The history of political campaigns has gone back as far as at least Athenian Democracy. And for about as long, they’ve had moments of extreme craziness. As crazy as what’s happening right now in 2016? Well, I guess you can make up your own mind about that.
1. The Establishment Tries To Ban Clowns
In Brazil, there has been so much disgust with the incredible levels of corruption at every branch of government that recent elections have seen huge protest votes. At least some of these have been for what would otherwise be “joke candidates”, but there’s so much discontent that these jokes end up being considered better options than any of Brazil’s worthless professional politicos.
In 2010, a popular clown (yes, a literal clown) with the stage name “Tiririca” ran for Brazil’s equivalent of Congress. He ran on the slogan “It can’t get any worse, so vote for Tiririca”; he also declared “If elected, I will help all Brazilian families… especially mine”.
His candidacy proved so popular that the political Establishment tried to file a lawsuit to stop it, claiming that he was making a mockery of the democratic process. The suit was dismissed, probably on the basis that the Brazilian political elites had long since made a mockery of that process already. Next, they accused him of being illiterate (which according to Brazilian law would make him ineligible to run); but Tiririca proved that he was in fact barely literate, which still left him more qualified than almost any ‘serious’ Brazilian politician. The Brazilian government actually tried to pass a law banning “spoof candidates” but this was also overturned by the Supreme Court.
Tiririca won his congressional seat. In fact, not only did he win, he proved to the be most voted congressional candidate of that entire election, and the second-most-voted candidate in Brazil’s history. He’s still a serving congressman, and has spent most of his time in his new political career trying to encourage cultural projects and education.
2. The Drag-Queen Comedian Who Became Mayor Of A World Capital
Iceland was one of the countries most badly hit by the 2008 economic crisis. They ended up doing a major cleaning-house of political corruption over the next couple of years. In 2009, a group of comedians and other counter-culture figures created a joke-party called the “Best Party” to act as a protest vote against Iceland’s political establishment. Its founder and leading figure was comedian Jon Gnarr. Gnarr’s party promised that they would keep none of their election promises; since all the political parties were corrupt, the Best Party would at least be “transparently corrupt”!
Other promises included an Icelandic Disneyland, a “drug-free parliament”, and free towels in every swimming pool. He also promised that his party would refuse to enter in a political coalition with anyone who hadn’t watched all of HBO’s “The Wire”.
His party ended up taking the most seats in the Reykjavik municipal election, and Gnarr became mayor. In his term in office, he appeared in full drag in Iceland’s Gay Pride Parade, and gave holiday greetings dressed in a Darth Vader helmet.
3. Nixon Pulled Dirty Tricks, But Probably Shouldn’t Have Bothered
The 1972 presidential election was amazing and probably the most controversial one in living memory before 2016. We know (after Watergate) that Richard Nixon tried to pull all kinds of dirty tricks to get himself re-elected (though it all looks like child’s play compared to what Wikileaks has shown the Democrats are doing now). But honestly, “Tricky Dick” shouldn’t have bothered: in ’72 the Democrats did an unbelievable job of destroying themselves.
To be fair, they had a terrible set of unlikable candidates to start with. Hubert Humphrey, who had an awful name and already lost to Nixon last time, was a non-starter. Then their front-runner in the early Primaries, Edmund Muskie, got caught up in a series of scandals: first it was rumored he was using a psychedelic drug called Ibogaine. The rumor started when famed gonzo-journalist Hunter S. Thompson (who hated Muskie) wrote a joke article about him, but people got confused and believed Thompson was being serious. Then newspaper articles came out claiming that Muskie hated French-Canadians, and that Muskie’s wife was an alcoholic (for a long time it was believed that the Nixon government was behind this, but investigations seem to have proven that not to be the case). But worst of all, when Muskie went on TV to condemn these attacks on his character, he started to cry. That was it, his chances of being President were gone.
