In his book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail: 1972, Hunter S. Thompson tells an apocryphal tale about one of Lyndon Johnson’s early Senate campaigns. The race was too close for comfort, so Johnson told his campaign manager to spread the word that his opponent was “having routine carnal knowledge of his barnyard sows, despite the pleas of his wife and children.” The campaign manager was aghast: We can’t say that! You know it’s not true! “Of course it’s not true,” Thompson quotes Johnson as replying, “but let’s make the bastard deny it.”
Dirty tricks during political campaigns are about as old as the moon, and persist to this day for a reason: They often work. That line they fed you in first grade – “Winners never cheat, and cheaters never win” – is goopy nonsense. One could make a sound, well-documented argument that the world is the way it is today in part because cheaters have been winning well before the cornerstone was laid for the first pyramid.
There are the old tricks, of course, the ones with all the tactical subtlety of saying “Look at my thumb!” before punching someone in the face. The ol’ Date Switcheroo is a classic: GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York sent out flyers out in 2016 giving constituents the wrong date for voting, and it worked so well that he did it again this year. Confusing only 5 percent of your opponent’s voters into thinking the election is on Thursday can get you a desk in the Rayburn House Office Building. It has happened many, many times.
There is also the rumor-spreading trick that worked so well against John McCain during the South Carolina presidential primary in 2000. McCain had just won in New Hampshire by 19 points. Karl Rove, hatchetman for Bush, and acolyte of dirty tricks Sith Lord Lee Atwater, put the word out in South Carolina that McCain was a mentally unstable traitor who had fathered Black children out of wedlock. The racist, ableist, false attack worked; Bush defeated McCain and cruised to the nomination. We all know what happened next.
Rove required the credulous assistance of the news media to spread his lies. Today, we have the internet, social media and Fox News to do the deeds. Once upon a time, you needed a mimeograph machine or a block of letterhead pilfered from an opposing campaign. Now, all you need to riddle the entire planet with lies is an internet connection. Don’t cost nothin’: Facebook and Twitter are free of charge and reach hundreds of millions of people, and as for Fox, well … the network has a strong financial incentive to spread the manure far and deep.
Karl Rove’s successful kneecapping of John McCain in 2000 is instructive, in that it underscores the most potent weapon in the dirty tricks arsenal: racism. Racist vote suppression is as old as the poll tax and literacy tests; it lives on through contemporary configurations like ID laws. In Texas, for example, 96 percent of voting-age white people have a photo ID. Only 86 percent of voting-age Black people in Texas have a photo ID. That 10 percent gap can be, and has often been, the difference between winning and losing.
The ability to deploy racism as a tool for wide-scale vote suppression requires one to have a measure of political power to begin with. You can’t pass and protect things like racist, restrictive ID laws unless you control your state’s congress and governor’s office, at minimum. This year, the midterm election campaign in North Dakota is proving the tactic of racist cheating goes all the way to the top of the legal food chain.
Heidi Heitkamp, Democratic Senator from North Dakota, won her seat in 2012 by a margin of less than 3,000 votes. A full 80 percent of Native American voters in that state supported her that year, and look to do the same this time around, so the state’s Republican-controlled congress passed an ID law that disproportionately disenfranchises Native voters. The law was challenged in court and recently upheld by the Republican-controlled Supreme Court. Today, every available election forecast has Heitkamp losing her seat on Tuesday.
Being in power also means being able to purge the voter rolls of people you’d prefer didn’t vote. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, he of the ill-fated and Trump-inspired “commission on voter fraud,” has turned his state into a kind of laboratory for vote suppression tactics. As Secretary of State, he controls the elections in Kansas, which is helpful to him since he is currently running for governor as the Republican nominee.
