The Hashtag DrainTheSwamp and the Structure of Trump’s Power

I’ve been a bit of a Debbie Downer on the Twitters of late, because I’ve been nagging people about anti-Trump humor.

It started weeks ago, shortly after Trump called the press into Trump Tower and scolded them for what he argued was unfair coverage during the campaign. He complained, especially, about a photo NBC had used emphasizing his double chin.

He also complained about photos of himself that NBC used that he found unflattering, the source said.

Trump turned to NBC News President Deborah Turness at one point, the source said, and told her the network won’t run a nice picture of him, instead choosing “this picture of me,” as he made a face with a double chin. Turness replied that they had a “very nice” picture of him on their website at the moment.

That led to a slew of people spending hours tweeting around memes of the photo.

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I responded by asking what the theory of change behind it was. How would tweeting an unflattering photo of Trump help Democrats move towards winning back power? How would it prevent Trump from pushing us into fascism?

Given how humor works, it probably would have the opposite effect. Humor functions to create a community — those who find something funny, because they know the cultural references and find the upending of them to be amusing, are on the inside; those who don’t find something funny are on the outside. Trump’s supporters back him because he’s their vehicle to punish the snobs who call them “deplorable.” Indeed, even a Hillary campaign staffer believes the use of the term “deplorable” is when Hillary lost the race.

Every time those snobs laugh at Trump, it reinforces the reason why supporters (some portion of whom are Obama-to-Trump voters) support him. Because they’re tired of elites laughing at them, especially elites with a long history of catastrophic failures.

The same dynamic happened with the fun many had with Trump’s misspelling, in a rash tweet attacking China for taking our “research” drone, of “unprecedented” as “unpresidented.”

I get that the neologism is actually quite hysterical, a totally apt label for Trump, one I suspect will stick for good reason. But especially in a venue where Trump voters will interact, to make fun of Trump for doing something very human is, in my opinion, pretty counterproductive. Again, lots of people derive a sense of resentment from others making fun of them for speaking funny or improperly; Trump channeled that resentment in part because he speaks more like they do, gaffes and all. The counterproductivity of making fun of the spelling is all the more true given that the substance of the tweet was actually fairly important.

So I’ve been trying to refrain (with admittedly varying degrees of success) from mocking Trump on Twitter. Calling out his hypocrisies? Sure. Mocking certain Trump surrogates? Why not? But reinforcing the sense of resentment that is the primary engine of Trump’s power? Counterproductive.

There are two exceptions of note however. The first is reminding people that Hillary won the popular vote. As it is, 52% of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote. To the extent it will help, disabusing them of the notion that they, Trump supporters, are a majority in this country is an important step to undercutting his claim he has a mandate (and to undercutting the sense, among doubters, that many many others don’t feel the same way).

A more important one, though, is the hashtag DrainTheSwamp. Because it is such a popular hashtag, using it guarantees that a significant number of Trump supporters will see the hashtag, even weeks after the campaign. Eliminating the “rigged” system of Washington is something they care significantly about. And it’s something that Trump’s voters showed the earliest remorse about over their choice, most notably when a woman Steven Mnuchin had foreclosed on got named Treasury Secretary.

When Donald Trump named his Treasury secretary, Teena Colebrook felt her heart sink.

She had voted for the president-elect on the belief that he would knock the moneyed elites from their perch in Washington. And she knew Trump’s pick for Treasury — Steven Mnuchin — all too well.

OneWest, a bank formerly owned by a group of investors headed by Mnuchin, had foreclosed on her Los Angeles-area home in the aftermath of the Great Recession, stripping her of the two units she rented as a primary source of income.

“I just wish that I had not voted,” said Colebrook, 59. “I have no faith in our government anymore at all. They all promise you the world at the end of a stick and take it away once they get in.”

I’ve seen similar responses after a number of Trump’s other appointments.

In other words, using the DrainTheSwamp hashtag to highlight the many ways Trump is reneging on his promises is actually a fairly direct way to communicate directly with Trump voters in terms they’re habituated to. It works especially well if you use words about Trump reneging on his promises.

It looks like I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Trump now wants the hashtag discontinued. In fact, he never liked it — he just used it (and released a policy on it) to rile up the crowd.

Donald Trump fired up campaign crowds with a promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption. But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says the president-elect has soured on that populist rallying cry now that he has won the White House.

“I’m told he now just disclaims that. He now says it was cute, but he doesn’t want to use it anymore,” Gingrich, one of Trump’s most high-profile boosters, told NPR in an interview broadcast on Wednesday.

“I’d written what I thought was a very cute tweet about ‘the alligators are complaining’… and somebody [from Trump’s team] wrote back and said they were tired of hearing this stuff,” said the former lawmaker, whose conduct in the late 1990s earned him a historic bipartisan reprimand.

Trump himself had alluded to mixed feelings about the slogan during a Dec. 8 rally in Des Moines, Iowa, part of his triumphant postelection “Thank You” tour.

