The 2016 election has now been successfully redefined, as have MAGA Republicans, as being all about Donald Trump.
That was never the case.
It was all about what Trump was saying, which though very timely wasn’t anything new. The idea of “draining the swamp” goes back to the latter part of last century at least. Those old enough will remember Ronald Reagan saying it.
But everything has a tipping point, including swamp-saturated politics. And by 2016, it was evident to a large swath of moderate Americans that entrenched politicians across both parties had no intention of upsetting the swamp ecosystem.
Tens of millions of voters had had enough. The only candidate who seemed serious about truly draining the swamp was a political outsider whose financial independence appeared to insulate him from special-interest leeches and lobbyists.
Party labels were interchangeable when it came to cronyism and corruption and arrogance and political hubris, and Trump’s bombastic style fit the measure of discontent seething against the bipartisan politics-as-usual mindset. For many who felt ignored for so long, a vote for Trump was a “clean house” statement. Virtually everyone was surprised by Trump’s unlikeliest of victories; none more than career politicians.
In its wake, the swamp struck back in spades. “Not my president” Democrats and “never Trumper” Republicans made for strange bedfellows on other hot-button political points, but they mutually attacked the swamp’s mortal enemy.
Unfortunately for anti-swamp Americans, Trump and his egomania only made matters worse.
Trump as campaigner had ignited and unified simmering sentiments against unaccountable government entities and special-interest forces that routinely thwarted the people’s will as spoken in elections. But Trump as president behaved as though his popularity centered around him, rather than the cause he promoted.
He underestimated the swamp. And overestimated everything about himself.
The 2020 campaign was a covid anomaly, but even so, the election margin for a 47-year veteran of the swampiest sort was more razor-thin than Trump’s had been.
As the next campaign takes form, swamp forces have all but succeeded in shifting attention away from what originally animated mid-spectrum voters in 2016. At that time, federal spending had hung around the $3.5 trillion mark for most of the Obama administration, but was creeping upward. Less than two presidential terms later, Biden’s 2024 budget is twice that size.
President Bill Clinton didn’t realize the prophetic irony of his famous phrase back in 1996, “The era of big government is over.” Government isn’t big anymore–it’s gigantic.
Biden’s proposed $1.4 trillion deficit is almost as large as total federal receipts in 1996. And it feels like a fairy tale today to recall that Clinton’s White House helped achieve a budget surplus two years later.
Ginormous federal outlays are blood in the water for lobby groups and dark-money organizations, but the swamp does its back-alley best to keep blinders on average voters.
For instance, politicians make perennial headlines decrying how “powerful” the NRA lobby is. Joe or Jane Voter might deduce from such publicity that the gun-rights organization ranks high on the list of top lobby spenders. But the NRA isn’t among the top five. Or the top 10. It’s dozens down the list.
The largest spender in lobbying is the National Association of Realtors, whose expenditures in 2022 were 25 times greater than the NRA’s, according to Opensecrets.org. Amazon spent seven times more than the NRA, and Facebook six times more. Google outspent the NRA by a factor of four.
Yet we’re asked to believe the NRA’s $3 million lobby budget is enough to create political deadlock over guns. What does that say about the self-serving multiplied amounts aimed at e-commerce, social media and search engines?
If a few million bucks paralyzes nationwide action on guns, it’s also a lot easier to understand why health care never gets fixed, since the pharmaceutical industry spent $377 million lobbying last year and the insurance industry poured in another $159 million. They were followed closely by health service organizations at $126 million and hospital/nursing home associations at $125 million.
(DROP CAP) None of the $4 billion in reported lobby expenditures in 2022 includes “dark money,” which is undisclosed-source spending designed to influence political outcomes. Once upon a time, Democrats disparaged dark money (Obama initially rejected a super-PAC’s contribution). Now they’re the undisputed champions of it.
In 2020, dark contributions for Democrats and liberal causes nearly tripled those to Republicans and conservatives.
Disclosed dark money increased by 800 percent from 2016 to 2020 (even more if shadowy millions spent on campaigns without calling for a candidate’s election or defeat are included). The 2024 election will likely set new records in dark spending.
Regardless of whether it favors blue or red candidates, dark money will further deepen the swamp. MAGA needs a rework; maybe META (apologies to Mark Zuckerberg) for Make Elections Transparent Again.
Even when things seem hopeless, political change can still happen. But it must start with public understanding and recognition: There’s still a swamp. It’s worse than it was (and worse than you think).
And it still needs draining.
Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.