Our nation's capital ushered in the holiday weekend by generating a chyron typically reserved for the grim middle act of a Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson vehicle: "DEFENSE SECRETARY QUITS IN PROTEST OVER TRUMP MIDDLE EAST POLICY AS GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN LOOMS AND FINANCIAL MARKETS TANK," blared CNN during its coverage of, in order, the continued disintegration of the president's Cabinet, a seemingly-intractable fight over funding the wall, and the Dow barreling towards its worst month since the Great Recession. It is fitting that today is the shortest day of the year: better to ponder the precarious global order in literal darkness.
Just a few days ago, it seemed that the shutdown, at least, would not be among the crises enveloping Capitol Hill: On Wednesday, the Republican Senate passed a continuing resolution that would have funded the government through February 8, ensuring that its employees wouldn't spend Christmas wondering when they'll see their next paycheck. But McConnell's compromise did not include the $5 billion Trump sought for border security, which is why, as the House prepared to vote on the otherwise-uncontroversial bill and go home to their families, the people to whom the president listens most closely began howling into the ether.
"Trump gets nothing and the Democrats get everything," fumed Rush Limbaugh on his radio show as news of the deal broke. Ann Coulter vowed to withhold her support from the president's 2020 campaign if he couldn't deliver on the wall. “They’re about to have a country where no Republican will ever be elected president again,” she told The Daily Caller. “Trump will just have been a joke presidency who scammed the American people and amused the populists for a while, but he’ll have no legacy whatsoever." (He unfollowed her on Twitter shortly thereafter.)
On Fox & Friends—still the most influential voice in the White House—an outraged Steve Doocy declared victory for Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. "I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I’m not going to spin it," said his guest, Michelle Malkin. "I wish I could, but I can’t. This is a cave."
The message, shouted from every platform to which the shouters knew Trump might be paying attention, got through. As part of his quest to remain an irredeemable coward through the very last moments of his career, Paul Ryan refused to bring the bill to the House floor, shielding the majority he just lost from an ugly public disagreement with its leader. Shortly thereafter, Limbaugh took to the airwaves to reassure worried denizens of MAGAland that their hero had not, in fact, given up the fight. "The president has gotten word to me that he is either getting money for border security, or he's shutting the whole thing down," Limbaugh said. "The president wants you to know that it’s money or nothing." With each passing hour, the latter outcome looks a little more likely.
The right-wing media ecosystem has always played an outsized role in how Trump's administration conducts itself on a day-to-day basis. But the effortlessness with which some of its most vile characters managed to commandeer this issue, transforming a repeatedly-broken campaign promise into the sticking point on which the federal government's operation now hinges, is a new and deeply unsettling development. Even among House and Senate Republicans who want a border wall, there exists sufficient support for a short-term deal to just keep the lights on this winter. For Trump, though, working to get things done with the legislature—which is, again, controlled by his own party—is far less consequential than the terrifying possibility that Sean Hannity might say something mean about him as a result.
Earlier in his presidency—earlier this month, even, right up until Nancy Pelosi insulted his manhood—Trump might have been more open to the possibility of making a deal, and less inclined to take the toddler's-tantrum approach to governance. But as more of his former associates plead guilty to more crimes, and with the market he's proudly responsibly for in the midst of an alarming tailspin, Trump is cutting his losses, focusing only on the things that appeal to his extremist supporters. He knows that as long as he keeps the base in his corner, his presidency is salvageable; if their enthusiasm begins to wane, though, the party will move on to someone else.
All this could have been avoided, to some extent, had any of those with the ability to constrain the executive branch actually done so over the past two years. But every one of them failed every test of their political courage: His subordinates quit in disgust or penned anonymous New York Times op-eds and then kept cashing paychecks; Mitch McConnell mumbled something about confirming more Republican judges; and Paul Ryan smiled blithely and told reporters that he hadn't seen the tweets. Whatever power they once had, they ceded it long ago, and the most dangerous people are the only ones left.