US President Donald Trump participates in a roundtable discussion at the US Border Patrol Station in McAllen, Texas, US, January 10, 2019 [Leah Millis/Reuters]
This week, the White House Council of Economic Advisers doubled its estimate of how much the shutdown – the longest in US history – will cost the economy. Others are warning that it could push the US towards a recession. Families across the country are scrambling to feed their children, keep their homes, and pay for expensive medications. As hundreds of thousands of federal and contract workers continue without pay, Trump has demanded that workers return to their jobs, stating that the shutdown will continue indefinitely – for months or even years – until his racist, multibillion-dollar border wall is approved.
Despite Trump‘s claims that what he is doing is for the safety of everyday Americans, this moment could not make it plainer that he does not care about any of us – not even the working class white people he claims to represent. The wall’s aim is not to protect ordinary Americans, but to rile up Trump‘s base using racism.
This is a classic divide-and-conquer tactic, aiming to get poor white people to blame people of colour and not the political and corporate elite, for poverty. The wall will also make loads of money for an ever-growing corporate defence industry, who are deep in Trump‘s pockets, and see militarised borders, surveillance, deportation, war and incarceration as opportunities to make cash.
But polling shows that Trump‘s plan is backfiring. By refusing to back down, Trump is actually losing support among his base. This carves out a path for leftists to present a new vision for this country, one that sees the fate of everyday people – both within and outside the US border – as deeply connected. We have an opportunity to present a political pathway where there is enough for all of us. We have an opportunity to actually win more people towards our side, and away from Trump, the fascist far right, and the political and corporate elite.
A hard-lined shutdown for the poor, negotiations for the rich
A shutdown happens when Congress cannot agree on the budget. In recent years, we’ve become used to the threat of shutdown but no president has openly called for one. In May, Trump tweeted that “our country needs a good ‘shutdown.'” Months later, he announced that he would not sign any spending bill that does not include $5.6b for a border wall – a demand that Democrats refuse to meet.
As a result, working-class people across the country – already struggling – have been pushed into an even more vulnerable position. Over 800,000 workers are being forced to work without pay – some will be reimbursed after the shutdown ends, others won’t. Families are preparing to go without food stamps – and potentially, without their tax refunds – next month.
In New York City, imprisoned people at a local jail launched a hunger strike to protest the cancellation of family visits due to staffing shortages caused by the shutdown. Others have reported that they aren’t receiving their medication.
For Native American sovereign nations, the US has failed to maintain treaty agreements due to the shutdown. As a result, guaranteed funding for programs like healthcare, education and safety are all on the brink of collapse. On the Navajo Nation, many are stuck in their homes – unable to get to the grocery store or take care of vital needs, like getting to a pharmacy – because ploughs aren’t operating in the midst of heavy snowfall.
43,000 immigration hearings have been cancelled – the number set to grow by 20,000 weekly. People have been waiting years for these hearings and are now being told they might have to wait years more.
Small farmers aren’t receiving millions in payouts they were promised due to falling crop prices at the hands of Trump‘s trade wars.
All across the country, working-class families are struggling and, in a sign of how out of touch our politicians are, the Trump administration has told the country to treat the shutdown like a vacation or to do chores for their landlords in lieu of paying rent.
But the state of things – with people working for free and services to everyday Americans being cut – is not an inevitable byproduct of the shutdown. In fact, in the midst of the shutdown, the Trump administration has made changes to policy in order to serve the interests of the uber-wealthy and corporate class. As a result of the lobbying efforts of the credit-reporting companies and mortgage industry, IRS workers were called back to work (and are being paid) to carry out income verifications for lenders. This process earns the mortgage banking industry millions of dollars in fees each year.
While rules are being bent so big corporations can make even more money, a judge struck down a union lawsuit demanding workers be paid for their time immediately.
The shutdown is hard-lined for working class people and negotiable for the rich.
It is clear what this country’s priorities are
Long before Trump‘s demand for expanding the wall at the US-Mexico border, this country’s priorities were out of whack. Every year, US taxpayer dollars are used to cultivate a world of war, violence, incarceration and deportation – not one of safety and of meeting basic human needs.
