How the media internalized Donald Trump's abysmally low standards
Donald Trump certainly benefits from a double standard. Hillary Clinton is judged basically like a normal major party candidate. And on that score, she comes across as less likable than average and more corrupt than average. Donald Trump is a major party candidate too. But he's judged by the score we would keep for utter buffoons, pathological narcissists, inveterate racists, and threats to the republic. And on that score, he comes across as one of the more charming and bearable specimens.
These are the abysmally low standards Donald Trump has set for himself, and most of the media has internalized them. The public has probably internalized them as well. Having internalized them, we've dulled the effect that damning articles about Trump's scandals and character would normally have on a campaign.
Consider that Hillary Clinton is being hammered for the opaque and dishonest way her campaign has handled questions of her health. But Trump hasn't released health records, and when asked to do so he issued a ludicrous doctor's note alleging that he would be the fittest man ever to take the office. The note was written in the exact tone of personal exaltation that is the dead giveaway of Trump's dictation. Although he is a notorious teetotaler and germaphobe, Trump is alleged to have been an amphetamine user in Spy Magazine. He is said to love diet soda and fast food. Not exactly the most nutritious diet for a man pushing 70 years of age. The scandal of the doctor's note died. Now Trump has promised to release "very, very specific numbers" from a physical this week — but, if they're anything like other figures he's released, they're bound to be suspiciously positive and subject to change.
Or take financial corruption. Many credibly allege that the Clinton Foundation uses money donated for global do-gooding to keep her flunkies on salary and help her network with those who are similarly rich and powerful. Most of the Foundation scandals amount to accusations of legal graft and conflicts of interest. Meanwhile, Donald Trump's foundation has been found to have solicited donations, and then used those monies to buy Trump luxury items. Like a 6-foot-tall painting of himself. But the story doesn't end at just obvious corruption and tackiness. The Trump Foundation also seems to have bought the cooperation of Florida's attorney general who was supposed to be investigating Trump. He is constantly being sued for running scam businesses. His real estate career is a long train of using junk bonds to finance absurd projects and then sticking other investors with the losses.
Hillary Clinton was nailed for her weekend gaffe, where she said that half of Trump's support came from "irredeemable" people who are in a "basket of deplorables." Sure it was tin eared. And you can litigate whether she should have said "half" or just "some." Fine. But Trump's interviews often contain a dozen or more laughably false bluffs and lies. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was right that it is "hard to escape the impression that he's being graded on a curve."
But while it may upset Hillary partisans, much of that curve is just the simple reflection of the embarrassingly low moral and political expectations on Trump. For most people in the media, the striking thing isn't that he is self-obsessed and a degenerate. That's old news. What's news is that a self-obsessed degenerate somehow found a way to become the nominee of a major party. What does that say about the party?
The political expectations matter as well. As Clinton opened a larger and larger lead in the polls after the party conventions, it was easy to see why mainstream media treated her foibles, missteps, and scandals more urgently. The default assumption was that these are stories about our next president. If Clinton is a shoo-in, these stories are little previews of the kinds of corruption and mistakes that will plague the executive branch until at least 2020. One reason the media treats Trump's scandals more lightly is that the media class still has a difficult time really believing he could be the next president.
But, of course, Trump has a very good shot at being our next president. It's long past time for the media to recognize that this isn't a drill or a joke. He's a major party candidate and overall polling and demographic trends are not perfect indicators of elections. This lout who has little aid from his party, and almost no professional policy advice, is very close to obtaining the most powerful office on the planet. Perhaps everyone should take a moment and let the full weight of this fact sink in.