Every con man knows he has to outrun reality because it will eventually catch up with the lies he tells. A good con man will make sure he’s in the next state before reality clashes with the lies he convinced his victims to believe. Sometimes, though, through hubris or miscalculation, he will stay too long, and circumstances will provide him with no exit. That’s when his lies are revealed and the con falls apart. That’s when someone who once appeared invincible stands before his minions not as a savior but as a petty huckster who used their loyalty for personal gain.
The partial government shutdown ended Friday with stunning speed because the con at the heart of Donald Trump’s Republican Party collapsed under the weight of an increasingly threatening reality. With federal workers waiting in food lines, the economy beginning to suffer serious damage, and the FAA curtailing air traffic for safety reasons, Senate Republicans found they could enable their president no longer. His position collapsed. The government would re-open for three weeks while bi-partisan discussions ensued on border security, just as congressional Democrats had proposed a month ago. There would be no funding for the wall. There will never be funding for the wall.
This is a catastrophic retreat for the Republican Party because it reveals the lie at the heart of Trumpism—that Trump can literally and figuratively wall off the country from threats to white, male, Christian privilege. This lie was kept in place through constant projections of Trump’s strength, through his promises of endless winning, and through a politics of dominance that defined the 2016 campaign and his tenure in office until it ran headlong into Nancy Pelosi, who with public opinion and a united caucus behind her became the first person in Donald Trump’s life to tell him no and make it stick. She was the bearer of a reality he could not ignore once his Senate partisans decided to stop absorbing the political damage their position was inflicting, even if it meant abandoning their party’s primary reason for being.
The collapse of the Trump con in so public a sphere will reverberate through the remainder of his administration and well may shape the future of the Republican Party. How do you continue to base a political party on a promise everyone now sees you cannot keep? This is not the end—many of Trump’s supporters will no doubt remain on board—but the seeds of doubt have been planted and they will blossom in the weeks to come, watered by the anger being expressed today in MAGA circles. No matter how much he may plead with us to pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, Trump looks today like a loser and a capitulator on the one issue he insisted only he could address. He has delivered to his supporters only humiliation, made all the worse for being so total and for having come at the hands of a girl.
Doubts about Trump the great negotiator will take root at a time when Trump can least afford defections in his ranks, with the Mueller investigation moving ever closer to his inner circle and House Democrats ready to wield subpoena power. Already trapped, Trump is now significantly weakened. Any lasting erosion in his support will nudge the possibility of conviction in the Senate from fantasy to possibility. We learned this week how swiftly a position can collapse when the weight of reality becomes too great. And we learned that reality poses a lethal threat to Trumpism when it is harnessed by a capable and strategic opponent.
We should be on guard against the severity of the reaction Trump is certain to have over being revealed as a loser and a fraud. He will almost certainly try to distract the public with increasingly elevated threats. But we can also now see how all of this might end, with the retreat of those who have supported Trump unconditionally when supporting him becomes too costly, just like the shutdown became too costly for Republicans this week. And we can imagine, perhaps for the first time, that such a moment awaits out there on the horizon.