Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and the Definition of the Swamp

One year ago, few mainstream pundits could have predicted the political reality that we would are today. As the primaries rolled on, columnists and opinion-news anchors watched in disbelief as Donald Trump hurdled every political stumble, miraculously weathered every misstep. They had forecasted an inevitable dip in polls, as the novelty of a reality-television persona faded and Trump supporters came to their political senses. And yet this dip, this tragic fall, never came.

By the time the Republican National Convention arrived and Trump assumed his place at the helm of the Republican presidential effort, experts were demanding an explanation. His success, many claimed, lie partly in his “populist” appeal, a political orientation—or claiming to act—in the interests of the common man. He was a “political outsider,” free from the taint of the DC establishment and armed with promises to “drain the swamp.”

            The vitriol with which Trump rails against the political establishment and the “swamp” in Washington suggests that he has embraced the mantle of populism, at least claiming to be a champion of poor, rural communities. Trump’s commitment to draining the swamp—or at least to the phrase—is so strong that, when surrogate Newt Gingrich suggested the that phrase had been dropped by the Trump team, the president responded with a stern tweet assuring that he “will always be trying to DTS.”

But Trump, a billionaire businessman from Manhattan, seems quite an unlikely candidate for the role of populist. To many observers, his actions since assuming the presidency seem to be a far cry from his previous promises to “drain the swamp.” His cabinet picks represent the most economically privileged slice of American society, collectively owning more wealth than one-third of the American population, and his transition team was stuffed to the brim with industry executives. Progressive leaders—who also pride themselves on their distance from the Washington establishment—have derided Trump for immediately reneging on his promises. As Representative Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) bemoaned earlier this year, “It doesn’t look like they’re draining the swamp, it looks like they’re pouring the swamp into the transition.”

Yet, for all Trump’s apparent broken promises, his supporters—even the poorer, “common” men and women who have given him his populist reputation—continue to cheer him. If Democrats like Sheldon Whitehouse are to be believed, these individuals should have seen by now that the jig is up and deserted their false prophet en masse. But this isn’t the case. Conservative, pro-Trump media outlets like The Daily Caller have published glowing approvals; that site even issued a headline announing, “Trump Lives Up to Campaign Promise, Starts Draining the Swamp.” This flies in the face of assertions from Democrats and other Trump detractors that the new president has failed miserably in this area. So what gives?

To identify the disconnect between President Trump’s supporters and his opponents, we must look at just what constitutes DC’s “swamp” for either side. What is to blame for the entrenchment of an elite “establishment” that has now drawn enough ire to catapult Donald Trump into the presidency? And how does that swamp that Donald Trump and his supporters claim is being drained differ from the one that Democrats insist isn’t being drained?

Most critics of the “swamp” identify a major issue in the so-called “revolving door” between the federal government and lobbying firms—the largely unhindered flow of former federal staffers to K Street and former lobbyists onto Capitol Hill. Both leading candidates for the Democratic nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary Hillary Clinton, have voiced criticisms of the cozy relationship between government officials and special interests. President Trump, in one of his most obvious moves to DTS, issued an executive order forbidding US officials from ever lobbying for a foreign government and extending the wait period of other lobbying to five years after leaving federal employ.

But the consensus about the “swamp” ends here. By its very nature, a revolving door shuttles people in both directions: staffers depart, lobbyists enter. Where Trump and Democrats, disagree, it would seem, is in deciding which side of this symbiotic relationship houses the real problem. For progressives like Bernie Sanders, who constantly decry the inordinate power that corporate interests wield in Washington and who seek reforms in the way that money travels through Congress, point to the lobbyist camp as the one corrupting our democracy.

President Trump, however, has looked to the other side of the door to find the culprits, pointing to the government itself as the cesspool in need of draining. Tacitly invoking the classic conservative principle of limited government, Trump demonizes the bureaucrats that have inhabited their federal offices for decades rather than the industry professionals that funnel in from lobbying firms. Trump’s insistence that the federal government be drained of ineffective officials—rather than industry insiders—parallels ongoing calls from the right to impose term limits on Congress.

If the federal government itself is the problem, then it would seem that Trump has, indeed, upheld his promise: he reportedly dismissed scores of State Department officials and fired acting-Attorney General Sally Yates of the Obama administration. Trump supporters have applauded these moves, satisfied that actions are being taken to DTS. Media outlet The Daily Caller celebrated both of the above actions, deriding Yates as a “swamp creature” and declaring that “high-level bureaucrats”, like the State officials, “are D.C. swamp-dwellers who have wielded and peddled influence in this city for too long.”

At its heart, this disagreement over the true nature of the Washington “swamp” suggests a disconnect between Trump supporters and detractors regarding the place that bureaucrats and industry interests should have in the federal government. Though Bernie Sanders might point to Big Pharma as the biggest alligator in the swamp, Trump’s conservative base points to “an elite class of media types, well-heeled entertainers along with a small band of idle-class Americans who act as mercenaries” engaging in paid protest. Until Democrats tackle this fundamental divergence, they will fail to persuade Trump supporters that their president is no populist with no plan to actually drain the swamp.