GOP Candidates go nuclear on competition ahead of Super Tuesday

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, speaks at a rally Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, in Franklin, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Con man, lightweight choker, and liar are just a handful of the insults GOP candidates have launched at their competitors recently, as the race for the nomination becomes increasingly heated and the field of candidates narrows.

While Donald Trump has been insulting his competitors and plenty of other people consistently throughout his campaign, the other candidates in the race initially seemed hesitant to utilize the same rhetoric.

When Trump climbed to the top of the polls and started winning primaries, some of his competitors resorted to adopting his pugnacious tone.

Jeb Bush repeatedly launched attacks on Trump in his failed effort to surpass the front-runner in the polls.

Bush called Trump "unhinged," and a "jerk," on several occasions.

More reluctant to take Trump on: Ted Cruz, who once said he would not attack Trump, began taking jabs at the front-runner only when polling revealed the two were in a tight competition in Iowa.

And following a strong second-place finish in South Carolina, Marco Rubio started piling on Trump as well. A departure from what some described as the positive campaign the Florida Senator had been running.

Both Rubio and Cruz came out swinging at Trump during Thursday evening's debate and continued to throw mud in Trump's direction over the weekend.

"In the run-up to Super Tuesday, Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) are hurling deeply personal attacks about one another's appearances and personal backgrounds," The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe and David Weigel described.

"The name-calling has long been the province of Trump, who has elevated the insult-tweet to an art form and who spent months tormenting now-departed candidate Jeb Bush as 'low energy' and worse," O'Keefe and Weigel wrote.

The authors quoted a Rubio rally attendee, who seemed incredulous that the race had come to this.

Though experts are far less stunned to see the gloves coming off in the way they have.

"I don't find it surprising," Dr. Alex Sévigny, a McMaster University Communication Studies and Multimedia professor who specializes in politics and civility, said of the negative rhetoric of the campaign.

Asked if he was surprised by the negative rhetoric, Dr. Matt Dallek, Assistant Professor of Political Management in the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, had mixed reactions.

Dallek said that the recent uptick in negative rhetoric is not surprising "in the sense that this has been going on now since Trump got [into the race.]"

"The campaign was probably going to be nasty almost no matter what," Dallek said considering the presence of Ted Cruz, who is "widely loathed," by most Republican officials, and the crowded field of candidates.

However, Dallek explained "Trump has injected a level of discourse -- nastier than anything the country has seen in years."

"Mr. Trump has discovered that taking a 'reality T.V.' approach to the debates has been a successful strategy," Sévigny explained.

"Television was a politeness filter, but with the advent of reality T.V., you no longer have to be polite on T.V. - Mr. Trump is taking advantage of the new, permissive reality T.V. era."

Before campaigns played out on television "face-to-face political communication could get quite salty," Sévigny said.

"Negative advertising is as old as American Democracy," Dallek explained.

Negative attacks, Dallek said used to come in the form of "hand bills," which contained "blistering attacks from anonymous sources," that alleged that politicians like Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton had murdered people, or committed rape, or had illegitimate children.

"That kind of negativity in politics is as American as apple pie," Dallek said.

In Hamilton's case, one particular disagreement led to his death. According to a Smithsonian publication regarding the gun used to kill Hamilton, he had a long-standing feud with Aaron Burr.

In 1804 the Albany Register referred to Hamilton's "despicable opinion" of Burr, according to the Smithsonian.

"Burr demanded satisfaction. Hamilton chose to fight."

Hamilton was shot in the liver and died within 36 hours, the Smithsonian wrote.

While Hamilton "was the most celebrated casualty of the dueling ethic," the Smithsonian said "there were many more who paid the ultimate price - congressmen, newspaper editors, a signer of the Declaration of Independence."

Even Abraham Lincoln, who the Smithsonian noted had objected to dueling, met a Whig representative at a dueling ground in Missouri "before third parties intervened to keep the Great Emancipator from emancipating a future Civil War general."

Like Lincoln, the Smithsonian observed that "many who took part in the duel professed to disdain it."

According to the Smithsonian "despite the furious sectional acrimony that preceded the Civil War, Southern congressmen tended to duel each other, not their Northern antagonists, who could not be relied upon to rise to a challenge."

"Consequently, when South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks was offended by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner's verbal assault on the congressman's uncle, he resorted to caning Sumner insensible on the floor of the Senate."

Describing that very incident Dallek remarked "politics is often seen as a substitute for violence," noting that it has "not always worked that way."

In the modern era, however, Dallek said "there's an expectation politicians will adhere to certain standards."

If those standards are breached too often, Dallek explained, that person becomes very unacceptable.

Most people, Dallek said, hope to see our presidents and leaders inspire us and "call on the better angles of our nature," as Lincoln described.

People acknowledge, Dallek said "that Democracy is a blood sport, but it's more than simply spilling the other person's blood and eviscerating the other side."

People, Dallek suggested, believe that politicians "should stand for something more hopeful and more positive."

This notion, Dallek said, explains the success of our most effective Presidents.

