Our Dirty Game
We have a sitting President and a Vice President heading up opposing tickets. These candidates possess experience on the world stage. They understand the processes to advocate for and push through domestic policy considerations. Yet, both candidates and their political parties can apparently agree on only one thing: voting for the opposition would certainly ruin the country.
Instead of recognition that the opposing candidate is at least minimally qualified to hold the Office of President of the United States of America, we see personal attacks on candidates and their family members. Instead of robust debates on issues confronting Americans, we suffer through juvenile name calling. Instead of substance, we have countless surrogates making unfounded allegations about the other side.
If you try to cut through the vitriol, we see how one side quickly coalesced behind its candidate with no challengers. We have a party well-organized at the state and local levels. We have a party opposed to strong federal power with a candidate advocating that the federal government leads an attack on individual rights. The candidate favors legislation making it more difficult for immigrants to become citizens of the U.S. This candidate believes that legislative efforts at the state level are desperately needed to replace potential adverse popular vote totals.
We also have a candidate that survived challenges from within his own party to secure the nomination. In run up to the nomination, the candidate was charged as being too moderate of a voice and not sufficiently progressive to take the country in a bold, new direction. The candidate and party argue that federal government plays a critical role in responding to issues of national importance. This candidate encourages voting by all eligible citizens as that process then selects the electors, not partisan state legislatures.
But how do you peel away the hyperboly and outright lies to discover these positions when one candidate asserts that “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution” if the opponent were elected? A candidate was deemed “repulsive” and “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.”
Of course, I am describing the Presidential election of 1800 between President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson. Two of our Founding Fathers make the current mudfest between Trump and Biden appear as child’s play. Indeed, the Presidential election of 1800 is often referred to as the Revolution of 1800 for elections and the birthplace of the modern negative campaign.
Perhaps we can learn about modern campaigning with a brief review of highlights, or lowlights, from the Adams-Jefferson battle. Reference to a few other campaign smears over the years may assist in placing the current mess better in perspective, although the current campaigns do appear different in one aspect.
A good starting point for analysis of the Revolution of 1800 is a few years earlier with George Washington’s Farewell Address. Washington noted some pitfalls in a strong two party system. He cautioned against partisan divides resulting from a two party system, especially the impacts on such a young republic still seeking to gain its footing.
Fast forward four years later and we experienced the dirtiest Presidential campaign in the history of U.S. politics. So much for the sage advice of Washington. The 1800 campaign pitted former close friends and allies in the rebellion against England. Adams and Jefferson were instrumental in unifying the colonies. They worked tirelessly together to nurture the new country. They contributed to crafting the U.S. Constitution. Each served in Washington’s administration. BFFs for certain — until politics interfered.
Jefferson became the voice and symbol of strong states’ rights and limited federal involvement. Jefferson opposed deficit spending to broaden federal activities. He opposed taxes to support the expansion of the U.S. Navy and Army. Adams remained the leader of the Federalists who wanted stronger centralized authority as the young country began to expand. The Federalist posited that the federal government played a key role in unifying the nation.
The Federalists, however, remained disorganized in 1800. Alexander Hamilton lead a faction of the Federalists who argued for even greater centralization of power at the federal level. To Hamilton, the Federalists would be “settling” for Adams as a candidate who would not push the Federalist agenda far enough. Can anyone say Bernie Sanders?
These fundamental disagreements concerning the role of government remained a wedge between Adams and Jefferson until July 4, 1826. Adams, age 90, and Jefferson, age 83, each passed away on that date within hours of each other. The last words of John Adams: “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”
These well-educated, sophisticated, brothers in arms, and architects of the republic chose the path of extreme mud slinging when campaigning for the highest office in the land. A Jefferson Presidency would create a nation where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced,” according to Adams. Really? Jefferson advocated that school curricula would include “Rape, Adultery & Incest, 101”? Perhaps robbery and murder could be taught at trade schools.
Not to be outdone, Adams was often presented as a rageful, warmongering liar. The fact that a perpetually angry champion of war may appear inconsistent with one who is supposedly a hermaphrodite did not slow the personal insults and attacks.
The election of 1800 witnessed the first public campaigning for President. Candidates quickly turned to the most powerful media tool available — newspapers — to spread their messages. Many newspaper editors and journalists were either already reliably partisan or became such in these processes. It turns out that Jefferson personally secretly funded one such influential journalist, James Callander, to ensure that Callander’s incendiary, anti-Adams pamphlets would be published in great numbers. Adams offered assistance to the President of Yale University who then used all available resources to spread the rumor that wives and daughters would become prostitutes under Jefferson. Imagine if they had access to Facebook and Twitter.
Yet, somehow, the nation survived. The young country was not ruined with a Jefferson Presidency and it surely would not have been ruined with a second term for Adams. The tied voting of the Electoral College for the 1800 election remains a separate story in and of itself. Depending on the results of the Biden-Trump election, we may need to dig deeper on that topic in a separate article.
