“There are Republicans who agree with a lot of the liberals that the reason Congress is so broken is the explosion of money.”
It wasn’t long ago that President Trump’s “drain the swamp” chant became a popular rallying cry for Republicans to take back the White House and fix the problems in the federal government. But, upon winning the presidency in 2016, did Trump actually succeed? That could depend on who you ask, but directors Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme tackle the meaning behind one of the president’s favorite phrases, which also happens to be the inspiration behind their new documentary — The Swamp. The documentary features in-depth interviews from Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Thomas Massie (Ky.), and Ken Buck (Colo.). Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna and former Congresswoman Katie Hill also make appearances.
Though politics have become increasingly polarized, DiMauro and Pehme believe if that there’s one thing that all Americans can agree on, it’s the ongoing dysfunction in Washington, something that has been highlighted by not only the president but also former presidential candidate and progressive Bernie Sanders. The documentary pulls back the curtain on how lobbyists and special interest groups in Washington can influence policy based on financial contributions. For what it was like to cover politics behind the scenes, check out our interview below.
Wake-Up Call: First things first — let’s get to your latest documentary, “The Swamp. “ It features both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including Thomas Massie, Ken Buck, and Ro Khanna. But it largely focuses on one of President Trump’s most avowed loyalists, Matt Gaetz, who you paint as a “renegade.” What was the decision behind that?
Morgan Pehme: We were looking for members of Congress who would essentially be whistleblowers about the corruption…and part of what interested us about him was his perpetual wars that we’ve been in and then seeing if it’s possible to come together with a bipartisan consensus to address what we think is the core problem with our government, which is the corruption that underlies all the decisions that are really being made of any consequence.
The documentary focuses on the relationship between Matt Gaetz and Ro Khanna, who are both on completely different ends of the political spectrum and yet team up to combat the power of special interest groups in Washington. What was their dynamic behind the scenes?
Pehme: Matt and Ro, they have genuine respect for each other.
They’re a bit on the fringes, they do kind of overlap in some of these ideas and then they have a, somewhat of a generational bond because they’re younger in comparison to a lot of the members of Congress, so they do see eye to eye on why Congress is so dysfunctional with the corruption and special interests and the lobbyists, consultant complex kind of having control over the whole process. And then additionally, on the issue of ending the endless wars.
They actually try to work within Congress the way the founders intended it to work, which is for people with opposing views to come together on the things they can agree with and to work in a bipartisan way of trying to move the country forward.
How did the interview with Matt Gaetz and Katie Hill come together?
Pehme: Matt and Katie Hill, they share a genuine friendship that was one built upon mutual respect. They are both really policy wonks — that’s almost a Matt Gaetz secret. The fact that he reads the bills and is deeply knowledgeable about the legislation. And I think they developed this mutual respect on the Armed Services Committee. And then when Katie Hill became embroiled and this scandal, so to speak, Matt Gaetz came to her defense. I think that she appreciated that — it would have been very easy for him to pile on, but he’s maddeningly complex and he oftentimes takes positions that you would never expect Matt Gaetz to take, and so he did really seek out her advice on whether he should go forward with not taking the corporate PAC money. And I think that she both helped get him there, but also called him out on the fact that he’s not really doing the thing that is most necessary to bring about real reform in money and politics, which is to create a public matching funds system, which is really how elected officials and candidates can get away from the control of the special interest groups. That’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie because it’s just so genuine. And to be frank, she kinda schools him.
You definitely shed a light on like the impact of lobbyists and special interest groups, but what are some like maybe other takeaways that you’re hoping that people get from this documentary?
Daniel DiMauro: We kind of start the film with this premise that everyone knows Congress is broken and our intro is kind of a montage of voices from both sides of the aisle, just decrying the dysfunction and corruption of government. And that was sort of our premise going in when we thought that actually focusing on the Republicans who — we ourselves, we are liberals and progressives — but we thought it’d be interesting to highlight how we have a lot of views that are in common about the dysfunction of Congress, the corruption that has paralyzed it as a functioning body. So by taking that view, I think by the end of the film, we want to show people that yes, we are in our corners, we are very divided and there are so many issues that ideologically, we could be disgusted by the other side on. But there’s hope in the fact that there are Republicans who agree with a lot of the liberals that the reason Congress is so broken is the explosion of money, the power being held by the special interests and the small coterie of big donors that give to both parties and the leadership structure whose lifeblood on are those donors.
