Donald Trump wants to install an immoveable object on the southern border, but has come up against the irresistible force of Senate procedure. Yesterday, the Senate rejected two proposals, one from each party, designed to end Washington’s Mexican standoff. In cinematic custom, all parties are pointing weapons at each other’s heads. But so far the only victims are the 800,000 federal employees who missed a second monthly paycheck today, and the dignity of a nation that prides itself on the perfection of its constitutional arrangements.
The struggle between the executive and legislative branches has sent the bureaucracy into an induced coma. Great nations can function without a government. So can the Belgians, who in 2011 finally settled on a coalition after a blissful 589 days without a government. But a great modern nation can no more function without a bureaucracy than the Romans could function without a military.
Though the Democrats call Donald Trump a barbarian for insisting on a Great Wall, the closer resemblance is to one of the last emperors of the West. In the 4th and 5th centuries AD, the barbarians devastated the outlying provinces of the Western Roman Empire. This reduced the imperial tax base, and that meant that the legions went unpaid. The barbarians pressed on, and in 410 AD they sacked Rome.
Donald Trump may not be a reader of Edward Gibbon, or even J.K. Rowling. But Trump is a late Roman by taste, and his understanding of what is at stake on the southern border is late Roman too. The ostensible issues, border security and immigration policy, are the topical aspect of Trump’s posterity, a posterity which he, with characteristic modesty, identifies with that of the entire nation. But then, he is the president.
Not that immigrants from Latin America are barbarian. Most come for opportunity, and many in desperation. Anyway, American civilisation has never been short of barbarism at home. But the parallel exists, and is as old as the friction between the settled and the mobile. A rich empire, frequently ruled by law, abuts poor nations, often run by the corrupt and the criminal.
The emperor Caracalla donated spectacular baths to the people of Rome. Trump has promised the great unwashed that he will donate a border wall, with their money. The Democrats do not wish to erect a monument to Trump, or confirm his claim that he is saving the empire. So the legions of federal employees go unpaid, and Trump’s supporters on cable news and in the Republican base grow restive.
Trump’s problem is that the United States functions as an empire, but still governs itself as a republic. Trump has a Caesar option. He can declare an emergency, tap money earmarked for military spending, and send a real legion, the Army Corps of Engineers, to the southern border. But doing this would show that the Democrats in the Senate had beaten him. For a president accused of replacing a republic with a family cult like that of Caesar’s heirs, Trump seems touchingly concerned to end the shutdown according to the rules.
Though both parties’ proposals failed in the Senate yesterday, they did succeed in setting the price of returning the US government to its habitual state of expensive dysfunction. Senate Republicans wanted $5.7 billion for a wall. Senate Democrats refuse to fund a wall, but are willing to spend $5.7 billion in funding for a ‘smart wall’, with drones and sensors, and increased funding for border security personnel.
After the Senate blocked the proposals, eight Senators from each party announced their support for a temporary funding measure that would unlock money for three weeks. According to Lindsey Graham, Trump is amenable to this. He should be, because it would be a win for him. He now suggests that the Senate permit a “partial, pro-rated down payment” on the wall, with further payments to come.
This is what happens when you elect a property developer. If he builds it, they will still come. But they won’t get in, and Trump will reap the political profit of being the first president in decades to keep a major promise. So of course Nancy Pelosi calls Trump’s proposal to fund the wall on instalments “not a reasonable argument”.
So the shutdown is about money, except that since yesterday it isn’t. It is now a contest of perceptions. The Republicans are willing to fund a physical wall, and the Democrats are willing to fund anything apart from a physical wall. Neither side wishes to be seen to back down, but neither side, especially members of the House of Representatives in marginal districts, wishes to be seen to be treating the legions with contempt.