Negative campaigning and personal attacks have been a staple in Presidential campaigns since 1800. Most negative campaigning pales in comparison with the personal attacks lodged in the Revolution of 1800. Nonetheless, a few gems stand out over the years.
Perhaps the art of negative campaigning rests firmly in the DNA of the Adams. The second dirtiest Presidential campaign remains the 1828 contest between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. The election headlines in newspapers included sex, adultery and pimping. General Jackson’s wife, Rachel, had been previously married. The Adams campaign openly questioned whether Rachel had been properly divorced before tying the knot with Jackson. The allegations proved sufficient for Adams to charge Jackson as an adulterer and Rachel as a bigamist.
Adams had served as Ambassador to Russia. Jackson charged Adams with providing an American woman for the pleasure of the Russian Czar. Jackson also used the partisan press to his advantage. Jackson wrote to newspaper editors providing instructions how to counter attacks from Adams and provided canon fodder for additional, unfounded attacks on Adams. Good thing our current candidates do not posses any close relationships with media outlets.
It should be noted that no evidence exists to support the claim that Adams pimped while divorce records for Rachel Jackson could never be located. Of course, facts do not matter when there exists a salacious story.
Attack ads and negative campaigning obviously continued up to more current times. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson used the “Daisy” ad to portray Barry Goldwater as a risk to bring about nuclear war. In the ad, a little girl is seen picking petals from a daisy as a voiceover counts down to zero. The camera zooms in to the girl’s eye as a nuclear explosion erupts at zero. LBJ’s voice then asserts “all of God’s children can live, or go into darkness.” Ouch.
In 1988, George W. Bush unveiled the infamous Willie Horton ad against his opponent Michael Dukakis. Willie Horton was a prisoner in Dukakis’ home state of Massachusetts. Horton was furloughed on weekends from prison as part of a program to reintroduce certain prisoners to society. On one furlough, Horton kidnapped a young couple, stabbed the boy and raped the girl. The ad walked through the events and ended with “Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime.”
At least a campaign could argue that these modern ads attacked positions on issues and not the person. We could substitute plenty of other examples of personal attacks.
Which brings us to to 2020. By any objective analysis, the vast majority of personal attacks are launched by Trump himself. Note: I take no issue on the politics and present these points for consideration independent of political concerns. The claims of “Sleepy Joe” and senility have been a staple in Trump’s arsenal for months. Trump recently added claims that Biden is on drugs and committed treasonous acts while Vice President. As with prior Presidential campaigns throughout our history, no evidence in support ever has been produced by Trump’s campaign beyond the assertion “People are saying. . .”.
What appears different about 2020, however, are the attacks by Trump on people and institutions well beyond his opponent. Last evening, Trump held a rally in Erie, Pennsylvania. He framed the election as his personal persecution. Trump used the now routine attacks against Biden and his family members. Notably, Trump also personally attacked the following:
— Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes;
— Dr. Anthony Fauci;
— Commission on Presidential Debates;
— U.S Supreme Court;
— Kristen Welker (upcoming debate moderator);
— “Crooked Hillary” (an oldie, but a goodie); and even
— U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr for failing to bring criminal charges against Trump’s opponent.
Both the Trump and Biden campaigns utilize negative ads on issues. Nothing new there. These third party personal attacks are different. We should recognize that personal attacks remain part of the fabric of Trump’s approach in general in almost any circumstance (“Liddle Marco”, “Lying’ Ted”, “Low Energy Jeb”, “Shifty Schiff”, “Cryin’ Chuck”, “Little Rocket Man”, . . .). Maybe those are just the stripes of that zebra. It makes more sense to believe that some political motivation or calculation goes into decisions of whether to launch such attacks.
What do these third party personal attacks gain? Cheers in response at rallies provides some level of immediate gratification. These attacks may provide soundbites for analysis by the 24 hour cable news channels. The attacks support Trump’s perpetual claim that he is the victim. The attacks provide cover to blame others if the election does not prove successful for Trump. Of all the things these attacks on third parties gain, they do not appear to gain votes for the candidate. How these attacks are viewed with post-election hindsight will be an interesting study.
Returning to the personal attacks on each candidate, we can say that such attacks in 2020 have crossed lines of decorum and decency. The personal attacks are clearly juvenile in nature. The personal attacks do deflect from the candidates addressing issues of substance which is a disservice to all voters (and perhaps why they are used). But to cast the 2020 election cycle as the dirtiest campaign? We do not find ourselves (yet) met with entirely unfounded assertions of murder, rape, incest and pimping. The republic survived before and should be able to weather this current shameful storm we call a Presidential election campaign.
One lesson the candidates can take from the history of U.S. Presidential campaigns is the following: very personal attacks on an adversary rarely, if ever, move the political needle. Most voters appear to shrug off these points. Compare personal attacks to negative attack ads on important issues for a different result. The Daisy ad and Willie Horton ad both crossed the line wherever the line was drawn. Both were amazingly effective at sending a clear message about an opponent. Both ads ultimately defined each Presidential election. Stick to the issues if you want to gain traction among those who count — the voters. Now, ignore the dirt and get out to vote.