The question of how to scrutinize presidential candidates who aren’t congenitally dishonest, corrupt, or incompetent—when their opponent is Donald Trump—has been vexing journalists since before the 2016 election. Back then, their refusal to faithfully convey the differences between the candidates on matters of basic fitness for office handed Trump the presidency, and ignited widespread calls for the industry to reckon with its failures.
Three years later, a reckoning has not happened, and in its absence, Trump has set about trying to recreate conditions under which the press will hound his 2020 opponent about a small number of trivial sins while his ubiquitous, mortal ones dissipate into the background.
His efforts began before the Democratic presidential primary started, but in the preceding year, a number of episodes have foreshadowed what the general election will look like after it’s been filtered through modern reporting conventions, and the likelihood of a repeat of 2016 is alarmingly high.
The racist slurs Trump directed at Elizabeth Warren for claiming to have native ancestry, in accordance with family lore, baited the press into hounding her so relentlessly about it that it hobbled the launch of her campaign and has contributed to hazy concerns about her electability among Democratic voters ever since. Trump got himself impeached for using U.S. resources to extort Ukraine into announcing a sham investigation of the Biden family, and in a nearby, parallel timeline, Biden’s campaign faltered not because of his shortcomings as a candidate, but because Trump’s extortion scheme worked, and reporters began treating Burisma as breathlessly as they treated Hillary Clinton’s emails.
After Trump took office, and the fallout from the email coverage began taking a human toll, the word “emails” itself became an online catchall reminder that in failing to contextualize Hillary Clinton’s conduct—and indeed exaggerating the controversy on its own terms—political journalists invited far graver conduct to flourish across the U.S. government. Gallup’s 2016 word cloud has since became a kind of Rosetta Stone for understanding how badly email coverage had warped the public’s understanding of the stakes of the race.
None of this is lost on Trump, who understands just how central email hysterics were to his victory. The question is what, if anything, journalists will do to avoid creating the same kind of distortions as they cover the 2020 campaign in the coming months.
Trump has only just begun treating Bernie Sanders as his likely 2020 opponent, but Sanders’ lengthy public career and progressive politics have already aroused the same professional habits that brought us the email craze four years ago.
Political journalists face strong incentives to portray the two major parties as roughly similar moral and ethical entities that happen to share different philosophical values. Reporters are often trained to approach their subjects this way, until the practice becomes so ingrained that the supposed equivalence between the parties becomes axiomatic to them. These incentives drove mainstream media outlets to amplify the email controversy and downplay Trump’s cascade of outrages until their coverage appeared balanced, but thus left consumers with wildly inaccurate perceptions of the candidates’ relative trustworthiness.
To allow moral and ethical distinctions between partisan agendas and tactics to seep into reporting would be extremely disruptive. One party’s conduct might be consistently less ethical and principled than the other’s, but acknowledging as much, and allowing it to shape coverage, would alienate sources in that party, and drive its followers to outlets willing to sanitize the truth. But if the background assumption of most news producers is that both parties engage in dirty tricks, politicians of all stripes lie, and the nature of empirical fact itself is contestable, it creates a huge loophole that allows unscrupulous, dishonest actors to game news coverage itself, until it no longer conveys reality.
Sanders’s candidacy comes as an enormous relief to practitioners of this kind of journalism. As the most left-wing member of the Senate, and perhaps of the whole Congress, he allows political journalists to fall back on platitudes about the parties catering to their extremes, without examining the content of their agendas or their political styles.
Most recently, Sanders’s polling lead has drawn renewed scrutiny to favorable comments he made about left-wing parties and leaders during the Cold War, when the U.S. routinely armed and funded the right-wing military dictators they opposed. It’s natural and proper that Sanders face questions about his record, but, as in 2016, the relative dearth of controversies surrounding him has drawn outsize attention to aspects of his record that are positively benign in contrast to aspects of Trump’s that pass without comment. Trump has ongoing, fawning relationships with multiple, brutal authoritarian leaders. As the campaign press corps dove deep into comments Sanders made decades ago, Trump stood alongside and praised the nationalist prime minister of India, who is presiding over a violent cleansing of Muslims from his country right now. The number of communist dictators Trump grovels before today is at least two—China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The number Sanders fawns over is zero. Trump has admiringly described the Tiananmen Square massacre as an example of Chinese government strength, and would almost certainly revise his views of other left-wing authoritarian governments if they offered to line his pockets or build Trump-branded hotels on their beachfronts.
If Sanders didn’t identify as a democratic socialist, his old criticisms of U.S. Cold War policy wouldn’t garner much attention or controversy, but his idiosyncratic politics tempt mainstream journalists to test Sanders’s record against Republican smears. Trump has repeatedly called Sanders a communist. Almost every journalist covering the 2020 race for a large, mainstream outlet understands that this is a lie—that Sanders wants to move the United States in the direction of European social democracies, all of which are home to mixed economies like our own, with large public and private sectors, but provide their citizens greater levels of welfare. Indulging the right-wing caricature amounts to spreading misinformation about what Sanders’s ideology is and what kind of president he’d be, to say nothing of the false contrast it creates between Sanders’s and Trump’s views of human liberty. But the key distinction between social democracy and authoritarian socialism, the very notion that one word can have multiple meanings, has already been flattened.
Trump doesn’t call himself an authoritarian or a fascist, but his inclinations are far less democratic than Sanders’s. There is some narrow truth to the idea that Sanders and Trump represent the ideological poles of their respective parties. Trump has advanced core conservative movement goals, and draws his strongest support in Congress from its most right-wing members. Sanders’s allies are the most left-wing members of Congress, but their means and ends are completely different. The goal of Sanders’s movement is to win elections to pass bills that make America a more equal society; the goal of the Trump movement is to steal elections so they can stack courts and continue to rule without the consent of the governed.
It’s not impossible to find honest portrayals of this essential difference within the mainstream media, but the job will almost always be left to pundits and opinion writers, whose claims are more easily dismissed as partisan propaganda. In bemoaning Sanders’s rise, the Never Trump Republican columnist Michael Gerson acknowledges, “The two sides are not morally equivalent. Only one is subverting our constitutional order on a daily basis. Only one leader is regularly fanning flames of racial division. Only one leader has separated migrant families and abused migrant children. Only one leader has authoritarian pretensions and regularly uses his office to facilitate corruption.” You will likely never see the stakes of the election presented this clearly on the front pages of large-circulation newspapers—to the contrary, should Sanders win the nomination, the corpus of mainstream political reporting will just as likely flip the distinction Gerson has drawn on its head.
In the same vein, Trump is likely to exploit the absence of ethical scandals around Sanders by fabricating one, in the hope of neutralizing the political damage his historic corruption has caused him. Perhaps he will pressure his obedient attorney general to investigate the Sanders family, or perhaps the Sanders campaign’s emails will show up on Wikileaks one day, and Trump will pretend they are salacious no matter what they say. Sanders would be vulnerable to a feeding frenzy in either case, precisely because the environment around him is otherwise target poor.
It’s impossible to know from the vantage point of February 2020 what this year’s Gallup word clouds will reveal about how the press corps covered this election, but the conditions are ripe for Trump to once again enjoy all the benefits of normalization while his opponent becomes defined by a single, unrepresentative media fixation.
All of which brings us back to the unanswered question: how to scrutinize presidential candidates who aren’t congenitally dishonest, corrupt, or incompetent, when their opponent is Donald Trump. The answer can’t be for journalists to ignore Democratic failures until the Trump scourge has been eliminated, but it also can’t be to ignore context and proportion and treat all things as equal. If it is, then America’s democratic project may be entering its final months.