Dallek explained that these days "a lot of the dirty work is done by campaign staff," instead of the candidate themselves.

Which is yet another way this campaign's seasons attacks are so unique. Ted Cruz's staff aren't the only ones perpetuating the rumor that Donald Trump may be involved in business dealings with the mafia, Cruz himself is. Marco Rubio's staff is not alone in poking fun at Trump's spray tan, he's dropping the punchline on the campaign trail.

And while Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson throws plenty of zingers herself, it is Trump who has live tweeted his hate-fest of a campaign since entering the race this summer.

Dallek identified Trump as primary candidate responsible for the amount of "racism and bigotry" present in the race.

Reflecting on modern history, Dallek said "there's no perfect analogy," for Trump's campaign, given its crass nature, his embracing of conspiracy theories, his alleged racism and bigotry.

Even Republicans are concerned by Trump's rhetoric, Dallek noted, adding that there is no "modern equivalent," of Trump's campaign.

Dallek said that Sarah Palin's comments when she suggested then Senator Barack Obama "palling around with terrorists," are an echo of Trump's campaign, but considering the frequency and tendency of his comments, there is no modern parallel.

"In modern history, the ad hominem approaches have not found a stage during the primaries or presidential races - this is a first," Sévigny said.

The negative rhetoric, Sévigny explained "probably feels more authentic to an audience that is becoming used to the manufactured authenticity of reality T.V.."

"Also, much of the negative rhetoric will be perceived as the candidate being plainspoken or 'telling it like it is,' simply because established political rhetoric is often perceived as being artificially genteel, thus hypocritical by many people who don't trust politicians."

Sévigny also noted that Trump "has framed his character to be a person who doesn't care what people think of him, because he is so focused on outcomes and goals."

This is an attribute NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep noted Trump shares with the seventh President of the United States, Andrew Jackson.

Describing how Trump is "channeling," Jackson, Inskeep wrote that Jackson "did what he wanted, and demanded respect."

"In an 1806 duel, he shot and killed a man who had insulted him in a newspaper. Mr. Trump's Twitter broadsides at his critics are gentle by comparison."

Inskeep described how Jackson was "unapologetically praised even his most brutal acts," and rode his "fame to the White House."

"Jackson captured the imagination of ordinary citizens who'd never voted in such numbers before."

His success, however, did come at a cost. Jackson's wife, Rachel, died before she could enter the White House.

The History Channel described that Rachel Jackson had "a preexisting heart condition aggravated by the malicious campaign attacks."

She was buried in her inauguration gown on December 24th.

The First Ladies National Library sources newspaper accounts from the funeral that reported some 10,000 people attended it.

They came not only from Tennessee, where the Jacksons resided at the time and drew on the "Jackson political supporters from around the country."

"White and black, wealthy and poor were noted in the gathered crowds, a potent symbol of democracy."

Jacksonian Democrats, wrote, ultimately used Rachel Jackson's death as "a telling story in the drama of conflict between the established Eastern seaboard ruling elite," and "the new power of the rustic western block from the frontier territories."

Inskeep suggestes that Trump "echoes the style of Andrew Jackson, and the states where Mr. Trump is strongest are the ones that most consistently favored Jackson during his three runs for the White House."

Trump, Inskeep suggested "captures Jackson's tone, and voters clearly respond."

Though Inskeep notes one problem with pursuing a Jacksonian strategy in the modern day America: Jackson's old coalition no longer dominates the electorate.

Politicians back in the day, Dallek explained, were "targeting a much smaller segment of the population," in appealing to only white male land owners.

"Nonwhite voters are growing in numbers," Inskeep wrote noting that many white voters have admitted they would be embarrassed by a Trump candidacy.

"Mr. Trump would have to reckon with one of Andrew Jackson's cherished principles: In America, the majority rules."

"Assembling a majority today is not the same as it used to be."

Many have questioned whether Trump can successfully appeal to the greater majority and it has raised questions over whether a more mainstream candidate like Marco Rubio or John Kasich can step up to defeat Trump, bringing the election and the Republican party back down to earth.

As previously mentioned, Rubio departed from his more passive campaigning practice just recently, trying to paint 2016 as a three-person race between him, Trump and Cruz - where only he can defeat Trump.

New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait, questioned whether the strategy would work for Rubio in a recent article.

With Rubio going so hard on the attack, Chait speculated whether Rubio would be able to take down Trump and if his "popularity might come down along with him."

"In that case, the conflict will redound to the benefit of the candidate who is currently running the now-discarded Rubio game plan: John Kasich."

"The Ohio governor is using versions of the old, well-received Rubio message about refusing to attack fellow Republicans and bringing people together."

By not engaging in the same negative campaigning as all his opponents, Sévigny explained Kasich "will appear to be reasonable, of course."

The downside, Sévigny added is "he will appear to be less passionate as well, to an audience that is used to the loud behavior exhibited on reality television."

"When there is a fist fight going on, the person asking the fighters to be reasonable is often ignored or even pushed aside."

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