This is the year of Trump, and a few people have asked me about historical precedents. Actually, to be blunt, they pleaded, "Has it ever been this bad?"
Let's start with nasty presidential elections. There are really two prime examples since the Civil War, 1928 and 1896. The first I've discussed before. Al Smith, the Democrat's nominee, was the first Roman-Catholic to run for our highest office from a major party, representing immigrants and the emerging cities. As a result, he ran into a firestorm of attacks and lost badly. The Daytona Beach school board distributed to every child a card to bring parents: "We must prevent the election of Alfred E. Smith to the Presidency. If he is elected President, you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible." Photos of the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel were standard campaign flyers, with the caption that these were evidence of the secret tunnel being built between Rome and Washington to bring the pope over. For some the threat was immediate. A Klan speaker in Manchester, IN alerted his audience about the Pope's imminent arrival: "He may even be on the Northbound train tomorrow! He may! He may! Be warned! Prepare! America is for Americans!....Watch the trains!"
Less well known, and more relevant to 2016, is what happened in 1896. For decades the Democratic Party had been run by a coalition of Southern planter and Northern industrial elites. But a new wing had been mobilizing in the farm belt, consisting of poor farmers who were, like some whites now, dissatisfied with the country and with their declining incomes and status; this was a true grass roots revolt. They proceeded to dominate the convention, and after his path-breaking Cross of Gold speech, chose William Jennings Bryan as their nominee.
As today with Republicans, there was rebellion in party ranks. David Bennett Hill, patrician senator from New York, the home of Wall Street, was asked if he was still a Democrat. With language that may be used again this year he replied, "I am a Democrat still. Very still."
Even more, pubic institutions and figures denounced Bryan in tones not part of the usual political discourse, just like today's rancorous debates. One New York newspaper headlined that they had consulted "an eminent alienist" (i.e., a doctor studying disturbed persons) about Bryan and headlined their article about the candidate, "Paranoid or Mattoid?" Theodore Roosevelt, then New York's Police Commissioner, claimed that Bryan and his party were "plotting a social revolution and the subversion of the American Republic." Teddy continued, "As regards the essential principles of government," the Bryanites were "in hearty sympathy with their remote skin clad ancestors who lived in caves and fought one another with stone headed axes and ate the mammoth wooly rhinoceros." One paper polled the inmates at Sing-Sing prison and found that these felons endorsed the farmer's representative. Bryan lost his election too.
As to third parties, in 1948 there were actually four, giving Americans more serious choices than any other time in the twentieth century. Besides Harry Truman for the Democrats and Thomas Dewey for the Republicans there was Strom Thurmond representing the Dixiecrat Party and Henry Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket. This was no joke, either. Thurmond carried four states and got 1,175,930 popular and 39 electoral votes. Wallace took no states but was backed by 1,157,328 voters.
The real marker, however, is 1912, when the greatest split in modern political history occurred. Rebuffed by the Party establishment, Teddy Roosevelt summoned his followers and stormed out of the Republican convention that year. Assembling a coalition of reformers in a Chicago hall, he stood in front of figures like Jane Addams and thundered, "We Stand at Armageddon and We Battle For the Lord!" At the end of the meeting, they joined together and sang "Onward Christian Soldiers". Although the formal name was the Progressive Party, early on a reporter asked Theodore if he was up to the task of a national, insurgent campaign and the great man replied that he was as "fit as a bull moose," thus providing their popular nickname.
Teddy was one of the most formidable politicians of any era and he gave better than he received, actually beating the regular, Republican candidate by a substantial margin, despite his third party status. Even though William Taft was the incumbent president that year, in seven states he actually got fewer votes than the Socialist Party's Eugene Debs. At one point Taft wrote, "I think I might as well give up as far as being a candidate is concerned. There are so many people in the country who don't like me." On that, at least, he was right.
Regarding problematic conventions, before this year and the possibility of a Trump-inspired floor fight, the Dems seemed to have a lock on these. In 1924 it ran to 103 ballots, still a record and in a quest for mercy, hopefully one that will last forever. And in 1968 they had riots, tear gas flooding downtown Chicago, and a U.S. Senator speaking at the podium on national tv denouncing the "gestapo tactics" of the police.
What is completely unprecedented this year is the total unpreparedness of the Republican front runner. Other than generals, two presidents had never run for any elected office before seeking the highest office, Taft and Herbert Hoover. But both had held significant cabinet posts, and many historians claim Hoover was actually the most important federal official in the country during the 1920s, given the weak presidencies of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. This is the first time in recent history someone with literally no governmental experience whatsoever has gotten this far.
In many ways the real predecessor to Trump's campaign is the Joe McCarthy episode in the 1950s. First, like the New York realtor, McCarthy massaged his record. He began his career while a Marine during World War II. Assigned to non-combat duties, McCarthy had himself photographed in the rear of a grounded dive bomber while he fired 700 rounds into the air, then claimed he had fought off Japanese planes and was known as "Tail Gunner Joe."
As U.S. Senator from Wisconsin he traveled down this path of manipulating truth, much like Trump and his false claims. McCarthy attributed to the Secretary of Agriculture a quote the man never said and when questioned, replied he didn't give "a tinker's damn" what the man had actually uttered.
As Trump has created Mexican and Muslim threats, during the Red Scare McCarthy simply invented villains where none existed. In one of the cases he presented to Congress, the actual FBI investigation which McCarthy claimed to be using, read as follows: "This employee is with the Office of Information and Educational Exchange in New York City....There has been no investigation. (C-8) is a reference. Though he is 43 years of age, his file reflects no history prior to June 1941."
Here is how McCarthy described this evidence on the floor of the Senate: "This individual is 43 years of age. He is with the Office of Information and Education. According to the file he is a known Communist. I might say that when I refer to someone as being a known Communist, I am not evaluating the information myself. I am merely giving what is in the file."
McCarthy also resembled the realtor by using innuendo to smear opponents. Donald Trump does not come out and say Barack Obama is not an American or that Ted Cruz is Canadian. He is just raising the question. In similar fashion, the Senator or one of his fellow Red-hunters would refrain from bluntly calling someone a Communist, but glibly point out that their target was "Communistically inclined".
Above all, McCarthy, like Trump, never defended, always attacked. Rather than clarifying a position, he always belittled the questioner. One of his targets was a China correspondent named Haldore Hansen, whom Joe referred to a person with a "mission to communize the world." Referring to a memoir Hansen had published about his exploits overseas, McCarthy described it as "a book which sets forth his pro-Communist answer to the problems of Asia a clearly as Hitler's Mein Kampf set forth his solutions to the problems of Europe," claims which flabbergasted the author, publisher, and anyone who had ever read the volume. When asked the name of the book McCarthy replied that he didn't know, he would look it up. Joe denounced the "egg-sucking phony liberals" who held "sacrosanct those Communists and queers" who had sold China into "atheistic slavery". Also, much like The Donald, he referred to himself in the third person ("McCarthy will not bend...."). At least he never referred to his polls (which were quite high).
Finally, one point of note. All of these episodes were supremely disruptive of life in America, and most were incredibly ugly and just downright horrible to live through. This year will be neither mild, nor pleasant.