The United States government's partial shutdown is now in its fourth week, and shows no sign of abating. Donald Trump has decided that his demand for a border wall—which he initially promised Mexico would pay for—is worthy of halting or reducing essential services like food inspections and airport security, with TSA workers calling in sick in droves as they face the prospect of work without pay. Meanwhile, the real human cost of the shutdown is falling primarily on people who work for a living: the 800,000 federal employees who are forgoing paychecks until Congress and Trump reopen the government, and the private-sector contractors who will likely not see backpay even after this disruption is over.
Compared to the rest of America, a disproportionate share of federal workers (over a quarter) are union members, some of whom do not have the resources to go for weeks without a paycheck. They are not the rich men Trump has dined over well-done steak with or played bad golf with or watched a college football game with. They do not enjoy memberships at the Mar-a-Lago club or live in condos paid for by Russian oligarchs in Manhattan. They do not have the aura of wealth—and many surely lack the Ivy League pedigree—Trump craves. The president, who has a long, outrageous record of straight-up not paying people who worked for him, is doing the same thing to hundreds of thousands of public-sector employees and demonstrating the same lack of empathy on which he built his brand. Trump has dismissed the unpaid workers as "Democrats" and shared an anonymous op-ed by a senior administration official complaining federal workers were lazy or even "saboteurs"; the White House's chief economic adviser said that they were "better off" in some ways because they didn't have to use vacation days over the holidays.
This kind of callous disregard from Trump is not shocking given who he is and where he comes from. But it does suggest that whereas the larger right-wing apparatus has long been deeply hostile to organized labor in the public sphere, Trump has a special disdain for workers, period. That means the human misery wrought by the shutdown may never be enough to convince him to compromise or give in.
"Trump basically views peoples' worth by how powerful they are, and the fact that Trump can stiff you proves that it's OK for Trump to stiff you," Jeff Hauser, founder and director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and a former AFL-CIO strategist, told me Tuesday, adding, "He's a got a very radical social eugenics view of the world. He thinks there are superior and inferior people, and he believes people who work in government are sort of necessarily inferior." (Full disclosure: As a writer and editor at VICE, I am a member of the Writers Guild of America-East, an AFL-CIO affiliate.)
Of course, it's not exactly novel for a Republican to despise—or be cruel to—public employees, who have historically skewed somewhat less white than the population at large. Ronald Reagan famously crushed the air-traffic controllers' union in 1981, firing over 11,000 people who refused to return to work and banning them from government employment for the rest of their lives. The Supreme Court has, for decades, been trending toward bosses and away from workers—thanks in no small part to the emergence of anti-union conservative institutions, think tanks, and political action committees funded by billionaires. This culminated over the past year in a cascade of devastating decisions for workers and the unions that represent them, whether the Epic Systems ruling that made it easier for your boss to steal from employees or the Janus case that made it way harder for public-sector unions to collectively bargain.
It's unlikely that Trump is prolonging the shutdown as part of a strategy to harm workers—if he says it's about his wall, that's probably what is actually on his mind. But it's clear he's also totally unconcerned with the plight of the employees of the massive bureaucracy he oversees.
"Despite claims he made on the campaign trail—where he would put workers' interest first—over and over and over again, every decision he made, he's put corporate interests over those of workers," Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the left-leaning Economy Policy Institute and a veteran of the Obama administration, told me. "So we know where his ultimate loyalty lies—it's with the 1 percent, not with the rest of America."
Shierholz, along with some of the other labor experts and political observers I spoke to, were careful to point out that the shutdown seems to principally be an attack on government rather than the people employed by it. But by extension, it has served as a broadside against those whose values—say, public service rather than accruing properties—are nothing like the president's own.
"That's not the original intent [sticking it to workers] but it's kind of a bonus when you're hostile to government in general: creating an environment that makes people not want to work in government is a plus," Shierholz said, adding, "Nobody goes into government service because they want to get rich."
It's still hard to gauge how this might play out for the president politically—he appears to have no actual strategy—even as the suffering brought by a lack of pay comes into sharper focus. But the saga is not playing well in swing districts and some of the key electoral turf where Trump peeled off working-class votes from Democrats to win in 2016. Class consciousness may not be at an all-time high in this country, and public employees have long engendered resentment from Americans who may be angry at the decline of manufacturing and other industries. But the specter of a rich man deigning to shell out a few thousand bucks on fast food for college football players while public servants worry about putting food on their tables probably isn't doing him (or the conservative movement he represents a freak mutation of) any favors.
We'll have to wait and see whether this ends up worse for those who aspire to do good for the country or the party that has embraced the "deconstruction of the administrative state" as a core philosophy. If nothing else, it's increasingly obvious the shutdown isn't some kind of coherent political gambit so much as an unadulterated expression of class rage from top down.
Or as Hauser put it, "It reflects a deep anger at people for the audacity of trying to make society better by working in government."
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