While we are still 15 months away from the next presidential election, candidates are already jockeying for position in their respective party primaries. And while the names Clinton and Bush were garnering attention earlier, it is clear that at this point, there is one star: Donald Trump.
Whether you love him or hate him, you cannot deny the real estate mogul’s magnetism. Seemingly every day a new outrageous quote is broadcast across news feeds. Though it is still very early, his popularity has him leading the polls. This popularity comes not simply from his views, which have been both praised and repudiated, but also from the way in which he is attacking his opponents.
This past week, Trump went after John McCain’s label as “hero” due to his six years as a prisoner of war, claiming that he likes “people that weren’t captured.” Presidential candidate and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who is a good friend of McCain’s, stated that Trump did not need to act like a “jackass.” Trump responded by portraying Graham as a beggar, who pleaded Trump to put a good word in for him at Fox News. He proceeded to give out Graham’s cellphone number to a group of supporters and encouraging them to give the senator a call.
Trump is not backing down and is painting his opponents as idiots and wimps. And some people love him for it. But the candidates and the media hate it. He has been labeled “un-presidential” for his actions. I would argue, however, that his bloviating campaign circus has roots in American history. And while Trump may ultimately be more bust than boom, all of this got me thinking about another red-headed presidential candidate and mudslinger: Thomas Jefferson.
The famous author of the Declaration of Independence and American polymath originally ran for president in the first contested election of 1796. His primary opponent was his “frenemy” and current Vice President John Adams. During the fight for independence, the two had become friends, but politics had severed the relationship. Adams secured a narrow victory, edging Jefferson by three electoral votes to win the Presidency. As was the procedure at the time, Jefferson became Vice President. The next election in 1800, however, would be a much different story.
Political scientist Kerwin Swintz writes that Jefferson’s key move was to hire a “hatchet man” named James Callander. Adams refused to engage in such dirty tactics. In those days, candidates did not campaign for themselves, distancing themselves from the action. While Jefferson remained in Virginia and Adams in Massachusetts, others worked for them. And remember, Jefferson was still acting as Vice President to Adams’ President.
Callander was incredibly effective in his new role. The Jefferson camp threw haymakers, accusing Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams was labeled a fool, tyrant, hypocrite, and criminal.
Adams, initially reluctant, was forced to respond. His men referred to Jefferson as “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Jefferson was labeled an anti-Christian deist, a weakling, and coward.
Reason.com lists cited quotes from the campaign. Jefferson accused Adams of importing mistresses from Europe and secretly desiring war with France. He called the portly man from Brain Tree, Mass., a “blind, bald, crippled, toothless man.”
Adams responded with what would be referred to as fearmongering today, asking voters “Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames? Female chastity violated? Children writhing on the pike?” He also swore that “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.” This from the guy who was above dirty tactics.
Jefferson won the election.
His work with Callander had won him the Presidency, but karma wasn’t on his side. Two years later, Callander became upset with Jefferson’s treatment of him and outed the President for his affair with slave Sally Hemings. The allegations dogged Jefferson for the rest of his life.
As for Adams and Jefferson, the two men eventually rekindled their friendship. They died on the same day– July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
If that’s the precedent, then maybe Donald Trump is just getting started. I, for one, can’t wait to see what comes next.