“Unhinged.” “Corrupt.” “Egomaniacal.” “Puppet.” Those are just a few of the barbs Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have traded during what has undoubtedly been a nasty, negative campaign season. But how does this election’s rhetoric stack up against that of its historical predecessors?
Perhaps nobody can answer that question better than Joseph Cummins. For his book Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns, the political-history specialist spent months researching and ranking the worst insults and antics of every election since 1789, when George Washington ran unopposed. His verdict: This election was indeed the worst of the past 100 years and among the top five dirtiest of all time.
One reason is the profoundly personal nature of the attacks. Back in the 19th century, political candidates generally didn’t insult each other directly. They relied on their supporters and the media to sling mud on their behalf. Now candidates often call one another out by name at rallies or by their @ on Twitter.
But the more pervasive cause is polarization. In many ways, says Cummins, today’s Republicans and Democrats are a lot like the Federalists and Republicans of 1800–neither side agrees with the other, and both are firmly convinced they’re in the right. “And whenever that happens, where you have two ideologies clashing,” he explains, passions tend to flare–as does a campaign’s rhetoric.
CLASSIC ATTACKS THROUGHOUT HISTORY
Not smart enough
Can’t be trusted
Clinton harped on Trump’s statements about nuclear weapons, like his recommendation to be “unpredictable” with them.
Trump repeatedly questioned Clinton’s strength and stamina.
Both Trump and Clinton criticized each other’s temperament and intellect.
Clinton said Trump supporters are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.”
More than anything else, Trump called Clinton a liar, alleging that she “may be the most corrupt person ever” to run for President.
Clinton described Trump’s foreign policy experience as running “the Miss Universe pageant in Russia.”
Wendell Willkie told crowds that voting for FDR would result in war and “wooden crosses for sons and brothers and sweethearts.”
Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous “Daisy” ad juxtaposed a young girl with a mushroom cloud, insinuating that opponent Barry Goldwater would steer the country into nuclear war.
Franklin Pierce, who had fainted during a battle in Mexico, was dubbed “the fainting general.”
A writer hired by Thomas Jefferson described John Adams as “a hideous hermaphroditical character [with] neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
“A dummy, an animated automaton, a marionette.”
–Democrats’ description of Warren Harding
Whigs called Democratic candidate Lewis Cass a “potbellied, mutton-headed cucumber.”
“Nothing more than a well-meaning baboon.”
–Democrat George McClellan on Lincoln
“If you vote for Nixon, you might go to hell.”
–Harry Truman, acting as a surrogate for John F. Kennedy
Federalists called Thomas Jefferson’s Republican followers “cutthroats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin.”
Republicans attacked Bill Clinton for “Travelgate,” “Filegate” and a real estate controversy known as Whitewater.
He spends “his days at the gambling table and his nights in a brothel.”
–A Democratic leaflet about Henry Clay
A pamphlet published by John Adams supporters called Andrew Jackson a cockfighter, drunkard, thief, liar and husband of a very fat wife.
“My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than those two bozos.”
–George H.W. Bush, referring to Bill Clinton and Al Gore
John McCain repeatedly slammed Barack Obama over his lack of experience: “He has never taken the hard but right course of risking his own interests for yours.”
HALL OF SHAME
Rutherford Hayes vs. Samuel Tilden
Anonymous letters were printed in newspapers claiming that Hayes had once shot and wounded his own mother.
HALL OF SHAME
Richard Nixon vs. George McGovern
Among the various dirty tricks Nixon implemented, the most famous was bugging the Democratic National Convention offices. The so-called Watergate scandal later cost him the presidency.
HALL OF SHAME
Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater
LBJ’s aides put out a kids’ coloring book in which Goldwater was dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes.
HALL OF SHAME
John Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson
A Republican newspaper accused Adams of having “sesquipedality of belly,” which meant it was 18 inches long.
SOURCES: NEWS REPORTS; ANYTHING FOR A VOTE: DIRTY TRICKS, CHEAP SHOTS, AND OCTOBER SURPRISES IN U.S. PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGNS
This appears in the November 21, 2016 issue of TIME.
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