Visiting The Long History of Political Attack Language

a person is casting a vote into an election box

From Wit And Humor To Verbal Assassination

If you have been around for enough elections, you may have noticed that the election campaign of 2016 seems like the bloodiest attack mode campaign ever. And you might be correct.

It’s hard to tell if that’s true; perhaps historians and researchers will analyze the campaigns and compare them to those in the past.

Long History Of Political Communication That Attacks

Of course, there’s nothing new in this campaign per se. It’s suggested that going back to Roman times, insults were common, as were various kinds of verbal attacks.

And of course, if you have ever watched your local parliament, congress, etc, you’ll realize that there’s a constant buzz, undercurrent, and…well, overcurrent of verbally attacking communication.

What’s interesting though, and what may set this campaign apart from those in the past is that:

Presidential hopefuls seem to be fueling their political rhetoric in a way that makes them appear that they genuinely HATE their opponents.

Do they really? We don’t know. Perhaps its a bizarre theatre of the absurd where in fact, they only pretend to hate their rivals. Or perhaps it’s a win at all costs mentality and patch things up later.

Regardless of their true feelings, their behavior sets a tone, creates different emotions in observers – in millions of observers, and can influence society and behavior in it.

That’s one reason why this particular campaign seems so different. It’s covered 24/7, media love the insult soundbytes, and voters are being pulled in by the verbally abusive communication of candidates —  pandering to the lowest common denominators or emotion, and hatred.

When It Was All Good Fun: Wit and Humor In Political Barbs

In the good old days, and often in the present in elections in other countries, we see that politicians traded barbs with each other in an almost good natured way, displaying their wit and humor.

In fact, the use of wit and humor has been a way for politicians to appear presidential or prime ministerial (i.e. displaying dignity and statesmanhood) while, at the same time getting points across to potential voters.

It has also been the case, prior to the 2016 election that even though politicians would insult each other, their insults did not compromise a never ending waterfall of crap. The wit and political barbs of the past were relatively few and far between compared to the substance of the discussions-the issues.

Politicians of the past seemed to realize that insults work best when they are few, funny, and provide an interlude of humor, rather than comprising the entire content of debates and interviews.

Some Great Examples Of Political Insults

You can compare the tone of the following insults, most by famous candidates and politicians directed at their competition for yourself if you have any experience watching or reading the reports of the presidential debates.

It is also interesting to note that the quotes that have made their way into our consciousness are almost alway the witty, funny, and pointed, not phrases that actually demean, or cruelly minimize the opposition.

“There they are. See no evil, hear no evil, and…evil.” —Bob Dole, watching former presidents Carter, Ford and Nixon standing by each other at a White House event

“In a recent fire Bob Dole’s library burned down. Both books were lost. And he hadn’t even finished coloring one of them.” —Jack Kemp

“I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” —Ronald Reagan, during a 1984 presidential debate with Walter Mondale

“He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” —Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards on misstatements made by George Bush, Sr.

He is one of those orators of whom it was well said. Before they get up, the do not know what they are going to say;when they are speaking, they do not know what they are saying;and when they have sat down, they do not know what they have said” About Lord Charles Beresford, uttered by Winston Churchill

An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Atlee got out
Winston Churchill About Clement Atlee

He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened
Winston Churchill On Stanley Baldwin

The right honourable gentleman is reminiscent of a poker. The only difference is that a poker gives off the occasional signs of warmth.
On Robert Peel, uttered by Benjamin Disraeli

No doubt we remember the wittiest creme de la creme of political insults and perhaps there were the run of the mill “liar, liar” accusations we are hearing so often today. Yet, perhaps today it’s all about the venom.

Today’s Examples Of Political Insult

It’s fair to say that Trump has taken the initiative in bringing political insult to a lowest common denominator, that is almost entirely without wit, while the supporting cast members of what could be a reality TV show have followed that lead. So let’s take a look at some of the not so bon mots from Trump.

You know he’s concerned about the answer because well, some people,” Trump said, pointing to a woman in the crowd, “she just said a terrible thing. You know what she said? Shout it out ’cause I don’t wanna.”
Then he said it anyway: “She said, ‘He’s a pussy.'”

Calling out Rubio as “sweating like a dog“.

Speaking of Rand Paul: “I never attacked him on his look[s],” Trump replied, pointing at Paul, “and believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there.

About Gov. Pataki: “I heard Gov. Pataki, who, by the way, was a failed governor in New York, a very seriously failed — he wouldn’t be elected dogcatcher right now.”

About Obama: “Somehow [Obama] just doesn’t have courage. There is something missing from our president”.

About Jeb Bush (in a tweet): “#JebBush has to like the Mexican Illegals because of his wife.

About Arianna Huffington: “The liberal clown @ariannahuff told her minions at the money losing to cover me as entertainment. I am #1 in Huff Post Poll”

At this early point in the campaign there are probably enough Trumpist insults to fill a normal sized book, but he’s certainly not the only one.

Perhaps the only half-witty insult interchange was initiated by Rubio who pointed out Trump’s “small hands”, innuendo to suggest Trust was not quite well endowed in that “other department”. Crude, and not up to the historical insults of Reagan and Churchill, but at least mildly amusing due to it’s complete irrelevance and silliness.

Some Final Comments

This election feels different from those in the past. Whether by intent or just plain limited skills and wit , the candidates are insulting each other at the level of young children, or PeeWee Herman of “I know you are but what am I” fame.

The question is whether the candidates are creating a trend of abuse without humor and full of abundant malice, or whether they are capitalizing on the wants of a population so jaded and cynical that they want to see candidates lose and be humiliated in the process?

In a society where we put lots of resources in combatting bullying, both towards adults and children, look to protect people from toxic environments, and teach about cyberbullying, it seems passing strange that our leaders are leading a nation down a path to further abuse, or pandering to the lowest common denominator.

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