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CLEVELAND, Ohio — The first thing I saw as I pulled off the thruway here to begin covering the Republican National Convention was a small plane towing a banner that proclaimed “Hillary for Prison 2016.”

I’ve seen those signs and that sentiment about Hillary Clinton’s qualifications to serve as president increase in volume and ferocity during the past few months. It came as no surprise that criticism of Clinton’s legacy as Secretary of State would be prominent during the GOP’s four-day gathering to formally anoint Donald Trump as the party’s contender for the White House.

But there were other anti-Hillary sentiments on display on the streets of Cleveland that stopped me in my tracks.

Even for the blood sport that is national politics, some of the items for sale or on display on the streets of downtown Cleveland’s stylish Playhouse Square district were shockingly misogynistic. To be clear, these are not RNC-sanctioned souvenirs but rather items whipped by opportunistic vendors. (Nor were any such items on the shelves at the RNC’s “Freedom Marketplace” bazaar set up next to the Quicken Loans Arena.)

There’s nothing wrong with grassroots capitalism. Adam Smith’s invisible hand guided a handful of entrepreneurs to believe that there was a market for political buttons featuring an unflattering picture of Clinton with the slogan “Life’s a bitch. Don’t vote for one.” Or even worse: “KFC Hillary Special: 2 Fat Thighs, 2 Small Breasts … Left Wing.”

Another man donned a rubber Hillary face mask and parked himself on the narrow street leading to the Quicken Loans Arena in front of a “Trump vs. Tramp” sandwich board sign. He handed out a flier that railed, in single-space type on both sides of the page, on all manner of perceived Clinton sins, including the death toll in what he termed “Hillary’s Arab Spring” and her “EXTREMELY CARELESS AND GROSSLY NEGLIGENT” use of private email during her tenure at the State Department.

These attacks on Clinton veer well beyond political differences and policy fights. These are below-the-belt personal attacks on her physical appearance and her character outside the public arena. These are vile barbs hurled at her because she is a woman.

For sure, they reflect an anger that is fueled by partisan disagreements, no doubt, but escalating to a whole new level of nasty that a male candidate would never face. It’s hard to imagine someone making a button ridiculing the size of Donald Trump’s pectoral muscles. He’s faced a lot of teasing about his hair but that’s still a far cry from the “KFC Hillary Special.”

Variety

The anti-Hillary venom reflects the broader “us vs. them” fears roiling the country in this most divisive election cycle. The extreme examples of this have become frighteningly all too frequent, from police shootings of unarmed African-American men to sniper attacks on police officers.

Much of the focus of cultural commentators has been on the tensions among ethnic and racial groups in an increasingly multicultural America. Some of the unease has been exploited by the rhetoric of the Trump campaign. Trump himself has reveled in level of political discourse during the campaign with his unfiltered shoot-from-the-lip — one that extended into his (now settled) feud with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and his commentary on his own penis size during a primary debate.

But the jaw-dropping low blows making the rounds in Cleveland would probably even make Trump cringe. They are a sobering reminder of just how far women in politics still have to come just to face a level playing field for criticism on the issues rather than her bra size.

That this kind of sophomoric attitude would surface in 2016, as Clinton achieves an elusive milestone in the history of women in this great nation, is a heartbreaking commentary on our culture and our times.