Before I watched Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme’s new documentary The Swamp, which premiered this past week on HBO, most of what I knew about congressman Matt Gaetz could be summed up as “Trump boot licker. Giant forehead. Total asshole.”
In other words, “bad.” That’s a bad guy. Inasmuch as the Trump-loving forehead jockey assessment of Gaetz was essentially true (he recently retweeted a colleague calling him “the most pro-Trump member of Congress”), that’s generally the kind of reaction you can expect these days from following national political coverage of any kind, on either side, regardless of your politics. “Here are some bad people: don’t you just hate ’em?”
There are certainly times when we need that, when it’s warranted, and let’s face it, just fun, yet The Swamp seeks to depict the facet of politics that’s rarely covered: all the areas in which 75-85% of the sensible people in this country, and even most of the politicians themselves, agree (or at least say they do). Those are the solutions the political system was designed to tackle first.
In between applying pancake makeup every morning and calling Trump on the phone to grovel shamelessly, Gaetz (along with fellow Republican congressman Thomas Massie) expresses some surprisingly sensible views in The Swamp. Namely, that legislators should be less beholden to donors, that members of Congress should foreswear super PACs, that we should have independent redestricting, a lifetime ban on legislators becoming lobbyists (also known as “stopping the revolving door”), and a return to the system where the power to declare war is reserved for Congress.
Whether you believe it’s all for show or not (and Gaetz did vote against HR 1, the bill promising most of the things he claimed to be for), The Swamp depicts, in the broadest sense, some “bad guys” doing “good things.” It also devotes time to Gaetz’s support for Democrat Katie Hill, who resigned after her ex-husband leaked racy pictures of her in what seemed like a clear case of revenge porn. Hill joins Gaetz for a scene, calling him on his hypocrisy at every turn and making it even more infuriating that she resigned.
Again, whether you think any of this challenges your basic assumptions about Matt Gaetz is to some extent beside the point. The fact that the news barely covers bipartisan anti-corruption efforts only reinforces a system where there’s little incentive for them. Why work with other legislators on things you can fix when all the coverage (and with it, the donor money) goes to those who sling the most mud? As The Swamp depicts, our political polarization was not a grass-roots phenomenon.
The subjects of The Swamp are trying to challenge a system (or in many of the principals’ cases at least want to be seen challenging a system) where congressional assignments, in both parties, are doled out according to how much money the candidate can raise and where everything costs money. If you don’t come away from The Swamp believing that corrupt processes are the biggest problem in our increasingly failed state, you’ll be at least convinced that it’s a big one.
I spoke to The Swamp directors Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme (previously of Get Me Roger Stone) this week to ask how it all got so broken and whether we can ever fix it.
What was the idea behind The Swamp?
DANIEL DIMAURO: To understand how Congress is broken from the inside, and to do it through these Republicans who fashion themselves as whistleblowers within the system. We wanted to talk about how the money has corrupted the system and the leadership, but we also knew we wanted to approach it in a verité style, so we just started shooting to see where the year would take us. We had an idea that impeachment might be on the agenda. So we followed that, but we ultimately also found the storyline about how these conservative members are trying to create a coalition with the Democrats to wrestle the war powers back from the executive branch. We’re trying to present it to people as, holy shit, you might not know this, but there are Republicans who will align with Progressives on some of these issues. These Republicans they’re decrying the money in politics too. That was certainly a shock to us when we went in there.
Did you guys know that Matt Gaetz grew up in the Truman Show house when you started? Was that common knowledge?
MORGAN PEHME: No, we didn’t know that. In fact, I guess maybe we were a little unaware of just how toxic Matt Gaetz is on the national scene. And he became even more infamous throughout the year we followed him. But we were initially drawn to these Republicans because they were willing to be whistleblowers about corruption, and if you’ve ever covered politics, you know that the behind-closed-doors’ conversation is so radically different than what you hear them say on television. I find that that’s always so frustrating because you’re like, wow, if we just covered your talking points, we’re really not telling the public anything. The fact that these guys were willing to say the quiet part loud was part of what drew us to them. It was really only in the course of getting so deep into all these people’s worlds that we figured out exactly how Matt Gaetz rubs people.
