What Will Trump Do If He Realizes He’s Lost the Shutdown Fight?

Trump’s push for a border wall has so far followed a predictable, four-act script. But what comes in the fifth act?

Donald Trump
Carlos Barria / Reuters

About the author: Peter Beinart is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York.

Donald Trump has again folded in his negotiations with congressional Democrats—accepting a second budget deal that includes nothing close to the $5.7 billion in funding for a border wall that he demanded. This outcome was entirely predictable. The sequence of events that led here has occurred again and again when Trump negotiates. Think of it as a play in four acts.

Act I: Trump Invents a Crisis

Since entering the presidential race, Trump has relentlessly described unauthorized immigration—which has been decreasing—as a national emergency. In the final days before last November’s elections, he returned to that theme with a vengeance. In a November 1 speech from the Roosevelt Room, he offered “an update to the American people regarding the crisis on our southern border—and crisis it is.” Later in the speech, he called it “an invasion.”

He’s employed similar hyperbole on trade. During the campaign, Trump called NAFTA “the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country” (a statement with which, Politifact noted, “few [experts] agree.”) He was still at it last August, when he declared, “We lost thousands of factories and millions of jobs because of NAFTA” (a statement The Washington Post gave three Pinocchios).

Trump also invented a crisis with North Korea. Rather than see Pyongyang’s nuclear program for what it was—an effort at deterring an American invasion—Trump in his first year as president described it as an immediate threat. And rather than contain North Korea’s nuclear program via diplomacy—as Bill Clinton’s administration did fairly successfully in the 1990s—Trump described negotiations as a waste of time. “Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years,” he announced in October 2017. “Why would it work now?”

Act II: Trump Creates a Crisis

Having described an imaginary crisis, Trump—in all three cases—created a real one. To combat the supposed emergency at the border, he demanded billions for a wall and thus provoked the longest government shutdown in American history. To remedy the supposed catastrophe of NAFTA, he imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada and Mexico (among other countries), which prompted Ottawa and Mexico City to retaliate with tariffs of their own, thus plunging America’s relations with its neighbors down to their lowest level in decades. And to protect the United States from the supposedly imminent threat of a North Korean missile strike, Trump repeatedly threatened war—and, according to Bob Woodward’s book, Fear, came close to actually starting one.

Act III: Trump Folds

As the crises took shape, it became clear that Trump lacked the power to achieve his stated goals. Congressional Democrats—buoyed by polls showing that most Americans blamed Trump for the shutdown—held firm against a border wall. The governments of Canada and Mexico—buoyed by public revulsion against Trump’s bullying—held firm in trade negotiations. And Trump’s military advisers warned him that he couldn’t launch a preventive military strike on North Korea without incurring hideous costs.

So in all three cases, Trump ended up accepting deals that were little better—if not worse—than the ones he had derided in Act I. He inked a new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico that, according to Politifact, constituted “mostly a symbolic shift” away from NAFTA. (Congress has yet to ratify it.) He signed a nuclear deal that secured fewer concessions from Pyongyang than the previous agreements Trump had scorned. And this week, he accepted a budget deal that includes less money for the border wall than the one he spurned last December.

Act IV: Trump Claims Victory

Having failed to achieve his goals, Trump returns to the deception of Act I, but with a twist. Instead of pretending there is a crisis, he pretends the crisis has been solved. While most experts noted that Trump’s successor to NAFTA—the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA)—wasn’t much different, Trump called it a “model agreement that changes the trade landscape forever.” Although Kim Jong Un provided no concrete guarantees of denuclearization in his summit with Trump last year in Singapore, Trump tweeted that the “problem is largely solved” and “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” And although not one inch of new border wall has been built since Trump took office, he now justifies his shutdown gambit by claiming that the border wall is almost complete. During Trump’s speech this week in El Paso, Texas, when the crowd chanted “Build the wall,” he replied, “You really mean finish that wall, because we’ve built a lot of it.”

Act V? Back to the Beginning

What remains unclear, in all three cases, is whether the show stops at Act IV. Can Trump sustain the fiction that he’s won a glorious victory, or does reality intrude, thus starting the cycle all over again?

Last November, The New York Times published a remarkable front-page story entitled, “In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception.” At first glance, the headline implied that North Korea was deceiving the United States government about its ongoing nuclear efforts. But the text of the article suggested that the actual deception was quite different. The authors reported that “North Korea is moving ahead with its ballistic missile program at 16 hidden bases that have been identified in new commercial satellite images, a network long known to American intelligence agencies but left undiscussed as President Trump claims to have neutralized the North’s nuclear threat.” In other words, North Korea wasn’t deceiving American intelligence.

One interpretation of the Times article is that Trump was deliberately deceiving the American people so as not to puncture the illusion that he had successfully “neutralized the North’s nuclear threat.” But it’s also possible that the intelligence agencies deceived Trump, withholding evidence for fear that, were Trump forced to acknowledge that his apparent triumph had been a sham, he would take America back to the brink of war.

The question is whether, when Trump declares victory, he’s merely pretending to have won, or actually believes it. As bad as it would be for a president to deliberately and repeatedly lie to the public, it might be worse for a president to deliberately and repeatedly lie to himself. If Trump wakes up one morning and realizes that, despite the USMCA, American manufacturers are still relocating to Mexico, he might tear up the agreement and provoke a new trade war. The more Trump is forced to admit that his border wall isn’t actually being built, the more likely he is to declare a national emergency, thus creating a legal and even constitutional crisis.

Preventing the cycle from starting all over again might require allowing Trump to maintain his delusions of grandeur. It’s like dealing with small children: It’s safer to let them think they’ve won than endure the temper tantrum that will ensue if they realize they’ve lost. As dangerous as Trump is when he lies, he might be even more dangerous when forced to temporarily admit the truth.