Trump’s dirty tricks: Unethical, even illegal campaign tactics are an American tradition

Donald Trump pulled some pretty unseemly stunts to win the 2016 United States presidential election.

He threatened to put his opponent, Hillary Clinton, in jail and publicly asked Russia to hack her emails. After Russian operatives did something similar – stealing emails from Democratic National Committee servers – the Trump campaign publicized the hacked emails, which were published on WikiLeaks. Trump aides also met with Russian spies who promised information damaging to Clinton.

Some of these activities, which special counsel Robert Mueller uncovered in his 22-month investigation into Trump, may have been illegal.

Other Trump attacks on Clinton were tawdry, unethical and, according to Attorney General William Barr in his May 1 testimony to Congress, technically lawful.

The attacks were, for the Justice Department at least, dirty tricks.

Students of American history – including those who’ve read the college U.S. politics textbook I co-authored – will know that Trump has a lot of company in the dirty tricks department: Elections have always been nasty.

Since the earliest years of the republic, candidates have used deceptive, underhanded and dubiously legal tactics to discredit their opponents.

1800: Jefferson vs. Adams

The 1800 race between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams was a lowly beginning for the new American democracy.

Jefferson was Adams’ vice president from 1797 to 1801. To defeat his boss without personally maligning the president of the United States, Jefferson let a journalist, James Callender, do his dirty work.

Callender wrote rapidly partisan articles for the Richmond Reporter newspaper and in a self-published 1800 anti-Federalist pamphlet called “The Prospect Before Us.” One of his more creative attacks was to question Adams’ masculinity. He accused Adams of being a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

Callender’s anti-Federalist publications during the campaign led to his prosecution under the Sedition Act, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. In May 1800, he was sentenced to nine months in jail and a US$200 fine.

This bitter contest between president and vice president occurred because President Adams and Vice President Jefferson came from different political party. Back then, voters picked two candidates for president. The top vote-getter became president, the second-place finisher became vice president.

Congress changed this system changed after the dirty 1800 election, passing the 12th Amendment, which established the current running mate system.

1828: Adultery, murder and pimping

That didn’t make electoral politics any kinder. The 1828 race between President John Quincy Adams and the southern statesman Andrew Jackson was the United States’ nastiest and most personal election yet.

Democratic President John Quincy Adams lost badly – but not before he did some serious damage to Jackson’s reputation.

Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, was labeled an ‘American Jezebel’ in the 1828 election. Library of Congress
Adam’s campaign surrogates accused Jackson of murder and spread rumors that Jackson’s wife, Rachel – who had previously been married to another man – had never really divorced.

“As a result,” political commentator Rick Unger wrote in Forbes magazine in 2012, “the Democratic candidate was accused of being an adulterer and running away with another man’s wife, while Mrs. Jackson was labeled a bigamist.”

Jackson’s team retaliated by accusing Adams, a former ambassador to Russia, of having provided Russian Czar Alexander I up with young American virgins for his sexual pleasure.

These tactics probably amounted to criminal defamation. In the United States, it is unlawful to tarnish a person’s reputation by spreading false information. But there is no evidence that either camp sued.