A later version of L’Enfant’s plan for DC, one can clearly see why you would assume DC is more than a bit marshy. Drafted by Andrew Ellicot, obtained from the Wikimedia Foundation.

“I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away from Washington’s swamp, spending my evening with all of you with a much, much larger crowd and much, much better people.” -Donald Trump, Remarks in Pennsylvania on the 29th of April in 2017

While the fact that Trump would purposefully scorn the people who ACTUALLY got him elected is not surprising, it’s still non-traditional for a modern President to not attend the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Through the late Bush and Obama administrations, it became a sort of venting space for the holders of America’s highest office to express their sense of humor (or at least the one they had written for them), a properly humanizing venture away from the constant thrusts and parries of the 24 hour news cycle. However, Trump, who is alleged to almost completely lack a sense of humor, is once again back to his strange cycle of public denouncement and private reconciliation, holding his own rally on the date of the correspondents dinner in some mixture of spite and unwillingness to face a hostile crowd. However, like many people, I’m honestly burnt out on active rage against Trump- while I loathe the man, there’s little citizens can do to face the executive when the legislative branch is a much more important target. Instead, I feel I should look at a more common piece of political rhetoric in our day and age- the description of the fine city of Washington DC as a “swamp” that needs to be drained.

I had never thought to question this description as anything but a clever bit of history. It’s a common story in history classes that the city was built in a particularly swampy region of the mid-Atlantic, situated at the intersection of two major rivers (the Anacostia and Potomac) with countless other small tributaries nearby, which reportedly made summers here unpleasant. So imagine my surprise when I saw a link to this article in the middle of the election cycle, alleging that DC’s swampy nature was about as real as Comey’s investigation into Clinton. So, we’re confronted with the question- why do people keep repeating something that is evidently a lie?

It perhaps naive to ask a question with a quite obvious answer- it’s just a bit of rhetoric used by those who consciously position themselves against the “corrupt Washington establishment.” We tend to thing of swamps as negative- dark, dirty, filled with all manner of ungodly creatures and strange folk. Why not add this on to the constant barrage of negativity our fine city receives by degrading it more? It’s not hard to look and find politicians who campaign on the idea of punishing DC for being a flourishing urban area, even when they can’t find proper evidence of it. All this is to say that, much like most of our modern political sphere, falsehoods that feel good continue to be effective. C’est la vie, I suppose.

A woodcut of Livy and Sallust from the Encylopedia Britannica. Livy looks at a book with an unimpressed expression on his face, while his compatriot gives a strange look.

Livy was never an easy one to impress

“The following are questions to which I would have every reader pay close attention: the kind of lives men lived; what their moral principles were; and by what skills, both at home and in the field, our dominion was born and grew. Then let him follow how at first, as discipline gradually  collapsed, there was, as it were, a disintegration of morals; then note how more and more they slipped and finally began to fall headlong until we have reached the present times in which we cannot tolerate either our own vices or their remedies.” – Livy, The History of Rome from Its Foundation (trans. by Francese and Smith)

It’s been almost stylish among the armchair historians of the era to either propose or refute the theory that America, like the Roman Republic, its spiritual predecessor, is destined to descend into yet another absolutist empire. I can’t say I necessarily agree with such wide sweeping apocalyptic proclamations. However, that’s not to say that American society is moving in a direction I profoundly disagree with. Livy, despite the morals he stood for, has a valid point: we learn from history by seeing how those who changed it managed to, and find out how to emulate or prevent it from happening again.

One can clearly see this from Livy’s points about the disintegration of morals. Now, I do not mean to sound like some elderly man crying about Americans not being socially coerced into prudishness, but rather are referring to some of our most cherished ideas: inclusion and compromise.

The disintegration of inclusion is more of a backslide in our attempt to bring it to a final sort of fruition. Despite our banter about all men being created equal and life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (both phrases likely penned by a slaveowner), we’ve often only paid lip service to it. And with our president’s executive ban on immigration, to which he implied that a religious test would be a component of, we’ve likely got much further to backslide- soon we’ll be forcing all the Irish who flooded over the (Canadian) border and got birthright citizenship into going back to Europe.

Moreover, Americans seem to have entirely misplaced the art of compromise in the past two decades. Remember when the Republican party wasn’t ran on a platform of completely obstructing anything that didn’t come from their party, and when the world wasn’t divided into two groups of citizens with diametrically opposed views of the most basic facts? When we wouldn’t dare dream of electing a man whose political career started with racist conspiracy theories? When we didn’t have to resign ourselves to a president who was endorsed by neo-Nazis?

What I mean to say in all of this is that Livy’s turn of phrase should not be considered merely within his own work, but in our lives as humans- what can our history tell us about today, and how to shape tomorrow?

“‘American carnage,’ my Aunt Sally: The correct term is ‘American capitalism.’ Jobs are lost to automation, innovation, obsolescence, the moving finger of fate.” -Garrison Kellior

I only quite recently learned that Garrison Keillor, one of America’s greatest (and last) radio comedians, had a side gig writing columns for the Washington Post. He’s an amazing observer of people and master at dry comedy, and it was quite sad to see him leave his hosting gig. However, that’s not the concern of this analysis.

Keillor’s narration has always had an echo of the folksy and old-fashioned, something commentators have attributed to a focus on the Midwest, but is nevertheless used to soften his exclamations and give himself an air of gentility that often elevates an argument. Few men would ever use “my Aunt Sally” as an exclamation in this day and age, and that perhaps informs the exact reason he does it.

For context, this essay is in response to Trump’s inauguration, a call for the GOP to get their head out of their behinds and resist if they truly believe in any of the values they proclaim. Keillor’s particular rhetorical target in this instance is Trump’s fight to “make America(n industry) great again,” a constantly debunked yet widely echoed comment on the campaign trail. Keillor refutes Trump’s borderline apocalyptic narrative of “American carnage” by pointed out that what’s struck America is not some form of targeted assault by Obama, both Clintons, and anyone who doesn’t look like Trump on America, but rather simply how the the capitalistic cookie crumbles.

Many of Trump’s voters set themselves up for this decades ago when they fervently backed Reagan and his trickle-down platform, which relied on American manufacturing and finishing the job on axing unions. The fact is that these workers being downsized are the product of the advent of Walmart and the insistence on pulling yourself up by your bootstraps that they find to have backfired on them when they found themselves with no job and often few skills to develop into something else. Keillor points out quite simply that as long as we preach pro-business policies our economy is going to continue to evolve and leave many behind- something he compares to “the moving finger of fate.”

Keillor’s analysis proves quite compelling- his way of speaking has more in common with a genteel college lecturer rather than the upper torsos in suits that fill cable news and manage to divide us and objective reality into fractured shards. While his patter has an air of the old-fashioned, the fact is we all have some longing for the idealized time when cursing was still considered improper and politeness was a well recognized virtue, even though it never really existed in a way we’d find acceptable today. Keillor conveys ideas that could get others direct mail death threats with grace and civility, and charms the lot into agreeing with him.