Last week was a strangely gratifying one if you believe that politics is always a ruthless and dirty affair, and that it does no one any good to pretend otherwise. It was the week when Ted Cruz and John Kasich crashed into the unavoidable orange iceberg of Trump-ness from opposite directions. And it was the week when Donald Trump, now universally described as the “presumptive” Republican nominee (a pompous and thoroughly unnecessary coinage), launched his fall campaign with the infamous Taco Bowl tweet. He loves Hispanics! Was that a stupid racist gaffe or a stupid strategic masterstroke? In 2016, is there any difference? And how would we know?
Cruz and Kasich both richly deserved their fates, so let’s start there. We’ve all spent the week beating up on Cruz, and for good reason. He was quite possibly the most loathsome person ever to run for president of the United States and be taken somewhat seriously. I know that’s an impossibly high standard, but seriously — who else you got? Richard Nixon was a devious and damaged person, who quite likely suffered from mental illness. But compared to the guy John Boehner recently described as “Lucifer in the flesh,” Tricky Dick was pretty much Winston Churchill wrapped in Captain Kangaroo.
As for Kasich, he was basically a troll, both in the newfangled information-economy sense and the Brothers Grimm sense. He’s this year’s winner of the Jon Huntsman Award, for most perfect embodiment of what the insufferable pundit class wishes the Republican Party were like. Sure, Kasich wants to ban abortion, cut taxes on the rich and abolish the minimum wage. But he’s so doggone decent about it! Kasich’s failure to attract Republican voters in the real world caused actual, physical pain to David Brooks and other steakhouse blowhards of his ilk, and has provoked numerous and hilarious bouts of introspection about how the Brooks Brothers crowd could so badly have misunderstood the mood of a nation they have barely visited. So let’s not pretend that the 2016 primary campaign was no fun.
It’s really going to get fun now, as long as your idea of fun involves a certain degree of masochism, along with the humiliation of our entire country in the eyes of the world. Our impending Taco Bowl campaign between Trump and Hillary Clinton — OK, fine, Bernie loyalists, you still have a minuscule mathematical shot — is likely to be alternately dismal and terrifying. The prospect of televised debates between those two … I’m still not ready to think about that. My immediate reaction is to claim that even for someone who was watched as many gruesome, awkward and interminable films as I have that sounds too awful, and I couldn’t possibly. But of course that’s a huge lie. A Trump-Clinton debate will be like Room 217 in the Overlook Hotel: You know it’s teeming with unspeakable eldritch horror, but you can’t stay away.
But will the 2016 general election campaign really be the ugliest and nastiest in American history? I mean, there’s definitely a chance of that — and, as l’affaire Taco Bowl indicated, in the social-media age the ugliness can be spread more thickly and widely across the cultural landscape, and with greater speed, than ever before. And let’s not underplay the fact that for the first time in our history, the campaign will involve candidates known to be of different sexes. (Yeah, we’ll get to what Thomas Jefferson or his flunkies said about John Adams.) That fact is certain to ramp up the melodrama, and drive the discourse deeper into the gutter, in more ways than we can possibly predict.
There will be race-baiting and misogynistic and/or homophobic insults, and howls of protest about how anybody who mentions those things is the real racist and sexist and America-hater. But here’s the thing: None of that is new. These two candidates are unusual, especially in the sense that each inspires intense and unlimited dislike among his or her opponents. There may never before have been an election in which voters on both sides were primarily voting against someone they hate. But virtually everything Trump and Clinton are likely to fling at each other has been flung before.
Trump may yet claim the crown as most despicable major-party nominee of all time. He also may join Barry Goldwater, George McGovern and Alf Landon in the historical litany of overwhelming defeats. (Those three are the only candidates to win less than 40 percent of the popular vote in a two-person race.) But if he wants to run the ugliest general-election campaign ever, he’s got his work cut out for him.
Tastes vary, and it’s difficult to identify a presidential election untainted by slime, at least after the retirement of George Washington. One can only assume that in 1820, when for all practical purposes James Monroe ran for re-election unopposed, there wasn’t a whole lot of name-calling. We all have our favorites, and a few relatively recent examples loom large, in terms of creating and enabling our present political dysfunction: The Willie Horton election of 1988, when Michael Dukakis was made to look wimpy by way of a direct appeal to racist bigotry; or the Swift Boat election of 2004, when John Kerry’s supposed strength as a decorated Vietnam vet was magically transformed into weakness.
