Question: What’s more annoying than airport security?
Answer: No airport security. And what’s causing Trump to pull out whatever that is that’s on top of his head? It’s not mortgages going unpaid, tuitions coming due, insulin shots foregone, or small coffee shops in federal buildings closing. Those people can “work it out.”
Instead it’s pictures of tie-ups at airport security. Air travel is fast becoming the most visible of the shutdown’s calamities, including on Fox, Trump’s most favored channel. Miami, Houston, and Washington’s Dulles International have all closed down parts of their terminals because unpaid TSA screeners are too sick to show up and confiscate nail clippers. As travelers at many others, including New York’s LaGuardia, inch through the checkpoints, Homeland Security wants us to believe snow is the problem. But a couple inches of the white stuff hardly explains the delays in Honolulu, with waits twice as long as usual since the shutdown began.
Of Trump, it can fairly be said, if it leads, it bleeds into his porous consciousness. He knows enough about the Bezos divorce to gratuitously dissect it, but not enough about governing to realize that federal workers going without pay would act out. The intermittent absentee rate among screeners is 300 percent higher this year than last due to a blue flu that can rise and fall at will. TSA and FAA workers (3,113 of its essential employees were recalled without pay midweek) are openly protesting from Orlando to Louisville to Dallas. Wednesday evening at DFW’s Love Field, where waits average 45 minutes, government workers were joined by pilots and flight attendants, one of whom told local news that it was getting ugly in the friendly skies with sweaty, beaten-down flyers breaking overhead bins and forcing carry-ons inside. Delta Airlines says the shutdown has already cost them $25 million. Overall, says the American Travel Association, the industry has lost $100 million.
Matters will only get worse this weekend when the breakdown in air travel bumps up against fans traveling to two of the biggest sporting events of the year—the NFL championship games that will decide who goes to Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3.
The shutdown will be coming up on its one-month anniversary as fans travel to New Orleans, where the Saints will play the New England Patriots, and Kansas City, where the Chiefs will battle the Los Angeles Rams. Travel experts predict varying degrees of difficulty making it there depending on conditions at the airport they’re coming from. But you can count on the Roach Motel effect on the return: flyers got in but they can’t get out. When everyone descends on overtaxed terminals at the same time Monday morning, with those whose team lost in no mood to wait in annoying lines, the potential for air rage will be at an all-time high. If unpaid screeners want their blue flu to have an outsized effect, they only need to come down with a sick headache Sunday night.
Airport chaos is a made-for-TV drama that will move Trump much more than the admission by the president’s own economic adviser that damage to the economy from the shutdown is a “little bit worse” than predicted. Trump knows the power of the small screen, having been saved from oblivion as a washed-up real estate developer by a reality show. He sees the hazard of the country settling in with pizza and wings to watch the pre-game shows only to see feel-good human interest stories about the quarterback with the injured arm who went on to win a Heisman interrupted by videos of travelers clutching their discount tickets desperate to get to the big game.
They try to calm themselves with Fortnite as they shuffle from foot to foot in lines snaking 10 deep and endure black looks for breaching the space of the guy in front. They’ll be treated to more reports of inspections not taking place (NBC is already airing an interview with an FAA employee told not to flag anything needing maintenance that doesn’t flag him first), controllers working overtime, and lawsuits filed against the federal government by workers at the TSA and FAA. Those watching at home may revel in the smug satisfaction that it’s not them sweating the ordeal, but they’re glued to the screen nonetheless, by the prospect it could be.
When you couple the former CEO of Trump Air’s fascination with air travel with his fixation on the NFL, you’re left with a stew of toxic masculinity that even the new Gillette ads can’t touch. The leader of the free world spent an inordinate amount of time beating up players who took a knee in protest and obsessing over what victorious team comes, or doesn’t, to celebrate with him at the White House. He’s still wounded that last year’s Super Bowl winners, the Philadelphia Eagles, rejected his invitation. After several emails from some Clemson Tigers saying they wouldn’t mark their college championship at the White House this year, he retracted his invitation to the rest of the team before he was further embarrassed. That’s one reason he made such a big deal this week of serving those who came Big Macs on silver trays (“I would think that’s their favorite”). The party was marred when a supposed tweet by the team’s quarterback defending Trump’s choice (“the best meal we ever had, then we go and see the coastal elite media trashing it”) went viral even as it proved to be fake.
If chaos at the airports and having to deliver the State of the Union from an undisclosed location aren’t enough to make Trump blink, maybe the thought of a travel-challenged Super Bowl weekend in Atlanta will. Authorities at Hartsfield-Jackson, suffering through an average of 90-minute delays, posted a buzz-killing warning that “ATL is experiencing longer than usual wait times… Please give yourself 3 hours to clear security.”
Trump shut down the government after Rush Limbaugh went all Network on him for potentially signing a bill that caved on the wall his chanting base craves. Since Trump acquiesced, Rush has been a big cheerleader, but he’s also a major booster of his home state Chiefs. You can just hear him Monday. “You call yourself president and you can’t get your employees to show up for work at the airport?
(Speaking of hearing Rush, my editor recalls that he was a pre-game football commentator on ESPN in 2003. "Sorry to say this, I don't think he's been that good from the get-go," may sound like a verdict on Rush, but in fact it’s what Rush said about the Eagles’ star quarterback, Donovan McNabb, that ended up costing the talker his side gig.
"I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well… he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team.")
Trump doesn’t much care about government unless it’s staunching beach erosion at his resorts, certifying guest workers to make his beds, or flying travelers to his hotels. In a twisted way, he’s proud that he initiated the longest shutdown in history. He bragged to one former aide that it proves how useless much of government is. He doesn’t see the irony that the undercover FBI agents who foiled a terrorist trying to barter his car for a shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon to “blow a hole in the White House” this week were working without pay.
Republican Senators are right that the president will not settle on the merits. He doesn’t feel anyone’s pain, unless it comes with bad optics. Let, then, the lines grow long, travelers more weary and protests at the check-in curb more disruptive. TSA screeners are ready to stop the madness, Mr. President. Just give a call.