Swamp Freaks: Bizarre Adventures in a Grifter's Paradise

REVIEW: 'The Big Break: The Gamblers, Party Animals, and True Believers Trying to Win in Washington While America Loses Its Mind'

June 24, 2023

"Can the senator's penis please be off the record?"

This remarkable sentence, uttered by a panicked press aide after his boss, the seven-fingered Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont.), relieved himself in an organic pea field during an interview with Washington Post journalist Ben Terris, hardly stands out among the array of mind-boggling details recounted in Terris's new book, The Big Break: The Gamblers, Party Animals, and True Believers Trying to Win in Washington While America Loses Its Mind.

Tester's rogue member is merely an aside in this collection of profiles highlighting the unelected power players who survived, thrived, and failed in national politics since Donald Trump annihilated the status quo, violating precious "norms" left and right. Washington may have "felt different" during the Trump presidency, Terris writes, but The Swamp proved as resilient as ever. Rather than being drained as promised, it simply "filled up with new creatures." And, boy, are they something to behold. The Big Break is not for the faint of heart or stomach.

The book opens in December 2021. Leah Hunt-Hendrix, the 38-year-old granddaughter of billionaire oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, is throwing a holiday party at her $2.2 million Victorian mansion in a trendy Washington neighborhood. Her beloved Maltipoo, named after Malcolm X, roams the living room floor scrounging for crumbs. Ryan Grim, editor of The Intercept, is wearing a Harriet Tubman T-shirt and chatting with the half-brother of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The host is trying to gin up support for Mandela Barnes, the left-wing Wisconsin Senate candidate she met at a pool party in Miami around the same time he accused the her grandfather's industry of "destroying the world." He was "riding in one of those inflatable unicorns."

This is normal.

Before moving to D.C., Hunt-Hendrix summered in the West Bank while getting her Ph.D. in religion, ethics, and politics at Princeton under Cornell West. Now she's a professional progressive activist and fundraiser who primarily backs candidates who pledge to abolish the fossil fuel industry. She worries that people are only interested in her because of her family's money, which they obviously are. She's considering adopting a child or writing a memoir about her love life. "I'm pretty anti-elite," the oil heiress tells Terris while sipping a matcha latte.

Hunt-Hendrix is actually one of the more sympathetic characters in the book. That's a low bar, especially when the competition is Sean McElwee, the Democratic messaging guru who cofounded the polling firm and advocacy group Data for Progress. (George Soros is a major donor.) He tells Terris he was "not particularly emotional" about breaking up with his girlfriend of seven years and vows to "have a hot boy summer" with fellow data nerd David Shor. The same girlfriend recalls that while lying in bed with McElwee several weeks into their relationship, he forced her to listen to the eulogy Ted Kennedy gave at his brother Robert Kennedy's funeral in 1968.

Journalists and other liberals hate McElwee now that he's been exposed for gambling on elections—in some cases betting against the Democratic candidates he was also advising—and "consulting" for the brother of crypto fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried. But Terris, who followed McElwee from the height of his power all the way through the "I can't comment on advice of counsel" phase of his downfall, notes that McElwee "could get away with this kind of stuff because Democrats in Washington believed that he was a force for good." That included many "bigwig journalists" with whom he chatted regularly on a group Slack channel, and who would thoughtfully decline to quote him in stories when he said something "offensive."

McElwee is hardly the first obnoxious character given a pass by Democrats and media elites for being a political ally. In fact, the pollster's demise had less to do with the obnoxious behavior than it did with the fact that his midterm polling was so inaccurate. The liberal ruling class has been willing to overlook far worse from people they consider allies—fraudsters such as Bankman-Fried and Carlos Watson, or criminal monsters such as Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein. Yet the Trump era was supposed to have proved that conservatives were uniquely predisposed to excuse bad behavior.

The Republican-aligned characters aren't especially sympathetic either. Those profiled in the book each embody a certain archetype of a creature struggling to navigate The Swamp since 2016: Matt Schlapp, the lobbyist and CPAC chairman (and broccoliniphobe) who went all in on Trump after the Access Hollywood tape and never looked back, even (or especially) after he was accused of having "pummeled" the "junk" of a Herschel Walker campaign staffer. Ian Walters, the CPAC communications director who fell out with Schlapp and the Republican Party over their embrace of Trump and obsession with "fighting." (Not to mention the fact that Schlapp once mused of Walter's recently deceased adopted father: "Wherever [he] is, he's got access to really know what the real vote counts were, what really happened [in the 2020 election].")

Robert Stryk is by far the most colorful. A high school expellee, college dropout, and failed mayoral candidate, Stryk almost accidentally stumbled into a lucrative career as a lobbyist connecting (mostly unsavory) foreign governments to the Trump administration. He "appreciated the chance to be taken seriously" in Washington, but by the end of the book, Stryk has accused the author of being a child predator and lamented the Biden administration's refusal to grant him permission to lobby for Russian ally Belarus after the war in Ukraine broke out. A hero he is not, but that doesn't mean one can't take some pleasure in the angst people like him caused ruling-class liberals who couldn't stand the fact that such an uncredentialed individual could succeed in The Swamp without their permission.

To his credit, Terris is eminently fair to all his subjects, even if they don't necessarily deserve it. That's a good thing. He refrains from the sort of editorializing some liberal media types insist is necessary when writing about conservatives in particular—so-called enemies of democracy. His own paper—the one that prevents democracy from dying in darkness—published a review of The Big Break that argues the book "suffers to an extent" from the author's "larger commendable commitment to showing and not telling" and trusting readers to draw their own conclusions. (Imagine that!) Liberal outlets criticized Terris in 2015 because his profile of Benny Johnson, the ex-BuzzFeed blogger accused of plagiarism, wasn't overtly mean enough.

Most Americans have no idea how politics works in Washington beyond a vague sense that everything is terrible and corrupt. Good for them. Many would be horrified to learn just how petty and dumb things are in The Swamp. That's why anyone eager to learn anything about the federal government would be better off watching Veep than The West Wing, which no doubt inspired scores of Millennial liberals to go into politics and try to "change the world." Presumably, most of them are lobbyists by now. If books are more your style, and you would like a taste of how "normal" Washington really works these days, The Big Break is a good place to start.

The Big Break: The Gamblers, Party Animals, and True Believers Trying to Win in Washington While America Loses Its Mind
by Ben Terris
Twelve, 352 pp., $30