Character Assassination in Elections


By Claire Underwood, Staff Writer

The Lab for Character Assassination and Reputation Politics (CARP) recently conducted a virtual panel to discuss character assassination during elections.

The Nov. 10 conference began with Jennifer Keohane, a former Mason professor who now teaches at the University of Baltimore. She explained that character assassination is a tactic aimed at people with a high public profile, and includes spreading fallacies about those individuals through media and public influence. Keohane then described how both parties used character assassination during the recent gubernatorial election.

According to Keohane, Ralph Northam’s win in Virginia and other Democratic victories across the country were considered a strike back against “President Trump’s racist and negative rhetoric.” But the Democratic candidates won by assassinating the characters of many Republicans as well.

The Washington Post reported on Oct. 27 that Democrats sent out a mail piece linking Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for Virginia governor, to white nationalists that marched in Charlottesville. Prior to that, Gillespie’s ad tried to link Northam to MS-13 gang violence. Keohane added that no matter what the intent or platform of the candidate, character assassination can be found everywhere.

The panelists also described how character assassination can backfire on the would-be assassins. Mason professor Eric Shiraev used one of the 2016  presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as an example.

During the debate, Shiraev recalled Trump standing “too close” to Clinton and “looming over her.” Clinton responded to that incident by describing Trump as a “creep.” Shiraev believes that was one way for Clinton to assassinate Trump’s character, yet the tactic backfired on her as Trump went on to win the presidency.

Another key topic the panel discussed was political polarization. This refers to the two-party system deliberately embracing an extreme ideology while also trying to appeal to the majority.

Both Keohane and the panel moderator Richard Sheehe discussed how polarization can shape public opinion. Polarization can lead to character assassination. The panelists believed that all political victories are a result of some degree of polarization.

CARP was founded at Mason in 2016 in conjunction with the International Society for the Study of Character Assassinations. Although all politics involve strategy, CARP’s goal  is to research the ways false accusations, rumor spreading, and media targeting are used, and to develop more honest ways to manage political communication.