A Liar, A Pervert And A Racist Walk Into A Political Campaign

The scandals to which Donald Trump has been linked at this point in the election are too numerous to count.

Though a large percentage of the American public may be horrified by Trump's behavior and lies, much of what we are seeing today is nothing new. If American history tells us anything, this is just politics as usual.

Trump is far from the first candidate who has lied about his background.

Perhaps the biggest falsehood perpetrated on the public by an American politician was the extraordinary story concocted by Douglas R. Stringfellow, a Republican from Utah, during his 1952 run for a Congressional seat that had been staunchly Democratic for over twenty years. Though he lacked previous political experience, his campaign was predicated on his World War II military career. His campaign was fueled by vivid war stories about parachuting into Germany to kidnap a Nazi nuclear scientist, but then being captured and sent to a concentration camp. He escaped only to incur injury when wounded by a mine explosion, and he returned home to the U.S. as a paraplegic. The voting public loved the candidate's brave wartime story and elected him with a whopping 60% of the vote. The problem? The only part of Stringfellow's tale that was true was the fact that he had been in the Army. Though he had indeed been injured during his service, it happened during a routine mission and was not paralyzed; he had always been able to walk with a cane. His incredible fallacy was uncovered during his 1954 re-election campaign, and he was forced to pull out with just sixteen days left to go before the election.

The flagrant and overt racism seen in this presidential campaign is also nothing new. Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Richard M. Nixon, was one of those old-school politicians with a long-standing reputation for being bawdy. (He reportedly loved showing off the wood carving of fornicating elephants he kept in his office.) But he mouthed off one too many times when, in 1976, he was on a plane after the Republican National Convention with Sonny Bono, politically conservative singer Pat Boone, and disgraced White House lawyer John Dean, who was covering the convention for Rolling Stone. Butz made some lewd statements about African Americans (like Trump, he also used the "P" word) that were so shocking that when the remarks were eventually reported in the press, several news outlets refused to print what he said. He resigned from his post on October 4, 1976, just one month before the national election.

​And in the litany of politicians taken down by sex scandals, there's the slow, years-long political suicide of Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon. Throughout his career, he had been a moderate Republican who supported gun control and legalized abortion, and he had won accolades a slew of women's groups. But he couldn't seem to grasp the seriousness -- and frequency -- of female staffers' claims of rampant sexual harassment. In a single 1992 Washington Post story, ten of his victims came forth and told their stories. Ironically, it was Packwood who did the majority of the damage to his reputation, when his personal diary -- chockful of these exploits -- was made public. He was eventually forced to resign under immense pressure from the Senate Ethics Committee.

​Indiscretions are, of course, nothing new in the political landscape. Politicians from the dawn of America have committed political suicide; the only difference today is that technology records their misdeeds. But if there is one surprising thing about the latest election season, it's that Donald Trump has proven to be relatively suicide proof. Since Trump announced his candidacy in June of 2015, it has been sixteen months of headline-making horrors -- none of which has yet taken him down. Is the American public -- fed on a diet of reality television and tabloid news -- now immune to base behavior, even in those vying to hold the highest office in the land? As we see white supremacism and anti-Semitism become commonplace, disrespect and violence to women go unchecked, and the spewing of hate and promise of retribution for anyone "different," it has seemed that the American public will stand for all manner of despicable behavior. Whether or not they will vote for this kind of future is in their hands on November 8.

Erin McHugh is the author of Political Suicide: Missteps, Peccadilloes, Bad Calls, Backroom Hijinx, Sordid Pasts, Rotten Breaks, and Just Plain Dumb Mistakes in the Annals of American Politics, available now from Pegasus Books.