All I knew going in, I would just see him pop up in the MAGA Grifter context. Seeing this, it seems to cover what I would think of as bipartisan efforts to pass what seemed like basic common-sense reforms. Why don’t those get more news coverage?
DIMAURO: Well, I think we try to address that in the film, especially with Matt Gaetz being such a central character. As to what Morgan was saying about him, his star was really rising in 2019, he’s one of the faces of the younger conservative movement that is very much aligned with Trump and Trump’s re-imagining of the Republican party, but he derives that power from using the incendiary rhetoric to get coverage. I don’t know how many times he was one of the top trending things on Twitter throughout the last year when we were following him. But that’s part of the problem that we try to address as well, because the media wants to focus on the food fight. That’s what gets them ratings, that’s how they sell more ads. Which in turn is just perpetuating the status quo. The reforms and HR1 are just not sexy for cable news to cover and even though as Lawrence Lessig says in our film, it’s probably the most ambitious reform legislation introduced in Congress since the voting rights act.
PEHME: There’s the shiny object element to it. It’s like, why don’t we talk about the endless wars? That’s a pretty big deal. The amount of damage that it’s done to our country and around the world, the billions and trillions of dollars it’s cost us. But at this point, Americans either are bored with it or just they’ve kind of thrown up their hands. So obviously the media’s coverage does not reflect the actual priorities or the most important issues for the country. It’s just whatever is going to be clickbait in the cycle. Matt Gaetz is really good at being that clickbait. The fact that he is such a one-dimensional character in the public’s eye is 100% his fault, because that’s the image that he’s cultivated. It’s frustrating in a sense, and I think the audience will share that frustration, that he’s actually this complex figure. He is trying to do some things that we should all agree upon while at the same time doing things that we should all be appalled at. That’s the type of gray area that there’s not a lot of room for in the news right now.
That seems like a problem of media structure, partly. Like the media is only geared to highlight conflict right now. Do you see any structural way that changes?
PEHME: I think the media responds to ratings, right? I mean, we just saw that there was this open letter from an MSNBC producer who left last week and she excoriated them for just looking for conflict and whatever was going to drive ratings. Certainly we all know that that is done on the other side of the aisle with Fox, and at CNN. But I think that ultimately the networks respond to the public, right? So if their ratings are cratering and if people are pushing back against that, then there’s going to be a different outcome. Meanwhile, I think podcasts are actually great, because they facilitate a discussion that’s much more thoughtful and involved and as more people realize, oh wait, I can’t just understand something in a 60-second soundbite, I actually have to look deeper. I think as the public has more options, like this type of discussion, there will be a greater receptivity to it.
So Katie Hill I thought was a great character in this. It seemed like she showed up specifically to find the gaps between what Matt Gaetz was saying and what he was actually doing. Did you consider going more into why she resigned at all? I still don’t entirely understand it, and this movie, seeing how good she was, made me even madder that she did resign.
PEHME: Yeah, I wished she hadn’t resigned. I think she was enormously embarrassed by the situation and felt that it incapacitated her ability to be an effective representative for her district. But I think it’s an Al Franken situation, where there were regrets in retrospect. But the ability to stay in the system and do so much good is counteracted by having to weather that scandal. But I think in retrospect it would be great if Katie Hill was still in Congress, but that was her decision to make, of course.
DIMAURO: A large part of her leaving was because her colleagues all threw her under the bus. We found that interesting that basically every member of Congress except Matt Gaetz threw her under the bus. Even though her alleged ethics violation, which would have been having a relationship with a staffer was not proven — she had a relationship with campaign staffer before she became a Congress member — even though the allegation wasn’t proven, the Democrats wanted to launch an investigation and ethics probe into her behavior and really just had no intention to stick up for her the way Matt Gaetz did. I think she considers him a friend for that, even though they disagree on so much.
