Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Writing in the tranquility of election morning, after and before the maelstrom, one must be struck by the long campaign's terrible peculiarities. But what stands out most is a level of viciousness and violence not seen in politics since the Civil War. They were framed largely in mere words, but now we will be lucky if the campaign did not foreshadow far worse — real acts of individual and institutional savagery.
Historians will quarrel about exactly when and why the natural partisanship of the American democracy began to lose all sense of civility and turned to merciless defiance and hatred. Most people agree it followed the victory in 1992 of the Clintons, but was it retaliation for the investigations — Watergate, Iran-Contra, HUD grant-rigging, Wedtech — that subverted the Republican administrations of Nixon and Reagan, or was it just something about the cocky young couple from lowly Arkansas that drove the other side witless? Whatever, it reached its nadir in the campaign of 2016.
No election in history recorded so much talk of doing real or figurative harm to a candidate, mainly but not solely Hillary Clinton. After Donald Trump began calling her a criminal and "crooked Hillary," the frequent yells at rallies became chants, "Hang the bitch." The Republican convention and Trump rallies broke into relentless chants of "Lock her up." Delegates and Trump advisers at the convention called for her to be shot by a firing squad or hanged and her body draped on the National Mall. Trump called the man who urged that Clinton be hanged "my favorite vet, the king!" The media recorded frequent screams of "Kill the bitch."
T-shirts and signs emblazoned with "Trump that Bitch" and occasionally "Kill the Bitch" blossomed at Trump and Mike Pence rallies and on the streets. Variations of the violent themes appeared on homemade and campaign signs in rural Arkansas and across the land. With no words by Clinton to support him, Trump said Clinton planned to abolish the Second Amendment and take people's guns and that, if she was elected, the only way to stop her was for gun owners to take matters into their own hands.
The politics of personal destruction didn't begin when Trump and Clinton squared off, but before the primaries, when the big gaggle of Republican candidates turned on each other with a fury rarely seen inside a party. It was not that Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and the rest just accused each other of saying and doing things they had never said or done — that is a staple of every campaign, Democratic or Republican — but they assailed each other's character and said they lacked human virtues. Trump called them all losers, ridiculed their bodies and their wives, along with immigrants and disabled people. "Liar" became the most frequent noun of the campaign. Cruz called Trump a phony who never told the truth, and Trump replied, "You are the biggest liar I have ever known." All of them had to add that Hillary was a bigger liar than any of them.
There were occasional violent implications even then. Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose candidacy flopped early, told the National Press Club that his colleagues so despised Cruz that "if you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you."
It is not a coincidence that the peak of character assassination and threats of violence came in the first election where a female presidency was a realistic prospect. The internet is gorged with wild conspiracies, often with violent overtones and covering everything from the paternity of Hillary's daughter to a vast criminal operation in which Hillary had directed the murders of scores of people in Arkansas and elsewhere who had crossed her. The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote over the weekend about overhearing a conversation among fashionable women at the next table in an Ohio restaurant about all her murders. They wanted to vote for a woman president, but couldn't support one who had murdered so many people.
In the final days, members of Congress said that a President Hillary Clinton would not be allowed to govern, even to fill judicial vacancies or her Cabinet. Trump said a President Clinton would be the illegitimate fruit of election crimes.
The first female candidate for president was the suffragist Victoria Woodhull, who ran with the Equal Rights Party in 1872 even though she was ineligible. Before the election, she was arrested and charged with obscenity for publishing that the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher was an adulterer. Sex is never far from any presidential campaign.
Here's the irony. Preacher Beecher's sister, the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe ("Uncle Tom's Cabin"), wrote a novel "My Wife and I" idealizing the role of the sexes in marriage a year before Woodhull's race and musing about a woman president some day, since queens ran England. The husband pooh-poohed it.
"[N]o woman that was not willing to be draggled through every kennel, and slopped into every dirty pail of water, like an old mop, would ever consent to run as a candidate. Why, it's an ordeal that kills a man. It killed General Harrison, and killed old Zack. What sort of a brazen tramp of a woman would it be that could stand it, and come out of it without being killed?"
It remains a good question.