President-elect Donald Trump is fond of slogans. “Make America Great Again,” or MAGA for people who like acronyms, is his best known. Because he has not assumed office, we are unable to assess the greatness (or weakness) of our country under his presidency.
We are, however, in a position to evaluate another of Trump’s slogans: “drain the swamp,” a reference to his intention of reducing or eliminating the influence of special interests in our nation’s capital. It’s a worthy notion.
The “swamp” Trump decried on the campaign trail is filled with people who influence our representatives because they have money and want to make more money, not because they have wise public policy ideas that will benefit a majority of American citizens.
There is nothing wrong with people who want to make money. The problem is with their outsize influence over elected representatives, who are supposed to make decisions that benefit all their constituents, not just their benefactors.
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Trump denounced the influence that campaign donors and interest groups have over politicians, and bragged in one of the Republican debates about candidates who accepted campaign donations from him.
“When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me,” he said.
Trump boasted that unlike candidates who received his campaign donations, he would not be beholden to anyone because of his vast personal wealth and ability to fund his own campaign.
Spoiler alert: While he contributed to his campaign, he can hardly be considered to be a self-funded candidate; he loaned his campaign $47.5 million. He could forgive the loans, or campaign donors could repay the money from the swamp he claims to want to drain.
If there was one thing that Trump and Clinton agreed upon on the campaign trail, it appeared to be the negative influence of money in politics. But a funny thing happened on the way to the White House. Instead of draining the swamp, Trump is filling it.
Almost 40 percent of Trump’s appointees to high-level government positions were campaign donors. Linda McMahon, the World Wrestling Entertainment executive who will head the Small Business Administration, spent $7 million to elect Trump.
Earlier this month, a charity run by his son Eric Trump held a bidding contest for coffee with Eric’s sister Ivanka. Bidding reached $72,000 before The New York Times wrote about it, and the concept was scrapped.
A Trump family foundation was contemplating auctioning access to Eric and Donald Trump Jr., and to Trump for between $500,000 and $1 million, although once it became the subject of news stories, Trump’s aides disavowed it.
We have never seen donors obtain jobs or be offered access in a new administration with the same frequency as is happening in the nascent Trump administration.
All too often, donations are the cost of admission when it comes to accessing, influencing or obtaining employment from elected representatives. And it is happening on a grand scale. Only 0.07 percent of Americans gave $2,700 or more in the last presidential election to Democrats and Republicans. Of the fraction who gave to Trump, more than a third have obtained jobs in his administration. And he has thousands of jobs to fill.
The tragedy of the swamp is that the public believes that politics is a game, and in order to play in that game you need to pay. Voters understand laws benefit donors, and they check out of the system. It’s little wonder why almost half of the people who could have voted in an election to choose the leader of the free world opted not to do so.
Jessica A. Levinson is a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. She tweets at @LevinsonJessica and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org