The Capital Has a Bad Case of Year-End Panic

Sometimes Washington needs to scare itself silly to get anything done. This year’s repeated threats of government shutdown are classic examples, even if the crisis has not been permanently averted but merely deferred to early 2024. The current panic is over U.S. assistance to Ukraine, which is set to run out at a moment when Russia has successfully stalled Ukraine’s counter-offensive and the onset of winter has brought a new round of Russian attacks on Ukraine’s civilian energy infrastructure.

For President Biden, who has repeatedly promised Ukraine that America would be there “as long as it takes,” basic credibility is on the line. For weeks, he and his Democratic allies in the Senate have tried and failed to pry a deal from their G.O.P. colleagues, who have set increased border funding and stricter immigration reforms as the price for unlocking Biden’s proposed sixty billion dollars for Kyiv. With prospects fading for an agreement, Democrats have spent the past few days warning of geopolitical catastrophe. “I just don’t think there’s any question that we are about to abandon Ukraine,” Chris Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, who has been one of the lead negotiators, told reporters. “When Vladimir Putin marches into Kyiv and into Europe, Republicans will have to live with the fact that our sons and daughters will be over fighting when Vladimir Putin marches into a NATO country.”

By midday on Wednesday, things were so bad that the White House hastily arranged an unscheduled Biden speech, in which he reprised Murphy’s dire warnings from the Presidential podium. “If Putin takes Ukraine, he won’t stop there,” Biden said, conjuring up a hellish future of American troops fighting Russian troops. The speech leaned hard as well into another time-honored Washington technique—the preëmptive blame game. “Extreme Republicans are playing chicken with our national security, holding Ukraine’s funding hostage to their extreme partisan border policies,” Biden said. Hours later, the Senate failed to pass an emergency spending bill anyway, with all Republicans voting against it. In private, much of the recriminations were among Democrats themselves. Why had they thought it was such a good idea, back in October, to link Ukraine aid to border funding in the first place? Wasn’t it Biden himself who had invited Republicans to start a negotiation on perhaps Washington’s most intractable and politically charged issue? For weeks, I’ve been wondering when this inevitable train wreck would materialize. It’s as if Democrats forgot that Donald Trump demagogued the border issue into office once already and is banging away again on it as a centerpiece of his 2024 campaign.

Congress, of course, may yet get its act together on Ukraine. In theory, the Senate still commands a strong bipartisan majority in favor of aid, even if prospects are dimmer in the House. The new Speaker, Mike Johnson, has repeatedly voted against support for Ukraine, and an increasing number of hard-right Republican representatives, channelling Trump, have turned against further assistance. Expect to hear more threats in the coming days about Congress having to postpone its holiday recess and force members to stay in Washington until the funding passes. This is the kind of big-stick approach that often works on deal-resistant elected officials—better, perhaps, than abstract bluster about World War Three. “If I gotta be here on fucking Christmas Day, I will,” the Montana Democratic senator Jon Tester told a reporter after the failed vote on Wednesday, “because Ukraine funding needs to be done.” As if on cue, by Thursday, James Lankford of Oklahoma, one of the Republicans’ negotiators in the Senate, was floating the idea of a shortened recess to force action. A deal remains far from inevitable, but at least it’s conceivable: Congress stays in session; everyone gets more money for their preferred cause and then they go home for Christmas and declare victory. I don’t entirely exclude this possibility: Congress loves to solve problems by spending more money on them.

When it comes to the other major preoccupation gripping the capital—the startlingly real prospect of a second Trump term—there are few such prospects for an immediate resolution, given that the general election that might dispatch Trump once and for all is still far in the future and by no means assured. A true year-end panic has set in. In the last week alone, the Washington Post offered a full-throated warning from Bob Kagan about the “increasingly inevitable” prospect of a “Trump dictatorship”; the Atlantic published an entire issue of twenty-four contributors on what Trump would do in his second term and why it would be “much worse” than his first; and Axios reported a list of candidates whom Trump could consider for his next Administration, including a rogue’s gallery of his first term’s most extreme ideologues. Steve Bannon for White House chief of staff? Richard Grenell for Secretary of State? Stephen Miller for Attorney General? Or—Melania’s alleged pick—Tucker Carlson for Vice-President? The suggestions might not be realistic, but their mere mention is indicative of how much there is to freak out about.

Of course, Trump himself has sought to inflame those fears. He thrives, as ever, on enmity, controversy, and the dismay he provokes in his establishment foes. In an interview on Fox News, Trump’s reliable friend and promoter Sean Hannity offered the former President a chance to dismiss the growing public alarm over his dictatorial aspirations as just so much whinging by the liberal media. Surprising no one, Trump did not take him up on that.

“You are promising America tonight, you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?” Hannity asked Trump during an “exclusive town hall,” a leading question for probably any politician in our nation’s history except for the forty-fifth President. But, before Hannity could finish, Trump cut him off. “Except for Day One,” Trump said. Quickly he clarified. “I love this guy—he says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’ ” Trump added. “I said, ‘No, no, no—other than Day One. We’re closing the border. And we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. Other than that, I’m not a dictator.”

The exchange, in all its menacing incoherence, seemed to perfectly sum up the state of American politics on the eve of an election year. Even “dictator” is no longer off limits. And that’s the thing about this latest case of the Trump scaries. Sometimes, the prospect of catastrophe is enough to jolt politicians into getting a deal done. Up on Capitol Hill, nothing clarifies like a real deadline to avert impending doom. But, increasingly, Washington has dealt in a realm where catastrophizing leads not so much to disasters averted as to the fulfillment of the worst-case predictions. When, in 2020, Trump—and a fair number of Trump-watchers—warned that he would never concede defeat, many dismissed this as the kind of political hyperbole that fades as soon as the votes are counted. There is an obvious lesson to be learned from this—and it is the through line in all of these warnings about a second Trump term: when Trump says, openly and clearly, what extreme, radical, and unconstitutional things he plans to do, listen. In the Trump era, panic is not a negotiating tactic; it’s a warning ignored at one’s peril. ♦

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