Bam! Bang! Pow!
If you listened to media reports on last week’s Republican debates, you might have mistaken them for prize fights. In the “first round,” Carly Florina and Rick Perry “hammered” Donald Trump. Then came the evening “headliner” where the “combative” Trump “sparred” with Rand Paul and also with Fox news host Megyn Kelly.
Most of the candidates also took shots at President Obama, who recently bemoaned the nasty tone of the GOP race.
But even with the feisty Trump in the mix, our contemporary politics are actually much more polite – and much less malicious – than in earlier eras. And we diminish ourselves when we pretend otherwise by imagining some golden age of civility that never existed.
Consider our first contested presidential election, in 1800, which pit two of our most famous statesmen, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, against each other. It’s tempting to envisage them as wig-clad philosopher-kings, deliberating high-minded ideas in a calm and reasoned campaign.
It’s also false. Jefferson’s supporters said that Adams had secretly plotted to have one of his sons marry King George III’s daughter to bring America back under the British crown. But if Jefferson were elected, Adams’ camp charged, the young nation would descend into anarchy and violence.
“Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced,” one anti-Jefferson newspaper predicted. “The air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.”
Things weren’t much different in 1828, when John Quincy Adams, son of Jefferson’s opponent, faced off against Andrew Jackson. Jacksonians called the younger Adams “King John the Second,” claiming that he, too, sought to reunite America with its colonial master.
In reply, Adams’ team raised questions about Jackson’s parents, invoking America’s ugliest tradition of all: racism.
“General Jackson’s mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE, brought to this country by the British soldiers,” one newspaper blared. “She afterward married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, of which number General JACKSON IS ONE.”
Race raised its nasty head again in 1860, when Democrats charged that GOP nominee Abraham Lincoln was actually black. “He is a lank-sided Yankee of the uncomeliest visage, and of the dirtiest complexion,” a Southern newspaper declared.
And four years after that, opponents claimed that Lincoln would institute interracial marriage if re-elected. One magazine compiled a master list of insults lobbed at the president: Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Ignoramus Abe, Old Scoundrel, Tyrant, Fiend and Butcher.
So it went, through accusations that Ulysses S. Grant was a drunk, that Grover Cleveland fathered an illegitimate child (he did), that Warren Harding was black and that Franklin Roosevelt was secretly Jewish. And we heard vestiges of that tradition in the recent “birther” movement, which charged that President Obama, too, was not really what he seemed to be.
But the birther screed never made it into mainstream campaign politics – despite the best efforts of Donald Trump. We still have our bullies and our demagogues, of course, and we always will. But even in the time of Trump, our political discourse is vastly more elevated than in the so-called good old days. And that’s good news for all of us.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University.