When Donald J. Trump ran for office in 2016, he famously vowed to “drain the swamp” that, in his view, our nation’s capitol had become.
We understood the reference to widespread political corruption, but the discussion rarely explored the specific details or accusations. It was a rallying cry.
Now comes the HBO documentary The Swamp, attempting to examine the state of current politics that earned the movie’s title.
It’s an engaging behind the scenes look at members of the Freedom Caucus and their attempts to push through their agenda by forging and maintaining ties on both sides of the aisle.
In particular, it focuses on the life and times of Matt Gaetz, a junior member of congress, learning the ropes and trying to make a name for himself while serving as a staunch supporter of the president.
We soon discover that perhaps the biggest part of being a member of congress is not the drafting or passing of legislative bills as much as a never ending struggle to raise money for themselves and their party.
Once elected, membership on any number of committees is a matter of how much money you can raise.
If you want a leadership position on the committee, you need to raise even more money.
According to the film’s narration, we have Newt Gingrich to thank for this new paradigm in American politics.
We discover that the quickest way to raise the required amount of revenue is through private donations, special interest groups and lobbyists.
They are more than willing to write large checks in return for self-serving support and favors.
Without getting into the details of Gaetz’s politics, it is fair to say that many of his ideas are truly about the nation and not about partisan politics.
He has a sense of what is right for the country in the larger sense.
But he also finds himself in a world bound by strict party loyalty guidelines. The conflict makes for a compelling documentary film.
The abstract becomes tangible and observable. We get to walk in his shoes for a while.
Those shoes, by the way, are a flashy pair of wingtips that he proudly sports because of a compliment they once received from Ivanka Trump.
It never occurs to him that she might have been kidding.
Like many elected officials, Gaetz has an enormous ego that requires constant stroking.
He’s the product of a multi-generational political family.
To some extent, he seems genetically pre-wired to deal with the volatile world of politics.
He reaches out to his followers and occasionally takes his lumps when he has to appear before his non-believers who sometimes toss insults and milkshakes at him.
Through it all, he seems upbeat and unfazed. It’s tolerated as an occupational hazard.
The Swamp doesn’t come off as a left-wing, liberal Matt Gaetz hatchet job.
He finds common ground with people who might be deemed political opponents such as Ro Khanna and is able to work with them in the interest of greater good.
It paints a hopeful, optimistic picture in an era of strong political polarization.
But then we see Gaetz dong the work of the party in high visibility venues like the impeachment hearings.
His performance is rewarded by a complimentary phone call from the Commander in Chief, who applauds Gaetz’s strong support and good looks.
Throughout he film, we see Gaetz reaching out to the president and offering his fawning support and adoration.
He knows Trump’s well-documented need for flattery and praise and is more than willing to provide it.
Trump occasionally reciprocates and tosses him a bone. It’s how bromances work in Washington, D.C. where enormous egos may never be drained out of the equation.
Though Matt Gaetz is the centerpiece of The Swamp, he is not the only featured politician. Others include Ken Buck, Katie Hill and a short list of others.
They offer up an insider’s view of The Swamp.
To some extent, they are themselves the very reptilian forces that they have vowed to dredge out of the murky corruption that Donald Trump identified in the 2016 election.
By all indications, the reclamation process will require a lot more than four years.
The Swamp is on HBO.