There were many reasons Donald J. Trump garnered such passionate support during the presidential campaign—his forthrightness, the perception of his economic acumen—but perhaps the most important was his promise to stop Hillary Clinton. Clinton, to many voters, was an embodiment of everything they had long detested about Washington, and Trump’s determination to “drain the swamp” was a winking swipe at her, her policies, her cronies, the entire Clintonian ecosystem.
That promise, more than anything else, explains why Trump is president-elect of the United States today. And yet, far from draining the swamp, he’s already submerged himself in its malarial muck, to the extent that a Trump executive is shaping up to be everything Republicans feared about a second Clinton administration.
Start with the inevitable horde of associates and has-beens, which many conservatives (including this one) worried Hillary Clinton would usher through the White House door. As Helen Andrews has argued, the most defining feature of Clinton World is shady clientelism, the transactional use of people to expand one’s power and wealth, the management strategies of Russian tycoons.
How has Trump been any different? He’s refused to divest in his family businesses, which have multiple foreign clients. He’s exhorted Nigel Farage, a British politician, to push back against the development of wind farms near his golf courses in Scotland. He’s claimed that “the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” a statement that happens to be legally accurate, thanks to—ironically enough—ethics legislation signed by President George H.W. Bush that shields presidents from conflict of interest laws. But Trump’s diffident brazenness also sends a message: “Yeah, I might continue to advance the interests of Trump Inc. in the White House. What of it?” It betokens a further conflation of Trump’s public responsibilities and private interests, in which the latter will inevitably corrupt the former.
If President-elect Hillary Clinton behaved this way, conservatives would be tolling the church bells. Yet, in the age of Trump, much of the good-government right has found itself suddenly defanged.
Another characteristic of Clintonian governance is loyalism. The Clintons expect it from their henchmen perhaps more than they give it in return, but they’ve still advanced the careers of unremarkable functionaries like Huma Abedin and John Podesta, who are above all unyieldingly dutiful. Now over to Trump, whose chief requirement for his staffing picks so far has also been loyalty, which is how you get Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Mike Flynn as national security advisor, Steve Bannon as chief strategist, and his children omnipresent throughout. Trump’s selection as Nikki Haley for UN ambassador is encouraging on this front, since she feuded with him during the primary and only tepidly endorsed him later on, but still, so far it’s been fealty at the expense of every other quality, including talent, including expertise.
The Clintons are dishonest political lizards who routinely change their positions to fit the public mood. Good thing we’ve dispensed with all that, right? Except on Obamacare, which Trump initially pledged to repeal in its entirety and now says he’ll keep in portions. And investigating Hillary, disavowed because Trump doesn’t “want to hurt the Clintons.” Eleven million illegal immigrants were to be deported during Trump’s campaign; now it’s down to 2-3 million criminals. The Paris climate accord was to be dead and buried, now it’s to be scrutinized with an “open mind.” Hillary’s most famous flip-flop was on TPP; how long until Trump, fresh off a meeting with the Japanese prime minister, says we should resurrect that, too?
But at least Trump isn’t cynically co-opting a supine media, as the Clintons did with CNN and so many others. Except that he is: Megyn Kelly reveals that pro-Trump media figures regularly ran questions by him beforehand and warned him in advance of incoming attacks, in order to buy themselves immunity from those Twitter grenades he so loves to lob. I won’t give away any names, but presumably one of these hacks has a name that rhymes with “Pawn Vanity.”
Trump supporters will counter that they weren’t thirsting for a naive Republican ideologue. They wanted someone who could use Clintonian tactics against Clintonism and on their behalf, which is why they nominated Trump and not Ted Cruz. Fair enough—though that pragmatic approach clashes with their “drain the swamp” mantra—but how many more of these capitulations against the public interest are allowed before they consume the Trump administration? How long until Trump realizes it’s easier—and better for business—to swim with the current rather than against it?