drain the swamp

The (not so) secret socialist history of Trump’s new favorite slogan

Getty/Joe Raedle

Donald Trump has a new favorite saying to describe the way he wants to bring change to Washington: “#DrainTheSwamp.” He’s been tweeting it a whole bunch this last week.

After Trump made the slogan “America First”—a phrase used by a handful of proto-fascists who opposed war with Germany in the 1930s and ’40s—a centerpiece of his campaign, he eventually said he didn’t care about the historical roots of the term. “Drain the swamp,” too, is loaded down with the weight of its history: What Trump probably doesn’t realize is that the phrase “drain the swamp” actually has a long history in socialist organizing. That’s right, pinkos.

As etymologist Barry Popik noted on his blog in 2010, some of the earliest uses and potential coinages of the phrase “drain the swamp” come from anti-capitalist organizers around the turn of the century who were describing their plans to drive capitalists out of Washington, D.C.

Back then swamp draining was a well-known method for reducing the mosquito population to combat outbreaks of malaria. On the heels of the nation’s first major financial crises, the Panic of 1907, socialist organizers began to think of the proponents of financial capitalism as disease-ridden mosquitos, and the nation’s marshy capital on the Potomac River as a swamp.

In 1912 Victor Berger, a founding member of both the Social Democratic Party of America and the Socialist Party of America, wrote the following about capitalism and speculation: “So [speculation] is another evil that is inherent in this system. It cannot be avoided any more than malaria in a swampy country. And the speculators are the mosquitos. We should have to drain the swamp—change the capitalist system—if we want to get rid of those mosquitos.”

The phrase may have been popular in socialist circles even before that. According to Popik, the saying dates back as early as 1903, when a local organizer for the Social Democratic Party in Wisconsin wrote in The Daily Northwestern, “Socialists are not satisfied with killing a few of the mosquitoes which come from the capittalist [sic] swamp; they want to drain the swamp.

None other than infamous labor organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, namesake of Mother Jones magazine, was known to have used the phrase. In a 1913 interview, Jones was reportedly quoted as saying, “The capitalist and striker—both men are all right—only they are sick; they need a remedy; they have been mosquito bitten. Let’s kill the virulent mosquito and then find and drain the swamp in which he breeds.”

In the years since, “drain the swamp” has been used by members of both parties to discuss ending grift and corruption in Washington. Ronald Reagan used the phrase during his time as president to describe how he would shrink the size and power of government. When Nancy Pelosi became the first Democratic speaker of the house in over a decade she vowed to “drain the swamp” in Washington by cracking down on corporate lobbying.

Trump, for his part, has been tweeting with the hashtag #draintheswamp to promote his 11th hour plan to reform congress while also attacking Hillary Clinton. His account tweeted using the hashtag 6 times in the first half of Wednesday’s presidential debate.

At this rate, maybe we can look forward to Trump’s plan for ending capitalism before election day.