Swamp ThingDavid Frum
“Drain the swamp.”
Of all Trump’s lies, that was one of the most puzzling. It’s not just that Trump himself was and is crooked, or even that he so obviously likes and admires crooks. It’s that Trump’s particular form of crookedness was exactly the kind of crookedness that people have in mind when they imagine Washington, D.C., as a “swamp.”
Trump’s first Manhattan real-estate deal—the first deal on which his employer-father allowed him to take the lead—was the redevelopment of a bankrupt historic hotel near New York’s Grand Central Terminal. The deal needed complex permissions from the city and the state. To obtain those permissions, Trump hired the famous fixer Roy Cohn. Cohn secured him a $400 million tax abatement plus other special favors, including a waiver of all urban-preservation rules. After the deal was done, the city official who bestowed the favors was hired as a partner in Cohn’s law firm. A decade later, that official went to federal prison for corruption crimes.
And so it went throughout Trump’s business career, beginning to end. Shortly after ascending to the presidency, he agreed to pay $25 million to settle fraud claims brought by students at Trump University (he admitted no wrongdoing).
And on his last full day in office, as the minutes ticked down, he ended his presidency with a grand present to pro-Trump crooks, past and present. Earlier in the transition period, he had pardoned Paul Manafort and Roger Stone—the longtime associates who protected his secrets. On his way out, he has pardoned another former campaign chair, Steve Bannon, who was indicted on charges of defrauding Trump’s own supporters.
Trump pardoned the flamboyantly corrupt former congressman Duke Cunningham, convicted of bribery, fraud, and tax evasion in 2005 and sentenced to eight years in prison. Cunningham completed his sentence in 2013. The matter might have been left to the history books—but Trump wanted the history books to record this last gesture of fellow feeling between a disgraced Republican president and a disgraced Republican member of the House of Representatives.
Trump pardoned the former Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy. Broidy came to public attention with the news that Trump’s onetime fixer Michael Cohen had arranged for Broidy’s former mistress to be paid off, in an agreement using the same pseudonyms Cohen had previously employed to strike a deal between Trump and the adult-film actor Stormy Daniels. In October 2020, Broidy pleaded guilty to lobbying the Trump administration on behalf of Malaysia as an unregistered foreign agent, agreeing to forfeit $6.6 million.
These are but a few of the final pardons issued by Trump at his own discretion, without having gone through the normal process of vetting and review; they add up to more such pardons than issued by any previous president. Also on his way out the door, Trump canceled a 2017 executive order that imposed a five-year blackout before former administration officials can lobby their former agencies. Trump’s former aides can now do exactly what Trump promised at the start of his administration he would never allow his people to do.
And of course he did! Obviously he did! Trump’s was a government of the crooks, by the crooks, and for the crooks. How on earth did this brazen and shameless practitioner of sleaze verging upon crime ever sell the idea that he was somehow struggling against sleaze?
The short answer is that, like “law and order,” “the swamp” is not an ethical idea, but a political weapon. In Trump-speak, “law and order” does not mean “obedience to the law by all people, the powerful as well as the powerless.” In Trump-speak, “law and order” means “racial deference enforced by police violence.” Likewise, in Trump-speak “the swamp” does not mean “use of public office for personal benefit.” Trump cannot mean that, just measured by the millions of public dollars he directed to his personal businesses.
In Trump-speak, “the swamp” means “paranoid delusions about what my opponents are doing in their imaginary heinousness that implicitly minimize the crooked things my supporters and I are actually doing in reality.” And yes, if you compare the actual malpractices of Trump and his administration with a fantasy of a global network of cannibalistic pedophiles engaged in ritual murder—well, yeah, by that standard, mere bribe-soliciting and peculation from the Treasury will seem the lesser evil.
Just as Trump supporters regard the act of voting by their opponents to be presumptively illegal, so they regard governance by their opponents to be presumptively corrupt. Corruption in Trump-speak does not describe real-world actions—like, for example, breaking your own word about how long your officials will refrain from lobbying. Corruption in Trump-speak is an attribute of identity—they are guilty because of who they are; we are innocent because of who we are—and nothing else matters besides this identity.
Hence the weird spectacle of Donald Trump Jr. regularly appearing on television to demand, Can you imagine what people would say if I had done the things Hunter Biden has done? The viewer is left amazed: The Trump family has done all those things, and many more besides, has done them every day, and has done them with at least a couple of extra zeros added to the amounts received. But for himself, Donald Trump Jr. measures what he took not against what was right, but against what he wanted to take. By that standard, and only by that standard, Trump Jr. can assure himself that he is a comparatively honest fellow.
The whole sorry lot of them is now scampering from the White House with whatever gains they could manage from the grim collapse of the administration’s finale: a botched, violent seizure of power; 400,000 dead from COVID-19; a hundred petty acts of gracelessness and vindictiveness against the incoming administration that so decisively defeated them.
They were the swamp. They are the swamp. Their ability to dupe their voters into ever believing otherwise, and their even more audacious success in pressuring some reporters to use their anti-swamp language as if it were ever anything but a brazen lie—that was one of this administration’s most surprisingly successful grifts. That success calls for reflection at some future point, but not today. Today’s job is to begin the new era of reform that will, it’s hoped, debar tomorrow’s slithering creatures from ever again misrepresenting themselves as the swamp’s cleansers rather than its slimiest apex predators.