“Empty the swamp!” Wow, what an effective political slogan it was in 2016. It summed up the public’s frustration with the swampy mess of lobbyists, money-grabbing members of Congress and regulatory bureaucrats in Washington. Trump was just the only guy who would tear up these low-life hucksters 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 would of course not be chained to Wall Street and the banks that had refused him loans. In essence, Trump was claiming to be a reformer immune to the obscure diseases raised in swamps and able to do what no one else could do to big investors.
That’s what voters thought Trump meant when he referred to the swamp. What he really meant, as the Cabinet appointments and personal example show, was not at all what the public was led to believe.
Before we compare the public’s expectations with what happened, we need to realize that swamps are good things. Popular imagery, used so effectively by Trump, is not what our children learn about environmental science. History books once praised the advance of civilization, as the drainage of swamps was an impressive achievement in the expansion of human settlements. But swamps filter toxins and support wildlife in extremely important ways. The army corps. of Engineers is now restoring the swamps, without eliminating them, in the interests of environmental health.
Let’s move on to Trump’s idea of the bad swamps. Prior to the election, there were reasons for skepticism about his independence from large sums of money, particularly when he refused to release his taxes and continued his attempt to open a Trump hotel in opposite 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 seems surprised to find out, is the only government official who does not have a conflict of interest. What an announcement from a man who promised reform!
Then came his cabinet appointments. Choices were notable for wealth, connections to Wall Street, and lobbying interests. He also brought his family to the White House in a way never before done.
Trump’s 2016 campaign mirrored Warren Harding’s themes in 1920, promising a return to better times. His reputation also rivaled Harding’s salacious activities – and Mike Pence looks and acts like Calvin Coolidge. He then imitated Harding by appointing a cabinet of very wealthy people he had promised to free himself from. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise when it soon became apparent that they were as corrupt as Harding’s outrageous choices.
The 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 agencies charged with defending national security with reliable information about our adversaries – were fired for exposing Russian interference in the election, which Trump openly embraced and happily used. Then he was warned by a Justice Department official (not someone appointed by Trump) that his choice for the post of national security adviser had been compromised by a foreign opponent. He refused to act until news leaked to the press. Realizing an investigation was underway, he attempted to influence the FBI and fired the director while the investigation was not stopped. As Congressional investigations led to a special advocate, Trump launched an all-out attack on intelligence agencies, the FBI, and the Justice Department, which undermined a congressional committee because he demanded loyalty to him above all else. himself.
In addition to these actions, he failed to get to important diplomatic posts and prompted Rex Tillerson to clean the house at the State Department. Anyone who had been there under Obama and Hillary was corrupt and couldn’t be trusted.
The marsh under attack is in fact the real Washington marsh, one that fulfills the health-promoting functions that scientists know result from their activity. Below the level of political appointments in each federal agency are career civil servants who become specialists in their programs, serving any party that controls the Congress and the Presidency. These officials have personal opinions which are not allowed to influence their actions. When they sometimes emerge into political roles, such as director of the FBI, they carry out their work in a non-partisan manner.
Career employees provide competence, continuity and national security to the American public as political winds blow one way and the other. For Trump, it was an intolerable swamp. He had to be politicized. Its people must be put in place, however incompetent they may be, 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 excesses while ensuring the dominance of their political and social views. This strategy was successful in 2000 because a majority of Republicans on the Supreme Court stopped the vote count and declared the Republican candidate the winner. Then, Mitch McConnell and a Republican Senate refused to honor Obama’s nomination for Supreme Court justice and campaigned in 2016 for a clearly Republican justice to be appointed.
Donald Trump has taken Republican disrespect for non-partisan competence to an extreme. The Republicans backed it because that’s where they’ve been heading for a long time.
Now we need candidates, from whatever direction, whose slogan is “Bring back the swamp”. We need non-partisan jurisdiction in federal agencies – and a less partisan Supreme Court – to filter out the toxins that destabilize our system of checks and balances as politics infiltrates to undermine loyalty to the constitution.