The government shutdown and partisan wrangling over a wall at the southern border have produced high political drama in Washington, where President Donald Trump has sought to portray the impasse as a national emergency.
And as the shutdown reached a record-tying 21st day today, Americans following local and national media coverage would be forgiven for thinking they had fallen into a parallel universe — with the episode being presented both as a moment of crisis and hardship, and a curiosity that mostly registered as a politically motivated annoyance.
Early in the week, the historically conservative Cincinnati Enquirer labeled the paralysisa “buzzkill,” warning readers that the lag in government approval of new beer labels could reduce the output from local breweries. Several days later it reported on 40 Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky government employees protesting outside a local IRS processing center, focusing on the financial difficulties furloughed employees face, like day care expenses and rent payments.
Polls show that more Americans blame the president for the shutdown than blame congressional Democrats. But there is a very stark partisan divide, with a large majority of Republicans supporting Trump.
And while conservative media has been mostly supportive of the president, its coverage has sometimes diverged from Trump’s tone of crisis.
In Beaumont, Texas, a moderate city in a red district near Houston, the Beaumont Enterprise editorial board welcomed Trump’s visit to the border Thursday but urged both sides to compromise.
“It doesn’t matter that Trump has done more to inflame this standoff than Democrats,” the paper wrote. “The goal must be a solution, not a continuation of this costly governmental stalemate.”
The Dallas Morning News published an editorial this week that took particular aim at Trump for waging a potentially unwinnable fight that focuses on crime, questioned his “moral credibility” and urged him to offer a deal that protects immigrant children in exchange for the wall he wants.
But Robert Pratt, a popular conservative radio talk-show host in Lubbock, and a former head of the county Republican Party, recently criticized the news media for focusing on government workers affected by the shutdown.
“The temporary plight of government workers is treated as a national crisis while the perpetual plight of millions more who take huge risks, work long hours to create jobs, and build and maintain the economy rarely gets a mention,” he wrote.
There has even been some conflicting commentary in the Fox News firmament.
Brian Kilmeade, a co-host of the reliably pro-Trump “Fox & Friends,” said on Thursday’s program that the declaration of a national emergency to fund a wall, which the president is considering, “would just be a disaster in the big picture, and just show us being inept and unable to govern around the world.”
The host went on to suggest that future presidents could use a similar tactic for purposes that may be less aligned with the “Fox & Friends” worldview. “It would just set a terrible precedent,” Kilmeade said, as his co-hosts listened silently. “The next president, if it is a liberal president, will say a state of emergency will be climate change.”
Kilmeade’s break from Trump orthodoxy followed a tough exchange last weekend between the “Fox News Sunday” moderator Chris Wallace and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.
The harsh questioning of Sanders led to the president dropping one of his key talking points — an inaccurate claim that thousands of terrorists were crossing the border — in favor of a wall.
Many of Fox News’ commentators, however, have been supportive of the president. In an online column Wednesday titled “Trump’s plea for a wall is more than about stats — it’s about saving lives,” Sean Hannity echoed many of the president’s arguments from his Oval Office speech Tuesday, citing the same statistics about crime and opioid deaths. “This is a national emergency,” Hannity wrote, conveying Trump’s dark tone. “The situation is now dire.”
Another columnist, Charlie Kirk, wrote that, politically, Trump had trapped Democrats, “essentially forcing them to say: We support border security and we support reopening the entire federal government, but we don’t support border security enough to take action to reopen the entire federal government.”
The belief that Democrats are to blame for the shutdown has been mostly consistent across right-wing media. In an interview that the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group required all of its stations to run, Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., told political analyst Boris Epshteyn — a former top aide to Trump — that the shutdown was a test of whether Democrats wanted to “do anything other than the status quo.”
“Here’s the bottom line,” Epshteyn said at the end of the segment, which aired across the country this week. “It is highly irresponsible for congressional Democrats to let their disdain for the president and their insistence on playing partisan politics stand in the way of securing our country. Let’s hope the Democrats come to the table soon and end this partial government shutdown.”
Immediately after Trump’s Oval Office speech Tuesday, in response to a caller on WNIR in Akron, Ohio, conservative radio personality Jim Isabella said the president had successfully gotten Congress’ top two Democrats — Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — to “take a cheap shot at him.”
“He was the adult in the room tonight,” Isabella said.
Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing talk radio host, praised Trump for refusing to give ground.
“We have a president keeping promises left and right,” Limbaugh said Wednesday. “And isn’t it interesting to see how trivial Washington thinks that is?”
But in some corners of conservative media, the sentiment supporting the president was more nuanced.
Raheem Kassam, a fellow at the conservative Claremont Institute and a columnist for The Daily Caller, wrote Tuesday that the shutdown was “of course being leveraged by the Democrats and the establishment media,” but that it was working in Trump’s favor. He added that he didn’t think arguments about the shutdown’s impact on government workers would be effective.
“That’s a tough sell to most Americans, who don’t have half the luxuries or benefits of federal employees,” he said. “If Trump can continue looking like a steward of security and humanitarian concerns throughout his visit to the border on Thursday, there’s a very good chance he has the wall in the bag.”
Other outlets called outright for the president to back down. After Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado supported the reopening of the government — the first Republican senator to do so — Colorado Peak Politics, which bills itself as the state’s “conservative bully pulpit,” published an editorial titled “END THE SHUTDOWN.”
David Brody, chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, which reaches a largely evangelical Christian audience, said he had been focusing not so much on the policy issues as on “the breakdown of civility between Democrats and Republicans.”
“From a Christian perspective, that’s been a big part,” Brody said in a phone interview.
As the debate raged in many parts of the nation, others remained unperturbed. It seemed at times that the big divide was not over who was right — in conservative circles, many people agreed that it was the president — but over how important it really was.
“People are not as concerned out here about the shutdown and don’t feel affected,” Jim Hoft, founder and editor of The Gateway Pundit, said in a phone interview, referring to the Midwest. That being said, he added that many conservatives in the Midwest felt that Democrats were preventing Trump from making the country safer, and that most of his readers “support the president on this issue.”
For many Americans, as federal workers missed their first paycheck, the effects became more visceral, and the blame game less important. That was reflected in the Cincinnati Enquirer’s article on the IRS protests this week.
The story quoted a union leader, Debbie Mullikin, saying that some furloughed workers were at risk of homelessness. “Mullikin said she isn’t sure who to blame for the shutdown,” the article said, “but that isn’t the point.”