Media misfeasance on the campaign trail: Free pass for Trump on his taxes and health, but Hillary is hounded

Trump rails against a "rigged system," yet the system is grading him on an egregiously advantageous curve

Published September 13, 2016 11:58AM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (AP/Evan Vucci)
Donald Trump (AP/Evan Vucci)

Among the many harrowingly unique angles to the 2016 presidential election, there's one constant that remains true from previous campaigns in the modern era, but which has been pulled into critical focus given the participation of Donald Trump as well as a Democratic nominee who happens to be a woman. What's abundantly clear today is that the default condition of presidential elections is for the Republican to hover within a point or two of his Democratic opponent regardless of how utterly destructive and incompetent he is.

The breaking news about Hillary Clinton's minimally problematic bout with pneumonia has sparked just the latest in a long list of examples of a false equivalence in the press — a double-standard that's not only a news media problem, but a problem with a not insignificant number of voters.

Specifically, the Republican candidate, Trump, can spend 15 months hubristically failing to disclose personal details about his finances and his health, with only a  hilariously contrived doctor's note from a physician who comports himself like a shifty background character on "The Simpsons" to assuage any concerns. The Republican can blurt a syllabus of gaffes, lies and brutally offensive remarks several times a day without apology and still climb to within striking distance of the Democrat who, after using a clever turn of phrase like "basket of deplorables" to accurately describe Trump's alt-right base, is described as having her worst week of the campaign so far. The Republican can openly encourage "Second Amendment people" to take a shot at the Democratic candidate while wondering why we can't use our nuclear arsenal, and, in the long run, it really doesn't impact his poll numbers.

The trendlines at Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight exhibit an increasingly competitive race, telling us that Trump's bottomless pit of prior campaign sins is almost completely irrelevant. The rightfully wide margins of early August were never destined to hold because the system favors the Republican despite every disqualifying blurt.

We're existing within a phantom zone in which a dangerous, undisciplined, unqualified reality-show goon is being graded on the most ridiculous curve in the history of American elections by very serious pundits like Mark Halperin and Chris Cilizza, who desperately want both sides to be equally horrendous, while falsely painting the Republican side as inevitably more successful. The DC media, which Donald Trump has targeted with expulsion from his nonexistent press pool and who will, if elected, surely punish by denying access (at best) and by IRS audit or imprisonment (at worst), can't scramble over itself fast enough to re-cast this election as being Trump's to lose. Perhaps it's because they've been threatened by a Nixonian blacklist, or perhaps because they're seeking a redemptive twist to the narrative, or perhaps this is just how they roll. Knowing how this behavior is a feature and not a glitch, I tend to believe it's all three explanations working in tandem even though none of these motives ought to exist in practice.

Cable news, specifically, is so terrified of being accused of having an alleged "liberal media bias" that actual news events are misreported in order to self-consciously sidestep the accusation. The reality, however, is that we're dealing with political coverage, and if you're not offending someone, you're not telling the truth. And the truth of that matter is that given Trump's record as a candidate alone, there's no reason why his coverage should be so unnaturally balanced with Hillary's.

No, her failure to disclose an illness within 48 hours isn't worse to the point of being a possible campaign killer than Trump's failure to disclose his tax returns and personal health records for more than a year while lying about the reasons why, in addition to being in obviously obese condition at 70-years-old, arguably unfit psychologically, and operating with financially, ethically and legally unsavory business methods. But here we are with Hillary's lead in various battleground states evaporating by the day despite her opponent's unprecedented roster of negatives, and with television coverage elevating her pneumonia disclosure to the status of a disqualifying trespass.

Put another way: while Trump might bitch about a "rigged system," the reality is that the system is grading him on the most egregiously advantageous curve in the history of American politics. Trump is getting away with murder because, as the polls seem to indicate, Republicans will always get the benefit of the doubt from both rank-and-file voters and their thought-controllers in the television and internet news media. Again, the default condition is for a race that's within the margin of error irrespective of the fact that he's, without exception, totally out of his depth.

Rather than acknowledging the astoundingly obvious and otherwise admirable fact that Hillary successfully endured numerous campaign events, including a televised commander-in-chief forum last week, while suffering from a temporary illness that'd knock the most robust athlete off his or her feet for days, she's characterized in the press as a feeble old crone who can't endure the rigors of a presidential campaign, even though the exact opposite is objectively true. This is possibly the most illustrative example of how the GOP candidate's chances of winning are automatically inflated by a cowardly press. It's embedded in the code. The second best example is, of course, the fact that Hillary is routinely criticized for her lack of press availabilities and for apparently "ditching" her press pool when Trump doesn't even really have a press pool. Hell, during the once again overly amplified controversy surrounding Hillary's David-Milch-esque "basket of deplorables" remark, no one in the establishment press has bothered to acknowledge that Trump's entire campaign is predicated on attacking political correctness, yet he's so butthurt by Hillary's comment that he demanded she apologize or drop out because of it. (Perhaps Hillary should've prefaced her deplorables comment with a trigger warning.)

The polls shouldn't be this close. But they are, and it's in large part due to the fact that chunks of the press and the American electorate alike would rather elect a Republican, Trump, with all of his routinely grievous behavior, than a far more qualified Democratic woman who had an email server in her house and who failed to disclose pneumonia quickly enough. Damn her. We're a nation that too often elevates the celebrity freak show over competence. Americans tend to champion villains while desperately seeking a loophole with which to demonize the truly gifted. We elect proudly moronic candidates because they're just like us, even though they ought to be better and smarter than us. There's no level of shame that could ever fit the abhorrence of it all, but this is precisely how and why Trump can win.

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.