Hurtling down I-70 I was half listening to the news and thinking about why President Trump and right-wing news and commentary operations are so fixated on outing “the whistleblower.” At this point, given the corroborating evidence, it would not make any difference. Somewhere around mile marker 57 it hit me: it’s about payback, about intimidation, and a warped sense of what it means to “be strong.”
I began to formulate this essay and then this hits my screen: a tweet from Bill Kristol (a New York Times conservative columnist): “I’m struck by Trumpworld’s obsession with the whistleblower. Exposing him wouldn’t help Trump’s case a bit. But it’s clear that outing him would be really satisfying psychologically to Trumpsters. One forgets how central to Trumpism are petty vindictiveness and cowardly bullying.”
We can make our own digs at others, which seems to be how so much of our national dialogue has become, which, by the way, is a win for those who support this kind of response to “the whistleblower.” I see it as part of one of the most misunderstood aspects of President Trumps campaign to “make America great again.”
“Drain the swamp.” Can’t dispute the marketing appeal of that. Both “sides” use it but it means something very different to each “side.” If you understand “drain the swamp,” as I do, to rout out corruption, to end the open bribery of our elected officials through the vast flows of money to campaigns, deliberate creation of conflicts of interest by placing people in charge of oversight who have a personal interest in the industries they are overseeing, stuff like that, then you misunderstand what drain the swamp means for President Trump and his supporters.
Drain the swamp is about what has also become known as the “deep state.” In short, the swamp is the people who have made civil service (and the military) their life’s work. These are not elected officials, but people with the “technical” skills and experience to carry out the business of the United States government. These are the career foreign service officers, career public health officials, all those lawyers who work for the justice department and federal judges. It also includes the press who cover the doings of our politicians.
If you don’t understand this, then consider after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the de-Ba’athefication of the government and what that lead to. It lead to a dearth of knowledge about how to make the government work. And that is what we are seeing right now with President Trump. Look at Rex Tillerson’s gutting of the State Department. The moving of the research and policy analysis operations of the Agriculture Department out of Washington to remote agricultural areas is how the Administration is getting policy experts to quit. Even career military are suspect, otherwise the torrent of hate toward Lt. Col. Vindman would not have happened. And the preference for ideological conformity over experience, “judicial temperament,” and achievement in selecting federal judges is also part of “draining the swamp.” Labeling press coverage that is viewed by President Trump and his supporters as negative is “fake news” even if it’s true.
The whistleblower is a career person in either the intelligence area, foreign service, and/or national security. In short, s/he makes their living serving the government of the United States. They serve the United States, not narrowly the individuals temporarily in power. This is the swamp that President Trump and his supporters are trying to drain, not the swamp of corruption, conflicts of interest, cronyism, and nepotism.
This is also why the whistleblower’s identity is so important to reveal. The vilification has already occurred and then, if identified, the whistleblower will be punished, not officially, but through anonymous threats, dirty tricks, and so forth. The whistleblower’s service will be twisted in such a way as to further the narrative that the “swamp” needs draining and enough people will not object. This will also serve to undermine “protections” for those in honorable service to the country rather than in service to any temporary tyrant.
Ultimately, “draining the swamp” for President Trump and his supporters, is about draining all sources of opposition to whatever President Trump and his supporters want. As long as there are those who will object, or even tell the truth if the truth shows President Trump and his supporters in a bad light, then the swamp needs draining.
Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.