No humor. No laughter. Nothing but a dumb, perplexed stare when reminded he ought to lay a wreath for fallen servicemen on Veterans’ Day. Blithely insulting our intelligence services in front of their own memorial to fallen officers. Not even bothering to mouth a prayer at a funeral for a deceased president. Butting in front of world leaders to place himself into the picture. Mocking a senator with brain cancer. Mocking the disabled. An effortless stream of constant lies, seemingly unhampered by any sense of conscience.
Those people whom medical professionals characterize as “sociopaths” are neither “crazy” nor necessarily violent. The telltale characteristic they share is their near-total lack of human empathy. As Dr. Lance Dodes, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical school, explains it, in a fiduciary position such as the U.S. presidency—where one is bound by duty to act for the benefit of others—that lack of empathy is fatal to the performance of the job.
“Donald Trump’s speech and behaviour show that he has severe sociopathic traits. The significance of this cannot be overstated. While there have surely been American presidents who could be said to be narcissistic, none have shown sociopathic qualities to the degree seen in Mr. Trump. Correspondingly, none have been so definitively and so obviously dangerous.”
Trump’s behavior during the government shutdown, which he admits he is “proud” to have caused, is just the latest case in point, but it may turn out to be the most dangerous. When the media treat this shutdown as some sort of “standoff” or a “battle of wills,” or at worst, a joust over “policy,” they ignore a potentially critical and decisive element. Past shutdowns ended when one side realized that a maximum amount of suffering has been imposed so as to make continued infliction of such pain on innocent people politically—if not morally or emotionally—untenable. But even if a shutdown is ended for purely pragmatic, political reasons, those reasons are still grounded in the implicit assumption that causing people to needlessly suffer is an inherently bad thing.
Sociopaths do not feel that way. As far as human emotions go, they are nihilists. They are only in it for themselves. And we have never had a government shutdown presided over by a sociopathic president, or a political party so utterly and slavishly beholden to one. Until now.
In December of 2014, it appeared that the country was headed for its nineteenth government shutdown. The last (and longest) one prior to that had occurred in October 2013, when Republicans balked at sending a budget to President Obama that would continue funding for the Affordable Care Act. That shutdown lasted 21 days. As a new, 2014 shutdown loomed, Philip Bump of the Washington Post posed the question: What would happen if the government shut down indefinitely? How would that proceed?
To find out the answer, Bump talked to Julian Zelizer, a political historian from Princeton University. The first conclusion drawn was that an “indefinite,” unending shutdown was highly unlikely to happen.
For one, the effects of a long-term shutdown would be so politically toxic that some majority of Congress would certainly agree to reopen the government. For another, a long-term/everlasting shutdown would essentially dismantle the United States.
However, as the trends of political polarization escalated dramatically during the Obama administration, Bump also noted that longer and longer shutdowns were becoming increasingly likely, which in turn heightened the odds of severely negative outcomes as a result. He described how those outcomes would likely unfold.
At first, the same promises would be made: Social Security checks will go out, the military will stay on guard, employees working to make those things happen will get back pay. Now let’s say that we pass the two-week mark, and the four-week mark, and the shutdown starts being counted in months. There are two problems: 1) The government needs to actually start shutting things down in a significant way, and 2) it needs to borrow more money from increasingly skeptical lenders.
When the shutdown extends into months, the only question becomes what gets cut next. Every budget cut from that point forward is politically unpopular, but the things that are cut first are the programs with limited or politically weaker constituencies (think food stamps, child care, anything involving poorer Americans).
Next, according to Zelizer, would come regulatory agencies such as OSHA and the EPA, passport and visa issuance, all arts funding and all scientific research. Soon, the ugly reality of what is actually happening begins to sink in.
At this point, it’s safe to assume that financial markets would be freaked out. The government has a significant role in the national economy. “You could see a huge swing in the stock market. […] Federal contracts would dry up, which means that … cities and suburbs and rural communities across the country that depend on the government would not have the money they were expecting.” It would affect the housing market, as loans from the federal government stop. The closure of parks and museums, a battleground in 2013, would mean sharply reduced revenue in places that depend on tourist money.
At that point Americans’ personal finances would be heavily implicated, as well as the livelihood of entire municipalities, so Zelizer assumes assume widespread social protests would ensue.
Interest rates would spike as time passed, with creditors increasingly nervous that they’d ever be repaid — and exacting a high cost for offering that trust. Incoming tax revenue is never enough to pay our bills by itself; it wouldn’t be in this scenario, either. And that’s assuming people actually kept paying their taxes, which, over time, might be less and less the case.
If the shutdown drags into months or a year—or longer—Social Security, air traffic control and disaster response would, theoretically, likely be preserved until the bitter end. National security would certainly be “last on the list,” according to Zelizer. The American government would have already shifted, delegating most of its major former powers to the individual states, states which are fiscally and experientially wholly unable to handle those responsibilities. Border security would still likely be intact, but by that time, Zelizer assumes more people would be emigrating than immigrating. Ultimately, the United States would likely dissolve and separate, as highly unequal states would vie for the country’s resources. To call it “chaos” would be an understatement.
But prior to that time, Zelizer finds it hard to believe that Congress would not act, or that something external (Bump suggests a coup) would occur. And he’s right, of course. Too many mammoth, powerful financial interests would be impacted to possibly allow this to happen.
But that brings us back to the nihilist and all of the giggling yes-men Trump has surrounded himself with, both in the White House and in the United States Senate. These are all people who have drunk the Kool-Aid that suggests “drowning the government in a bathtub” is a virtue. How many would be expected to object to closing the EPA or the arts budget? How many of these people would object to cutting off all food stamps or services for the poor? At some point, building the “wall” becomes just an excuse for what these people have wanted to do—and have been doing—all along.
- This is an administration that prides itself on kidnapping children from their parents. That has intentionally dismantled the administrative powers of our federal agencies with a view towards ending their functions. It’s easy to talk libertarian ideals in a vacuum, but now we have a president who, by all past conduct, is intent on enabling them. How far along in the above scenario can we expect them to go? And what are the consequences of someone with proven sociopathic tendencies in charge of the whole process?
We all may just be about to find out. But we can never, ever give in to these types of people. They’ll just come back to do it again, and again, and again.