Neither of those makes my personal top three ugly elections. Neither do the 1964 campaign, when Lyndon Johnson ran a commercial suggesting that Goldwater would nuke little girls and flowers, or the byzantine “dirty tricks” election of 1972, when some scholars believe the Nixon White House engineered the rise of McGovern (and the downfall of Ed Muskie, his principal primary opponent) in order to ensure Nixon’s re-election. I firmly believe we have to reach back to earlier days to find the true precursor of today’s social media, in the form of scurrilous attacks by surrogates and unsubstantiated rumors that played to deep-rooted prejudice along with the public appetite for scandal.
You think I’m going for the Grover Cleveland election of 1884, am I right? That was the “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” election, when supporters of Republican nominee James Blaine taunted Cleveland for having fathered a child outside of marriage, and none too subtly implied that Democrats were a bunch of big-city perverts with no moral standards. Well, that was a memorable campaign slogan, as was the Democratic riposte after Cleveland won anyway: “Going to the White House, ha ha ha!” But, no, I’m sorry — that one doesn’t make the top three either. For one thing, the charge was true and Cleveland never denied it. (A lesson too many subsequent politicians ignored.) Even in the 1880s, it turned out that not enough people cared about an embarrassing personal situation to affect the outcome. And anyway, that was an election between James Blaine and Grover Cleveland. Nobody cares!
Let’s award an honorable mention to the election of 1856, in which James Buchanan was gay-baited but won anyway. Not enough attention has been paid, in general, to Buchanan. If you’re looking for subject matter for your death-metal musical or subversive historical novel, I recommend him. No doubt it doesn’t help that Buchanan was by universal acclamation the worst president ever, even when you factor in George W. Bush. He was a Northerner who supported slavery (a “doughface,” in the marvelous slang of the time). He managed to alienate both sides of that debate, preside over a major financial crisis and split the Democratic Party into warring factions, effectively doing everything he could to make the bloodshed of the Civil War unavoidable.
Buchanan barely participated in the 1856 campaign: Retail politics were understood to be unseemly and he was the American ambassador in London at the time. If Buchanan wasn’t the first candidate to be surrounded by rumors of homosexuality — a concept that only barely existed — he was probably the first where it may have been true. He remains the only president who never married, and he cohabited for at least a decade with William Rufus King, who would later (very briefly) serve as vice president under Franklin Pierce. Andrew Jackson derisively referred to Buchanan and King as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.” Rumors circulated during the campaign that an injury or deformity that left Buchanan’s head slanting to one side was the result of a failed suicide attempt. From this distance, it looks like a package: Gay equals crazy equals unstable and suicidal.
Buchanan’s Democrats, on the other hand, were happy to cash in on rumors that Republican nominee John C. Frémont was a Catholic. That wasn’t true, and probably didn’t win the election for Buchanan all by itself. But it tells you something about 19th-century America that maybe being Catholic was more damaging than maybe being gay. Is it something good or something bad? I’m not sure, but that brings us neatly to the fabled election of 1928, my third-place winner and the first one involving a major candidate who wasn’t a Protestant of largely British ancestry.
Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce under Calvin Coolidge, ran as the bland, reassuring face of Republican prosperity and the economic boom of the Roaring ’20s. He never sullied himself with all the outrageous accusations directed at New York Gov. Al Smith, a Catholic from Manhattan’s Lower East Side with Irish and Italian parents. (His father’s true surname had been Ferraro.) He didn’t have to. Nativist pamphleteers and letter-writers — the Redditors and Internet commenters of their day — revealed that Smith was planning to invite the pope to move to Washington and rule America from a secret palace, and that the newly constructed Holland Tunnel between New York and New Jersey was but the first stage of a 3,500-mile tunnel that would connect Manhattan to the Vatican.
