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One of the oldest traditions in American politics is “running against Washington,” which has been a common campaign theme since the city was first created as the capital and the home of the federal government.
In fact, candidates for president and Congress have found running against Washington one of the surest ways to get there. Some do it to stay there, too.
Take for example Ronald Reagan, whose talk of the “puzzle palace on the Potomac” drew on the tradition and amplified it. For years, Reagan repeated a stock joke about the nine most feared words in the language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
Reagan displaced Jimmy Carter, who himself had been elected as an outsider in 1976 to clean house following the Watergate scandal. Not long after Reagan we got Bill Clinton in 1992, yet another governor with no taint of Washington, followed by two more two-term presidents who had spent minimal time in the capital and could plausibly pose as outsiders.
Yet now we may be in a new phase of this phenomenon as the candidate running most vehemently against Washington is also the city’s most prominent resident.
Surely President Trump in 2016 was as skilled and effective at this line of politicking as any candidate in memory. He made a mantra of “drain the swamp” and let his crowds chant “lock them up.” Still, it raises eyebrows to hear him continue the assault as an incumbent seeking a second term.
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As political writer Matt Bai has noted in The Washington Post, Trump is acting as though he had nothing to do with his own government – dissociating himself from all that has gone wrong on his watch and even saying at one point: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
Bai argues that Trump has never really seen himself as part of the government he supposedly leads and has “already proved that governing interests [him] about as much as mold.”
At the same time, Trump has urgently invoked nonexistent privileges of office (“Any conversation with me is classified”) and overstated his control of the military and even the governors of the states. (“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total and that’s the way it’s got to be. … It’s total, the governors know that.”)
Trump has also elevated and empowered an attorney general in William Barr who has long espoused a vision of executive power as expansive as any since Alexander Hamilton’s six-hour lecture on the subject at the Constitutional Convention.
Trump is running not so much against specific parts of the government as against the idea of Washington, which is to say the idea that someone somewhere has a lot more power than you do and is using it against your best interests. That idea is deeply fixed, both in the rational workings of the American mind and in the untamed regions of American suspicion.
This has relatively little to do with the actual city of Washington, a racially diverse community of 700,000 at the center of a metro area of 6.2 million. But it does help explain why the District of Columbia has not been made a state or allowed a voting member of Congress. The latest legislation attempting to do so was approved in the House of Representatives this week, but its chances in the Republican Senate are exactly nil. Were that to change, the White House hastens to assure us, Trump’s advisers would recommend a veto.
In one measure or another, generations of candidates have made their bones by bashing the capital — making it a symbol of something (or everything) they opposed. For some, the evil to be resisted has been oppressive or intrusive government. For others, the evil emanating from Washington has been socialism or, conversely, the collusion of government with capitalism.
The idea of Washington has long been associated with a distant and disrespectful elite that had only its own selfish interests at heart. To some degree this sort of populist critique has also extended to Wall Street and the image of the fat-cat financier, mashing up that money madness with Washington’s power hunger. But somehow that element of New York has never dimmed that city’s allure in popular culture.
Think of all the songs — indeed, entire musicals — that adore the Big Apple. Any come to mind romanticizing Washington in that way? Even the shows based in early American history, such as 1776 and Hamilton, celebrate other cities.
When Washington does break into the movies it is rarely a pretty picture. In the 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart is the small-town hero and the cynical capital is the villain. A long parade of sequels, including Eddie Murphy’s The Distinguished Gentleman and the Judy Holliday hit Born Yesterday sound similar themes.
Another 1939 film about power myths was the endearing The Wizard of Oz, based on a 1900 children’s story by L. Frank Baum that can be read as a populist allegory for the politics of its time. The Emerald City can be seen as a remote, fantastic capital fascinated with the greenback dollar at the end of the Yellow Brick Road (stand-in for the gold standard, measured in ounces, hence the Oz of the title).
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Little Dorothy gets safely home to Kansas with the help of the Scarecrow (farmers) and the Tin Man (industrial workers) and a Cowardly Lion (William Jennings Bryan, the “prairie avenger, mountain lion” who was a populist icon and three-time presidential nominee). But the girl’s true savior is her pair of silver slippers, a nod to the metal that was to rival gold in Bryan’s bimetallist program. (Hollywood decided ruby slippers would be more cinematic.)
Trump may not be a film buff, but he is surely steeped in the attitudes that made all these movies hits. He instinctively understands the contradiction: Americans want a commander in chief who signs bills into law and directs a bureaucracy of millions spending trillions, but who does so without embracing the system or becoming its prisoner. To paraphrase a verse from the Gospel of John, he is to be in that world but not of that world.
For such a president, the prospect of running against Washington even as an incumbent is not just possible – it’s mandatory.
Can the contradiction be overcome? Plenty of congressmen and senators would answer yes because they’ve been doing it for years. As unpopular as Congress is, and has been, its incumbent members routinely win reelection (most of them easily). They do it in part by running against the institution wherein they serve – often in harsh terms — portraying themselves as grateful to stick close to home and get out of Washington.
That’s why even West Coast members of Congress fly home regularly for weekends and “district work periods.” It is why few now buy homes in the capital area or move their families there. They cannot risk appearing to have “gone Washington.”
Trump is pursuing a version of this on a typically grand scale. It has less to do with loyalty to a state or district than with loyalty to a voting base. He is cementing his bond with his voters from 2016, hawking the same issues and pounding the same targets, almost as if the last four years had not happened.
Once again, we will hear of a wall with Mexico and immigration in general. Bad trade deals. Allies who don’t pay their “fair share” and don’t buy American often enough. His issues are generally not those that official Washington wants to talk about, which is why he wants to talk about them.
Once again, we will see Trump define himself apart from all other efforts to define or restrain him. That, too, is essential to his relationship with his base. It is one reason he refuses to wear a mask, even as health officials and even some Republican senators reportedly urge him to do so at least sometimes.
Issues of vanity aside, the mask has become an emblem of submission to experts and scolds and the nanny state — an emblem of submission to Washington. So the refusal to wear one becomes a badge of defiance, perhaps the most important to date. To give up on that score would suggest the swamp was draining him, rather than the other way around.
In the months ahead, Trump the master showman will cast himself less as the head of the government and more as Washington’s resident anti-government activist, presiding in form while disrupting in fact.
The show is scheduled to run at least through the fall.