“Funny how that term caught on, isn’t it?” he said. “I hated it. Somebody said ‘drain the swamp.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s so hokey. That is so terrible.’ I said, ‘All right, I’ll try it.’ So, like, a month ago I said, ‘Drain the swamp.’ The place went crazy. I said, ‘Whoa, watch this.’ Then I said again. Then I started saying it like I meant it, right? And then I said it, I started loving it.”

This, it seems, is a key insight. About the only incitement Trump is now trying to tamp down among his mob is the DrainTheSwamp hashtag. Of course! That’s because he’s done nothing so much as gild the swamp, much less drain it.

On no other issue is it so clear that Trump has already left his voters in the lurch. Especially in advance of big fights over billionaire nominees, making that more clear seems one of the easiest ways to undercut Trump’s power.

Update, 12/22: Oh my.

Trump just tweeted that he has not ditched the DrainTheSwamp hashtag, but does so without actually using the hashtag.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

32 replies
  1. Marvin says:

    Great points. Surprised I’m not seeing them made more often.

    So, not to slag your spelling or anything, but the section on Mnuchin looks like it’s missing a word: “when a woman Steven Mnuchin had foreclosed on got named Treasury Secretary.”

  2. John Casper says:

    Bullseye, as per usual.

    “Every time those snobs laugh at Trump, it reinforces the reason why supporters (some portion of whom are Obama-to-Trump voters) support him. Because they’re tired of elites laughing at them, especially elites with a long history of catastrophic failures.”

    Can Dems harness the populism Trump unleashed in the mid-terms?

    • lefty665 says:

      “Can Dems harness the populism Trump unleashed in the mid-terms?”

      Sure, but don’t hold your breath. They’re far too busy ridiculing Trump and alternating with “the dirty Ruskies stole our election” hysteria as they deny the culmination of what they’ve been building towards for more than two decades.

      Dem elites and neo libs (I repeat myself) have been running from populism and the New Deal since Bill slipped into office in ’92 thanks to Perot. Dem officeholders have reached their lowest ebb in a century at Federal, State and local levels.

      Have you seen signs Dems are about to change their spots? I have not either, especially after they chose Schumer and Pelosi as the highest ranking elected Dems. I personally am pushing for a change of the party mascot from the donkey to the Cheshire Cat. Soon there will be nothing left but the smile and the poor donkey will be free of his burdens.

      About all anyone will be able to do is make counterproductive cheap jokes at Trump’s expense as the rightwing Repub dingbats consolidate their hold on the levers of power and marginalize him. If you enjoy schadenfreude you could follow Hillary around pointing and laughing at what an incompetent pill of a candidate she was. It might also be fun to remind her that after all the hysteria more ‘faithless electors’ deserted her than Trump (Do we really know how Bill voted as an elector?).

       

  3. Phil Perspective says:

    Indeed, even a Hillary campaign staffer believes the use of the term “deplorable” is when Hillary lost the race.

     

     

    It did.  Do you know why?  Because Trump ran commercials about that every damn day.  At least they seemed to run every day until the election in the Philly media market.  It helped reinforce that Hillary thought 1/4, or so, of the voters in this country were scumbags.

    • bmaz says:

      Yes, calling deplorable assholes “deplorable” was what lost the election.

      Yeah, that’s the ticket. Deplorable!

    • Rex Visigothis says:

      No, she lost the race, at least in re: that comment when she started weaseling–she should have used it as (pace, Bill O’Reilly…) as a “teaching moment”, and asked whether critics were caviling at the exact proportion of deplorables, or would they care to deconstruct the points on which the same polls that Trump loved to wave set forth the crackpot/fascist/racist, blah blah blah beliefs that were held by staggering numbers of self-identified trumpaleros.
       

      She lost because she backed down instead of demonstrating to the objects of the aforesaid racism/sexism/fascism that she wouldn’t stand for their victimization.

      • ItAintEazy says:

        Just to be clear, she didn’t lose the popular vote, just Whitesconsin, Pennsyltucky and suburban Ohio.

        And if people don’t like those labels, fuckem. I’ve had it with their shit.

  4. Evangelista says:

    The rule of thumb for humor is ‘cheap and snyde plays to “cognoscenti” ‘ (the quotes qualify the cognoscenti partisans).  In the wild cheap and snide doesn’t play, if one is lucky, or back-fires.

    Trump is thick-skinned.  Jokes at Trump’s expense roll off.  It is an oddity, product of excess of seriousity, that Trump-antagonists are failing to recognize this, still, even now, at this point and time in the game.  Initial failure to recognize Trump thick-skinned (duck repellent, armadillo armored) can, with charity, be ascribed to his reactionary-ism during the campaign, the charity being ascription of failure to recognize to heat-of-battle induced tunnel-focus when opponents, especially early among Republican Nomination rivals, slammed him with everything they could imagine throwing, and he noticed not — unless he saw an opening to slam back, e.g., when art-photos of his wife were published and he published less-than-art photos of the publisher’s spouse, or to make a joke, himself, e.g., suggesting himself to deserve equal time for SNL skit-time.

