The reality is, though, that the ugliness of this election has been subsisting for decades, and both sides in some part (though I'm not taking 50/50 blame here-the Republicans are the ones who actually got around to nominating him, and so they should take the majority of the criticism even if Democrats are not without issue) are responsible for creating a political process that can result in such an odious, flagrantly racist man being the banner-carrier for one of the major parties. Below I illustrate five incidents that in large part contributed to Trump eventually becoming the Republican nominee that aren't related to the past two years, but instead decades of political dirty maneuvers.
|State Rep. Rick McIntyre (R-IN)|
If there's one moment that truly feels like a catalyst in the fight between Republicans and Democrats over "dirty politics in the modern era" it's probably the deeply contentious battle between Rep. Frank McCloskey (D) and State Rep. Rick McIntyre (R) in Indiana's 8th district in 1984. The election that year was a contrast to today, when split-ticket ballots aren't nearly as prevalent. In the district, historically Democratic but a breed of conservative Democrat, President Reagan was winning huge margins, helping the Republicans, while McCloskey, despite having a relatively liberal voting record, was running up strong margins in Evansville. The result was that at the end of the night, McCloskey was up by only 72 votes. However, voting irregularities made it seem like McIntyre was up by 34 votes. After a recount, McIntyre was up by 418 votes, but over 4800 ballots (a really high number for a congressional race) were deemed invalid due to technical reasons.
This was ultimately going to be one of those races where the victor would probably always be in question, but the way in which the result came about was what caused huge ire in the Republican Party against the Democratic majority. A commission, led by two Democrats and one Republican, recommended throwing out the bulk of the technicality issues, overriding the Secretary of State and the House Republicans who complained about improper interference by the House Democrats. In the end, McCloskey, despite losing the initial recount, was seated by a 4-vote majority largely along party line votes, and resulted in a walkout by the House Republicans, who felt they had been robbed of a congressional seat by the House Democrats, who'd improperly inserted themselves into Indiana's election process. So nasty was this election that it was nicknamed "the Bloody Eighth." While McCloskey won the 1986 rematch (due to McIntyre making some foibles on the campaign trail and a lack of Reagan's coattails in a midtern), the damage was lasting.
|President George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore|
If IN-8 was the appetizer in the meal of partisan distrust in the electoral system, Florida in 2000 was the main course. You all know the story here, but for those under, say, sixteen who haven't gotten to this portion of their Civics class yet we'll do a paragraph refresher. In 2000, after a very closely fought battle between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, most people assumed that we'd have an election of someone whom the country wasn't wild about (neither man was particularly popular). Early on in the night, Gore appeared to have the election in the bag after taking Florida-the networks even called it for him. However, later on in the night the networks "uncalled" Florida (a moment they still reference whenever they're being "cautious" on election night), and by the next morning it wasn't clear whether Bush or Gore had won the state, and that it was surely headed to a recount. Within the space of that recount, accusations of needlessly complicated ballots and election-tampering were already being started, and the recount (and the rules thereof) was headed to the Supreme Court.
Again, like IN-8 in '84, this is probably one of those elections where no one will ever know exactly who won. Florida in 2000 is one of those reasons why it was so popular in ensuing years to talk about a "paper-trail" for elections, and making ballots simpler because of the ridiculousness of the butterfly ballots potentially costing Al Gore enormously in certain counties. The problem here was in the way a decision was ultimately reached.
For starters, Gore was denied a manual recount in several counties he was allowed to have a recount in under the law by Katherine Harris, Florida's Secretary of State, who was an appointee of Jeb Bush, the brother of Gore's opponent, setting up an easy route for Democrats to criticize the process as unfair (this is one of those reasons that Secretaries of State should at the very least all be elected, and in a perfect world, probably hold non-partisan offices). The Florida Supreme Court initially overruled Harris' decision, stating a statewide recount was in order, but the US Supreme Court intervened, resulting in Bush v. Gore, where, along partisan lines, the Supreme Court issued a ruling 5-4 that a statewide recount would not take place, thereby ensuring George W. Bush the state's 25 electoral votes and with that 271 electoral votes, and the White House.
As I mentioned above, it's probably impossible to figure out who actually won this election. Post-election studies have been done ranging from Bush winning by as high as 1600 votes in a manual statewide recount to Gore winning by 332 votes, depending on how one handles "overvotes" and "chads" (anyone else having a flashback?). But the fact that Gore's presidential prospects were stopped not by the actual voters in a recount, but instead by a conservative-leaning Supreme Court and a Bush appointee cast a pall on the election, particularly when you consider Gore won the national popular vote. Suddenly Democrats tended to view the Supreme Court in a poorer light, talking about it as Republicans vs. Democrats, and not as impartial jurists. Constant jokes and remarks were made in the years following that Gore had actually won the election, something Democrats still will talk about openly today despite, of course, Bush actually being president. As a result, the Republican vs. Democrat mentality of the third branch of government carried over to this day (just look at Merrick Garland, who would have been unanimously confirmed twenty years ago), and millions of Democrats still feel that they were cheated out of the White House by Republicans not counting their ballots.
Following the 2002 midterms, where the Democrats did poorly and lost the Senate majority, the Republicans started to move forward with a number of Bush judicial appointments that had been stalled by the Democrats, who didn't want to create a more conservative federal bench, particularly in the shadow of Bush v. Gore just a couple of years earlier. However, Democrats began to filibuster ten nominees to the federal judiciary that they felt were too conservative. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott threatened what was coined the "nuclear option:" saying that he would change it so that a simple majority of the Senate would be required to pass through a judicial nominee, as it was largely unprecedented to filibuster a judicial nominee at the time.
