Donald Trump Is Not the Only President Who Promised to ‘Drain the Swamp’

Ever since Thomas Jefferson undid John Adams' ruinous Alien and Sedition Acts, many chief executives have tried to clean up gov't

Founded as the city of the federal government by an act of Congress in 1790, Washington, D.C., has had more than two centuries to work out the kinks and the bruises. In 1791, engineer Peter Charles L’Enfant noted that what would become Capitol Hill would be compared to “none other.” It “would be made so grand and all other would appear but of secondary nature.”

It is a shame, then, that this Hill that he saw “so advantageously” as the seat of the federal government has been blemished so badly through faux intellectualism, incompetence, corruption, bureaucrats, and the forever waste, fraud and abuse of government-spending.

When you think of D.C., you think of almost a foreign land. Or a prison yard. When someone says “D.C. wants to do this or that,” it’s often with a sense of contempt.

Sen. Huey Long (D-La.) said as much to Congress in 1932: “So I came to Washington, where I knew I would be farther away from America than I could be on some foreign shore; not that I do not respect this as a good part of America, but in its general routine the heart of America is felt less here than at any place I have ever been.”

Every generation — and sometimes more frequently — since the founding of the United States, there has been a president with the nominal goal of “cleaning up D.C.” That includes everyone from Andrew Jackson to Jimmy Carter and from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump.

Whether this job is successful or not, or whether the characters of each president are similar or not, it is hard to argue that these individuals didn’t become president to accomplish the same goal. It was largely an anti-elitist goal, and at the heart of these elitists are the pseudo-intellectuals. The American people desperately want the swamp drained, but it remains an unrequited goal.

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The great longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer once wrote:

It is perhaps not out of place to state here plainly what I mean by intellectuals. They are people who feel themselves members of the educated minority, with a God-given right to direct and shape events.

An intellectual need not be well-educated or particularly intelligent. What counts is the feeling of being a member of an intellectual elite. An intellectual wants to be listened to. He wants to instruct and to be taken seriously.

It is more important to him to be important than to be free, and he would rather be persecuted than ignored. Typical intellectuals feel oppressed in a democratic society where they are left alone, to do as they please. They call it jester’s license, and they envy intellectuals in Communist countries who are persecuted by governments that take intellectuals seriously.

One can’t help but read this and imagine Hoffer laughing at all the members of the intellectualist class today. To be clear, “intellectual” does not necessarily mean intelligent. Anti-intellectualism does not mean anti-intelligence or anti-scholasticism. Intellectuals are elitists who only stick to their own, much like those professors who look down on anyone who doesn’t have a double Ph.D. from Yale or Harvard (and insist that it be called its original Latin Philosophiae Doctor).

They command the less-deserving. They are the pseudo-intellectuals who are much the same way in D.C., conversing among themselves, reminiscent of a secret cabal. In this way, they may be more rightly called intellectualists. They are a class like the intelligentsia of imperial Russia, who used their education and knowledge for political leverage against the commoners.

When Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, beating the unelected incumbent Gerald Ford, he went to Washington as an outsider; he had previously served as governor of Georgia for one term. That wasn’t exactly the fullest resume, yet in the climate of the mid ’70s, with the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s and Spiro Agnew’s resignations, followed by Ford’s own incompetency, he seemed like a good pick.

“If there’s one thing that can bind our country together,” said one television ad, “that can make us have hope again and faith in the future, it’s a president who is in touch with the American people, a man who understands our needs and our strengths. Such a man is Jimmy Carter.”

Related: No, President Reagan Did Not Have Alzheimer’s While in the White House

Cut to Carter speaking in front of an audience, listing everything a government should do: Listen to our needs, a government that doesn’t have walls around it. Another campaign talked about “change.” It was effective. It was true. The GOP in the 1970s was in crisis mode, and pretentious intellectuals said Carter was the only answer.

When Carter ended up becoming what he himself came to clean up — a failure leading a failure of a city — it was much the same rhetoric. Reagan came in with a fiercely anti-government message. He even said during his inauguration that “government is not the solution. Government is the problem.”

It was because of government that inflation was unprecedented, that the economy was nearly in Great Depression levels. And he knew the fault lay with the intellectualists. Reagan succeeded but in a different way. He grew the national economy eight times faster than the federal government grew, thus diluting the area in which it could run.

Other presidents from the past — and not just the past 50 years — have similarly wanted to clean up the corrupt capital. Andrew Jackson, after winning the presidential election in 1828, made it a rallying cry to attack the Second Bank of the United States, a board-run industry that naturally was biased toward some states and against others, based on preference.

Jackson succeeded, and the federal funds from the Second Bank were redistributed downward to various state banks, and the Second Bank itself went out of business in 1836. Jackson succeeded; and for his trouble, he was thought to be crazy.

Related: An Exceptional America: We’re Divided Yet United

The list of reformer presidents goes on and on. There’s Thomas Jefferson, who, as the nation’s third chief executive, undid much of the damage done by the second president, John Adams, including his pro-Federalist Party laws against editors and pamphleteers.

There’s President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who tried to reform the economy and rein in corrupt Wall Street and corrupt bankers in the wake of the Great Depression. There’s President Donald Trump, the ultimate insider, who (at least nominally) made his entire campaign as an outsider away from D.C. politics.

There’s President Abraham Lincoln, whose calls for reforms were so great and polarizing that they led directly to civil war. Former President Teddy Roosevelt ran in the brand-new Progressive Party in 1912 on the fact that neither Republicans nor Democrats were right for the job. And though he lost against Democrat Woodrow Wilson, he gained enough electoral and popular votes to embarrass GOP nominee William Taft into third place.

The Founders never intended Washington to run everything.

Lincoln once wrote to Chaplain John Eaton of Toledo, Ohio, who was stationed in the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, that “If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.”

Perhaps that is why we as a nation, Left or Right, want to see D.C. as an effective, uncorrupted city. If Chicago or New York City became bloated and bureaucratically inept, that’s one thing, but if D.C. does, that’s another. Washington is a symbol of our nation’s unity.

To have “the swamp” or “big government” in charge of it reflects upon our entire nation, in both reputation and deed. The Founders never intended Washington to run everything, as they knew centralized authority led to corruption. Washington is so deeply corrupt, it can’t be reformed. Its roots need to be ripped out.

“To err is human, to forgive divine.” So wrote Alexander Pope, English poet. It’s an insightful phrase that reverberates from culture to culture. The idea is that we are all human — we all make mistakes — and it takes more than simple humanity to come in and forgive and correct them.

To err is also the perfect description of our nation’s capital.

Craig Shirley is a New York Times best-selling author and presidential historian. He has written four books on President Ronald Reagan, along with his latest book, “Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative,” about the early career of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College in Illinois, the 40th president’s alma mater. He also wrote the critically acclaimed “December 1941.” Scott Mauer is a research assistant for Craig Shirley.

(photo credit, homepage image: Donald Trump, Cut Out, CC BY-SA 3.0, by Gage Skidmore)

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Craig Shirley
meet the author

Craig Shirley is a presidential historian and Reagan biographer. He's written four books on Ronald Reagan, is working on several more, and is the author of the New York Times best-seller, "December 1941." His newest book is "Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother," just published in December 2019. He is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College in Illinois and has taught courses on Reagan at the University of Virginia.

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