We’re all in our bubbles now and we need to have dialogues with each other, even if we completely disagree, because the whole intent of the Congress, it was created by the founders to have representatives from around the country come together and find out what they can agree on and pass legislation. That’s just not happening anymore. It’s completely paralyzed and dysfunctional. But Katie Hill and Ro Khanna who are progressives can have a relationship with Matt Gaetz because they have a shared vision of Congress actually functioning again, and I think that’s a good thing for the country. We wanted to make that film because we feel it’s missing in our national discourse.
You point out the ways in which both parties are sort of broken in the same way and affected by the same forces. Yet why do Democrats seem to be so much more terrified of bad publicity?
PEHME: I think the Democrats are just in general inept at explaining themselves to the American public. I also think that because the tribalism is so strong, everybody is so wary of criticizing their own party because it could lift the other party. Like, oh God forbid you say anything bad about Joe Biden because you’re going to throw the election to Trump. I understand that psychology. But what I think people are failing to grasp– look, there’s a sense that if Biden wins, everything will go back to the way it used to be. But the way it used to be was screwed up! It was still owned by corporations and special interests. I think the Democrats in Congress, to be frank, were a lot less willing to criticize their own party because, I think, of fear of retribution from the leadership. Now that they’re in power, they have to put forward this idea that they can solve the problems, they don’t want to admit that there’s all this systemic corruption around them.
So that’s why I think this movie was like a cry for help. It was the members saying to the American people, “You have to pay attention because we’re stuck here. Unless you put the pressure on us, we’re not going to fix those things.” And Democrats have to realize, like, okay, yes Republicans are wholly owned by the fossil fuel industry, but Democrats are only half-owned by the fossil fuel industry. Now if Democrats take power, does that mean you’re going to get some sort of comprehensive climate change bill? No, that means you still don’t get climate change legislation through because you’re still owned by the fossil fuel industry.
That’s type of understanding that we hope the American people get. We can’t continue to treat politics like sports. Like, “I just need my team to win.” It was all well and good when the economy was humming and everything seemed fine for us to be like, “Oh, Congress, it’s so screwed up, but that’s just Congress being Congress.” Now that we have all these pressing problems that nobody has solutions to, we can’t afford for Congress to be broken the way it’s been in the past.
In The Swamp we see these congressmen more as people than we generally do in news coverage. And, a lot of these legislators’ lives… honestly, they seem kind of miserable. Their day to day existence doesn’t seem that fun to me. They spend it all fundraising and having people yelling stuff at them, and meanwhile they’re not really achieving any of the policy outcomes that they came to get either. Do you get a sense of why they do it? Is it just for the money? And if that’s true, why are some of them are insanely rich and pushing 90 and still doing it? What are they getting out of this?
DIMAURO: I think first and foremost power. You can extrapolate from there. Whether it’s self-serving, or if it’s actually that they want to do good for their country and they’re a patriot, they’re still on that quest to always maintain that power. And that’s the key thing that the lobbyists take advantage of. If people went into Congress and they were like, “Well, I’m just here to make some policy and move the country forward and I don’t care about re-election,” there wouldn’t be such a high incumbency rate. Every calculation they make is to protect themselves and their party and it’s all top-down from the leadership. As Thomas Massie says in the film, the congressional pin that they wear, it’s like the precious from Lord of the Rings because people treat you differently and it gives you power and everyone thinks you’re special. The police do what you tell them to do. You get accustomed to that.
And in order to maintain that power, you got to pony up hundreds of thousands of dollars to fuel your campaign and to fuel your upward ascent within the party. And the only place you’re getting hundreds of thousands of dollars are from the corporations, the corporate lobbyists, the big donors.
PEHME: I think we made this movie to challenge people. To challenge our suppositions about who are the bad guys who are the good guys in our government. It’s supposed to make you feel uncomfortable and we need a shock to the system in this country right now. I read this quote by Pauline Kael this morning in the New York Times about how the mark of a good film is that you don’t leave feeling virtuous. I hope that people watch this movie and open their minds to having their own preconceived notions challenged.