Border Wall Tactics and Negotiating Postures

tear gas at the border

New Orleans    I had a scheduled call yesterday with a young man, now in the Bay Area of California, who had read something I had written, sent me an email, and asked if I would be willing to talk to him about “tactics,” as he called it.  The call turned out to be wide ranging and focused more on how he could become more actively involved in community-based social change.  Nonetheless, it got me thinking about tactics, especially as I read the headline involving the president, the border wall, and the federal shutdown, all of which are something of a case study in tactics, perhaps with a strategy and possibly without one, since we are talking about President Trump and that must always remain a question.

The partial government shutdown was a Trump tactic in itself obviously.  His initial announced intention was to use the tactic of the shutdown to pressure Democrats into putting up $5 billion or more to build his “beautiful wall.”  He misjudged on that one, because he was trying to force negotiations, and there was no incentive on the part of the Democrats to negotiate when they were weaker than they would be when they gained majority control of the House of Representatives.

In actual meetings with the Democrats, his tactics are both obvious and confused.  Announcing the breakdown of another set of discussions, his people said there had been great progress, while the Democrats said he had threatened to keep the government closed for “months, maybe years.”  This is classic high-low bargaining.  He was clearly bluffing, and the Democrats knew that but were trying to tactically increase public pressure on the president by turning his bluff upside down, while he was trying to signal to his base that things were in hand.  Clearly this was a bullying backfire.

Another tactic he tried that didn’t work was having his departing chief of staff, former general Kelley, claim that the wall wasn’t a physical wall and hadn’t been for some time, but was something more on the order of a metaphorical barrier.  Trump has been quoted going back and forth on whether this is a “real” wall during this period as well.  None of which helped his bargaining position.  Using a lame duck to signal some movement in negotiations is ridiculous, and bouncing back and forth on your demands also undercuts your position.  The real signal he’s giving is that he doesn’t know what he wants and is bargaining in bad faith and hoping for a break from his base or the public.  He may think it is good tactics to confuse the opposition at the bargaining table, but those are never tactics that can produce an agreement.

His tactical threat to declare an emergency and autocratically try to impose the expenditure and wall construction is more interesting and more dangerous.  Federalizing troops and several incidents of tear gassing migrants at the border, I would argue are deliberate tactical provocations being engineered to lay the groundwork for a legal position that defines dictatorial actions from the White House as an emergency triggering the exceptional use of such power.  Migrants at the border are desperate, not disciplined, and making their point as a protest.  No one believes than any group of 100 or 1000 migrants are going to be able to successfully break through border security.  Tactically, Trump and his people are hoping to exploit their weakness in order to have a stronger threat at the table to force the Democrats to concede.  The price is high, but his tactics here are very, very smart and very, very scary.

All of this not only proves how dangerous Trump is, but also how dangerous it is to underestimate him and his people.  Anytime there is a situation where tactics are divorced from long term strategy and only targeted at short term objectives, like we have in this case, we are all in perilous times and unable to protect ourselves and the country from the calamities that lie ahead.


“Poor Me” Misses Impact of Shutdown on Real People

Valle de Bravo      In President Trump’s world, where it’s “all about me,” he seems to believe that he made the supreme sacrifice of staying home for the holidays in the White House rather than heading to Mar de Lago, his exclusive resort property in Florida.  Like many on a stay-cation, he has spent way too much of his time watching television and tweeting wildly enough to destabilize financial markets, the military, and most of the rest of us.  At one point in his tweets, Trump engaged in a little self-pity that he was ensconced in the White House, of all places, referring to himself as “poor me.”  I find that mind-blowing.  He shuts down 25% of the federal government with a temper tantrum, and is still clueless about the impact on the rest of us and all of the real people who are not only forced to call him “boss,” as federal workers, but untold others who are employed in one way or another as federal contractors.

Let’s look at the bare bones of this federal shutdown, which seems to be the third of this year, if you’re counting at home.  According to the Washington Post,

About 380,000 employees would be forced to take unpaid leave, also known as furlough, while other workers, deemed essential employees, would work without pay. Departments affected by the shutdown include Justice, Homeland Security, State, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce and Interior.

In past shutdowns, those that worked without pay, often got backpay, but many furloughed just don’t get paid period.

According to the Wall Street Journal, some states are concerned enough that they have stepped in to the gap to protect national parks,

Utah moved to make sure visitors’ centers at Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks would not immediately go dark. New York is spending $65,000 a day to keep the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island open to tourists. Puerto Rico agreed to pay up to $80,000 for two weeks of services at the San Juan National Historic Site. Arizona has agreed to spend about $9,200 a day to make the shutdown “invisible to visitors” at Grand Canyon National Park.

Of course, some did that because the discredited, scandal-plagued Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke left the parks open during the last shutdown and in some cases, they were assaulted. Civil War relic collectors massed at Gettysburg for example with their metal detectors to see what they could steal.

Federal employees have never been popular with President Trump and his gang, so his cavalier shutdowns are becoming commonplace enough that many lawmakers and others just try to wait the whole thing out, which seems to be the strategy here until after the first of the new year.  But, those really impacted, besides inconvenienced citizens and visitors, are real people with presents to put under the tree, health and rent payments to make, and families to support.  Money matters.

Also hurt the worst are federal contractors many of who are lower paid like cleaners, security workers, day care providers, and others.  There’s no back pay coming their way once this is all over.  For example, the Washington Post told the story of Lila Johnson, 71, of Hagerstown, Maryland:

From Monday to Friday, she works the 6-to-10 p.m. shift at the Agriculture Department, cleaning men’s and women’s bathrooms on a contract basis. Although she supplements her salary with social security and a pension from George Washington University (where she also worked as a janitor), she worries the absence of her contracting salary will put her behind on crucial payments — her automobile lease and insurance, plus her townhouse rental.

“It’s just putting me in a bind. I am going to have to juggle my bills around. My part-time job at the Agriculture Department helps me make ends meet,” she said.

Compounding her situation is that her 15-year-old great-grandson and 5-year-old great-grandson live with her in her three-bedroom home, for which the rent is close to $1,000 a month.

“It’s not easy putting food on the table for kids and buying them clothes and shoes. That’s why I am still working,” she said. “But I did pretty good this year with presents.”

For now, Johnson puts the blame on Republicans, especially Trump.

“Trump is throwing a temper tantrum for a wall,” she said. “What’s the wall going to do? He just wants to say, ‘I delivered my promise.’ But he’s messing with people’s lives.”

President “Poor Me” should be the one thinking about the Lila Johnson’s and millions of others instead of watching television, tweeting, and eating bonbons furnished by the White House staff of federal employees under the White House Christmas tree in his government-paid pad, thinking it’s all about himself.  That’s not the way government works.  It’s about the people, pal, not you.