Many observers have commented on the lack of civility in the current (2016) Presidential election. The primaries, they say, were gutter politics at their worst – slime, muck-raking, ad hominem attacks, smarmy references to looks, stature, and dress; sly innuendoes; half-truths, suggestiveness, and downright mudslinging. Nothing seemed to be off-limits, no slight to trivial, and certainly no kid gloves, patience or civility.
American politics have never been genteel affairs. The campaigns of Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams were notorious.
Adams’ supporters hurled accusations at Jackson’s wife, Rachel, and questioned their marriage. Critics claimed the couple’s marriage some 40 years earlier had occurred while Rachel was still married to her first husband. Opponents labeled Jackson an “adulterer,” and called his wife a “bigamist.” It marked the first time a first lady’s moral character had been scrutinized so publicly. The Jacksons said Rachel’s divorce had already been finalized before they married...Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine went at it in the same vein:
Jackson countered by claiming that Adams, while working as the Russian ambassador, had procured an American girl for the Russian czar — a baseless allegation, but calling the sitting president a “pimp” was certainly a bold move (listosaur.com)
Democrat Grover Cleveland seemed to have the advantage in the months before this presidential election, but in July 1884, allegations arose that Cleveland, a bachelor, had years earlier fathered a child out of wedlock. Republican James G. Blaine’s supporters gleefully took advantage of the scandal, chanting, “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” at campaign rallies.
Cleveland admitted he had paid child support to a widow, Maria Halpin, even though he alleged she had been involved with several other men at the time. However, Halpin told newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, that Cleveland had sexually assaulted her, and that after she gave birth to a son, Cleveland had it forcibly removed from her custody and placed in an orphanage. Halpin was then committed to an insane asylum, although she was later released (op.cit.)
[The Presidential] race was full of mudslinging accusations and character assassination. Adam’s supporters accused Jefferson of sympathizing with the Southern slaves whom he wished to emancipate — going so far as to say he maintained a “Congo Harem” at Monticello. In one over-the-top condemnation, Yale President Timothy Dwight said that if Jefferson were elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced. The air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”
The accusations continued right up until the election. One Jefferson supporter likened Adams to a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams’ supporters countered with a leaflet calling Jefferson, “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Jefferson’s camp claimed the president reportedly planned to smuggle London prostitutes across the Atlantic to satiate his sinful tastes.If our Founding Fathers behaved this way, why should we be upset by the excesses of Donald Trump?
There is nothing more American than a bare-knuckled contest, one without rounds, bells, or referees. There is no room in the American arena for fair play; and there are only winners and losers. The Wild West is worth nothing if not a display of raw territorialism, frontier justice, and exuberant expansionism.
Jefferson had nary a second thought when sent Lewis and Clark out to chart and plot the new Louisiana Territory, gifted to the United States by Napoleon for a song. It was Manifest Destiny – the God-given right of Americans to tame, claim, and develop the lands west of the Mississippi as they had those east of it. Andrew Jackson won the ‘real’ American Revolution when, thanks to a successful naval battle at New Orleans, he defeated the British once and for all. He thanked his Choctaw and Chickasaw allies, gave them whisky and wampum, and exiled them to native reservations west of the Mississippi.
The Robber Barons of the turn of the century were a logical extension of this territorial determinism. Making money with no holds barred was as much a part of Wall Street as it was Missouri, Nebraska, or Montana. The Rockefellers, Carnegies, Mellons, Astors, Goulds, and Fricks amassed millions in an era of robust capitalism.
Puck, 1901 cartoon
The recent troubles on Wall Street – Enron, the sub-prime real estate investment market, and various derivative shenanigans – are testaments to the fact that American rough-rider capitalism is alive and well.
Given all this – our expulsion of the Indians; the implantation of slavery in the South and the 150 years of Jim Crow, segregation, and racial animus thereafter; our historical difficulties with immigration (viz. the ethnic violence between ‘Natives’ and the Irish in the mid-19th century); and our exceptionalism – it is not surprising that we have acquired no European courtly manners and diplomacy; and that we still behave as rubes and pugilists.
