Nasty mudslinging has been an integral part of American political campaigns for more than two centuries. Back in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson ran against incumbent John Adams, each side pulled no punches in besmirching the other. Adams’ supporters described Jefferson as a dangerous radical, ridiculed his religious beliefs — or lack of them — and called his followers “mad men” who would bring a “reign of terror” equivalent to the bloody French Revolution.
Jefferson’s supporters, in turn, depicted Adams as a tyrant conspiring to create an American monarchy and crown himself king, and claimed his followers were “plotting to subvert human liberty and impose slavery on the people.”
Six decades later, when Abraham Lincoln faced off against Stephen Douglas, Lincoln and his supporters openly mocked Douglas’s short stature and build. “Answers to the name Little Giant. Talks a great deal, very loud, always about himself,” was how a handbill released by Lincoln’s side described Douglas. “About five feet nothing in height and about the same in diameter the other way,” it added.
Douglas was reportedly equally charitable in his description of Lincoln, describing him as a “horrid-looking wretch … a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman.”
In the century and a half that has passed since, the sordid tradition of mudslinging in American politics has continued unabated. But just when it was assumed that campaigning couldn’t get any nastier, Donald Trump — with the able assistance of mass media — managed to hit a new low.
The target of the latest frontal attack from the controversial billionaire who is running for the GOP nomination wasn’t the likely Democratic nominee or even one of his fellow Republican Party candidates. It was Senator John McCain.
“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said at a conservative forum last week, about McCain. “He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
His outrageous comment was strongly condemned by elected officials across the political divide. But Trump, who is surging in the polls, seems to revel in the furor he has caused, basking in the limelight and refusing to apologize.
As every student of history knows, McCain was on his 23rd mission as a naval aviator during the Vietnam War when his plane was shot down over the heart of Hanoi. Badly injured, McCain wasn’t expected to survive. He subsequently endured years of torture at the hands of his communist captors.
Less than a year after he was captured, his father, Adm. John S. McCain, Jr., was appointed commander-in-chief of all U.S. forces in the Pacific during the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese, eager to score some propaganda points, offered to release McCain.
Insisting that he would only be freed after those who had been captured before him were released as well, John McCain bravely refused the offer. He ended up suffering unspeakable torment, and was only released after five and a half years in captivity.
As every sane individual can attest, John McCain is a genuine American hero. For Donald Trump, in his zeal to attract attention and use his personal fortune to try to purchase the presidency, neither facts nor feelings matter.
One can only hope that the American people will repudiate Trump by informing the pollsters that they would not consider — under any circumstances — casting their ballots for him.
For Torah Jews, simply condemning Trump doesn’t suffice. Let us not delude ourselves: This isn’t only about a specific individual. It is about a poisonous atmosphere filled with personal attacks and derogatory language.
We often don’t realize how much we are affected by the ranting of those who thrive on trying to besmirch and tear down those with whom they disagree. Indeed, some of these viewpoints are similar to Torah hashkafah. But the way they present their case, the words and tone of voice they use, are the diametric opposite of the refinement and middos tovos that is the trademark of a Torah Jew.
The only way to ensure that these corrosive influences do not permeate our homes and hearts is by carefully screening what we choose to listen to, and with whom we spend our time.