Donald Trump is campaigning like it’s 1884. That’s a good thing.
His speech on Wednesday sliced open new wounds in the Clinton campaign. He has spent weeks calling Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary,” but for the first time since the mid-1990s, someone went after the Clintons for their cronyism and corruption. This is only the beginning, and if Trump were smart—he has proven to be adept at finding the oppositions weak points and relentlessly pulverizing them—he would adopt the 1884 playbook from the Democratic Party and call himself “Donald the Good”, with a pledge to clean up corruption in Washington, D.C. and restore order to a system that has been destroyed by the establishment and their flush lobbyist buddies. Wednesday was a great start: “If I am elected President, I will end the special interest monopoly in Washington, D.C.”
Everyone knows that Washington D.C. is a haven for corruption and slime. It has been for a long time, nearly 150 years in fact. In 1884, the Republican Party nominated James G. Blaine of Maine. They had a six term winning streak, and chose a man who had been active in the party for two decades. But that was the problem. Blaine was tainted. He had been exposed as a liar, a cheat, a crook, and a phony statesman. He had lined his pockets with lobby money during most of his time in Congress, had supported Reconstruction (which until the Marxist takeover of the American historical profession in the last thirty years was regarded as the greatest tragedy in American history), and was implicated in the largest scandal of the late-nineteenth century, the Credit Mobilier fiasco. Blaine eventually cleared his name in that scandal, but not long afterwards, a series of letters surfaced that showed Blaine had made significant profits from “investments” in the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad. Most damning of all, he had used his position as Speaker of the House to gain advantages for his “investments.” Puck magazine portrayed Blaine as the “King of the Lobby,” a man who could be bought for the right price, and an example of the shady dealings of the Washington establishment. That should sound familiar. And it worked.
Grover Cleveland positioned himself as the defender of the American people, a friend to the worker and the businessman alike, a champion of disinterested limited government bent on reforming a system that had squeezed the middle class while enriching Washington cronies and their lobbyist allies. He opposed foreign interventionism, was tough on immigration, and advocated financial reform, namely curbing inflation. These are the issues of our day.
The Republicans tried to slander Cleveland. They pointed out that he had an illegitimate child, a serious accusation in the nineteenth century. Cleveland admitted to the mistake and moved on, as did the American public. Like Trump, Cleveland was no saint, but everyone understood the stakes were higher than a personal moral misstep. And like Trump, Cleveland had no need for the office. He had already proven to be a very good lawyer and a champion of honest government. The presidency would be the icing on the cake of a productive career.
He was labeled “Grover the Good” for a reason. Cleveland promised to end corruption, the bane of American liberty. He nearly did it. Cleveland ran an efficient administration and put an end to much of the frivolous and wasteful spending of Congress, and for the first time since before the Civil War, there were no serious charges of corruption in the federal government. Trump could be that man.
Trump should also take heart from the 1884 election results. Late-nineteenth-century politics mirrored our own. America was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and a swing of one or two states could decide the election. The Republicans were almost guaranteed the 201 Electoral College votes needed to win. Demographics favored their campaign. But Cleveland still won, albeit by a razor slim majority in the popular vote, and by only eighteen votes in the Electoral College. His positive message of reform coupled with the perception of Blaine as a profiteer and tool of the establishment paid off. If Trump can peel away a few states from the Democrats, the election is wide open and he has a shot in several liberal bastions: California and New York, for example, where star power can resonate.
Hillary Clinton may be the dirtiest presidential candidate in American history, but Blaine is a close second. The American public doesn’t take too kindly to liars and crooks, at least not ones that are known entities. Hillary is just that. Only time will tell if Trump can capitalize on the “Crooked Hillary” mantra and ride it to the White House. History shows that this may be his best avenue to victory.