President Donald Trump doesn’t care how the shutdown is playing in the polls. He routinely dismisses unfavorable poll numbers as “fake news.” Likewise, he is unlikely to be convinced he’s in political danger because of negative news coverage of the shutdown’s consequences. On Sunday, he blithely asserted that “many of those people that won’t be receiving a paycheck … agree 100 percent with what I’m doing.” But there’s one metric Trump does care about: television ratings. And the early numbers don’t look good, especially with Trump’s base.
If the shutdown was successfully galvanizing his supporters, you would expect fiery exhortations from Fox News anchors to attract the eyeballs of Trump’s base. But on the first Wednesday and Thursday of the new year, all of Fox News’ prime-time shows scored viewership below their daily averages for 2018. Fox News’ tentpole show, Hannity, which averaged 3.3 million daily viewers in 2018, hasn’t reached 3 million since December 12th, a week before the shutdown began.
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Meanwhile, the lefty lineup over at MSNBC performed better last week than its daily 2018 average. In particular, The Rachel Maddow Show pulled in 3.5 million viewers Thursday night, 1 million more than Hannity. Perhaps sensing he doesn’t already have the attention of the television-watching public, Trump is forcing his way on to our screens Tuesday night with his first prime-time Oval Office address.
How can this be? Trump was goaded into the shutdown by conservative media figures like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. This is supposed to be a championship bout over Trump’s signature issue, the one that revs up the base like no other. Back in the 2016 primary, Trump admitted to the New York Times editorial board, “You know, if [a rally] gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ and they go nuts.”
Trump now faces a similar problem. This time, it’s the shutdown that’s boring. And for once, “We will build the wall” isn’t making it more interesting.
Here we are in Day Whateverteenth of the shutdown, and it’s much like the day before. Congressional leaders meet and get nowhere. Democrats insist Trump will never get his wall. Trump treats “steel slats” over concrete as a magnanimous gesture of compromise. All that’s missing is Punxsutawney Phil and Ned Ryerson.
As our reality TV star-turned-president understands, a good TV show has a narrative arc, compelling characters and plot twists. But we’ve seen this shutdown story before. It typically drags on for a few days or weeks until we all get sick of it and want to change the channel. Trump is losing this shutdown—which is why his best strategy is to fold without demanding any concessions from Democrats. He needs to move his presidency onto another subject before it gets canceled in 2020.
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson tried to turn the problem of overflowing trash in unstaffed national parks into ratings gold by—and I’m not making this up—accusing the biggest environmentalist organizations of hypocrisy because they weren’t volunteering to pick up the trash. After the environmentalists refused to return the show’s calls, all the producers could do to dress up the segment was to broadcast b-roll of roadside litter.
One can sense Trump trying to inject a fresh storyline into the shutdown by teasing a “national emergency” that would grant him the authority to divert Pentagon funds into a border wall. But where does that plot development go? Court challenges over the president’s constitutional authority? Local property owners on the border resisting eminent domain? Exciting for legal scholars. Many CNN bookings for Jeffrey Toobin and Alan Dershowitz. Snoresville for everyone else.
Shutdowns typically end because one side—always the instigating side—shoulders the blame in the polls, recognizes it needs to stop the political bleeding and capitulates. Trump, the indisputable instigator of this shutdown, is not expected to follow suit. Constantly catering to his base, Trump displays no interest in appealing to the political middle and clearing 50 percent job approval.
Because Trump never wants to deflate his base, his only option is to keep Coulter and Limbaugh happy by keeping the shutdown going, right? However, Trump wants to stoke his base, not bore it. The problem with a protracted shutdown is that even if it doesn’t dominate news coverage, it won’t go away either. It will gum up Congress and make it hard to gin up new fights that can keep Trump’s base entertained.
Worse, a long shutdown could damage another of Trump’s favorite metrics: gross domestic product. Trump’s chief economic adviser warned that the shutdown slices 0.1 percent off GDP growth every two weeks. That’s no big deal if the shutdown is resolved quickly. But a shutdown that lasts through March would knock 0.7 percent off the first-quarter GDP. The Federal Reserve projects GDP growth for this year to be a decent if not gangbusters 2.3 percent; drop that to 1.6 percent and you’ll start hearing the word “anemic” more often.
Democrats aren’t likely to bail Trump out of this mess of his own making. Trial balloons of “DACA-for-the-wall,” floated by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and others, have popped. And for good reason. Republicans may hope to pressure Democrats on the grounds that last year they were willing to make that trade. But in early 2018, Democrats were briefly in a panic, believing that the undocumented “Dreamers” were on the verge of imminent deportation. Once it became clear that federal judges were blocking implementation of Trump’s executive order until its legality could be adjudicated, Democrats withdrew the concession and dug in.
It’s possible that the Supreme Court takes the DACA case this year, but as it stands, the matter has been moving on a slow track at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A separate class of immigrants that Trump is trying to deport, those with “temporary protected status,” has also received judicial protection during the litigation process. So while Graham has offered a deal that would allow both DACA and TPS immigrants to remain in the U.S. in exchange for the wall, Democrats can continue to play for time without giving Trump a major policy success.
But without concessions, how could Trump end the shutdown without humiliating himself? First and foremost, Trump is shameless. He’ll assert victory at any time, regardless of the facts. For example, Trump has insisted he has started building new barriers, when all that has happened to date is replacements of existing barriers. (Fourteen miles of new barrier in Texas is scheduled to begin construction next month.)
Second, Trump could still declare a national emergency after canceling the shutdown and insist he can build the wall without additional congressional appropriation. Again, because of legal challenges, that probably would not result in immediate construction. But Trump loyalists always seem satisfied with their president so long as he is fighting. Winning has been secondary.
Trump should not think of ending the shutdown as surrender—though he would join the club of Republican shutdown warriors who failed to win one—legislatively or in the arena of public opinion—despite their cantankerous efforts. Instead, he should think of ending the shutdown as a wise creative choice. If you’re going to treat the presidency like the ultimate reality TV show, at least make it a good one.