South Carolina’s Peculiar Institution of Vicious Politics: Torture Edition

The South Carolina Republican primary is famous for being among the nastiest elections in all of American politics. It was in South Carolina that George W. Bush’s campaign successfully smeared John McCain with a lie about an illegitimate (non-white) child. It was in South Carolina that Lee Atwater cut his teeth with nasty innuendos about his opponents and honed his famous Southern Strategy.

So it’s no surprise that as the GOP primary turns toward South Carolina again, a particularly ugly brand of politics is cropping up–which is really saying something given the unprecedented level of nastiness already on display within the Republican camp.

The most recent example on display is Donald Trump’s repetition of a vulgar misogynistic slur used against Ted Cruz by an audience member, which Trump loudly repeated before saying “that’s terrible” with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Emasculating opponents has long been a hallmark of Republican presidential campaigns, but never before have the insults and pejoratives been so open and coarse. Donald Trump is an innovator in the realm of coarse politics, of course, but the nasty mailers and rumor tactics of the Cruz campaign that have managed to propel Ben Carson back into relevance aren’t far behind.

It’s interesting to note, however, that while most commentators have focused on the barbs and insults, there’s an added layer of deep ugliness behind even them. Far worse, frankly, than the word Trump and his (female!) supporter used to describe Cruz is why the insult was made: because Cruz, while denying that waterboarding constitutes torture, said he would not advocate its widespread use. Trump, on the other hand, said that he “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” For this, Cruz was unfavorably compared by the Trump crowd to an unobjectionable and harmless part of the female anatomy.

On a scale of zero to massive violations of human decency and the Geneva conventions, the torture-laden context behind the insult was far more off the charts than the insult itself. But South Carolinians are strongly favoring Trump in the polls, even as some of the more genteel observers undaunted by the inhuman cruelty of the debate blanche at the vulgarity the language used.

It’s quite similar, in fact, to the odd coupling of barbaric callousness and high society politeness that defined South Carolina over a century and a half ago. When it comes to conservative politics in the Palmetto State, there’s little new under the sun.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.