That left super-racist anti-desegrationist southern Democrat George Wallace, and ultra-leftist hippie-darling George McGovern (who makes Bernie Sanders look moderate). Wallace was still very popular with the south (where half the Democrats were still Klansmen), but had no chance of winning outside that area. And then he got shot five times outside a shopping mall in Maryland.
That left George McGovern. But the Establishment Democrats, led by Humphrey, wanted nothing to do with him. They tried to sabotage his campaign by claiming that he was promising “amnesty for deserters, abortions for everyone, and legal acid (LSD)”. By the time McGovern won the nomination, he was already struggling in the polls, and then Ted Kennedy refused to be his VP pick. The guy he did choose, Senator Thomas Eagleton, turned out to be a former mental patient who’d had electroshock therapy. McGovern’s campaign never recovered, and Nixon won with a 520-17 landslide in the electoral college (one of the largest in US history).
The whole story is written up in Hunter S. Thompson’s amazing book “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72”; which was hailed as the “least factual but most accurate account” of that election ever written.
4. Hippies Tried To Take Over A Town
Speaking of Hunter S. Thompson, a few years earlier he’d tried his own hand at politics, when he brought together a bunch of hippies to try to take over Aspen, Colorado. In 1969, Aspen was thought of as a quiet and conservative ski-resort town. But a group of assorted hippies and nonconformists, tired of being persecuted by ‘the man’, came together under the “Freak Power” party and tried to run a biker named Joe Edwards (who also happened to be a lawyer) in that year’s mayoral election. Incredibly, they only ended up losing by 6 votes, and only after the Democrats and Republicans in Aspen actually teamed up and ran together to stop him. Though it wasn’t confirmed, there were rumors of tampering with mail-in votes, which might mean that Edwards should actually have won.
The next year, Thompson himself (who had been Edwards’ campaign manager) ran for the office of Sheriff. He made a number of outlandish promises, including that he’d tear up the asphalt from all the city streets so that all transport in the city would be on foot or bicycle, that he’d fire most of the town’s bureaucrats, and that he’d change the city’s name from Aspen to “Fat City”. He shaved his head bald so that in interviews and rallies he could refer to the Republican sheriff of the town as “my long-haired opponent”.
In spite of all this Thompson was actually winning the race. So once again, the Republicans and Democrats teamed up, running a single-candidate to combine their votes. Thompson ended up narrowly losing (having won 44% of the votes). Ultimately, the hippies kind of had the last laugh with Aspen, though.
5. Truman Beats The Media
In 1948’s election, everyone in the Establishment thought Truman was going to lose. Even though he was President, it was only because FDR had died in office, and half his own party hated him. A coalition of Democrats tried to get General “Ike” Eisenhower to run against Truman in the primaries (they didn’t know he was a Republican yet). The left-wing of the Democrats thought Truman was way too conservative, and a bunch of them broke off to support the nearly-communist Henry Wallace in a “progressive party” ticket. The right-wing of the party hated him too, because he supported civil rights and desegregation; and then-Democrat Strom Thrumond ran against Truman too, on an anti-desegregation “Dixiecrat” racist ticket.
The media were also aligned against him, and one famous editorial declared Truman to be a “nincompoop”. Back then, polling wasn’t going on every single day, and the last poll before the election, in October, predicted a solid victory for Truman’s Republican opponent, NY Governor Thomas Dewey. The Chicago Tribune was so sure Truman was going to lose that they’d already printed 150000 copies of the paper declaring “Dewey Defeats Truman” before election returns started to make that certain victory seem unlikely. When it turned out Truman won by over 100 electoral votes, he took a famous picture with the failed Tribune headline to get his revenge.
