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The Donald Trump government shutdown playbook: All base, all politics, all the time

New York: America’s longest running shutdown without an end in sight is US president’s Donald Trump’s all-base, all-the-time gamble despite polls showing that most Americans blame Trump for the shutdown. Will walking 800,000 Govt workers and their families off the cliff work for Trump in 2020 if he’s back on the ballot? It’s clear that a lot of what matters to Trump is taking a plunge after the shutdown began; his approval ratings have dropped with cracks emerging among his most vocal supporters of white men, fears of a recession are spiralling, negative stories about unpaid wages are hitting Page One daily, and the fear of a Robert Mueller grenade blankets the White House in a state of perpetual legal peril. What was supposed to be a brief non-event for the economy is spiralling into a crisis that cuts across political boundaries of a two party system. At least 800,000 federal workers are either furloughed or working without pay as on date for almost a month now, starting just before Christmas 2018.

US President Donald Trump. AP

US President Donald Trump. AP

The shutdown fight over border wall funding offers a preview of Trump's 2020 campaign and fear will be its reigning idiom because that's what makes his base “go nuts”. Trump has just forced 46,000 of the furloughed workers back to work, without pay, to tend to issues important to his Republican base and testing the established boundaries of a government shutdown.

Also, with the Michael Cohen testimony looming on 7 February, television-obsessed Trump likely wants to keep the focus on himself and the shutdown rather than on porn star payoffs.

If he blinks first and ends the shutdown and Robert Mueller’s Russia probe bombshell report lands the same day or next, nobody’s going to be talking about the shutdown so might as well keep the shutdown story alive.

Like it or not and whether he’s right or wrong, Donald Trump’s “we’re building a wall” war cry is memorable and the Opposition has still not come up with anything remotely as catchy to counter it. Each time the wall comes up in public discourse, it generally substantiates Trump’s claims that a country without borders isn’t a country at all - even among the never-Trumpers.

So yes, Trump’s base is solidly behind him - Trump’s support among Republicans and Republican leaners is at 80 per cent and the partisan gap in Trump’s job approval is wider than for any president in more than six decades, according to new polling by Pew Research. Nearly all Democrats and Democratic leaners (96 per cent) disapprove of his job performance.

But is Trump’s base enough for a second term? A large swathe of post-midterm research says maybe not.

Trump believes he was a “better candidate” and that’s why he won 2016, even if Mueller’s report or common knowledge of Russian meddling makes two thirds of America believe otherwise. Trump’s all-base strategy comes up against a very different 2020 canvas: It’s very unlikely he’s going to be up against a candidate as unpopular as Hillary Clinton was in 2016. Swing voters, wherever they exist in polarized America may no longer see Trump as the unknown guy who may be centrist - he has proved otherwise throughout his term. And, with all the lessons learnt from the dramatic re-opening of an FBI probe against Hillary Clinton in the final bend of the 2016 elections, that kind of event is unlikely to happen again.

The 2018 midterms are a more recent, post-Trump model than 2016 for the 2020 elections and we know what happened in 2018.

Trump’s base wasn’t enough, the wall metaphor fell short.

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Updated Date: Jan 18, 2019 13:31:45 IST

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