As America’s longest government shutdown entered its 35th day, and hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors awoke to a second Friday without pay checks, news alerts popped up on my mobile phone saying that President Trump would be making an announcement about the shutdown shortly. Earlier that morning, LaGuardia Airport in New York City had announced that planes would not be taking off or landing because of critical staff shortages and the dangers these posed to air travelers. After a month of working without pay, dozens of America’s air traffic controllers called out sick, which was enough to bring the country’s largest east coast airports to a screeching halt. Air traffic controllers warned Congress that a prolonged shutdown would bring controllers to “the breaking point of exhaustion, stress, and worry,” thereby putting Americans’ safety at risk. The Flight Attendants’ Union also weighed in: “Do we have your attention now, [Senate] Leader [Mitch] McConnell?” the union asked. “The shutdown must end immediately. Our country’s entire economy is on the line.” Hours later, the union’s president, Sara Nelson, warned that if the shutdown continued, flight attendants would not show up for work, but rather, would begin to gather outside the offices of their congressional representatives instead.
Meanwhile, 1,000 miles to the south, Trump ally Roger Stone was arrested at dawn at his mansion in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on charges of witness tampering, obstruction of justice and making false statements to Congress. Stone, the latest suspect to be snared in the net of Special Counselor Robert Mueller’s investigation, is a flamboyant and amoral figure who makes Trump’s former lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen look like an angel. A long time and self-professed “dirty-trickster” and hired gun for right-wing politicians, Stone worships disgraced President Richard Nixon, and even has a portrait of Nixon tattooed on his back. Stone had been urging Trump to run for president for years, and even though he never held an official position in Trump’s campaign or administration, he played a key role in campaign strategy and the mobilization of Trump’s base, and according to the Mueller investigation’s indictment, served as a conduit between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks as well as alleged Russian operatives. Knowledgeable commentators view Stone’s arrest as the Mueller investigation taking yet another step closer to “Individual No. 1” (Trump), and predict that the next target on Mueller’s list might be Trump’s son, Donald, Jr., or Special Advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. As usual, though, Trump dismissed this latest indictment of an ally as inconsequential, and further evidence of the Democrats’ “witch hunt” against him.
Around noon, Trump announced that the shutdown would end—but only for three weeks. He tried to spin this as a win for his plan to build a wall on the southern border, putting the onus on Congress and reiterating that they had to come up with a compromise by February 15th, but few pundits and journalists agreed. This was a clear win for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the new Democratic majority in the House, who stood firm in resisting Trump’s efforts to reach a compromise on funding the wall. Less noted in the mainstream media, however, was that Trump’s about-face on his shutdown was also a win for organized labor, particularly in the air travel sector of the U.S. economy.
Nearly 40 years ago, a face-off between the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Organization (PATCO) and President Ronald Reagan marked the beginning of the end of organized labor in the United States, as well as the start of a growing gap between America’s rich and poor. Reagan ended up firing 11,000 air traffic controllers for striking illegally in 1981. Their union was immediately decertified, and all labor unions got the message: collective bargaining was potentially dangerous to one’s job. Thus did organized labor become increasingly disorganized and fragmented.
Reagan’s “trickle down” economic policies and his commitment to deregulation industry while defanging trade unions let loose the toxins of neoliberal economics on the United States. Trump’s policies and goals embody this trend more than any president since Reagan, and big money’s conquest of the political process, consecrated by the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the “Citizens’ United” ruling that money equals free speech and is thus protected under the First Amendment, has further disempowered the middle and working classes in a decade that saw the emergence of dozens of billionaires. During the shutdown, the shocking disconnect between the billionaire ruling class and struggling middle- and lower-class workers came into sharp focus as wealthy officials in Trump’s administration expressed surprise that federal workers had to turn to food banks to feed their families. “They should just get loans,” said billionaire Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. Trump dismissed federal worker’s hardships, saying they could simply work with supermarkets to get food cheap or for free until the shutdown ended.
Such clueless pronouncements by Trump administration officials have made Americans across the political spectrum realize that the rich who run the country live in a very different world, indeed. Although Trump’s most hardline supporters will never turn on him, many who voted for Trump in 2016 have felt the negative impact of the 35-day shutdown, and some are now expressing their regret in media interviews. Former Trump allies like Anne Coulter, a spokeswoman for the extreme right ring, berated Trump on Twitter and on a late-night television program for being a “wimp” and caving to the Democrats. For the first time, it looked like opposition to Trump might be growing. Even Fox News was criticizing the president’s lack of strategy in pursuing the shutdown for so long for so few results. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, often criticized from the left for being too flexible in dealing with the Republicans, was being feted as a tough and savvy politician. It’s not likely that, given this victory and a swelling of popular support, the Congress will compromise on Trump’s absurd plan for a wall on the southern border in the next three weeks.
Like water on a stone, popular support of the president is gradually weakening and wearing away. The last Friday of January was arguably Trump’ worst day to date. It certainly won’t be the last.