Opinion: Trump brought a new swamp to Washington

James Rosen
President Donald Trump

Before his election, Donald Trump promised to "drain the swamp." He sounded the anti-government alarm that goes back to our founding, a deep mistrust of rulers rooted in the first Americans fleeing what they viewed as an overbearing British government, a mistrust that reached revolutionary fever with their descendants' objections to oppressive taxes.

But what the brash New Yorker has done instead of draining the D.C. swamp is bring the corporate swamp to D.C.

I covered Donald Trump a bit in the early 1990s as a reporter for the New York Daily News, and it is remarkable how little holding the world’s most powerful office has changed him. His core misunderstanding as president, one that has colored his entire tenure and could yet prove his undoing, is believing that he could bring the wheeling-and-dealing values and tactics of a NYC commercial developer to Washington and run the government as he'd run his business empire.

Here, too, there is a key link to U.S. history. He was not unlike many Americans, with an especially large share among his base, who succumb to our dark founding fable: We, the people, are pure at heart, but our government is the root of all evil.

Oddly, most of us continue to give big business a pass — despite huge scandals that revealed major corruption, incompetence or both, from Enron and Tyco and Bear Sterns to Halliburton and Ford with its exploding-engine Pinto. Even the decades-long deception and doctoring of scientific evidence by big tobacco — an industry-wide conspiracy built on lies by cigarette manufacturers that cost millions of Americans their lives — has not shaken most Americans’ faith in our country’s multinational companies and other big businesses.

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters upon arrival at the White House in Washington, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019.

Trump’s ominous warnings of a “Deep State” conspiracy echo many Americans’ belief in an entrenched fraudulent federal bureaucracy. Corporate criminals such as Jeffrey Skilling of Enron or Charles Keating of Lincoln Savings & Loan may be convicted and sent to prison, but they are viewed as anomalies who broke otherwise fair rules of American capitalism. Yet let one poor pol or bureaucrat be caught in wrongdoing, and their malfeasance is viewed as symptomatic of widespread secret U.S. government corruption.

While covering Trump, I became a consumer affairs reporter for the Daily News. The scams in the Big Apple, from street con artists to bait-and-switch businesses, were legendary among New Yorkers. In subsequent years, I've collected examples of bad corporate behavior based on my own experiences and those of friends. The examples range from merely annoying to outright corrupt: customer service reps saying they're putting you on hold for just a minute but then abandoning you; car insurance companies dumping longtime customers with good driving records simply because they are moving into a demographic that suggests more future claims; DISH Network saying you don't have to return your box because it's outdated but then charging you $150 for failing to return it; and, of course, health insurance companies denying coverage and making you file appeals and jump through other hoops before they provide coverage.

I’ve also collected examples of corporate bad behavior in the treatment of employees. To cite just two: Disney, a Fortune 100 company, has laid off dozens of people at National Geographic, one of the country’s iconic magazines with legions of subscribers whose loyalty gets passed from one generation to the next; McClatchy, among the biggest news organizations in the nation, has paid supervisors bonuses to meet quotas for disciplining employees.

The new business model in America  is "churn." You see this most baldly with cellphone and cable/satellite TV companies: They draw you in with spectacular offers that they don't provide to their longtime customers. And the consumer's power — the threat that he/she will leave them if not treated better — has less sway. Many companies are happy to see you leave because they know they can replace you with new customers lured by false gold.

There are thousands of federal employees — bureaucrats, to use the term of cheap but universal scorn — who do important work in anonymity. They make financial sacrifices, working for a fraction of what they could earn in the private sector, in order to accomplish aims they believe in — keeping our air and oceans clean; making sure our food is safe; overseeing rigorous drug trials so our medicines won’t harm us.

These are the true members of the Deep State. Their government status prohibits them from promoting or, in many cases, even talking about their work. That’s the opening President Donald Trump takes cruel advantage of in accusing them of corruption. His refusal to accept any responsibility for his actions while launching baseless attacks on the federal bureaucracy is the saddest sign of his reliance on the bullying tactics that worked for him in the Big Apple as he built his self-aggrandizing skyscrapers.

James Rosen is a longtime Washington correspondent who’s covered Congress, the Pentagon and the White House.