A similar scenario is unspooling in Georgia, where Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp is facing a stout neck-and-neck challenge in the governor’s race from Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams. Kemp has been accused of, and sued for, stripping the right to vote from hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom are Black. Truthout recently published investigative journalist Greg Palast’s exhaustive report on the matter. Kemp’s ploy is so grossly corrupt that former President Jimmy Carter felt compelled to demand that Kemp step aside as Secretary of State. Kemp, to the shock of none, has refused.
And then there is the racist dirty trick on a grander scale, the theatrical nationwide dirty trick that is slightly less subtle than a Dear John letter glued to a hand grenade.
Down at the southernmost tip of Mexico, near the Guatemalan border, sits the little town of Tapachula. There, a full thousand miles away from the US border, a caravan of desperate refugees – mostly women and children – is slowly making its way north. Many of these people are fleeing their countries to escape poverty and rampant gang warfare, both of which are a direct result of deliberate US government policies.
According to the president of the United States, however, these people represent an existential threat to the nation. Donald Trump has called them “thugs” and “bad people,” and has even hypothesized that they might be Middle Eastern terrorists who may, at any moment, overthrow all “we” hold dear (if “we” is taken to mean timorous white racists). Trump claims these migrants are so terrifying that he has threatened to deploy as many as 15,000 combat troops to the border with orders to shoot to kill. The administration has already named this action “Operation Faithful Patriot.” Beyond that lethal alternative, according to Trump, the only way to thwart this imminent doom is to vote Republican, because of course it is.
Those troops, if deployed, will have some waiting to do. The refugees are on foot, moving through rough terrain, and still have to travel a distance equal to that which lies between San Diego and Seattle before they’ll even see US soil. Even now, refugees are dropping out of the caravan due to exhaustion and illness. If any of them actually reach the border by the end of December, it will be a genuine Christmas miracle.
Facts like these, however, have no purchase with this president or his most ardent supporters. His racist ranting about the caravan has reached a pitch that would make Andrew Johnson blush, but that is not enough. Trump, the dirty-trickster-in-chief, has also promoted a brazenly racist video accusing Democrats of coddling Mexican and Central American cop killers. “ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT, LUIS BRACAMONTES, KILLED OUR PEOPLE!” reads the caption in the video. “DEMOCRATS LET HIM INTO OUR COUNTRY, DEMOCRATS LET HIM STAY.” Never mind that the accusations are bald-faced lies. Who better than a Republican to understand the racist power of a good old-fashioned Willie Horton ad?
All this from a president who spent the week vowing to overthrow birthright citizenship as enshrined by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The 14th Amendment was passed by a Reconstruction Congress after the Civil War for two primary reasons: to undo the disgraceful “three-fifths” compromise that deemed Black people less than human in the eyes of the law, and to ensure that freed slaves could become full citizens. If you think the racists in Trump’s base didn’t catch that particular dirty trick dog whistle, I have a bridge in Tapachula to sell you.
Most people, of course, see straight through this nonsense. Yet if the long history of political dirty tricks has taught us anything, it has taught us that the best tricks don’t have to fool everyone. These tricks deal in the small numbers, the three-to-five percent margins that make or break campaigns. In baseball, a hitter can fail seven out of ten times over the course of his career and make it to the Hall of Fame. In politics, a dirty trick can fail seven out of ten times and make it to the White House.
I take three core lessons from the mayhem of the 2018 midterm election season.
First, the United States remains a desperately racist nation despite all exhortations to the contrary. If this were not true, nobody would bother with these tactics. It is a regional affair – demonize primarily Black people here, primarily Native people there and primarily Latinx people somewhere else – that provides Republicans with a tactical advantage at the molecular level of election politics.
Second, the effectiveness of the tactic is visibly and fortunately diminishing with time, demographics and culture change. A campaign using racist dirty tricks risks losing at least as many votes as it gains nowadays, particularly in a nationwide race. The fact that Republicans are using racist dirty tricks with such shameless abandon reeks of desperation.
Third, voting really does matter. The best way, the proven way to overwhelm racist cheating and dirty tricks is with numbers at the polls. The document begins with “We the People” for a reason.