This, of course, is to our credit. Only recently have we Americans been made to feel guilty about our political virility, challenged on the civilizing territorialism which has enabled the growth of the world’s most powerful economy and potent military and provided the foundation for innovation, enterprise, and dynamic creativity.
Proponents and advocates of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ have tried to clip America’s wings. We are not a proud nation deserving of the world’s admiration for our political foundations; nor one which has been the engine for world economic development; nor one which, in its championing of individual enterprise has set a high bar for productivity and personal reward. We are to be excoriated, marginalized, and dismissed as retrograde and ignorant.
It should also not be surprising that Donald Trump has so shaken the foundations of American electoral politics. For the first time in decades if not generations, a Presidential candidate has challenged the status quo, progressive sanctimony and flaccid belief in togetherness, social harmony, and idealism.
“Crass…bourgeois…antediluvian….retrograde…” Yet despite these reactionary criticisms, Donald Trump refuses to back away from his expression of Wild West individualism, raw capitalism, and Hollywood fantasy.
Trump’s critics attack his nativism, white male patriarchy, and profoundly primitive and anti-social roots. He revels in this criticism. He is unapologetic because he feels there is nothing to apologize for. Revisionism – the awkward progressive attempt to rewrite history and to cast all issues within a contemporary race-gender-ethnicity bias – is, has been, and always will be wrong and ignorant of the nature of permanent, valueless change.
Trump is a champion of human nature – aggressive, self-protective, territorial, and fundamentally Darwinian. He has no use for liberal ‘tolerance’ because history has always been the tale of the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor, the advantaged over the disadvantaged.
“This is not the Middle Ages”, shout Trump’s critics. The days of racial, ethnic, and social superiority and cultural imperialism are over.
“Wrong”, say Trump supporters who insist that given the ineluctability of human nature, nothing has changed. Enforced solidarity and communality, prescribed ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘diversity’ are statist arrogations.
Progressives and Europeanists in their refusal to accept history’s unavoidable conflict and violence criticize Trump for his lack of One World Harmony and what they see is his re-imposition of laissez-faire capitalism, Wild West individualism, and corrosive contentious politics.
Concurrent to the American Presidential election campaign is the British referendum on Brexit – whether or not Britain should remain within the European Union. Those who favor staying are old-line Europeans who, damaged by the experience of WWII, insist on a union which will promote and preserve European harmony and dignity. Those who want out are like Trump -champions of nationalism, national sovereignty, and cultural integrity.
The Stay arguments are traditionally economic. The Leave position is more fundamental and rests on English history, tradition, and civilization. Practicality vs Visceral Emotion.
Both campaigns have boiled down to a rejection of civility and a bare-knuckled, gloves-off, down-and-dirty fight to the finish. Fair play has gone out the window in Britain as gentility has left the premises in America. Both nations are back to basics and more power to them.
The experiences of the Balkan wars, the Arab Spring, Iraq and Syria is telling. Compromise, civil negotiations and civility have no place in a geopolitical arena where life-and-death issues of cultural survival are at stake.
I had always been taught that good manners was at the foundation of civility. Eating properly is done out of respect for fellow diners. Avoiding contentious, often nasty discussions about politics and religion at table was not anti-intellectual, but annealing – one small step to reducing instinctive tensions and hostilities.
The right fork might matter little in the larger scope of world events; but it is an indicator of respect for propriety and convention – the glue of society.
It was always assumed that such manners and gentility would carry over to the world of politics and finance. Manners were only a minor expression of noblesse oblige.
Wrong. We are all hardwired for conflict, competition, territorial expansion, and venal self-interest. Which is why it is hard to accommodate the intemperate criticisms of Donald Trump’s native patriotism and laissez-faire social philosophy.
This election is not one between Republicans and Democrats or conservatives and liberals, but one between dramatically different and essential political philosophies