“Dirty tricks” are actions taken by a political campaign or candidate to damage their opponents that may involve unethical, distasteful, or illegal behaviors.
Political candidates and parties have used dirty tricks dating back to the early years of the American Republic. In the 1828 election, President Andrew Jackson was accused of executing his own men in war, adultery, and cannibalism by supporters of John Quincy Adams. Jackson’s supporters responded by accusing Adams of procuring sex workers for the Russian czar and using public funds for his billiards habit.
This term’s use in the political world, however, is not found until 1963 according to Merriam-Webster. Dirty tricks gained traction thanks to the machinations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. During the 1964 election, CIA operatives infiltrated the campaign of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater to disrupt his efforts against Johnson. The Johnson campaign also briefly ran the infamous Daisy ad, a television spot that implied Goldwater would lead the U.S. into nuclear annihilation.
Dirty tricks went from an insider term to a publicly known concept due to the Watergate scandal. Nixon and his administration orchestrated a break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in June 1972. The Nixon campaign also employed operatives to damage the reputations of Democratic leaders prior to the general election. These acts along with the subsequent cover-up led to a potential impeachment and Nixon’s 1974 resignation.
Google’s Ngram Viewer shows sustained use of dirty tricks in English language publications following Watergate. The 1988 presidential election highlighted modern uses of dirty tricks with the race between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.
The Bush campaign employed advisor Lee Atwater, who created the template for future methods of dirty attacks. Atwater was the mind behind the “Revolving Doors” TV ad that tied Dukakis to a murder committed by furloughed convict Willie Horton. This ad and rumors spread by Republicans about Kitty Dukakis burning an American flag during a protest flipped a Dukakis polling advantage into a Bush victory.
In the 21st century, technological advances and the prevalence of independent political groups have enhanced the power of dirty tricks. In 2004, ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attempted to discredit Democratic nominee John Kerry’s campaign against President George W. Bush. Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for president deployed dirty tricks ranging from asking Russia to hack opponent Hillary Clinton’s emails to the use of social media to spread rumors of Clinton’s health.
Roll Call (July 2, 2019): “With a single tweet Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump again harked back to his 2016 election victory and suggested Democrats are poised to use dirty tricks to prevent him from winning again.”
The Washington Post (March 9, 2018): “As his orders to Colson show, Nixon was at the center of this dirty tricks campaign. He devised specific plots to attack his enemies, creating a climate of corruption that led to Watergate.”
The Guardian (February 25, 2008): “Barack Obama’s campaign team today accused Hillary Clinton’s beleaguered staff of mounting a desperate dirty tricks operation by circulating a picture of him in African dress, feeding into false claims on US websites that he is a Muslim.”