- Jul 2, 2003
Trump’s pardons sent an unmistakable message, capping the corruption of his tenure in office.
“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.”
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.