“Drain the Swamp!” Wow, what an effective political slogan it was in 2016. It encapsulated public frustration with the boggy mess of lobbyists, money-grabbing congressmen, and regulation-making bureaucrats in Washington. Trump was just the one guy who would tear into those low-life hucksters like Mr. Clean.
As an image, swamps represent corruption and evil that must be cleaned up. Trump described Washington‘s swamp in terms of money’s power to buy influence. Such a rich man of course would not be shackled to Wall Street and banks that had turned him down for loans. Essentially, Trump claimed to be a reformer immune to the murky diseases bred in swamps and capable of doing what no one else could do to the big money people.
That is what voters thought Trump meant when he referred to the swamp. What he really meant, as shown by cabinet appointments and personal example, was not at all what the public was led to believe.
Before comparing public expectations to what happened, we should 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 advance of civilization as swamp-draining was an impressive accomplishment in expanding human settlement. But swamps filter toxins and support wild life in ways that are extremely important. The Army Corps. of Engineers is now restoring swamps, not eliminating them, in the interest of environmental health.
Let’s turn 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 continued a bid to open a Trump hotel across the street from the White House. Right after the election 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 can’t have a conflict of interest. My what an announcement by a man who promised reform!
Then came his cabinet appointments. The choices were notable for wealth, connections to Wall Street, and lobbying interests. He also brought his family into the White House in ways never done before.
Trump’s campaign in 2016 mirrored the themes of Warren Harding in 1920, promising a return to better times. His reputation rivaled the salacious activities of Harding as well – and Mike Pence looks and acts like Calvin Coolidge. He then imitated Harding by appointing a cabinet of the very rich people he promised to be free from. It should have been no surprise when it soon became apparent they were as corrupt as the scandalous choices of Harding.
Actions proved that the swamp Trump intended to drain was not the one voters thought he was talking about.
What did he attack? First, the intelligence community – all the agencies charged with defending national security through reliable information about our adversaries – were dismissed as they exposed Russian meddling in the election, the fruits of which Trump openly embraced and gleefully used. Next, he was warned by a Justice Department official (not a Trump appointee) that his choice for National Security Advisor was compromised by a foreign adversary. He refused to act until news leaked to the press. Realizing an investigation was under way, he tried to influence the FBI and fired the director when the investigation was not stopped. As 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 to himself above all else.
On top of these actions, he failed to make appointments to important diplomatic roles and pushed Rex Tillerson to clean house at the State Department. Anyone who had been there under Obama and Hillary was tainted and not to be trusted.
The swamp that has been attacked is in fact the real swamp in Washington, the one performing the health-giving functions scientists know result from their activity. Beneath the level of political appointees in every federal agency are career officials who become specialists in their programs, serving whatever party controls congress and the presidency. Those officials have personal views that are not allowed to influence their actions. When they sometimes emerge into political roles, such as FBI Director, they conduct the job in a non-partisan way.
Career employees ensure competence, continuity, and national security to the American public as political winds blow one way and then another. To Trump this was an intolerable swamp. It had to be politicized. His people must be put in, no matter how incompetent, to ensure the main criteria of service – loyalty to Trump.
Unfortunately, this is not a new trend in the Republican party. They politicized selection of district and Supreme Court judges, claiming to limit judicial overreach but ensuring dominance of their political and social views. That strategy succeeded in 2000 as a majority of Republicans on the Supreme Court stopped the counting of votes and declared the Republican candidate winner. Then Mitch McConnell and a Republican Senate refused to honor Obama’s appointment of a mainstream Supreme Court justice and campaigned in 2016 for a clearly Republican justice to be appointed.
Donald Trump carried Republican disrespect for nonpartisan competence to the extreme. Republicans have supported him because that is where they have been headed for a long time.
Now we need candidates, from whatever direction they may come, whose slogan is “Bring Back the Swamp.” We need nonpartisan competence 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.