As I give lectures, I am often asked about the Trump Presidency in historical terms. Commonly, my answer is there is no historic precedence for Trump. His campaign went against all the rules and he is running his presidency in his own unique way. There are some similarities, I have already written about how presidents like Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt would have had similar tweets if they had the technology. However, every so often some historical nugget jumps out that could have predicted Trump’s victory and I kick myself for not recognizing it earlier. That happened to me recently with the 1884 election.
1884 once again shows that our politicians have not cornered the market on nasty campaigns. They have been nasty from the moment Washington decided not to run in 1796. Having said that, 1884 stands out and pits the Democratic nominee, Grover Cleveland, against the Republican nominee, James Blaine.
Blaine led the Republican Party; he was their most popular speaker and served as the past Secretary of State. The only thing that held him back from running in previous elections was his ties to corruption. I hope you are already seeing the similarities with 2016. He had been accused of–and it was commonly believed that–he had used his office for financial gain, stemming from connections he had with a railway company. To make matters worse, evidence of his misdeeds were contained in letters he wrote that became known as the “Mulligan Letters.” When the Democrats viewed the letters, written on several of them were the words “Burn this letter when you have read it;” Blaine’s version of wiping a hard drive with incriminating emails. This was such a big deal that “Burn this letter” became a chant at Democratic meetings.
The Democrats, on the other hand, nominated the opposite of Blaine, or so they thought. Grover Cleveland had a reputation for honesty and fighting against corruption. His reputation was so strong that many Republicans who believed in reform jumped parties to vote for Cleveland. However, in July the other shoe fell when Cleveland’s skeleton was exposed. The news reported that Cleveland had fathered a child. The mother was Maria Halpin who ran in Cleveland’s circle and reportedly was friendly with many of Cleveland’s associates. When she became pregnant and delivered her child, she named him Oscar Folsom Cleveland. Cleveland accepted the child and secretly paid for his financial needs.
It was whispered that Cleveland’s married business partner was actually the father and that the bachelor, Cleveland, took one for the team to save his partner’s reputation. It helped that Cleveland was in love with his partner’s daughter. The Republican response to “Burn this Letter” was to chant, “Ma Ma, Where is my pa,” at Republican rallies. Not unlike today’s protesters wearing pink hats at rallies.
The difference between the two candidates was that Cleveland owned his scandal, unlike Blaine or either of the 2016 candidates. Cleveland admitted the affair but emphasized that he had cared for the child honorably. Instead of hurting him, voters appreciated his honesty and saw it as a sign of his character. Blaine went on to decrease his likeability when in a speech he referred to Democrats as a bunch of drunken Irishmen. Not unlike Clinton referring to Republicans today as a “basket of deplorables.” The problem for Blaine was labor, a vote he needed, was full of Irish immigrants who did not like the stereotype.
In the end, the American people could much easier overlook the personal life of one candidate more than they could the public corruption of the other. I am not saying that the wrongs of Cleveland and Trump are the same; a consensual affair (if it was, is debatable) and sexual assault are miles apart. Neither did Cleveland and Trump deal with controversy in the same way. Trump has shown no character in the way he handled his scandals. However, the premise seemed to hold true in 2016 as it did in 1884. Right or wrong voters found Trump’s actions more tolerable than Clintons. After the election was over the Democrats wrote their own verse to the Republican song, “Ma Ma, Where is my Pa,” their response was “Gone to the White House, HA HA HA.”
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.