On the whim of a president who only cares about the image he reflects among his largely bigoted base, some 800,000 government workers this past week marked a month without pay. It wasn’t until the weekend that Trump announced he had reached a temporary agreement with Congress to reopen the government after the longest shutdown in US history. But federal workers will face similar uncertainty within the next three weeks if congressional Democrats and the Executive Branch fail to reach a permanent agreement on border security.
Trump is already threatening to shut the government down again if he can’t extract a deal from Congress to fund his much-heralded wall between the US and Mexico. Or failing that, he has indicated, he may try to invoke “emergency powers” that the presidency has in case of a “national crisis” in order to get his wall built. It’s hard to see how the president could deem immigration a “national crisis”, however, especially since immigration levels have dropped steadily in recent years and the “caravans” allegedly bringing countless hoards from Central America to overrun the US border, seem to have slipped from the news cycle and from reality—ephemeral smoke and mirrors designed to stir up the Trump base and get them demanding a wall to save America from a “barbarian invasion”, they seem to have unceremoniously disappeared.
During the early days of the shutdown, Trump insisted that “most” of the government workers who were either furloughed or forced to work without pay were “with him” on the issue of the wall and knew that this sacrifice was worthwhile and necessary in order to force Congress to act in his favor. But as the days wore on, it became increasingly clear that this was not true, and that being forced to make sacrifices because of a virtual federal lockout was not the same as volunteering to do so on the basis of conviction.
So it was that we were “treated” to the spectacle of government workers and contractors who live from paycheck to paycheck finding themselves in a personal state of crisis imposed, through no fault of their own, by the powers that be. Those who had worked through the first days of the shutdown crisis in the belief that it probably wouldn’t last long eventually started staying home from work because they could not only not meet vital payments like electricity, gas, water and mortgages, but because they literally couldn’t afford to fill their gas tanks in order to get to work. Some found that they couldn’t even afford groceries, and ended up resorting to food stamps and soup kitchens in order to be able to keep eating.
By the end of the month-long lockout, government workers interviewed by major news media demonstrated themselves to be highly disillusioned and clearly felt that the president and Congress, whom they blamed almost equally for their plight, should have their backs instead of using them as pawns in a game of Washington in-fighting. They seemed to feel, in the end, that their lives simply didn’t matter to anyone in government. This showed in poll figures in which the president’s popularity lost ground to such an extent that it appeared to have eaten into his base as well as further polarizing independents.
Many federal workers take those jobs precisely to ensure themselves of steady work, a regular paycheck and good job benefits. Working for the government is supposed to be the life of a bureaucrat, which has typically unfolded along flat lines of non-events and stability from entry to retirement. But one of the lessons learned from Trump’s shutdown caprice is that, in today’s world, nothing is stable and everyone is vulnerable to the whims of the rich and powerful. It is, in short, a rich man’s world, and everyone else is basically disposable.
This should have deeply shamed the Trump camp, whose most loyal base is the paycheck to paycheck white working class. But it didn’t. The president himself suggested that the abandoned workers should talk to their creditors, who, he was sure, would be sympathetic to their temporary situation—a suggestion that seemed almost as naïve as it was cynical and cruel. Perhaps they could also, the president suggested, do maintenance on the buildings where they lived en lieu of rent for as long as the shutdown lasted. And besides, not to worry, because they would get their back pay once the government reopened. But that was small comfort to thousands of workers who depend for their living on government paychecks and found themselves facing immediate obligations that they couldn’t cover.
The president wasn’t the only one, however, in the upper circles of power to demonstrate how clueless he was with regard to the realities of working class people. At a rally in Duluth, Minnesota, Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law (and son Eric’s wife) basically told suffering government workers to suck it up for the good of the country (in Trumpspeak that means for the good of the Trumps and their campaign to remain in power for another four years).
In an administration in which nepotism runs rife, Lara Trump in one of the president’s “re-election advisers”. It was in that capacity that she told federal wage-earners furloughed or working without pay that, in the end, they would realize it had been worth it. She said that federal workers’ “children and their grandchildren will thank them for their sacrifice right now.” She added that she realized “it’s a little bit of pain, but it’s going to be for the future of our country.”
In what can hardly be seen as anything but a condescending and hypocritical message, Lara Trump said, “Listen, it’s not fair to you, and we all get this, but this is so much bigger than any one person.”
Well, apparently not bigger than her, her husband or any of the other members of the Trump clan who populate the president’s entourage and who are not affected in the least because they are ridiculously wealthy. Not bigger than the appointed staff in the West Wing, either, or than legislators in Congress, all of whom continued to collect their benefits despite the shutdown.
Another “let them eat cake” moment was when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross—another of the multi-millionaires with whom Trump has staffed his cabinet—said that he’d heard government workers were eating at food banks and couldn’t understand it. Why, he wondered aloud, didn’t they just go to their financial institutions and take out loans on which to live until the crisis was over? Sure, they might have to pay some interest, but what they heck?
“The idea that it’s paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea,” Ross said. “There’s no reason why some institution wouldn’t be willing to lend.”
The question that must have sprung to the minds of many wage-earners all over the US, whether government-employed or not, was “Why on earth should federal workers take out loans on which they would have to pay interest when the only reason they couldn’t meet their monthly obligations was because the very government that employed them was holding them hostage on a political whim and failing to pay them in a timely manner for their service to the country?”
|Wilbur Ross...a billionaire's answer|
This added insult to injury, since 20,000 of the 800,000 federal workers who were furloughed or working without pay were in the direct employ of Ross’s bureau. Ross further disrespected federal workers by seeking to make them seem insignificant within the greater economic picture. He downplayed the effects of the shutdown by arguing that the 800,000 job posts affected were only “a third of a percent on our GDP. So it’s not like it’s a gigantic number.”
What he failed to weigh, however, was just how crucial some of the job descriptions involved were to the economy and security at large. Federal air traffic controllers, for instance, who by the end of the month-long lockout were calling in sick in massive numbers, so much so that scores of flights were being cancelled or greatly delayed. Airport maintenance was another area undermined meaning that radar systems were not being properly monitored and maintained. And then too, there were TSA agents, the front line of air travel security, who also started skipping work as they struggled to meet their obligations. And these were by no means the only strategic areas of national security that were affected, as attested by former and current security agents.
Mexican politician Braulio Guerra and friends sit atop a section
of the US border fence.
There were also effects on more internal areas of government that few ever see but that are of vital importance. Journalists John Roberts and Gillian Turner, both identified with the president’s news channel of choice, Fox News, indicated that not enough was being said about how the shutdown imposed by the president was affecting US cyber-security defenses. Turner said that one federal source had told her that in the week before the shutdown ended, the government was more vulnerable to cyber-penetration and online terrorism than at any other point in history. Roberts echoed Turner saying that “a mutual friend of ours was saying if you were going to attack the United States, if you were a terrorist during the shutdown, now would be the time.”
Beyond security concerns, there was a not-so-subliminal message in all of this with regard to the Trump administration. It was that, despite all the talk about this being a “popular” government that had the working person’s back, the truth was plain to see during the shutdown—namely, that Trump’s government was an elitist political machine tacitly representing the upper one percent, an administration that had placed millionaires and billionaires in key decision-making posts, people who had no idea what it was like to live paycheck to paycheck and people with such a low level of human empathy that they were also unwilling to find out.