Serious and responsible Protestant clergy rejected those wild rumors, and decried the sudden resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan (which was driven by anti-Catholic bigotry almost as much as by racial animosity). It probably wasn’t true, they admitted, that the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic men’s club) was sworn to exterminate all Masons. But as Lutheran theologian Clarence Reinhold Tappert put it, a faithful Catholic stands in a “peculiar relation” to secular democracy, because of the “absolute allegiance he owes to a ‘foreign sovereign’” who claims supremacy in all areas of life. If that sounds familiar, it should; the claim that Muslims are an alien, monolithic and untrustworthy group precisely mirrors the claims made about Catholics in the 1920s.
Hoover wiped the electoral map with Smith, who never got to finish his Roman tunnel. (One joke held that he sent a one-word telegram to the pope after the election: “Unpack.”) Dialing the way-back machine all the way to the dawn of party politics, we reach the most famous of all disputed elections, the republic-shaking debacle of 1800. An entire new generation knows about this election because of the musical “Hamilton,” and its titular character played an important role, largely behind the scenes. You may know that Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr finished in an electoral-college tie, which was already a bizarre mix-up because they were from the same party and originally intended to be running mates, and that 35 inconclusive votes followed in the House of Representatives before the deadlock was broken. Yes, Hamilton was instrumental in making that happen — and no, that isn’t the reason he and Burr fought their famous duel. (Though it probably didn’t help.)
But 1800 merits the No. 2 slot on this list because of the extraordinary amount of bile poured out in what was effectively the first two-party election. Jefferson and Burr’s brand new party, usually called the Democratic-Republicans by historians (because they are ancestral to both of today’s major parties) heaped abuse on incumbent John Adams and pretty well destroyed him. Adams, an anonymous pamphlet claimed, was “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” I’m not sure whether that counts as pre-Buchanan gay-baiting or not, but it’s a level of hatefulness that can only leave Trump awestruck in admiration.
Hamilton, although notionally a member of Adams’ Federalist Party, had schemed to undermine him for years. He wrote a 54-page letter attacking the president that fell into the hands of the Jeffersonian opposition, one of the earliest and most effective leaks in campaign history. The Federalists tried to fight back with allegations that a Jefferson presidency would lead to social chaos, including “female chastity violated” and “children writhing on the pike.” Did they mean, as a friend of mine wonders, that Jefferson was a known horndog? As with Buchanan and Cleveland generations later, it wasn’t enough.
But the undisputed champion of ugly American presidential campaigns can only be Andrew Jackson’s infamous 1828 victory over incumbent John Quincy Adams, son of the hideous hermaphrodite beaten by Jefferson in 1800. Jackson was understandably bitter about the election four years earlier, when he had won a plurality of electoral votes but not a majority, and lost in the House of Representatives on a secret deal that Adams presumably made with Henry Clay. But that doesn’t entirely account for the all-out nastiness of 1828, which marked the dawn of something like retail politics and something close to the modern two-party system. There’s no way around it: When the vote was extended from affluent property owners to white male citizens in general, political discourse went right into the dumpster.
Jackson’s surrogates claimed that when Adams was the American ambassador to Russia, he had pimped out a female servant to the czar (a charge so bizarre and specific that it may have been true). Jackson suggested that the president had installed a gambling den in the White House — because Adams and his wife had purchased a chess set and a card table. But Adams and his supporters gave as good as they got, depicting Jackson as an illiterate rube who was unfit to be president (he was not well educated, but it’s not true that Jackson couldn’t read or write), and as a moral degenerate and bigamist. (He had, in fact, “married” his wife before realizing she wasn’t yet divorced, and had to marry her again later.)
Jackson was attacked as a slave-owner who treated his human property with callous cruelty (which was unquestionably true) and also accused of being an illegitimate child of “mulatto” or black ancestry (which probably wasn’t). If anything, Adams and his backers in the Boston and New York establishment heaped far more vicious abuse on Jackson than the other way around. It only cemented Jackson’s hold on the popular imagination, and helped to create a legend that has kept the visage of that evil bastard on the $20 bill to this very day. That was the nastiest election ever, and the scary populist insurgent who took the brunt of the nastiness won easily. There might be a lesson there about how to deal with Donald Trump — and, more importantly, how not to.