“Drain the swamp” was one of Donald Trump’s battle cries in the election. Many writers on this and many other blogs have expressed deep skepticism that Trump has any interest in fighting corruption, and assert to the contrary that Trump seems poised to preside over one of the most corrupt administrations in U.S. history. But that’s not how Trump’s core supporters see things. In their view, Trump is making good on his promise and weeding out the deeply connected interests of US government officials, businesses, media, and civil society—what they view as the “corruption” of U.S. institutions. While most readers of this blog probably find that perspective baffling, it is important for all of us to understand how this constituency thinks about the problem of “corruption” and interprets the reporting on President Trump’s administration in light of that perception.
When Trump’s core supporters think about “corruption” in the U.S.—when they think about the “swamp” that Trump promised to drain—they focus on an alleged cabal of elitist, neoconservative, and liberal interests that are fighting a “war against Trump,” the democratically elected President. The term that is increasingly used in these circles to describe the “swamp” is “Deep State.” The Deep State is, according to Breitbart news, “jargon for the semi-hidden army of bureaucrats, officials, retired officials, legislators, contractors and media people who support and defend established government policies.” (The Wikipedia article on Deep State was only published on Jan 7, 2016, showing the novelty and fast rise of this term). In this worldview, the Deep State was, for example, responsible for the dismissal of national security advisor Michael Flynn. Blame for the dismissal, on this account, lies not with the actions of Michael Flynn, but with the “traitors” in government, collaborating with the corrupt mainstream media (“MSM”)—a view shared by the President himself in a tweet on Feb 15, 2016: “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by “intelligence” like candy. Very un-American!” Indeed, the view that the MSM is a major colluder in the corruption that protects the powerful and wealthy is another important feature of the worldview that seems widely shared by Trump’s ardent supporters. The list of corrupt traitors to the American people who are part of this “Deep State” includes the Democratic Party, various Republicans who criticize Trump (such as Bill Kristol, John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and after the unsuccessful attempt to repeal Obamacare Paul Ryan), and the judiciary (see here and here).
Thus, in this the alternative view, the real corruption in American politics is constituted by members of the Deep State undermining the President in order to advance their personal agenda. Therefore, the thinking continues, President Trump is duty-bound to stop the media and purge disloyal government officials—indeed, it is important for national security that he do so. It follows that everyone opposing or undermining these purging efforts must be part of the swamp, seeking to advance their personal interests at the expense of the country.
How far the current US government will end up going down this path of “draining the swamp” will to some extent on opinion polls and media reports that so far seem to guide many of President Trump’s policies on the one hand, and also on civil engagement on the other hand. The last point makes each and every one of us a potential part of the solution. We need to help bridge the gap between the people who see the fight against corruption as a fight against the President’s political opponents and those who see the fight against corruption as a fight against abuse of power for private gain on a broader level, which can ultimately even include the President himself.
Two interlinked engagement strategies seem relevant. First, we need to create a common ground for the different camps that allows for discussions in the first place without finger-pointing. Second, we need to create a common understanding on what counts as abuse of political power.
Regarding the common ground for discussion, I believe that the American Constitution is the best starting point. To me, as a guest in this country, it has often been surprising how the Constitution is not only the most important document, but the most important belief in the hearts and minds of so many Americans – be they liberal, conservative, left, right, center. Everyone it seems agrees that the protection of the Constitution is paramount to the well-being of the United States. By engaging in a discourse about rights and duties of government and people that are enshrined in the Constitution, it should be possible to find a common ground for discussion and deliberation of corruption between the different factions
A discussion on the Constitution – and that is where the two engagement strategies interlink, would allow to better distinguish between the legal use and the illegal abuse of governmental powers. A simple example: the Constitution emphasizes the importance of the balance of power in government by creating a legislative branch (Article 1), an executive branch with the President as its head (Article 2) and the judiciary branch (Article 3). And the Constitution guarantees the right of every citizen to freely speak her/his opinions and to be informed by a free press (1st Amendment).
And this is relevant for our analysis: the Constitution protects a cadre of media, bureaucrats and politicians who are not falling in line with the head of the executive branch, but who are encouraged to evaluate and criticize the President’s policies.
It is my hope that an agreement and understanding of Constitutional rights and duties will provide for the most fundamental, but very crucial common ground in the fight against corruption. This must not be a fight of Trump supporters versus Trump opponents, but a fight against the abuse of power for private gains – which indeed is worth a fight no matter on which side of the political spectrum one falls.