of Trump as a populist concerned with the well-being of the masses is crumbling into dust. It’s no wonder polls show the majority of Americans disagree with the President’s claim that the shutdown is justified by the goal of building a wall along the US-Mexico border. And while Trump claims many of the people not getting paid “agree 100%” with what he’s doing, Trump’s approval ratings are taking a hit.
Trump almost never mentions the travails of those shut out of their jobs or working without pay. His fear-mongering televised speech earlier this month did not mention them once. But perhaps it’s for the best. When he did talk about those deprived of their income, it was cringeworthy. “I can relate,” he told reporters, “and I’m sure that the people that are on the receiving end will make adjustments, they always do.” Ah, the little people; somehow they manage.
As a reminder, a New York Times investigation found that Trump was earning $200,000 a year in today’s dollars by the time he was 3 years old, and was a millionaire by age 8. When he graduated from college, his father gave him the equivalent of $1 million a year – an allowance that climbed to more than $5 million a year in his 40s and 50s. When Trump’s businesses ran into trouble, his father regularly bailed him out. In total, Trump received at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father’s real estate empire, according to the Times. So, no. It’s hard to believe Trump can relate.
Lara Trump, Trump’s daughter-in-law and campaign adviser, made a valiant effort to show her empathetic side earlier this week. It did not go well.
In an interview with Bold TV, the wife of Trump’s son Eric addressed the unpaid federal employees. “It’s not fair to you, and we all get that,” she allowed, adding, “It is a little bit of pain, but it is going to be for the future of our country.” Generations of Americans, she promised, would thank them for their sacrifice. That “little bit of pain” suggested she has not spent a lot of time listening to the stories of federal workers struggling to pay the rent and buy groceries, or standing in line on a cold winter’s day to get a free lunch at a food kitchen, although she did acknowledge federal workers have bills and mortgages to pay.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, on the other hand, acknowledged some federal employees have been forced to go to homeless shelters to get food – even though he can’t seem to wrap his head around why that might be.
When interviewers on CNBC noted that workers “can’t afford to support their families,” with some standing in line for food, Ross declared himself baffled by the fact. “I don’t really quite understand why,” he said. Ross, who claims to be a billionaire, argued that the workers’ “liquidity” problem should be easily solved by getting loans until they receive back pay once the government reopens. Even Trump conceded that “perhaps (Ross) should have said it differently.”
Again, the answer betrayed how out of touch this plutocratic administration is. Some workers have access to loans, but not all do. And some worry that if they receive a loan and cannot pay it back, with their debt to friends and relatives mounting as the shutdown drags on, they will damage their credit.
Ross also tried to downplay the economic impact of the shutdown, telling CNBC that even if the federal workers never got their back pay, “it’s not like it’s a gigantic number overall.” But the reality is that every individual without a paycheck, every moment of family hardship, is contributing to a slowdown in the economy.
That was confirmed by another one of our finalists for the Marie Antoinette award. White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett admitted on CNN after a little tap dancing on the issue that economic growth in the first quarter of 2019 could be zero if the shutdown continues.
This is the same man who said the furloughed federal workers were “better off” during the shutdown because they were getting time off without having to use their vacation days. In the competition for tone deafness, it would be hard to top Hassett’s take.
Trump is steadily losing ground in the political faceoff over the government shutdown, and those who think the damage to the President will fade once the government is up and running again should look at the insensitive observations coming from his own administration.
The let-them-eat-cake attitude surrounding the hardships created by the shutdown is revealing the truth about Trump’s claims to care about workers. That’s perhaps why polls show white Americans without college degrees are losing faith in him. The longer this goes on, the more clearly everyone sees who the President is – a man determined to score a political victory, with little regard for the cost it inflicts on the country.