Despite losing a net of four seats in the Senate and the White House, the Democrats continued to filibuster these nominees in 2005, and a movement to set in the "nuclear option" to appoint a number of these nominees was set into motion, only to be stopped by the "Gang of 14," a group of moderate senators who found a solution whereby some of the nominees were pushed to a floor vote, and a couple were not allowed to the floor.
This moment proved a couple of things. For starters, it created an unparalleled moment for the filibuster, essentially making it so that almost any legislation that can make it through the Senate requires sixty votes, a largely unattainable number considering the deeply partisan nature of a number of states (it's difficult to see sixty senators winning, or at the very least a party maintaining that number for very long). The filibuster in ensuing years would be widely criticized, to the point that the nuclear option would eventually be pulled in 2013, allowing for a simple majority of senators to be able to move judicial nominees through the Senate. It's likely that this moment will eventually put an end to the filibuster and the "gentlemanly" aspect of the Senate as a body that works together to get things done, as opposed to the more openly partisan House. It also created a deep animosity between Democrats and Republicans, as Democrats felt that their rights in the minority were being trampled and the Republicans felt that their legitimacy (since they'd just won back-to-back elections) was being impugned since their party's presidential candidate had just won.
|Sen. John Kerry (D-MA)|
Up until this point I've pointed out institutional issues that led to distrust in the electoral process and loathing of the other party. In my opinion this led to a race to the base of your party, which allowed for someone like Trump, so easily unacceptable decades earlier, to be the nominee by lambasting a party that the Republicans simply could not see any merit in; however, the final two are perhaps most responsible for the rhetoric of his campaign.
In 2004, Sen. John Kerry had put his military service front-and-center in the campaign for the White House. He was, after all, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, and was competing against someone who had been eligible, but had not fought in the conflict. It made sense, particularly in light of increasing criticism from the Democratic Party over the Iraq War and our reasons for entering the war, to highlight his military record against President Bush. This was a tried tactic and presidential candidates from Grant to Eisenhower to Bush Sr. had used it in the past to great aplomb.
However, Kerry's military service was brought into question during the campaign by former military servicemen who had served with Kerry in Vietnam. The criticisms levied at Kerry in many cases ran contrary to what these men had said about him decades earlier when he wasn't the presidential nominee. The Swift Boat group that levied these attacks were widely criticized for being false, and were funded by major donors in the Texas Republican Party with strong ties to George W. Bush, even if the ads weren't coming from the official campaign. As a result, Kerry's reputation was left tarnished, and thanks to campaign finance laws, Bush wasn't able to be directly linked to the attacks. Coupled with similar attacks two years earlier against Sen. Max Cleland, the Democrats became increasingly irate at the Republican Party for campaign tactics they thought beneath the office of the president, but because Bush actually won the election, the tactics were tacitly rewarded and Kerry's reputation was forever tarnished.
|President Barack Obama (D-IL)|
Perhaps more than any other controversy on this list, the Obama birth certificate issue has to be considered a direct contributor to Donald Trump's rise to power. During the height of the 2008 campaign, after receiving criticism from the National Review, who stated Obama should release his birth certificate to squash rumors that he was in fact not born with his original birth name and that he was born in Kenya, the Obama campaign issued a certification of live birth providing evidence that he was indeed born in Honolulu to Ann Dunham and Barack Obama, Sr. It was an ugly moment in the campaign, but one that largely would have been forgotten had it not been for a persistent group of conspiracy theorists in the Republican Party who rejected the birth certificate's authenticity, of whom Donald Trump became a public member of when he explored a presidential run in 2011.
The reality is, of course, that like the attacks against Kerry in 2004, these had no merit whatsoever. Every piece of evidence here clearly indicated that the information in the short-form birth certificate was accurate. However, like 2004, some Republicans were rewarded here by being quiet about the birth certificate or speaking out, because a vocal, active chapter of the party wanted to trumpet these claims, in part because of a deep hatred for President Obama. In 2011, even after the president released his long-form birth certificate in hopes of quenching these attacks, the fervor continued to grow, with Donald Trump being rewarded with free press by continuing to be a conspiracy theorist about the president's country of birth.
The effects here were twofold-with Trump, embraced by Mitt Romney on the campaign trail (thus tacitly allowing Romney to gain credence with the birther movement, whom he needed to win), in the spotlight he had a core constituency for a 2016 campaign, and it was in the ugliest section of the Republican Party. It also was hard to miss the fact that the Republican Party (first Romney, and later and more brazenly, Trump) gained points off of a racist charge with no bearing in fact. No one had brought into issue, for example, Sen. John McCain's claim as a natural-born citizen, despite being born in the Panama Canal Zone. The fact that the first African-American presidential candidate (and later president) of a major party was attacked in this way spoke to the ugliness of the campaigns against him. The attacks levied against him in the birth certificate (not only that he wasn't American, but also that his father wasn't whom he proclaimed he was or that his middle name wasn't Hussein, but Muhammad) spoke to racial and religious prejudice that spilled into policy initiatives for the GOP in 2016 with Trump's campaigns against Muslims and Mexican immigrants on the campaign trail.
All of this is to say that the nastiness of our current political process is nothing new, but it is definitely getting worse. Hopefully this election cycle we see, at the very least, a repudiation of some of it through a Trump loss, so that he doesn't become a sixth name on this list leading to whatever lower bar we have in store in the future.