And the fact that we agree on those things means that there’s hope for the future — we’re closer than we’ve ever been to as a people coming together for the common good of our country, which is fixing our government, which is so broken.
You two also teamed up for “Get Me Roger Stone,” which explores Roger Stone’s life and career as a Republican operative. This documentary relevant once again given the latest developments. What do you make of President Trump’s decision to commute the sentence of his long-time ally?
Pehme: Trump never does anything that’s not in his self-interest. And with him doing so poorly in the polls right now, it made sense for him to want to have his personal political guru in his corner, going into these final three and a half months of the campaign to try to right the ship and kind of pull a rabbit out of his hat — very much like [what] happened in the 2016 cycle, so I think that’s what we ended up with a pardon. We think that the timing is significant, not just because Roger was about to go to jail, but it’s because Trump really needs Roger running on the swamp agenda, which at the time was extensively pushing back against the power of the Super PACs, the lobbyists, the donors, all the people who had corrupted the system. On the Democratic side, you saw Bernie Sanders erupt out of nowhere, essentially talking about the rigged system and the corruption that Washington is enthralled to. The fact that they were coming at that message and animating such a large part of the electorate at the same time, shows that on this critical issue, there’s not as much daylight between us as we think.
And what’s important to understand is whether you think the Democrats are more corrupt or the Republicans are more corrupt, as long as they’re both engaging in the systemic corruption, the corrupt agenda is going to win out. So if you have one party in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry and you have the other party, that’s only halfway in that pocket, you don’t get significant climate change legislation.
Yeah, that was something that was highlighted in the documentary — what benefits lobbyists and special interest groups is nothing getting done because it basically maintains the status quo.
Pehme: It also benefits leadership. Leadership is in a position where maintaining the status quo is maintaining their power. And that is the same for Democrats and Republicans alike. Another thing that we want people to understand is that, we elevate our party and we always forgive all the sins of our party and that we point out the same thing about the other party and excoriate them for it.
We approached this, not from a partisan standpoint, but from a good government standpoint. Who are the people who are representing the American people’s interests, not some partisan interest?
You guys took Roger Stone seriously before most people did. You know, following Matt Gaetz and his character — what kind of political future do you think he has?
Pheme: It’s hard to make these sorts of predictions, but like it’s undeniable that he’s a rising star of the conservative movement of the Republican party. It’s yet to be seen if the kind of face of the Republican party will be shifting once again. But, right now, it’s Trump’s party and Matt Gaetz is one of the most powerful members of Congress in the Trump-Republican Party. I think people do dismiss him as not being serious, but you know, we would just caution to do that at your peril, because the kind of dirty secret about Matt Gaetz is, you know, it’s so easy to push back at some of his incendiary rhetoric and say, “Oh, this guy’s such an idiot,” and we often dismiss people with opposing views as idiots.
The scary thing about Matt Gaetz is that he is not an idiot. He’s very smart. He’s a lawyer who has his nose in a book when he’s not on media, on the media throwing bombs or at the White House advising the president.
The documentary had a lot of memorable quotes but one of the ones I was most struck by was by Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig. He said, “The politics of hate is the most productive way of fundraising we have.” What are your thoughts on that quote?
DiMauro: Unfortunately, it’s a true statement that Professor Lawrence Lessig says. We show in the film how we really see the turning point in our modern political history with Newt Gingrich and the expansion of fundraising and the perpetual campaign. So what was important to us in dealing with such a complex subject like Matt Gaetz, we really had to explain who he was while at the same time explaining the structural problems of government, explaining what happened over the course of the year, spending time with these other characters. But there’s these dualities and contradictions with Matt Gaetz that we kind of had to explain and of course the 800-pound gorilla in the room was Trump.
We basically said to him, how could you believe in “drain the swamp” and believe all these things about the corruption in government, when you so blindly and unconditionally support and defend the president, who has completely gone against his campaign promises about draining the swamp?
Sort of the great irony and the great tragedy of Matt Gaetz of kind of freeing himself from the lobbyists, big-donor structure, and the PAC money structure in Congress… The great irony is that to offset that he has to be such a divisive member of Congress playing up the politics of pain. And unfortunately, that’s the reality we’re living in.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared on Medium.