Sure, the phrase “Drain the Swamp” is a common metaphor. But those words actually expose long-held beliefs about the environment that have proven to be disastrous for many Americans.
First, some history. During the settlement of the North American continent, agriculture and development struggled to overcome an environment that often seemed overwhelming. From prairie soils that refused to be broken by the blades of wooden plows to wetlands that defied attempts to rid the land of water, it was a tough go on many fronts.
And that is how the term “drain the swamp” came about. Failing all other attempts to tame such environments, many swamps were “drained” using underground tiles or drainage ditches to shunt water elsewhere.This was done because swamps were considered of little use for the purposes of growing crops or cultivating any sort of civilized purpose.
Admittedly, though it was little known at the time, swamps also held breeds of mosquitoes that brought fever germs to the populace in many forms, including malaria. So the deep-seated dread of swamps one of mystery and fear.
The genuine swamp
Much of those fears depended on a poor understanding of why and how swamps actually operate, and also why they exist. Swamps are defined as largely still waters rife with thick trees and impenetrable vegetation. In the last 400 years, ecologists have grown to understand that swamps play a critical role in many aspects of the natural world.
From a human perspective, swamps are critical holding areas for floodwaters. They serve as retention ponds when water overflows the banks of rivers or lakes. These holding ponds also serve to filter out muddied or silt-heavy water before it discharges back into streams, lakes and even oceans. Swamps also provide vital habitat for many commercially valuable species of ducks, geese and other species of waterfowl, birds, reptiles, mammals and insects.
Swamps along the Mississippi River and other major rivers perform all these functions and more. Before water ever flows over the banks of such rivers, it fills the backwater swamps and often that prevents major flooding elsewhere.
Yet the metaphor to “drain the swamp” persists in defiance of the critical role that swamps play in American ecology. It insinuates that all such environments are bad places undeserving of our attention or even existence on the face of the earth.
The term “drain the swamp” also advances an anachronistic view of the environment as a whole. It implies there is still inherent evil in creatures such as snakes or even turtles that live in swamps. This draws on ancient notions about demon spirits living within such creatures as depicted in the serpent who was Satan’s disguise when tempting Eve.
Even people associated with swamps and marshes have been punished throughout history. When Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein objected to political resistance from Kurds living in that nation’s southern marshes, he set about to have the marshes drained under the guise of “agricultural improvement.” This crime against humanity was also a crime against nature. The two tend to go together. And it is people who cannot separate the benefits of nature from the impositions of human nature that commit such crimes.
Thus use of terms such as “Drain the Swamp” actually represent a confused, angry and fearful belief system. Typically, this emanates from people too self-absorbed, insecure and incurious to find out the value and function of places such as swamps or marshes. Thus these places serve as the ironic totems of ignorance for all those who deplore them.
So it makes sense that if Donald Trump’s worldview depends on such metaphors for his popularity, he will draw a less sophisticated brand of voter, someone who cares not to look past the slap-happy approach of communication.
It is thus predictable that men such as Donald Trump cannot get their heads around real-life threats from the environment such as global climate change. Someone who still thinks of swamps as dangerous, demon-filled places cannot grasp that it is environments such as swamps and forests and grasslands that actually provide a positive balance to the equation of how much carbon dioxide is drawn from the atmosphere versus how much is being poured in by human activity.
One of the most important environments to this purpose is the Amazon in South America. But the carbon sinks of old-growth woodlands in the Pacific Northwest and to some degree, forests in the American Northeast all play vital roles in counteracting anthropogenic (manmade) climate change.
But Donald Trump doesn’t believe in that. He clearly views the world in desperately naive terms, and is all too happy to leverage that ignorance into popularity with those who view the world in the same way. This is exacerbated by those who interpret and promote a poor understanding of religious metaphor as well. That is how essentially worthless claims that creationism is a “science” persist. For creationism contends, among other things, that serpents could once speak with fork-tongues that two of every kind of animal on earth were once stuffed into a boat to preserve thousands upon thousands of species of animals from perishing in a worldwide flood. This would have required that some species such as blind salamanders from the North American continent would have crawled across thousands of miles of land and cross oceans as well to reach the safety of a tiny ark in a largely desert environment of the Middle East. That single notion itself is absurd,
That single notion itself is absurd, yet it is creationists who contend that nature is too complex to have come about on its own. Never mind that impossible stories with no explanation other than divine intervention somehow are supposed to constitute “science.” For fundamentalists of religious and/or political nature, it is absurdity that is more acceptable than complexity. Naive terms are the most dangerous of all, it seems.
Simpletons and hillbillies
And so we arrive at a point in history when the world is about to be run by a band of absurd simpletons whose clipped ideologies rely on forcing naive terms and notions on the rest of us. This is the shallow worldview that Donald Trump and his argumentatively conservative cabinet are about to foist upon the world to replace, as Trump likes to think of it, a swamp consisting of nuclear physicists once assigned to manage the Department of Energy and our nuclear program.
Trump instead has hired a Texas hillbilly named Rick Perry to take over that position. A man with no experience who once proposed eliminating the very department he is now assigned to manage. And so it goes across the board in Trump’s candidate. He has replaced competence with ignorance, and experience with ideology.
What Donald Trump fails to understand about swamps he fails to understand about the world in general. That is, complexity does not in itself represent evil, for it often holds answers that can be revealed over time. But simplicity, when it exhibits a poor understanding of the world, can often turn into a dangerous assumptions and worse, a sinking morass where there once seemed to be solid ground.