“Drain the swamp!” Wow, what an effective political slogan it was in 2016. It encapsulated public frustration with the mess of lobbyists, money-hogging congressmen and regulatory bureaucrats in Washington. Trump was just the guy who would poke fun at those low-life street vendors like Mr. Clean.
As an image, the swamps represent corruption and evil that must be cleaned up. Trump described the Washington swamp in terms of the power of money to buy influence. Such a rich man, of course, would not be chained to Wall Street or to the banks that had rejected his loans. Essentially, Trump claimed to be a reformer immune to the murky diseases raised in the swamps and capable of doing what no one else could do with big money people.
That’s what voters thought Trump meant when he referred to the swamp. What he really meant, as cabinet appointments and personal example demonstrate, was not at all what the public was led to believe.
Before comparing the public’s expectations with what happened, we must realize that swamps are good things. Popular imagery, used so effectively by Trump, is not what our children are learning about environmental science. History books once praised the advancement of civilization, as the drainage of the swamps was an impressive achievement in the expansion of human settlements. But swamps filter toxins and support wildlife in ways that are extremely important. The Army Corps. of Engineers is now restoring wetlands, not removing them, in the interest of environmental health.
Let’s move on to Trump’s idea of bad swamps. Before the election, there were reasons for skepticism about his independence from big money, especially when he refused to release his taxes and went ahead with an offer to open a Trump hotel across the street from the White House. In the immediate aftermath of the elections, we began to see that he intended to run the country and his personal businesses at the same time. The president, he seemed surprised to discover, is the only government official who cannot have a conflict of interest. What an announcement from a man who promised reform!
Then came his cabinet appointments. The choices were notable for wealth, Wall Street connections, and lobbyist interests. He also brought his family to the White House in a way never seen before.
Trump’s 2016 campaign mirrored the themes of Warren Harding in 1920, promising a return to better times. His reputation also rivaled Harding’s lewd activities, and Mike Pence looks and acts like Calvin Coolidge. He then imitated Harding in appointing a cabinet of very rich people from whom he promised to be free. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise when it soon became apparent that they were just as corrupt as Harding’s outrageous decisions.
The actions showed that the swamp Trump was seeking to drain was not the one voters thought he was talking about.
What attacked? First, the intelligence community – all agencies charged with defending national security through reliable information about our adversaries – were dismissed when they exposed Russian meddling in the elections, the fruits of which Trump openly embraced and used with joy. He was then warned by a Justice Department official (not appointed by Trump) that his choice of National Security Advisor was compromised by a foreign adversary. He refused to act until the news leaked to the press. Realizing that an investigation was underway, he tried to influence the FBI and fired the director when the investigation did not stop. When Congressional investigations led to a special counsel, Trump began an all-out assault on intelligence agencies, the FBI, and the Justice Department, in the process undermining a Congressional committee as he demanded loyalty from himself above all else. .
In addition to these actions, he failed to appoint important diplomatic positions and pressured Rex Tillerson to clean the house at the State Department. Anyone who had been there under Obama and Hillary was tainted and could not be trusted.
The swamp that has been attacked is, in fact, the true Washington swamp, the one that performs the sanitary functions that scientists know to result from its activity. Below the level of political appointments in each federal agency are career officials who become specialists in their programs, serving whatever party controls Congress and the presidency. These officials have personal opinions that cannot influence your actions. When they sometimes take on political roles, such as director of the FBI, they do the job in a nonpartisan way.
Career employees ensure the competence, continuity, and national security of the American public as the political winds blow one way and then another. For Trump, this was an intolerable quagmire. It had to be politicized. His people must be put in, however incompetent, to guarantee the main criterion of service: loyalty to Trump.
Unfortunately, this is not a new trend in the Republican Party. They politicized the selection of district and Supreme Court judges, claiming to limit judicial overreach but ensuring the dominance of their political and social opinions. That strategy was successful in 2000 when a majority of Republicans on the Supreme Court stopped the counting of votes and declared the Republican candidate the winner. Later, Mitch McConnell and a Republican Senate refused to honor Obama’s appointment of a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and campaigned in 2016 for a distinctly Republican judge to be appointed.
Donald Trump pushed Republicans’ disrespect for nonpartisan competition to the extreme. Republicans have supported him because it is where they have been headed for a long time.
Now we need candidates, wherever they come from, whose motto is “Give back the swamp.” We need nonpartisan competition in federal agencies, and a less partisan Supreme Court, to filter out the toxins that destabilize our system of checks and balances when politics seeps in to undermine loyalty to the constitution.