Fetid Swamps and Invasive Species

A deer in the belly of a python, caught in Florid’s Everglades. Via Sun-Sentinel.

After the third presidential debate in 2016, I began to hear a new rallying cry that I had not heard from Trump and his supporters up to that point — drain the swamp! It’s a curious phrase, and I haven’t looked into who introduced it. But the imagery is clear enough. I’ve come back to think about this phrase since the continued intrigue about the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russian governmental agencies flourished in the release of Donald Jr.’s emails about meeting with Russian representatives.

Two things seem most salient at this point about the status of our political discourse with respect to this news. First, the Trump organism (such as it is) is not so much corrupt as colossally inept, as described by Yascha Mounk. And second, that the collective political apparatus in place as these events transpire barely has the resources to digest these events, let alone to neutralize them. It turns out the swamp analogy was apt. Washington is a naturalized ecosystem that is, at times, fetid and grotesque. But the Trumps did not come as engineers to drain it. They are an invasive species.

I grew up in South Florida, the hottest and most paved over swamp that has ever been drained. And because of that, I have always been morally opposed to drained swamps. Draining a swamp is a fiction — it’s paving over what is clearly there. It’s an ecosystem that is desperate to exist and can’t be held back for long. In the next centuries and beyond, I believe the people of Florida will learn this lesson. But for now, the tenacity of swamps should serve as a remonstrance to the hubris that makes people think that things that are by nature messy, complex, overgrown and difficult to navigate can simply be prettied up and covered over.

But there’s something else that happens with swamps when humans get involved — we get in over our heads, we don’t take the nature of things seriously enough, and we become impatient with the way things are. In Florida, this kind of thinking ALWAYS leads to invasive species. The natural history of Florida in the last 100 years is filled with stories of species not native to the complex ecosystems that comprise the everglades showing up — usually because some person didn’t think about it enough — and making a mess of things. We have Australian pine trees, gigantic Burmese pythons, Asian swamp eels, and myriad others — none of them are native, and they all thrive in habitats where they face no check on their numbers. The pythons are the worst of them; never has the species existed in an ecosystem so amenable to its success and so unprepared to cope with its ferocity. One report I read some years ago explains, quaintly, that all the rabbits are gone. That perhaps in the huge expanse of the Florida wilderness, there are no rabbits for hundreds of miles. Some reports suggest that in only a matter of years, there may be no mammals left in the Everglades. Snakes are too well equipped to predate them. And nothing — not humans, not alligators, not Cuban tree frogs (another invasive species) — are prepared to keep them in check.

It is a very human story — our own self-interest blinds us to our own hubris, and to the extremely complex world around us. I understand why Trump supporters wanted to “drain the swamp” — they saw Washington as a fetid, stinking bog that was good for no one. Its not the first swamp that has turned people off. The problem is that it is bigger than that, and the rhetoric and anxiety that led so many to see a simple solution for an non-simple reality led to a foolish electoral policy. This election has not drained a political system — it has seeded it with invasive species that are without precedent in the sphere of American political power. And they have no one to keep them in check. Politics is no less messy; the questions and issues facing America in the 21st century are no less complex today than they were in 2012 or will be in 2020. The politics of maintaining a democratic republic has always required dedicated, compromising, people with messy hands. Swamp-dwellers, if you will, that for some time did the work of navigating a fearsome place, in between what we all wanted individually, and what we all could have. That is the swamp that we have, and it is still there — wet, dark and complex as ever. Except now, the pythons have been released. And they will come to thrive in a swamp that will not — indeed cannot — be drained. God help the mammals.

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