“He fought the swamp, and the swamp won.” With apologies to Bobby Fuller for adapting his 60’s hit song, “I fought the law and the law won,” that’s one way to describe the four turbulent years of Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump began leading chants of “Drain the swamp” toward the end of his 2016 campaign, and huge crowds picked up the chant. It soon became one of the Trump rallies defining themes. In the three weeks before the 2016 election, he tweeted “Drain the swamp” 79 times, usually as a hashtag, and he tweeted the word “swamp” another 75 times in the four years following that election. The arc of that phrase, from rally chant to agenda to its perversion in the final days of his term, is the arc of Donald Trump’s presidency.
What was the “swamp” that Trump promised to “drain?” In the heady final days of the 2016 campaign, the Washington Post wrote, “Trump led cheering supporters in chants of that slogan, promising that he would completely disrupt the culture of Washington. He warned of the power of lobbyists and political donors who he said effectively bought off elected officials. He told voters he was uniquely prepared to take on the issue, because he knew personally as a contributor how the system worked. “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2015. [https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-drain-the-swamp/2020/10/24/52c7682c-0a5a-11eb-9be6-cf25fb429f1a_story.html].
Wikipedia has an entry for the phrase “Drain the Swamp,” and it begins: “Drain the swamp is a phrase which has frequently been used by politicians since the 1980s. The phrase alludes to the physical draining of swamps which is conducted to keep mosquito populations low…It has been used as a metaphor by several politicians preceding Trump, including the sainted Ronald Reagan, but never with the battering repetition of Trump. Yet even though the phrase obviously resonated with the public, it never made its way to the top of the Trump Administration’s policy agenda.
Dan McLaughlin, writing in National Review in November, 2016, posed a “rational argument” that voting for Trump was a version of the old “throw the bums out” political rhetoric, that … Democrats and liberal elites have basically reached the point where they feel confident being above the law, eroding longstanding norms of democracy, and getting away with almost anything, and that nothing would shock them out of that complacency quite like the voters electing” a man “whose main selling point is that he’s not an acceptable member of the club.” Then this prophetic sentence appears, “Like everyone elected on a “throw the bums out” ticket, Trump can always be thrown out himself later.”
I agree with the populist genius of Steve Bannon, whom I believe was orchestrating the drain the swamp theme, that the standing Washington establishment, also known as the “deep state,” has accumulated more power than the totality of elected and politically-appointed officials in our federal government, while being accountable to no one. Furthermore, that behemoth bureaucracy, aided by its allies in the media, will fight without restraint to defend and enlarge its turf, while holding thinly-disguised contempt for the political figures who come and go every few years. Yet the standing bureaucracy knows it will always retain and expand its power and ultimately prevail over the best-intentioned swamp-drainers.
Trump the outsider has now been defeated and replaced by a 40 year insider with countless ties to that bureaucracy. While Donald Trump may have fought rhetorically to drain the swamp, his actions in office failed to live up to the promise of his words. Eventually, the swamp won. It always does. And now a new President, who owes everything to the bureaucratic and media establishments he has worked with so amiably for over four decades, will gladly do its bidding. In the process, that most treasured of American values, liberty, will be further whittled down. The Founders of our great nation and the Framers of our great Constitution would be appalled.