HBO’s ‘The Swamp’ Explores D.C.’s Small Appetite For Populist Reform
HBO’s “The Swamp” is a rarity, affording conservative politicians a relatively unfiltered major media platform to explain themselves. To the extent the documentary does filter its subjects — who are mostly Reps. Matt Gaetz, Ken Buck, and Thomas Massie — it’s through a welcome, anti-establishment lens.
The film is predictably unkind to the president, but it’s willing to hear out some of his congressional foot soldiers. That may be a low bar, but the balance is immensely useful.
The film is technically excellent, with great graphics, extremely sharp illustrations, a strong pace, and some very compelling footage, including phone calls between Gaetz and Trump. Gaetz, Buck, and Massie take up most of the screen time, but “The Swamp” complements their intertwining narratives with contributions from Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna and John Sarbanes, alongside Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig and former Rep. Katie Hill. (Khanna and Hill are friends of Gaetz.)
As it chronicles the intensely partisan build-up to January’s impeachment vote, “The Swamp” draws a deft contrast, spotlighting the bipartisan alliances borne of this anti-establishment moment — and primarily from the perspective of Republicans. The real battle lines in Washington, Massie accurately explains, aren’t red versus blue, but reformers versus the status quo.
“The Swamp” is heavy on camera-hungry Gaetz, an interesting if overzealous Trump-era Republican, but spends enough time with Massie to highlight his compelling credentials, following the Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad everywhere from his Tesla to his peaceful Kentucky farm. Massie is, of course, “the greenest member of Congress,” much to the surprise of the left.
Cameras find him rallying against the Authorization for Use of Military Force with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and recalling a phone call from President Trump, who warned that voting against him on a bill would hamper Massie with the baggage of a primary. Less than a day later, the threat proved serious.
Massie takes the documentarians to First Street SE, straddling the short stretch of road between the Capitol Hill Club and the National Republican Congressional Committee, emphasizing the limited options for members in need of re-election funds. It’s a poignant moment, one of many in the documentary that provides visual evidence of The Swamp’s inner workings.
All the “groveling” that comes with a primary, Massie explains, can be “traced back” to one vote against the party line. As a trio, Massie, Buck, and Gaetz manage to share a handful of anecdotes that pull back the curtain on Washington corruption pretty well.
From his friendship with Khanna to a Peroni-fueled conversation about corporate PAC donations with Hill, the documentary catches Gaetz in some genuinely interesting moments of conversation with progressive Democrats. It also does a reasonably decent job of evaluating Gaetz through the right prism, as a self-styled, Trump-inspired crusader against corruption — even if the current administration is less dedicated to draining the swamp than the president might claim. “I defend flawed people, that’s kind of my thing around here,” Gaetz quips.
Khanna and Lessig both lament the decline of bipartisan compromise, pointing back to bygone eras of major legislation that unified broad coalitions. This is where “The Swamp” hits the same brick wall as its reformers, arriving at cliched complaints about compromise without really grappling with the reality that bipartisan compromise is almost always in the service of cronyism.
Consequently, it makes little sense to lament the death of compromise and lament the persistence of the status quo in the same breath. Sure, members spend less time socializing with one another, and the media environment incentivizes partisan bombast. Those explanations are accurate. But asking for compromise right now is asking Nancy Pelosi to find common ground with Mitch McConnell. Consider what they actually agree on.
Bipartisan compromise between anti-establishment Republicans and Democrats should be desirable on a host of issues, from term limits to lobbying bans to Big Tech to China. In Gaetz’s conversations with Khanna and Hill, you can see the broad contours of a cross-party, realignment reform platform. But as Massie likes to say, politicians in the Swamp sometimes end up believing they’re actually in a hot tub.
Compromise, as we understand it today, will not drain anything. Massie advances an optimistic argument towards the documentary’s end, emphasizing that the electorate still has the final say. In that sense, it’s possible the strain of populism Trump injected into the GOP will produce an heir capable of bridging the gap between Democrats like Khanna and Republicans like Gaetz.
“The Swamp” is evidence that such a movement or candidate is more likely to come from the right. What will increasingly prevent reform-minded leftists from huddling with reform-minded conservatives is the left’s normalized intolerance for minor dissent from full progressivism, let alone Trump-friendly Republicans.
The film, which works well without a narrator, ends on a subtly derisive note, suggesting Republicans are unwittingly embarking on something of a fool’s errand. But ultimately “The Swamp’s” exceptional willingness to hear Republican politicians out proves the difficulty of its mission—corporate media and the far left are unwilling to do the same, rendering the expansion of compromise efforts extraordinarily difficult. But to Massie’s point, brewing populist discontent over so-called cancel culture could give the realignment project just the boost it needs.