Pardon me, are you The Swamp?

Following a boisterous campaign that frequently phrased its policy objectives as three-word-long slogans and hashtags, the Trump Administration has had considerable difficulty delivering on those catchphrases. “Build that wall!” has already stalled numerous times and is currently mired in a budget standoff in the House of Representatives. “Lock her up!” has largely died out, and Hillary Clinton appears to still be free to wander the Chappaqua woods to her heart’s content.


That leaves us with “Drain the swamp!” This three-word campaign promise has been used as a rallying cry by various would-be Washington reformers over the years, but Trump has never explicitly stated what he means by the phrase. Despite the vagueness of its intention, this promise may represent the president’s best opportunity to make his mark on US Politics. Americans of all political stripes are fed up with the status quo in Washington. Congress’ approval rating is currently a dismal 16% and has not been above 40% since 2005. The rise of movements like Occupy Wall Street and the vilification of “the 1 percent,” as well as the fiery campaigns of populists like Bernie Sanders and Trump himself, speak to a deep, society-wide feeling that the current system is rigged against the little man. 


The critical issue, then, is to decide who or what “The Swamp” actually is, and what exactly “draining” it would look like. Trump and his supporters have criticized specific individuals as well as various aspects of Washington for being too swampy, but to my knowledge, no concrete definition has ever been given. The following are a few potential candidates for Swamp-dom that I see as being reasonably likely, along with considerations of how Trump could go about (or already is) draining each of them.


Career Politicians


For example, The Swamp could refer to the members of the national legislature themselves. One could argue that new blood is urgently needed in Congress, and that political newcomers would be much more in touch with the plight of the everyday American than those who have, for years, mainly rubbed shoulders with other Washingtonians. Trump himself is a compelling personification of this idea– not only is he the first president in 60 years to have never held elected office before that of president, but many seem to view his political-amateur status as a major selling point.


If we go by this definition, however, it will be very difficult for Trump to deliver on his promise of swamp-drainage. The president can go after individual politicians verbally (for example, on Twitter) and may even go out of his way to endorse challengers to sitting legislators, but he has almost no concrete power to affect the composition of the legislature. Besides, Trump has shown almost no desire to upset the status quo in this way: he endorsed Luther Strange (the incumbent) in this year’s special election in Alabama, and the politician he has most attacked on Twitter, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, is only in his first term in the senate; hardly a career swamp monster.


Federal Bureaucracy and Institutions in General


Alternatively, The Swamp could simply be the federal government itself. Perhaps Trump believes, as many conservatives do, that the executive branch has grown out of control, not only in terms of the authority it asserts but also in the sheer number of people it employs. If the population of the federal bureaucracy were pruned back, surely it would be less able to overreach its authority and meddle in people’s lives.


Trump has had some marginal (though perhaps inadvertent) success by this metric. He has been abnormally slow in proposing nominees for cabinet agencies–a New York Times synopsis in July showed that he had made nominations for only 96 out of 210 vacant executive posts, only 33 of whom had been confirmed (for comparison, by the same point in President Obama’s term, he had made 169 nominations, 126 of whom had been confirmed).


But this may be a dangerous road. Conservatives may have a point that the ideal federal bureaucracy is much smaller than our current one, but this does not mean that any job downsized is a victory. The president runs the risk of crippling necessary government functions. For example, as of this writing, there are 49 US ambassadorships still lacking a nominee, including countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia: all countries with which we really need effective communication right now.


Congressional Gridlock


Finally, consider the possibility that The Swamp could mean the generally deadlocked state of affairs in Washington. This image does make good sense here; a swamp is what forms when running water stops moving and becomes stagnant, just as actual legislation from Congress seems to have ground to a near halt in recent years. 


If we take this to be our Swamp, Trump is actually in a good place to do something about it. However you may feel about his various antics, you do have to admit that he is hardly a traditional conservative. The fact that he is not a political insider should give him considerable freedom to operate as a dealmaker outside the crystallized two-party system.


We have seen some glimmers of this potential in recent weeks as Trump has gone out of his way to strike deals with congressional Democrats on important issues like immigration and the debt ceiling. A traditional president would not have been able to unilaterally reach across the aisle like this without enormous outrage from his own party, but the outsider persona Trump has cultivated, coupled with his already-tenuous connection to the Republican party, seems to have softened the backlash considerably. Only time will tell if this sudden fit of bipartisanship marks the beginning of a new governing style for Trump, or merely represents one more spontaneous decision by a president already known for his spontaneity.


Americans are frustrated. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump successfully tapped into that frustration and managed to ride populist, anti-establishment sentiment all the way to the White House. We have examined here a few of the possible interpretations of his three-word campaign promise to Drain the Swamp, but the bottom line is that he intends to make change, to overturn standing Washington norms. Perhaps this will lead him to enact long-overdue reforms; perhaps he just will end up undermining cherished democratic institutions. At the end of the day, only time will tell whether by Trump’s hand The Swamp will be drained, or whether he himself will end up swamped.

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