6. Grover Cleveland’s Illegitimate Baby Scandal
Today, Grover Cleveland is just one more name in the long list of “19th Century Presidents with silly names”. But he actually did something pretty remarkable: he was the only Democrat to get elected president in a nearly 50-year period after the Civil War. Cleveland ran in 1884 at a time when a lot of people were getting sick of how Republican politicians (by now used to being in power) had become badly corrupt and inefficient. He was running against James Blaine, who was one of the big-time corrupt Republicans (so much so that Blaine’s nomination immediately got a group of reformist Republicans switching sides to back Cleveland; they were known as the “mugwumps”). Cleveland was a moderate “Bourbon Democrat”, which back then meant supporting free trade (instead of protectionism and high tariffs) and clean government without favoritism or bribery. So Cleveland’s side campaigned largely by reminding people of the times Blaine had influenced favors for some railroad companies in order to make a fortune off bonds. They even released some 19th-century-wikileaks style letters they’d obtained that were pretty incriminating of Blaine.
Blaine, in turn, went for the jugular: his side claimed that Cleveland had an illegitimate son with a previously-pure woman he’d soiled and then tried to lock away in an asylum. For a guy running on how principled he was, this was a devastating blow to Cleveland. Crowds of Republicans went around mockingly chanting “Ma, Ma, Wheres my Pa??”
But Cleveland fought back by ‘owning up’: he admitted that he’d paid child support for a boy born to a woman out of wedlock, which might or might not have been his, but was more likely the son of his former law-firm partner. His partner was married and the scandal would have destroyed him, so Cleveland (a bachelor) took responsibility to save his friend’s marriage and name. Then the Cleveland campaign countered by showing how high-profile Blaine-supporters had made anti-Catholic comments at Republican rallies. This cost Blaine the Irish vote in New York state, and that won Cleveland the election. At the festivities, the Democrats were heard chanting “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha Ha Ha!!”
7. The Ghost Of Davy Crockett Is Used To Bring Down A President
In the 1836 presidential election, Martin Van Buren was vice-president, and running as the chosen successor of then-president Andrew Jackson. He had a pretty big advantage, and it didn’t help that the opposition was divided between four different regional candidates. His opponents were desperate for something to use against him, and they got it in the form of a letter from a dead hero: Davy Crockett (yes, the guy with the coonskin cap from the old Disney movies).
Davy Crockett had been a hero in his own lifetime, as a frontiersman. He had also been a politician (a congressman), and had been one of Jackson’s harshest critics. And he especially hated Van Buren, who he felt was a talentless New-York fancypants political-powerbroker who had gotten the VP spot in exchange for getting Jackson votes and nothing else.
And here’s the kicker: then Davy Crockett went and died, as a hero, in the freaking Alamo, in the election year! Van Buren’s main opponent (William Henry Harrison) seized on this, and publicized letters written by Crockett himself where he had said he was moving to Texas because he didn’t want live under President Van Buren (back then, celebrities threatened to move to Texas instead of Canada, since Canada hadn’t been invented yet). And worse still, where Crockett accused Van Buren of being an effeminate fop who ‘dressed up corsets finer and tighter than any woman he knew’.
It still wasn’t enough for them to beat Van Buren. He became president in the ’36 election. But 4 years later, after a disastrous economic crisis, Van Buren (who by then got the nickname “Martin Van Ruin”) proved to be much more unpopular. Harrison ran again, and again repeated the Davy Crockett smears, and this time Harrison won. Harrison didn’t get to relish his victory for very long: he caught a cold during his inaugural address, and was dead about a month later.
8. The Dirty Election That Killed A First Lady
In 1824, Andrew Jackson was one of four major presidential candidates. He was an outsider, campaigning as a populist candidate (nicknamed “King Mob”) against a corrupt Establishment elite. He ended up winning the most popular votes, but not a majority. In the congressional vote that decides the president if no candidate gets the majority of electoral votes, the Establishment politicians decided Jackson was “unfit for office” and gave the election to John Quincy Adams instead. It was remembered as the “Corrupt Bargain”.
Jackson ran again in 1828, against President John Quincy Adams, and it was one of the craziest elections in US history. Jackson was nicknamed “Jackass” by the Adams campaign (the 1828 version of “Deplorable”), but he turned that around on them by wearing the title with pride (later on, the Democrat party, which was inspired by Jackson, made the donkey its symbol in reference to this). Adams claimed Jackson had killed men unfairly in duels.