    As for humor over-all, the 2016 campaign was wall-to-wall humor for some of us, those of us to whom “deplorable” may be an accurate description as well as a less-than-Elite (pah! ptui, ptui!) Badge of Honor.  Even now the humor keeps rolling, for an example, a recent Robert Reich tirade against Trump’s “assaulting” of the United States’ “noble” and “honor-deserving” “Free-Press” (at such an ebb that even the National Enquirer lifts its skirts to step around).  Reich expands on his initial inadvertent self-send-up for Democracy Now!, providing a ‘skit’ that SNL could lift and play verbatim.

    As for Trump’s cabinet picks, because Trump is as much as he is a maverick, and one with more on the ball than he, especially in combat, shows (note the way he drops the combative character manners instantly with change of scene and moves on, and away, toward a purpose), and appears to be deliberately holding to a low profile for the balance of Obama’s term, it will be necessary to wait until January 21st, 2017 to begin to learn how the now ordained-in-the-stars Trump Presidency is going to begin.  For those who cannot shrug off anxieties, it may help to recognize that cabinet members are advisers and not policy-makers, and Trump is independent, if he is anything…

    There is also, to return to the humor of the situation, that Trump attended a military school, and, as far as I know, did not attain to any especially high rank, and now has been elected to Comander-in-Chief, and seems to be, or to be atempting to, put a whole twenty-mule-team of generals into harness.  Now all underlings to him, for him to skin (to carry the analogy on forward)…  An ultimate fantasy?  Harbored ever since being an underling?  At last come true…?  may we as a nation come to be sorry for those poor generals?  And Mnuchin…made a Munchkin…?  “His name is Pierre, and he admires my legs.” Miss Frog vainly said…

    • lefty665 says:

      Some of us have “failed to recognize” Trump’s thick skin because he does not have one. He is hugely thin skinned, it is part of the profound narcissism that seems to drive him.

      Some of the wildest of his tweets came in response to insults or questioning him. An example is his “blood” tweet about Megyn Kelly after she questioned him about his anti women statements in the first debate.

      One of the few things Hillary did well was to get under that fabulously thin skin in the debates. Think his detour into seemingly endless references to Sean Hannity when she poked him on his opposition to the Iraq war. He pretty much came unglued.

      Very thin skin, very big ego and enough money to get away with indulging both for most of his life.

       

       

  5. Karl Kolchak says:

    Trump isn’t going to “lock her up,” either, and the biggest reason is that, to paraphrase the excellent comedian-turned-lefty-commentator Jimmy Dore, pretty much any charge you could level at either Trump or Hillary also applies to the other as well. The real fun begins when his supporters finally start to realize that they’ve been sold yet another bill of goods.

  6. wayoutwest says:

    The Clintonites should continue with these tactics they have been so successful so far why quit now. This well thought out plan has driven millions of likely supporters away from their party and more of the same means more of the same. This also keeps the Lock Her Up chants fresh and alive just waiting for the FBI report.

    The draining of the swamp in DC will be great to watch as fat Clintonite gators are dragged from their stagnant pools and taped up on their way out of town.

  7. person1597 says:

    Palpable GOP disunity before the election has morphed to triumphalism… #Trumphalism…

    There is already the sense of right-wing impunity.  #Trumpunity.

    By falling in line, republicans get to reflate their privileged world view. “Trumprivilege.

    There is a new standard of hollowness in political discourse… #Trumpotemkin.

    New republican policies might be best described as #Trumpyrric.

    Will this administration be #Trumpestuous?

    Will mercantilism supersede globalism?  #Trumptation.

    Is there a pithy summation for the dem world view?  #TrumptyDumpty.

  8. debitor serf says:

    Neither Hillary nor Trump won the majority of American voters but one of them won the electoral college.

    • Rob says:

      Neither Hillary nor Trump won the majority of American voters but one of them won the electoral college.

      Perhaps you missed that Hillary won the popular vote by almost 3 million.

      • bob says:

        Rob: Perhaps you are unaware of the meaning of the word “majority”?  HRC won a plurality of the popular vote; nobody had a majority in 2016.

  9. Hieronymus Howard says:

    The Donald was the only crowbar with enough torque to pry Hillary out of there.   To that extent he has earned my heartfelt appreciation.   He appears to have barely squeaked by in terms of vote count but it must have been a landslide, otherwise Hillary was a foregone conclusion.   I was already resigned to inevitable Hillary & was pleasantly surprised (nay, elated) by the outcome.

    Unfortunately the Donald will do bonehead things, like (try to) neuter real encryption & expand NSA powers.   Then the justifiable hatred can commence & I’ll hate him too.  Hope he proves me wrong.

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