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And you think our politics are nasty?

This combination made from Aug. 6, 2015 photos

This combination made from Aug. 6, 2015 photos shows Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, and Fox News Channel host and moderator Megyn Kelly during the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena, in Cleveland. Photo Credit: AP

Nasty. Mean. Ugly.

That's what our politics have become, if you follow media reports about the GOP presidential campaign. And nobody is more nasty -- or mean, or ugly -- than one Donald J. Trump, who has brought a new level of vituperation to the contest.

Trump sparred with Fox News' Megyn Kelly at the GOP debate, then made crude remarks about her afterward. That came on the heels of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) calling President Barack Obama a leading state sponsor of terrorism, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) claiming that Obama's Iran nuclear deal threatened Israelis with another Holocaust.

Still, our contemporary politics are actually much more polite -- and much less malicious -- than in earlier eras. And we kid ourselves when we pretend otherwise.

Consider our first contested presidential election, in 1800, which pitted two of our most famous statesmen, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, against each other. Jefferson's supporters claimed Adams had secretly plotted to have one of his sons marry King George III's daughter, to bring America back under the British crown. But if Jefferson were elected, Adams' camp charged, the young nation would descend into anarchy and violence.

"Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced," one anti-Jefferson newspaper predicted. "The air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes."

Things weren't much different in 1828, when John Quincy Adams -- son of Jefferson's opponent -- faced off against Andrew Jackson. Jacksonians called Adams "King John the Second," claiming that he, too, sought to reunite America with its Colonial master. Most bizarrely, they charged that Adams had procured a young American virgin as a gift for Russian Czar Alexander I.

Adams' team emphasized that Jackson married his wife before she divorced her first husband. They also raised questions about Jackson's parents, invoking America's ugliest tradition of all: racism.

"General Jackson's mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE, brought to this country by the British soldiers," one newspaper blared. "She afterward married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, of which number General JACKSON IS ONE."

Race raised its nasty head again in 1860, when Democrats charged that GOP nominee Abraham Lincoln was black. "He is a lank-sided Yankee of the uncomeliest visage, and of the dirtiest complexion," a Southern newspaper declared. "Faugh! After him, what decent white man would be President?"

And four years after that, opponents claimed that Lincoln would institute interracial marriage if re-elected. One magazine compiled a master list in 1864 of insults lobbed at the president: liar, thief, braggart, buffoon, usurper, monster, ignoramus Abe, old scoundrel, perjurer, robber, swindler, tyrant, fiend, and butcher.

So it went, through accusations that Ulysses S. Grant was a drunk, that Grover Cleveland fathered an illegitimate child (he did), that Warren Harding was black, and that Franklin Roosevelt was secretly Jewish. And we heard vestiges of that tradition in the recent "birther" movement, which charged that Obama, too, was not really what he seemed to be. But the birther screeds never made it into mainstream campaign politics, despite Trump's best efforts.

We still have our bullies and our demagogues, of course, and we always will. But even in the Time of Trump, our political discourse is vastly more elevated than in the so-called good old days. And that's good news for all of us.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education."


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