Jackson then claimed Adams was a gambling addict.
Adams claimed that Jackson was the half-black son of a prostitute.
Jackson claimed Adams had pimped American women off to the Russian Czar.
But worst of all, Adams went after Jackson’s wife, Rachel. The Adams campaign discovered that Rachel had been previously married, and when she married Jackson she had not yet finalized the divorce from her first husband. This was technically true, but it was an accident (Rachel had believed she was already divorced), but Rachel and Jackson were both lambasted in the public eye as sinful bigamists.
Jackson won, but the stress had been so terrible for his wife that she actually died shortly after the election. Jackson blamed Adams and the political establishment, damning them at his wife’s funeral, calling them her murderers.
9. Three Founding Fathers Go Apeshit On Each Other
The election of 1800 was one of the most important in US history, and also at least ties with 1828 (and now 2016) for one of the craziest and nastiest elections ever. President John Adams (John Quincy’s dad) was running for re-election, and his chief opponent was Thomas Jefferson.
It was a hugely important election; because while both were founding fathers, they had radically different views of what America should look like. In Adams’ administration, he’d signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which allowed the federal government to shut down newspapers that criticized the government. Adams was a “Federalist” who had more conservative viewpoints and wanted a strong central government; while Jefferson was a much more revolutionary “Democratic Republican”, who opposed centralized power and hated the Sedition Acts.
During the 1800 election, Jefferson’s side distributed pamphlets claiming that Adams was going blind, that he had European mistresses, that Adams would start a war with France, that he was a secret monarchist who wanted to marry one of his sons into the British royal family, and even that Adams was a hermaphrodite!
In turn, Adams’ side claimed that Jefferson was an atheist, that if Jefferson won then murder, rape and incest would all be taught and encouraged by the government, that the “soil would be soaked in blood”, and that citizens’ wives and daughters would be forced into prostitution. They claimed that Jefferson’s mother was actually an “Indian Squaw”.
Alexander Hamilton was a Federalist, but he hated Adams and essentially switched sides, campaigning against Adams. Hamilton claimed in a letter that Adams was talentless and “defective of character”. The Adams camp claimed that Hamilton was the “creole bastard brat of a scotch-peddler”.
In the end, Jefferson tied in the election with his own VP candidate, Aaron Burr. Burr tried to push congress to make him president instead of Jefferson, but Alexander Hamilton used his influence to make sure Jefferson would win (he didn’t like Jefferson, thinking of him as a ‘revolutionary’, but that Burr “loves nothing but himself”). Later, Aaron Burr shot Hamilton dead in a duel while Burr was still Vice-President.
10. The Gracchus Brothers Try To “Make Rome Great Again”
133BC: Tiberius Gracchus tried to stop the Roman Establishment from screwing over the common man. Rich elites were conspiring with each other to control public land, pushing out smallholders through favoritism in grants to farm the land, for immense profits for themselves.
Gracchus’ efforts were vetoed. Gracchus tried to run for reelection (unprecedented) due to popular demand; the elites murdered him when it was clear he would win, claiming that they were stopping a would-be tyrant.
When his brother Gaius later ran to try to fulfill his brother’s reforms, the Establishment senators tried to promote a fake ‘populist’ named Drusus making empty promises to try to wear away at Gracchus’ support. They accused Gracchus of being somehow involved in the death of the great war hero Scipio Africanus the Younger, and later of inciting general violence against the aristocracy. Then in the end they just passed a decree allowing them to execute him as a would-be tyrant. He committed suicide rather than be captured.
The Gracchi were not tyrants; they were attempting to reform the Roman Republic to fix what they felt had gone horribly wrong due to an establishment elite that had stopped caring about the welfare of the people. Their supporters believed in what the republic stood for. But after their deaths, even though it would take another seventy years, the Republic was doomed. The elites had proven they’d totally stopped believing in its principles. And when it became clear that any effort to fix it within the law would be rigged to fail, the people lost faith in it and started to look to real tyrants instead.