Though the U.S. government has opened for business again, it is worthwhile to understand the anti-worker venom that perhaps motivated and certainly prolonged Trump’s Republican-backed government shutdown, which has the notoriety of being longest shutdown of the federal government in American history.
Justifiably, the lion’s share of the media coverage and political debate around the shutdown has focused on Trump’s anti-immigrant racism embodied in his obsessive insistence on, desire for, funding to build that infamous wall, whether literal or metaphorical. This insistence he rationalizes and roots in a mythical border crisis he has rhetorically manufactured, which, saner minds show us, bears no relation to reality, as even some Republicans admit.
An undercurrent to the shutdown that has received little to no attention, however, is the anti-worker venom that fueled and even possibly played some role in motivating the shutdown. Indeed, while Trump often frames his anti-immigrant racism as support for the American working class, recycling the hackneyed argument that “illegal” immigrants drive down wages and steal jobs from “real Americans,” we actually need to understand Trump’s anti-immigrant racism as working hand in hand with his assault on the U.S. working class as a whole.
The shutdown, if we listen closely to the loudmouth Trump whisperers, reveals these links.
Certainly, there has been coverage of the way the shutdown constituted an effective assault on workers as well as workers’, and particularly unions’, responses to the injustices the shutdown perpetrated on workers, such as forcing certain groups of federal employees to work without pay. Articles have covered in detail Trump’s complete lack of concern for workers, revealed in his repeated lies that he would somehow prevent plant closings.
And certainly the callous responses from voices in the Trump administration made clear both their thorough ignorance of how the average worker lives in America, such that they couldn’t comprehend the devastating impact of the shutdown on people’s lives, as well as their complete lack of clear. This combination of ignorance and carelessness was clear in Wilbur Ross’s dismissal of people’s hardships in suggesting workers just take out loans to survive the shutdown; in Lara Trump’s assertion that the “little bit of pain” workers were enduring was worth the sacrifice for the bigger racist ideal; in the glib characterization of the shutdown by one of Trump’s economic advisor as a lovely “vacation” for workers; and in Trump’s blithe assurance that he, of course, could relate to the struggles of those going out with pay during the shutdown and that he was confident that, as always, workers would “make adjustments.”
I’m talking, though, about more than this lack of care and this severe ignorance of how the other 99% of people in America live. I’m talking about an anti-worker venom that enabled and perpetuated the shutdown and the suffering.
This anti-worker fuel and possible motivation for the shutdown became clear when self-proclaimed Trump whisperer Ann Coulter revealed in a recent interview the content of some of her conversations with Trump and her attitudes about federal workers. In this interview with Michael Moynihan of Vice News, Coulter insisted, “I’ve been advising the President on twitter, in columns, in conversations you don’t get to know about since his election.”
More interesting than her revelations about her advisory role to the presidency were her comments about shutdown. She declared it ridiculous that Democrats would hold up funding the government “while they’re weeping for the federal employees with much better benefits, retirement plans, and vacation and sick leave than anyone watching this program.”
Hmmm. The seeping out and stoking of this type of resentment toward well-remunerated workers suggests another layer and another method behind the madness of the government shutdown besides the substantial anti-immigrant racism of the insistence on a wall.
Sure, it’s plausible that Coulter just doesn’t want to miss the opportunity a good crisis presents to resurrect the stale rhetoric of demonizing public sector workers as a way of speciously dividing workers as a whole, making it seem like fat-cat government workers are responsible for other workers’ substandard wages and benefits and not an exploitive ruling class. (Of course, just to be clear, we all know from the many testimonials from federal employees waiting in breadlines, facing evictions, and otherwise living paycheck to paycheck, that Coulter is peddling the well-worn myth of the fat-cat public sector employee, not a reality.)
But consider that last December, shortly after the shutdown commenced, Trump issued an executive order freezing pay increases for federal workers, claiming the government could not afford it, despite the fact the government could afford a 1.5 trillion dollar tax cut for the wealthiest of Americans, not to mention the $11 billion the shutdown cost, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
This executive order seemed like salt on the wound, like an oddly-timed piling on. And while reported in the media, the story was quickly swallowed up by coverage of the stand-off over funding the wall. We should keep this in mind when considering Coulter’s January 16 interview and her advice to Trump to stay the course and focus on immigration. “As long as people are talking about immigration, you’re winning,” she addressed Trump in the interview.
Analyzing the shutdown and Trump’s freezing of federal employee wages through the lens of Coulter’s interview, we have reason to believe the shutdown wasn’t just about the wall and anti-immigrant racism; it was also likely about Trump’s larger agenda of assaulting workers by attempting to destroy gains made in the passage of the Affordable Care Act to ensure working Americans could access health care, by undermining unions by appointing Supreme Court Justices who would eliminate declare fair-share dues unconstitutional, by opposing federal minimum wage standards, and more.
This is what the persistent attack on public sector workers has been about. Think about Coulter’s rhetoric. She pretends to side with non-governmental worker, bemoaning that the federal employees reap so much more than they do. Notice that she doesn’t encourage non-government workers to realize they deserve decent healthcare and benefits, a vacation, and a dignified retirement and to demand this justice for all workers. Rather, she urges these workers to resent federal employees, to see them, and hence all workers, as undeserving of humane remuneration, benefits, and basic dignity.
She invokes the strategy popularized by former Republican Governors Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and Mitch Daniels (Indiana) of blaming public sector workers and their wages and benefits for the woes other workers are suffering and for austere state budgets. This mantra was their rhetorical sledgehammer for attacking workers’ rights and power.
Daniels, for example, called state workers “the new privileged class,” and on his first day in office in 2006 rescinded their collective bargaining rights.
To justify gutting the bargaining rights of state employees to the public back in 2011, Walker effectively re-wrote Marx’s and Engel’s historic sentence to distort the realities of capitalist society, asserting, “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.”
Well, if the powers that be can get the average citizen to say, “Boy, those workers don’t deserve that kind of healthcare and retirement security because I don’t get it,” then those powers have succeeded in erasing decent healthcare and dignified and comfortable senior years from our list of social ideals, of what we’re shooting for as a culture. Politicians need no longer answer to citizens for these benefits that should be basic to all. They got the average citizens themselves to say people don’t deserve them; healthcare and retirement are not basic rights which those who have served the public, or anybody else, deserves.
This strategy is of a piece with Trump’s and Coulter’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. Both are about pitting workers against each other and fostering the mentality that no worker deserves dignity and decent pay.
While the shutdown is over, efforts to shut down workers are not. We must continue to analyze, expose, and be aware of this anti-worker, anti-people venom informing such tactics as the shutdown.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.