Nastiness in US Presidential Elections

Will America be able to bounce back from such a venomous presidential campaign?

by Azam Gill,  The Express Tribune, November 10, 2016: with permission.

Mr Trump’s successes have raised alarms among international observers. PHOTO: REUTERS

Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States of America, now has to make ‘America Great Again’. The ‘what’ is clear, the ‘how’ has yet to come and much hinges on his ability to “bind the wounds” as he said in his victory speech.

Speaking in Manchester, New Hampshire on November 6th, Hillary Clinton had already said that Americans must choose between “division and unity”. On November 8th, The Daily Telegraph called it the “…most divisive election in history” and The Guardian the “… most divisive campaign in memory.”

So now the winner has just over two months to ensure that he does not preside over a nation polarised by the hard-fought electoral campaign that has left the world agape at its virulence. He should also be able to find out ‘what the hell is going on’ before Inauguration Day. The period is too short to expect a quick fix, yet adequate to dull sharp edges for manageability. Competent politicians always embed an escape hatch in their campaign declarations and promises.

George H W Bush’s ‘read my lips’ at the Republican National Convention in 1988, and Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign promise to close down the Guantanamo Detention Centre slid out through the trapdoor. Mr Trump has precedents to follow.

Accordingly, pork barrel politics should now realign the alienated opposition and shed the excess baggage of supporters extraneous to the post-election period to lessen the cynical campaign hostility.

Pessimists would assert that only a saint could reconcile the bitterness of such a venomous campaign. Optimists would retort that this year’s campaign fits the framework of several precedents, and they’d be right. US Presidential campaign history is replete with no-holds-barred nastiness.

Thomas Jefferson made it to Mount Rushmore, his granite face carved amid illustrious company. But not his campaign etiquette.

During American democracy’s infancy in 1800, the Jefferson camp called John Adams:

“A hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

Adams retaliated by asking voters:

“Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames… female chastity violated… children writhing on the pike? Great God of compassion and justice, shield my country from destruction.”

1828 saw the nastiness of the Andrew Jackson versus John Quincy Adams campaign. Adams’ team said Jackson, of working class origins, was unable to spell Europe and his wife, Rachel was a bigamist and a “dirty black wench… convicted adulteress…open and notorious lewdness.” Jackson’s supporters claimed that Adams had sold his wife’s maid to the czar of Russia to become another one of his concubines!

Negative campaigning embroiled even Abraham Lincoln in his 1860 campaign against Stephen Douglas. The Douglas team described Lincoln as:

“A horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman… the leanest, lankest, most ungainly mass of legs and arms and hatchet face ever strung on a single frame.”

The Lincoln team’s Lost Child flyers proclaimed that five feet four inch Douglas “answers to the name Little Giant… talks a great deal, very loud, always about himself – about five feet nothing in height and about the same in diameter the other way.”

Lincoln, too, is a Mount Rushmore inhabitant.

In the 1884 Cleveland-Blaine contest, Stephen Grover Cleveland’s illegitimate child was an issue and the chant, “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa?” reverberated against accusations of corrupt dealings with the railroad. Nevertheless, Cleveland won the election and became the first Democratic president.

In 1928, Herbert Hoover uninhibitedly exploited Al Smith’s Catholicism, accusing him of being a Papal figurehead and planning to extend the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River between Manhattan and Jersey City by 3,500 miles to reach the Vatican.

Once in office, though, they lost their vitriol and got down to the business of leading America as best as they could. And therein lies the political space between the cup and lip which may accommodate a slip — or an upturn all the way to Mount Rushmore.

Accommodating divisions without being divided against itself is fundamental to a democracy. The time when the dust settles between the election results and the inauguration is crucial to the future of the presidency. Residual bitterness has the potential to inspire obstruction for the sake of it rather than the positives of different analyses.

Domestically cornered leaders seek to address their insufficiencies by holding up short-term, international foreign policy scoops. Republicans and Democrats become unhesitatingly interventionist in their search for bones to throw to backyard wolves. Thus, the US regularly faces blow-back with which it smears its overseas partners.

Washington lobbyists work overtime at each presidential change, tripping over themselves to prophecy the incumbent’s foreign policy, its effect on their foreign clients and how they can tweak it to their advantage. By exclusively focusing on American foreign policy during this critical period, the foreign offices of America’s allies will engender their share of miscalculations. The roots of the US’s foreign policy lie in its domestic governance, good or bad, strong or weak. Pundits, lobbyists and foreign office staffers would be well advised to keep their ears to the home ground and listen to the ticking of the American heartland. Hillary’s lads and lassies didn’t, and look what happened.

While Trump’s challenge is to convert disunion to a workable consensus, Clinton can still build “bridges instead of walls” as her campaign posters promised and put her considerable talent at the disposal of the nation she so obviously loves. That is achievable by forswearing obstructionism and turning herself into a national watchdog to ensure against Trump’s isolationist tendencies.

Trump’s spin doctors will be kept busy by their boss striving to deliver on most of his strategic promise of making America great again. That said, just by letting go of ‘again’ and setting himself up as an example of integrity would be greatness enough.

Both candidates battered their country’s dignity into the ground.

If they so wish, both have the opportunity to make it right.

It is said that there are vacant spots on Mount Rushmore

Azam Gill

Azam Gill

The author is a novelist, analyst and retired Lecturer from Toulouse University. He served in the French Foreign Legion, French Navy and the Punjab Regiment. He has authored nine books.

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