‘Fishermen, sharpen your hooks, bring out the cheese balls and grease your bicycles. Soon there’s going to be trout fishing inside the Beltway.”
That’s the first time the phrase “inside the Beltway” – meaning, in this instance, the physical realm within the I-495 ring road that surrounds Washington, D.C. – appeared in the Washington Post, the official Beltway paper. It showed up in a 1977 story about stocking the Anacostia River with trout.
It wasn’t until 1983 that the term became reliably figurative, signifying, according to William Safire, “of interest to tea-leaf readers of Washington goings-on but strictly a yawner to the World Out There.”
Since then, the term has grown more sinister, suggestive of elitism and even – shudder! – globalism. In a 60 Minutes interview with Charlie Rose (since memory-holed for his sexual transgressions), then–White House strategist Steve Bannon repeated a common populist talking point: “Let’s talk about the swamp. The swamp is a business model. . . . It’s a donor-consultant K Street lobbyist-politician – seven of the nine . . . wealthiest counties in America ring Washington, D.C.”
That’s a bit misleading. There are far richer enclaves than the suburbs around D.C. Indeed, the idea that, say, Virginia’s Loudoun County has more fat cats than, say, Greenwich, Conn., or Silicon Valley is silly. But that caricature does help advance the claim that D.C. is out of touch with “real America.”
And there’s some truth to that. But the flip side to D.C. “elites” – Beltway insiders – being out of touch with real America is that they’re more in touch with the real Washington. They keep up with the gossip that pervades their swampy surroundings. Shouldn’t we all be happy that at least some people know what’s going on?
Meet the Press host Chuck Todd recently said that he wasn’t surprised by the quotes in Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury; he was surprised they were on the record. The point being that while some of the actual quotes and anecdotes in Wolff’s book may not be reliable according to a high journalistic standard (or, in a few instances, any standard), Beltway denizens have heard similar things in conversations with administration and Hill staffers and reporters – or seen them with their own eyes – for a very long time.
Wolff’s account is like a caricature, but caricatures only work when they exaggerate certain truths.
There’s a rough analogy between Hollywood and D.C. (or, really, any “elite” institution and D.C.). The behavior of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, et al., was well known among Hollywood bigwigs long before the New York Times spilled the beans. The change came when everyone else found out and celebrities started acting like French collaborators, suddenly desperate to claim they had really been members of the resistance all along.
Similarly, insiders knew what Wolff had to tell before he told the world. The difference is that in Trump’s D.C., unlike in Weinstein’s Hollywood, few want to keep the “open secrets” secret. Beltway insiders have been doing everything they can to reveal the underlying reality, admittedly sometimes cutting corners and waxing a bit overzealous in the process.
One cause of the zealotry is the Trump administration’s insistence that the president is a “stable genius” with a savant-like grasp on policy detail. Worse, the president’s need for flattery and his base’s intense defensiveness combine to make public sycophancy the only reliable proof of loyalty. This dynamic encourages Republicans – and some conservative commentators – to be especially fawning in public yet brutally honest when speaking off the record.
The public doesn’t hear congressmen, senators, or talk-show hosts venting their frustrations, but inside the Beltway, the disconnect between the talking points and the talkers is well known. And, little by little, the reality of the disconnect makes its way to the broader public.
After la guerre, we’ll see how many passengers on the Trump train stick to their talking points and how many claim to have been members of la résistance all along, leaking their insider gossip for the sake of the greater good.