There’s an ancient Greek fable about some frogs who ask Zeus for a king.
The god gives them a log to be their ruler, which proceeds to do exactly what you’d expect: nothing.
Disappointed, the frogs complain that their king isn’t getting anything done, and ask for a more active one. Zeus gives them a hydra, a water monster with hundreds of heads. The hydra promptly eats all the frogs.
The moral of this story? It is better to have a king who does nothing than one who does too much.
This is basically the foundation principle of the US system of governance. Scarred by their experience with the tyrannical English king, America’s founding fathers designed a model of “checks and balances” to limit the supremacy of their elected leaders.
To prevent a hydra, gridlock is the default. To get anything done (at least, anything primarily domestic and long-lasting), a President must work with Congress – often dominated by an opposing party – towards a bipartisan goal.
That’s the idea, anyway. Obviously, it has evolved. As the world has sped up and become more globalised, there has been a trend towards the White House bypassing Congress to make executive decisions, especially on foreign policy.
Nonetheless, there’s a limit to how much a President can push the system before the system pushes back.
Thus, the US federal government shutdown lurches towards its fourth week.
On one side, a Commander-in-chief who has broken every convention to shape the office of the President into his own image, and who sees compromise and collaboration as anathema. On the other, a newly sworn-in Congress determined to hold him to account and undermine his agenda.
At 21 days, this is already the second longest shutdown in US history. By tomorrow, it will be the longest ever. Over 800,000 federal employees are affected, either not working, or working without pay.
There have been reports of workers struggling to afford rental and mortgage payments, and even food, with churches and charities stepping in to help. Some employees in “essential” jobs, such as security officers at US airports, are calling in sick, presumably so they can pick up gigs elsewhere rather than continue to work unpaid.
And while essential services continue to operate, federal agencies have ceased work, national parks and museums are closed, the Inland Revenue Service is in stasis, and new welfare applications from America’s most vulnerable citizens are on hold.
Nor do we seem close to resolving it. On Thursday night, Donald Trump walked out of a meeting with Democratic congressmen after just 14 minutes, calling it “a complete waste of time”.
The President, it should be noted, is still receiving his salary. So are members of Congress, although over 60 have pledged to forgo or donate theirs to charity as the shutdown continues.
Ostensibly, this is about the $5.7m to build Trump’s “big beautiful wall” on the US-Mexican border, the wall that became the prevailing emblem of his presidential campaign.
Despite having failed to deliver on a host of other flagship promises, from “fixing” Obamacare (healthcare reform has stalled after a series of disastrous defeats at the end of 2017) to bringing back jobs (American manufacturing industries have been hit by Trump’s economically illiterate trade war), the wall is one pledge that the President intends to keep at all costs.
Never mind that 57 per cent of Americans oppose the wall. Never mind that illegal border crossings are already falling dramatically, from 1.6m in 2000 to just 400,000 last year. Never mind that the vast majority of illegal immigrants are people who outstayed their visas after flying into US airports legally.
And never mind that Trump repeatedly promised that it would be Mexico paying for the wall anyway.
This wall has once again become a symbol. Whereas on the campaign trail it stood for security, isolationism, and putting America first, today it stands for Trump’s refusal to back down and his proclivity to break any system that works against him
For two years, Republicans held both Houses of Congress. Now, following the “blue wave” of the midterm elections, the Democrats control one of the levers of power. The mechanisms that were built to constrain the very dictatorial impulses that define Trump’s leadership style have shifted into gear.
The Democrats are refusing to fund the wall. Trump is refusing to reopen the federal government until they do. He’s also ramping up the pressure in other ways, such as threatening to cut off funding for emergency wildfire relief in California – a state which overwhelmingly opposes him.
With lives and livelihoods at stake, it’s anyone’s guess who will blink first. The checks-and-balances model has for centuries held unruly Presidents to account, but Trump has proven not only his disregard for the rules, but also his ability to win against institutional forces previously considered invincible.
If he does manage to crowbar the US model of government to get his wall – a wall that even Republicans admit is an unnecessary waste of resources – there’s no going back.
America will have failed to stop the President becoming a hydra. And a lot of frogs are going to get eaten.