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Dirty tricks are unethical, duplicitous, slanderous or illegal tactics employed to destroy or diminish the effectiveness of political or business opponents. The term "dirty trick" can also be used to refer to an underhanded technique to get ahead of an opponent (such as sabotage or disregarding rules of engagement).
Electoral dirty tricks
Leaking secret information, digging into a candidate's past (opposition research) or exposing real conflicts between the image presented and the person behind the image are always subject to argument as to whether they are dirty tricks or truth-telling. When a candidate runs into trouble or roadblocks in his or her campaign that are traceable to the other side, he/she can easily charge their opponent with dirty tricks. Often, the candidate is right in this accusation, but one candidate's "dirty trick" is another's "political strategy." The distinction changes with the times. Of course imputing the discovery of a past misdemeanor to the other side can be considered a "dirty trick" in its own right.
However, manufactured, irrelevant, cruel and incorrect rumors or outright falsehoods designed to damage or destroy an opponent are easily described as dirty tricks. They serve to tie up the opponent into defending against and answering false charges rather than explaining their policies and platform.
Sometimes dirty tricks are not only aimed at slandering the opponent. Dishing the dirt against your candidate's opponent can be effective at alienating voters in order to turn them off from the entire project. These tactics may reduce turnout in order to assure your candidate gains by having his/her core voters show up at the polls; thus, an operative molds the outcome by angering everyone. The effort to lower an official's or a candidate's popularity in the polls is called "driving the negatives".
Political speech is protected by the Constitution in the United States and it is rare that a wronged candidate sues for slander after an election season is concluded. Laws were introduced in the UK to prevent untrue statements being made about candidates—see Miranda Grell for a 2007 case.
Political candidates have been accused by their opponents of every sin and crime ever described, from graft and vice to bribery and communism, polygamy, drug use, spousal abuse, fascism, pedophilia, miscegenation, adultery, stupidity, demagoguery, mental illness and support for nudism.
The story of dirty tricks in American politics begins with the first campaign for President of the United States, in the 1790s. Thomas Jefferson hired journalist and pamphleteer James Thomas Callender to slander his opponent, Alexander Hamilton. After a falling out, Callender turned on Jefferson and published attacks on his previous employer.
Watergate-era dirty tricks
The Nixon Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP), a private non-governmental campaign entity, used funds from its coffers to pay for, and later cover up, "dirty tricks" performed against opponents by Richard Nixon's employee, Donald Segretti. Segretti famously coined the term 'ratfucking' for recruiting conservative members to infiltrate opposition groups (and/or misrepresent them through false flag activities) in order to undermine the effectiveness of such opposition.
As a result of post-Watergate reform legislation, such activities are strictly regulated, though other private entities still may practice what has become commonly referred to as questionable or unethical dirty tricks.
Recent nomenclature equates a Dirty Tricks Squad to any organized, covert attempt to besmirch the credibility or reputation of a candidate, individual or organization so as to render them ineffective.
Non-electoral political dirty tricks
In the United Kingdom the term "dirty tricks" became, for a while, synonymous with the British Airways campaign against rival Virgin Atlantic and the wider business interest of the airline's chairman Richard Branson. British Airways, faced with likely defeat, apologised "unreservedly" in court, and settled the case, giving £500,000 to Branson and a further £110,000 to his airline; further, BA was to pay the legal fees of up to £3 million. Branson divided his compensation among his staff, calling it the "BA bonus".
In Israel, a 1990 political scandal in which Shimon Peres tried to bring down the Likud-led government and establish an Alignment-led one later became known as the dirty trick, a term used by Yitzhak Rabin during an interview.
- Discrediting tactic
- Dog-whistle politics
- False accusations
- Karl Rove
- Lee Atwater
- Negative campaigning
- Psychological manipulation
- Push poll: push-polling
- Richard Nixon
- Watergate Scandal
- Wedge issue - wedge politics
- Willie Horton