With his approval rating mired in the 30s, generic ballot polling showing Republicans well behind Democrats, and recent special election results not boding well for his party, President Trump’s devoted a good bit of his Tuesday evening speech to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) to reminiscing about his 2016 victory.
At one point, Trump recounted the origins of the campaign slogan he first used on October 17, 2016, at a time when his campaign was on the ropes — “drain the swamp.”
“A couple of you are a little marginal about this, but I came up with this expression, it’s called ‘drain the swamp,’ right, drain the swamp. And I hated it, I hated it. And it was a speech during the campaign, and it was a term that was actually given to me, usually like to think them up myself, but this was given to me — which bothered me too. I never like that.
But they had this expression ‘drain the swamp.’ And I hated it, I thought it was so hokey. I said, ‘that is the hokiest, give me a break, I am embarrassed to say it.’ And I was in Florida where 25,000 people were going wild, and I said, ‘and we will drain the swamp’ — the place went crazy. I couldn’t believe it. And then the next speech I said it again and they went even crazier. ‘We will drain the swamp… we will drain the swamp,’ and every time I said it I got the biggest applause. And after four or give times I said, boy what a great expression, I love saying it, it’s amazing.”
Coincidentally, Trump’s remarks about his infamous catchphrase came on the same night the Washington Post provided more detail than ever before about how it originated with Cambridge Analytica and Steve Bannon, who became Trump’s campaign chairman two months before he debuted “drain the swamp.”
According to Chris Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee who spoke with the Post, Bannon oversaw Cambridge Analytica’s 2014 effort “to collect troves of Facebook data as part of an ambitious program to build detailed profiles of millions of American voters.” That effort included testing “of anti-establishment messages that later would emerge as central themes in President Trump’s campaign speeches” — including “drain the swamp” and “deep state.”
Speaking about the 2014 tests that Bannon oversaw, Wylie told the Post that “Trump wasn’t in our consciousness at that moment; this was well before he became a thing… He wasn’t a client or anything.”
Wylie added that the only foreign politician tested at that time was Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Cambridge Analytica found that right-leaning Americans had surprisingly favorable views of him.
“The only foreign thing we tested was Putin,” Wylie told the Post. “It turns out, there’s a lot of Americans who really like this idea of a really strong authoritarian leader and people were quite defensive in focus groups of Putin’s invasion of Crimea.”
In recent days, Cambridge Analytica has come under fire for harvesting personal information from millions of Facebook users without their permission, and retaining personal data even after Facebook requested they destroy it in 2015.
At the time Trump debuted his “drain the swamp” slogan, his bid for the presidency was flagging amid a sex scandal involving 14 women coming forward to accuse him of assault. But with some help from WikiLeaks and James Comey, Trump surged and was able to ultimately prevail over Hillary Clinton in the electoral college.
Would that have been possible without data Bannon and Cambridge Analytica pilfered from Facebook users through personality tests, then used to hone messaging that would eventually be used by Trump? As Trump himself acknowledges, the slogan that was the fruit of that labor certainly played a key role.