Wednesday 18 October 2017

It's ugly, but not the dirtiest election ever

From Thomas Jefferson being branded a depraved libertine to John F Kennedy being accused of stealing the result, the fight for the presidency has a history of acrimony

John F Kennedy's won a narrow victory in the 1960 Presidential election Photo: PA
John F Kennedy's won a narrow victory in the 1960 Presidential election Photo: PA

Robert McCrum

As the markets tremble, the polls tighten, the bookies scramble to adjust the odds, and the US presidential race enters its final, frantic days, the rhetoric - from the president down - grows more hysterical by the hour. If we are to believe Barack Obama, the fate of the civilised world hangs in the balance as America faces an imminent electoral apocalypse after the "dirtiest campaign ever".

To the uninitiated, the Donald Trump insurgency must look like the nadir of democracy, more about "pussy" than politics. How, you might ask, could a powerful, multi-ethnic country, where women voters outnumber men by several million, seriously consider electing a man whose name is synonymous with xenophobia, racism and misogyny? As this vituperative and volatile encounter approaches its climax on Tuesday, you might think: Is this not the worst?

Actually, the US electorate has been here before, many times, going back to the 1780s, in elections replete with assassination, corruption, rhetorical vitriol, and good old "dirty tricks". The meat-grinding process by which the American democratic sausage is made has always fallen a long way short of edifying.

In 1968, the primary season was scarred by the violent deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. On election day itself, Hubert Humphrey, who had trailed Richard Nixon in the polls for weeks, ran Tricky Dicky so close that the networks could not declare the result until morning.

Closer still was the Nixon -Kennedy contest of 1960. John F Kennedy scraped 112,827 (0.17pc) more votes than Nixon nationwide, allegedly through the corrupt intervention of the mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley. Although Nixon won the popular vote in more individual states (26 to 22), Kennedy won an electoral college victory of 303 to 219. Overall, 1960 was the closest election since 1916 and remains famously suspenseful. It, too, was held on November 8.

Trump may have plumbed the depths of vulgarity, sleaze and pig-ignorance, but he is following the politics of the 1850s, in the decade before Abraham Lincoln's presidency. Not many now remember Millard Fillmore or his supporters, the self-styled "Know Nothings", but these wild patriots, the forefathers of the angry white males who chant "lock her up", prefigure many aspects of the Trump campaign, promising to "purify" American politics.

The ''Know Nothings'' exploited popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by immigrants, who were seen as enemies of the republic and, more sinister still, controlled by the pope. The party was most active from 1854 to 1856 and had a champion in Fillmore (one of the worst US presidents). Lincoln himself wrote to a friend, "I am not a Know Nothing. How could I be? ... Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that 'All men are created equal' ... When the Know Nothings get control, it will read 'All men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.'"

Ordinary, decent Americans were aghast when Trump appeared to encourage the gun lobby to defend "the second amendment" by directing their protest (and their weapons) against Hillary Clinton. At least he did not, as Aaron Burr did in 1804, actually fight a duel with one of his political adversaries. Burr, who was Thomas Jefferson's vice-president at the time, mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton, and charged with murder, had to flee to safety in the south.

Rhetorically, the mudslinging inspired by Jefferson's two successful campaigns for the presidency was often as ugly as anything heard on the stump with Trump and "crooked Hillary". In the 1800 election, Jefferson fought John Adams, whose supporters charged that Jefferson was a godless libertine in thrall to the French. This election was said to have been "one of the most acrimonious in American history".

More than 200 years later, many commentators believe that the US system is broken. But it has seemed broken before and somehow staggers on. From some points of view, the ferocity of Trump v Clinton is evidence of vigour not breakdown. However, some observers are wondering if the shock that would reform the system might destroy it.

© Observer

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