Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are deadlocked at 59% unfavorability in American eyes, and hate for the historically unpopular presidential candidates seems to have catalyzed more rally fights and campaign office attacks than usual.
A North Carolina GOP office woke up to a scorched inside from a firebomb tossed through the window during the night on Oct. 16. Someone had spray painted a swastika and “Nazi Republicans leave town or else” on the outside wall of a business next door.
A day later, Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans shut down the party’s Salt Lake City headquarters and moved staff to a secret location. The office had received a voicemail aimed at the African American chairman adorned with racist obscenities as the caller warned Evans, “he’s lucky he’s not being lynched right now.”
The call was a response to Evans’ clash with a CNN anchor on live television. Carol Costello shut down the interview in disgust when Evans said he looked forward to CNN’s coverage of Bill Clinton’s illegitimate son to match its coverage of Donald Trump accusers.
The threats appear on the other side of the aisle, too. On Oct. 22, two interns at a Hillary Clinton campaign office in Midtown Manhattan received a letter with white powder inside the envelope. They brought the envelope to a Brooklyn office, which was then evacuated. Police deemed the substance not harmful and none of the exposed staff showed signs of sickness.
During the primary season in January, police investigated a bullet hole in the window of a Bernie Sanders campaign office in Las Vegas. Law enforcement couldn’t confirm that the hole represented a shooting, but Sanders was at the headquarters doing media interviews the same morning the bullet hole was found.
But despite the occasional racist telephone threat, firebomb or bullet hole that sprinkle the 2016 election, looking back a century or even eight years ago shows uncivil discourse playing a more starring role.
When President Barack Obama ran to become the first black president in 2008, racist threats abounded. Racial slurs and unapologetically racist explanations for not voting for Obama came through the phone lines of campaign volunteers regularly. Conservatives questioned Obama’s birth and Muslim ties.
One campaign office in Vincennes, Indiana was trashed overnight. Three other campaign offices in Obama’s home state received bomb threats.
Erica Chenoweth, an international relations professor at the University of Denver, said election-related clashes were commonplace before the world wars. The 1896 presidential race between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan got particularly nasty as farmers and labor union supporters went toe to toe with industrial and financial sector types after a long recession.
So times have been worse. Whether a century of development holds the nation up to a higher moral standard is another question. Time will tell if Donald Trump’s hesitance to accept the results of the election if he loses ushers in a new era of violence where a base of supporters riled up against the Washington establishment crosses new boundaries.