Dirty campaigns are nothing new in U.S. politics, but there have been a few that stand out from the pack.
Before the Republican presidential primaries began in 2000, George W. Bush held a commanding 50-point lead over the field. He was not only the clear choice of the GOP establishment, but was also the favorite son of evangelical Christians, a voting bloc that had grown muscular within Republican circles during the Clinton years.
Quite completely out of a clear blue sky, however, came John McCain, presidential candidate and “maverick” senator from Arizona, who blew a smoking hole in Bush’s assumed coronation with a whopping 19-point victory in New Hampshire. With the South Carolina primary looming and the nomination suddenly in jeopardy, Bush let adviser and hatchet man Karl Rove off the leash for what became one of the filthiest campaigns ever waged on the North American continent.
The details of the whisper campaign waged against McCain in South Carolina have, over the intervening years, become the stuff of grisly political lore. Children were paid $50 by “a guy” to put fliers under windshields claiming that McCain had fathered a Black child out of wedlock. Rumors were floated that he was mentally unstable after his POW confinement in Vietnam, and that he had turned traitor during captivity. According to other rumors, he slept with sex workers and gave his wife, Cindy, an STD. Others said he was secretly gay because he met with the Log Cabin Republicans, and still others said his wife was addicted to drugs.
For conservative South Carolina voters, this was meat so red it was still mooing. McCain reacted to this avalanche of smears much the same way a bug reacts to a windshield at high speed, and when the votes were tallied, Bush had won South Carolina by a comfortable 11-point margin. McCain’s campaign never recovered from the trashing he took, and after losing badly on Super Tuesday less than a month later, he withdrew from the race.
That was ugly, and the 2016 campaign season was uglier still. What we are about to witness in the 2020 presidential campaign, I believe, will make the 2000 South Carolina primary and the 2016 general look like a sun-drenched grammar school Field Day by comparison.
“Scorched-earth city,” former Republican National Committee spokesman and GOP strategist Doug Heye told The Hill. “Are you kidding me? This is already portending to be, and to some extent already has been, as nasty a campaign as we have seen in modern times. And if we thought 2016 was nasty, buckle your seat belts.”
It has already begun. Donald Trump, floundering under the weight of 90,000 corpses he helped to kill with his gross COVID incompetence, has returned to his most favorite punching bag: Barack Obama.
Trump’s obsession with Obama is now old enough to be in junior high, and he has revived it with a bolt of gibberish he has dubbed “Obamagate.” It is a convoluted and utterly baseless conspiracy theory — not even Trump himself can explain it — that accuses Obama, and most importantly Trump’s current opponent Joe Biden, of abusing their powers while in office. That such an accusation has come from a man who brazenly flouts the law and abuses the powers of his office to a remarkably unprecedented degree is an irony for the ages, but there it is.
It’s a canny play if you don’t mind the stench, and Trump has proven himself almost superheroically impervious to shame. Biden, to put it mildly, is not the greatest campaigner in U.S. history, and is facing serious allegations of sexual assault. Meanwhile, the threat of COVID means he’s campaigning entirely online and through surrogates. Obama, on the other hand, is one of the most popular political figures in the country and will make a dynamic proxy for Biden. A lot of voters see a former president who can speak in complete, coherent sentences and get all misty.
It would not be a proper Republican gutter campaign without the presence of Rove. After Obama slammed Trump’s pathetic COVID response in a commencement speech delivered to historically Black colleges and universities, Rove went straight for the tried and true GOP tactic of the racist dog whistle. “It is so unseemly for a former president to take the virtual commencement ceremony for a series of historically black colleges and universities and turn it into a political drive-by shooting,” Rove said on Fox & Friends. Dog whistle? More like a dog klaxon.
“Obamagate” is meant to take Obama off the board, and the right-wing media machine has dutifully picked up Trump’s banner to achieve this end. The “mainstream” news media, having learned nothing from the Clinton emails debacle in ‘16, are doing their part to spread the nonsense far and wide. Some, including Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, believe targeting Obama will backfire on Trump in the long run. That may be true, but in the interim, we will be dealing with credulous media people treating this story like it’s real, and for Trump, that is a victory in itself.
“Obamagate,” as slimy as it is, represents only the overture in the symphony of shit to be unleashed. Donald Trump, Jr., who has dutifully served his father as the dirtiest of dirty fighters, recently accused Biden of being a pedophile in an Instagram post. Junior’s father has taken to calling the 77-year-old Biden a senile old man who “doesn’t know he’s alive,” which is a hot-buttered hoot coming from a guy who recently told the American people that injecting disinfectants into their bodies can cure COVID. Trump ads on Facebook depict Biden being spoonfed in a nursing home next to the words “Too Old?”
The desperation in these ghastly tactics is vivid. An averaging of all reliable state polls has Biden leading Trump by 8 points, which is 6 points higher than where Hillary Clinton stood four years ago. Biden is leading nationally in virtually every poll by between 3 to 6 points, and has held this lead for several months running. Trump, for his part, is hemorrhaging support from older voters, a fact that is nothing short of disaster for his reelection hopes, and is 20 points behind Biden with voters under 30.
Even amid the chaos of COVID, Donald Trump has it pretty good right now. It’s almost like he has one of those Mafia “jobs” where you punch a time card but don’t actually have to show up for work. All he does is watch television, eat fast food, rant on Twitter, and give the occasional incomprehensible press conference. His pet attorney general and majority pals in the Senate have effectively walled him off from the consequences of his actions, and the Supreme Court may soon decide that he is above the law entirely while in office.
All of that will change in January if Trump loses. A swath of federal and state investigators, particularly in New York, will want to have a word with him once his cloak of immunity is removed in defeat, and the statute of limitations for the crimes he is accused of runs for years beyond when he would leave the White House. Biden, for his part, has pledged not to pardon Trump if he wins in November.
The COVID pandemic which threatens to unleash a second and even third wave of infections thanks to the ill-prepared “reopen” push, the bleak electoral outlook due to nearly 100,000 dead and a shattered economy, the long stability of his deficit in basically every poll there is, the generalized Trump exhaustion within the populace after nearly four years of enforced mayhem, and the very real possibility of ruin once he is out of office… all these are prime motivators for this push toward a campaign made entirely of claws and fangs.
This also serves to explain the other moves Trump and his allies are making to keep him in office for another term. “The Republican program, which has gained steam in recent weeks, envisions recruiting up to 50,000 volunteers in 15 key states to monitor polling places and challenge ballots and voters deemed suspicious,” reports The New York Times. This is thuggery in the raw.
Because of the COVID threat, many people would greatly prefer the option of voting by mail in November. Trump and much of the GOP are dead set against it, and Trump has personally undertaken a campaign to eviscerate the United States Postal Service from within in order to render that agency incapable of handling the volume that will come with a national vote-by-mail election.
Trump and his people are not being quiet about any of this. There is no whisper campaign taking place like the one that undid McCain in South Carolina 20 years ago. Donald Trump does not do subtle, and for voters, the next six months will be like standing in front of a wide-open sewage spigot. Like the man said: Buckle your seat belts.