President Donald Trump is trapped. He shut the government to impose his will on the incoming Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. That plan has miserably failed. Instead, Trump has found himself caught in the trap he supposed he had set for his opponents.
Now he is desperately seeking an exit.
Trump attempted Exit One on January 8. He spoke that evening to the nation from the Oval Office, hoping to mobilize public opinion behind him, pressing the Democratic leadership of the House to yield to him. That hope was miserably disappointed. Surveys post-speech found that Trump had swayed only 2 percent of TV viewers. In the 10 days since the speech, Trump’s approval ratings have dipped to about the lowest point in his presidency. The supposedly solid Trump base has measurably softened.
Having failed to convince the public, Trump is now trying Exit Two. This idea is even more harebrained than the last, if that is even possible. Instead of appealing in prime time to the whole nation, Trump on Saturday afternoon advanced a detailed set of proposals intended to shift a critical mass of backbench Democrats to break with their leadership and deal directly with him. You don’t need to do much more than articulate the idea out loud to appreciate its utter unrealism.
The Democratic majority is newly elected and highly cohesive. Why on earth would any appreciable number of Democrats break away from their leadership to do business as individuals with a president none of them trusts about an issue none of them thinks should be negotiable: reopening the government? They will not do it, and it should have been obviously predictable from the start that they would not do it. Trump could not even get moderate Democrats to come have lunch with him at the White House this week. How could he imagine that a TV talk would entice them to break ranks and destroy their own political future within their party?
The president will gain some immediate validation from his closed information system. Fox News, and talk radio, and MAGA Twitter will rant enjoyably about how mean it is for Democrats to reject Trump’s latest self-help scheme. That will be nice for the president to hear. But Fox News, and talk radio, and MAGA Twitter cannot protect him from the real-world consequences of the shutdown he forced. They cannot erase the video showing Trump proudly talking about how he would be the one to do it. They cannot sustain his poll numbers among the large majority of America that is non-Fox, non-MAGA.
The sometimes Trump ally Senator Marco Rubio tweeted Saturday afternoon that it is not reasonable for Democrats to demand unconditional surrender by the president. But it was Trump who rejected the path of compromise when he shut down the government.
The shutdown was a demand for unconditional surrender. Unfortunately for him, the president lacks the political realism to recognize that he doesn’t have the clout to impose that surrender. He’s the one who will now have to climb down, and very soon, probably within days. The end of a hostage taking is not a surrender. But it will surely feel that way to the hostage taker—and deservedly, too.