You know what it is when you talk about it, right?
But, well, who and what are part of the Swamp?
The “drain the swamp” formulation was one of the more clever linguistic developments of the 2016 election. It had been used before, such as by both Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi in 2006, but not as commonly. And it has some uses. Donald Trump used it often in his campaign that year, and the #DrainTheSwamp Twitter hashtag is highly popular. (It’s a busy Twitter handle as well.)
It caught fire and a lot of people adopted it because it had resonance. The idea of the political and economic centers of the country (even in the states) as a dank, sunken, corrupt place that does in the unwary and is full of “swamp things” is easy to get and even appreciate. And if you drain it, you get rid of disease-carrying insects and other unwanted pests. The metaphor is clear.
A John Kelley article in Slate points out that the phrase goes back much further, and was long used by the anti-capitalist left: “In a 1903 letter to the Daily Northwestern, Winfield R. Gaylord, state organizer of the Social Democratic Party, precursor to Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party of America, wrote: “Socialists are not satisfied with killing a few of the mosquitoes which come from the capittalist [sic] swamp; they want to drain the swamp.” So it has referred to the swamp of capitalism.
In 1983, Ronald Reagan spoke of “draining the swamp” that is the federal bureaucracy.
There is even some loose truth to it.
But be wary of this one. “The Swamp” sounds wonderfully specific and concrete, but it is neither. It evaporates the closer you look at it.
So what exactly is The Swamp?
While Washington, D.C., was built on lowlands by the Potomac River, and the area around the State Department long has been famously called Foggy Bottom, the fact is that the district (or at least nearly all of it) never has been, in its time of human habitation at least, swampland. Humid and mosquito-ridden, yes; swamp, no. So that direct link doesn’t work.
An Illinois group called American Transparency in 2017 issued a report called “Mapping the Swamp,” but that was simply an attention-getter: Its content consisted of budget reports (and employee compensation statistics) about federal administrative agencies. Is the swamp, then, federal administrative agencies, or does it cover much else?
Kelly’s stab at a definition, at least one for the 2010s: “Trump’s swamp isn’t just home to political cronies and crooks, whom the expression typically targets: The media, polling, leaders of his own political party, the abstract Establishment, and just about anything that challenges his view of the world, and himself, gets sucked into his vortex.”
Writers Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles suggested in an October 2017 New York Times article, “Donald Trump’s pledges to 'drain the swamp' of corruption in Washington attest to his genius for unintentional irony. Nepotism, egregious conflicts of interest, flights on the public dime to see Wimbledon and the eclipse — the Beltway wetlands are now wilder and murkier than ever.”
In the end, the swamp is a test: It is whatever you don’t like.