When I was on Senate staff in the final years of the Bush administration, a faction of die-hard ideological conservatives — soon to be known as the “Tea Party” — had coalesced around Senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. I called them the “Alamo faction,” because they would rather go down in glorious defeat than compromise on any of their principles. Among the main targets of their ire were “earmarks”: the specific appropriation of different pots of money for a mind-boggling array of special interests.
Earmarks are one of the ways in which Congress sells out to special interests, though unfortunately they are not the main way, about which more presently. I hated earmarks as much as anybody, but I didn’t share the Alamo faction’s diagnosis of the underlying malady. Where they saw a problem of personalities — and stoked a lot of conflict within the Republican conference in the Senate — I saw a much larger institutional dysfunction with deep historical roots and an almost inescapable gravitational pull, like that of a black hole.
President Trump campaigned against “the swamp” of Washington, D.C., and it’s a phrase that Trump supporters use a lot, though it’s not always clear to me what they mean by it. For myself, I use the phrase in a specific way: “The swamp” is government by special interests, which the New Deal basically turned into our system of government. It is the system of legalized bribery through which special interests get the federal government to create cartels and monopolies in one sector after another, limiting competition in order to force massive wealth transfers from an unsuspecting public to them and their well-paid lobbyists, usually off the books. It is an unintended but inevitable outcome of 100 years of progressive government, and politicians are forced to play by its rules whether they like it or not, just to keep their seats. No senator or group of senators is in a position to change the system, because it is kept in place by a federal judiciary dedicated to enforcing the progressive interpretation of the Constitution, rather than the one that was actually ratified.
That, however, is not what Trump loyalists mean when they decry “the swamp.” We know this because most of them have no problem with special-interest rackets that can wear the “America first” label, such as the Jones Act, which has ruined the U.S. maritime sector for the benefit of a few decrepit shipyards; or the federal sugar program, which stealthily inflates the price of everything that contains sugar for the benefit of a few sugar growers; or the ethanol program, which is environmentally ruinous, raises the price of food, and puts crushing pressure on the rest of the motor-fuels sector, all for the benefit of Midwestern agribusiness. These programs are all legalized conspiracies to defraud the public on a massive scale, and they would be criminal violations of the antitrust laws if government officials weren’t in on the conspiracy.
But what do Trump loyalists mean by “the swamp”? One possibility occurred to me recently after an exchange with a dear friend about a link she’d shared describing Mitch McConnell’s recent “disgraceful” speech. In this address, delivered immediately after the Senate acquitted Trump, the Senate’s Republican leader blamed Trump for the events of January 6, while explaining that he had voted to acquit on jurisdictional grounds only. I served the Trump administration loyally and have defended it consistently since leaving the government, but I also think that McConnell is the greatest Republican leader in the history of the Senate, and I said so. She shot back, “So now you are part of the swamp, too.”
That’s when it hit me. Maybe what Trump and his supporters mean by “swamp” is “the establishment.” I can understand why: By 2012 and certainly by 2016, the GOP establishment was clearly out of touch with mainstream GOP voters. And the rest of “the establishment” often seems bent on undercutting America and American values.
But that establishment also consists of the two political parties; the precious parliamentary procedures they use to conduct business in Congress; the acceptance of compromise and coalition-building as vital prerequisites for getting anything done; and a fundamental belief that our institutions and their procedures are the real protectors of the American republic and matter more than any particular leader. The establishment, in other words, is the messy day-to-day business of democracy itself — including most of the constitutional system that has survived from ratification to the present day.
Read the full article at National Review.