Just a few weeks to go before election day, Donald Trump hit on a new catchphrase to explain how he'd bring change to Washington: "Drain the swamp." Playing off the myth that the nation's capital was built on a swamp, it described the sweeping transformation he would bring. All those smarmy influence-peddlers and selfish elitists would gasp for air before expiring, to be shoved aside and replaced by a government that finally had the best interests of the American people at heart.
What a difference a couple of months make. Now he's not going to be talking about it anymore. "I'm told he now just disclaims that," said Trump adviser Newt Gingrich earlier this week. "He now says it was cute, but he doesn't want to use it anymore."
Well, okay — it's just a catchphrase, right? Sure, the crowds at his rallies cheered their hearts out when he said it, but they chanted "Lock her up! Lock her up!" too, and then at a post-election rally Trump said, "That plays great before the election — now we don't care, right?"
Even Trump himself admitted it was just a gimmick. "Funny how that term caught on, isn't it?" he said after the election. "I tell everyone: I hated it! Somebody said, 'Drain the swamp.' I said, 'Oh, that's so hokey. That is so terrible.' I said, 'All right. I'll try it.' So like a month ago, I said, 'Drain the swamp.' The place went crazy. I said, 'Whoa. Watch this.' Then I said it again. Then I started saying it like I meant it, right?"
What's actually happening now is that Trump is making the swamp about a hundred times swampier. You thought Washington was corrupt before? Well just you wait. Trump has appointed a cabinet full of multimillionaires and billionaires (and guys from Goldman Sachs), his D.C. hotel is strongly encouraging (wink, wink) foreign dignitaries to stay there, he's holding on to a web of businesses that will allow people to keep putting money in his pocket as long as he's president, his sons tried to sell access to him and themselves for $1 million a pop, and his inaugural committee is still selling access to policymakers — just to mention a few of the ways the swamp seems remarkably intact. Washington's lobbyists aren't scared — in fact, they're positively giddy at the thought of all the new opportunities for exercising influence in a Washington completely controlled by Republicans.
So why aren't Republicans more upset? A couple of reasons.
For many party loyalists, all that rabble-rousing at rallies was just for the rubes, something Trump would tell the common folk so they'd get out to vote. The savvy ones know that no president is going to come in and truly change the character of institutions and arrangements that have persisted for decade upon decade. After all, Barack Obama said he was going to clean up Washington (not to mention bring about an era of bipartisan comity), and so did George W. Bush before him, and so did Bill Clinton before him. It didn't happen with any of them, and won't with Trump either. As long as he delivers tax cuts for the wealthy and a rollback of regulations on corporations, those old-line Republicans are happy to have him talk all he wants about reform that'll never happen.
The truth is that most Republicans don't want the swamp drained. They don't want to reduce the role of money in politics (just the opposite, in fact), and they don't want to restrict corporate lobbyists. They don't mind insiders having all the influence, as long as it's the right insiders.
And for the truly devoted Trump supporters, the "Drain the swamp!" idea was much more affective and emotional than it was substantive. It didn't have to do with a particular package of political reforms, which might be judged on whether or not they actually worked. Instead it was about making a statement, expressing a feeling. It was about giving a big middle finger to a system they believed had failed them, to say to Washington, "To hell with you, and our champion is coming to destroy you." Whether or not he actually followed through was secondary or even irrelevant.
And the election of Donald Trump — whom that "establishment" feared and hated so much — is nearly enough of a statement to satisfy them that the swamp has been, if not drained, then severely roiled. His vulgarian ways will be an ongoing offense to civilized Washington, and his subversion of norms will keep some in the media upset.
And that will be more than enough to keep them happy, swamp or no swamp.