Contrary to the common sentiment of today, the American media has pretty much always been fiercely partisan. In fact, the word “objective” didn’t really apply to journalism at large until late in the 20th century, following an era of particularly sensational news coverage aimed entirely at increasing circulation (sound familiar?).
If you think press coverage of President Trump or another candidate seems unfair now, it might do you some good to look into the coverage surrounding the 1800 election between President John Adams and Vice-President Thomas Jefferson. Although Jefferson would ultimately win, press outlets, on the lead up to the election, claimed that electing him would lead to a country where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will openly be taught and practiced.” Even Martha Washington was eventually dragged into the rhetoric when she told a clergyman that Jefferson was “one of the most detestable of mankind.” The statement went public back then without anyone even having to hack her emails. And if you think the dirty politics of the 1800 election was an isolated incident, it pays to remember that a mere four years later, another battle for the highest office in the land would result in Aaron Burr killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
The dirty-boxing went both ways in 1800, of course, as Jefferson had also hired a man named James Callendar to spread rumors about Adams, particularity about him wanting to start a war with France. Although it was untrue, the successful disinformation campaign would go on to win Jefferson a significant number of votes. The mud-slinging antics of Jefferson and Adams ran far deeper than this brief summary, but the point isn’t that politics should be brutal. The point is that, here in America, it’s always sort of felt like the world was in the balance during each election season, because those running for office benefit from creating that sense of urgency in the voting population.
That’s an important bit of perspective to keep in mind when hearing the prominent rhetoric already bubbling to the surface of our next presidential election. President Trump and his staff have worked hard to frame the idea of his impeachment as an attempted coup (it’s worth noting that many referred to the 1800 election as a “revolution” as well). Of course, with a Republican controlled Senate, it’s all but impossible for Trump to actually be removed from office without the Democrats winning over a number of Republican votes (and as a result, Republican constituents). Remember, an impeachment is not removing a president from office. President Trump, like President Clinton, can (and might) be impeached in the near future — but that just starts another legal process akin to a trial of sorts that will very likely end in Trump’s favor.
So what’s the point? Well, to some, it’s holding a powerful man accountable for his actions, but to many more, it’s all about perception. An impeached president could be seen as less electable in 2020. But then, the effort could also backfire, bolstering Trump’s longstanding claims that there has been a conspiratorial witch hunt afoot since the day he stepped into the Oval Office.
Whether the impeachment effort hurts or helps Trump’s campaign is yet to be determined, but I can already say with some confidence that it’s had an appreciably negative effect on how Americans engage across political boundaries. Now, more than ever, Americans seem fortified in their positions — supporting individuals rather than parties, policies, or processes. As President Trump claims so regularly, if you don’t support him, you’re a “Never Trumper.” And as many on the internet are happy to point out, if you don’t oppose Trump specifically, you’re a “Trump Humper.” There’s no room anymore, it would seem, for anyone to land somewhere in between.
THE GRAND QUESTION STATED
At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is: “Shall I continue in allegiance to
GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS
Or impiously declare for
JEFFERSON—AND NO GOD!!!” – Philadelphia’s Federalist paper, the Gazette of the United States, prior to the 1800 election.
But that’s the thing. I think most Americans actually do fall somewhere in between. I’ve been a fan of the Buffalo Bills my whole life, but that doesn’t mean I’m not critical of the poor choices they seem to be addicted to making since 1994. Likewise, you can vote for Trump and still think he’s a poor public speaker, or that his approach to the Syria withdrawal was flawed. You can hate Trump and still acknowledge that he’s right about the need for a defensive posture in space. You can be a card carrying Democrat that sees the logic in rebuilding our defensive infrastructure, just like you can be a card-carrying Republican that doesn’t care if gays get married. You don’t have to accept every position espoused by a party or candidate to support them. You don’t have to hate the opposing candidate (or party) to support your own. We’re choosing the president, not the prom queen: it’s supposed to be complicated. Headlines, the media, your Facebook friends, and the nightly news may all conspire to make it seem as simple as choosing a team first and positions second, but it’s supposed to work the other way around.
Yes, Americans have always been at odds with one another at election time. Yes, campaigns have always been full of mud slinging, false accusations, and unfair portrayals. Yes, both parties are exceptionally good at framing themselves as the victim of the other’s harassment, and to be fair, both parties are equally good at unfairly harassing the opposition. When you get past the differences in platform, what you find are a lot of the exact same tactics… and there’s good reason for that. Aside from political affiliations, the people running these campaigns aren’t all that different from one another. Politics may be their job, but after work–they’re Americans, parents, siblings, spouses, and almost entirely human–just like you.
You probably work alongside people with different political views every day. You may even have friends that support a candidate you hate. How is this possible? Because there are more threads that bind a community than presidential politics. That’s how Joe Biden can say Mike Pence is a decent guy. That’s how George W. Bush can be friends with Ellen Degeneres. That’s how most of us get through Thanksgiving dinners with our extended families. When you identify so deeply with your political party that you feel attacked by the very existence of someone with differing views you’re holding this country back, not propelling it forward. And before some of you comment below, “yeah, but I only do it because THEY do it!” I’d like to remind you that “they” claim the very same thing. And do you know what’s worse? You’re both right.
Our national opponents don’t subject themselves to this sort of in-fighting on a cyclical basis because their oppressive regimes provide them instead with a leader-for-life (whether they like it or not). Xi Jinping doesn’t need to sell his people on another term in office. Vladimir Putin only pretends that he needs to.
America believes its people should have a say in how the country is governed, and as a result, we tear ourselves apart every few years. That’s good in a lot of ways, but it’s important that we remember that these wars between ourselves should be scrimmages… because there are far greater threats on the horizon than the opposing political party.
Republican or Democrat. Trump-Humper or Never Trumper. We don’t have to hate each other to elect a president. Let’s try to remember that.