Of our discretionary budget, the US spends nearly 10 times more on defence than health and human services, 9 times more than education and 9 times more than housing. UnderTrump‘s proposed discretionary spending for 2019, these margins have increased.
Much of this money is going to private companies, who in the age of Trump see dollar signs in his tough on crime, hard-lined immigration, warmongering approach to governance. The fact that the shutdown is happening over a wall is a scary symbol of where society is and where it is headed.
We are living in an era where not social services and jobs for working class people but police, wars, border walls and prisons are the priorities of the government.
And this is not a purely American trend. All over the world, as communities are battling the devastating effects of climate change and poverty, governments are building walls, closing borders and abandoning green initiatives. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, at least 55 new border walls have been built all around the world. During this same period, poverty has been wrecking our society with at least 80 percent of humanity living on less than $10/day.
The answer is a clear political vision rooted in the idea that there is enough for all of us.
The need for a big-picture agenda
While the Democrats could use this moment to talk about comprehensive, human-rights based immigration policy or the ways shutdown policies have been shifted to serve the rich, they aren’t doing much other than condemning Trump for shutting down the government, while countering his proposal for a wall with negotiations focused on other forms of border security.
We should applaud the Democrats for not caving to Trump‘s wall demand, but we should also acknowledge that they have failed to raise the bar. A party that is trying to present itself as the only progressive alternative to Trump and his allies should have done a lot more. By reinforcing myths about the “threats” on our border, Democrats like Pelosi are not conducting political diplomacy, but instead casting long term damage to everyday people’s understanding of what our problems are and what solutions should be put forth.
The majority of Americans don’t support the border wall or Trump‘s family separation policy. Seventy-five percent of Americans say immigration is good for our country. So why aren’t Democrats using this moment to be visionary, pushing demands rooted in the basic idea that everyone has the right to move across borders as freely as money does in this society? Why aren’t they calling out Trump‘s IRS policy shift for the rich, while food stamps are being cut?
We need to use this moment to not only end the shutdown but to push out big ideas like the green new deal, wealth redistribution, medicare for all, abolishment of ICE and repeal of the 1994 crime bill. Policies like the conservative-austerity paygo measure that House Democrats approved in their rules package, which requires new spending to be offset with equivalent savings, should be abandoned. This policy will make it virtually impossible to pass any of the reforms mentioned above but only three Democrats voted no – Ro Khanna of California, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. This is unacceptable.
We must reject the small, limited point of view shared by many prominent Democrats that sees unfettered capitalism and austerity measures as natural law. We need a clear, big-picture agenda that creates opportunities for working class people to organise and build bridges between our communities so we can expand the political imagination of the public to get behind big demands.
We can’t wait for someone else to organise people during the shut down – the likely result of inaction would be more division and fascism. Without political clarity, we run the risk of people getting so tired and fed up that they give in and move to the right. “Fine, build the wall” is the other potential pathway we walk down.
Trump is making very intentional plays to pit working class people against one another. However, the experiences and grievances of poor people, whether they are immigrants or not, are not opposing, but shared. After 40 years of neoliberal economic policy, which has devastated communities all across the country and around the world, people are desperate and turning to xenophobia, white nationalism and fascism as a result. At this moment, when Trump‘s support is waning – and people are falling into an even more vulnerable state – we must present an alternative. We cannot rely on mainstream Democrats’ play-it-safe approach.
The path we are headed down will only get darker if we do not fight for a drastic reorganisation of our communities rooted in a new political vision that values the freedom of people over the profits of a few. We can live in a society where everyone has enough food to eat, a safe place to live and where parents and children have what they need to take care of each other. But this won’t happen while our political system is drowning in dark, dirty corporate money and when politicians refuse to take a stand.
From the Right of Return protests in Gaza, to the immigrant caravan at the US-Mexico border, to the LA teachers strike and calls for TSA worker strikes – we have a real a opportunity to help people see the connections across our experiences and to rally behind a vision of solidarity rooted in the idea that our fates are tied, that we are in a shared battle against the corporate class and that if we come together to take them down, we can live in a society where there is enough for all of us.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera‘s editorial stance.