This country may finally be about to have a long-needed conversation about how gender bias is affecting the 2016 presidential campaign. Not only is one nominee running to be the first woman president in our nation’s history, but perhaps the central feature of the other’s identity is misogyny. The electorate is producing an unprecedented gender gap. And the grossly unequal coverage between a serious candidate carrying the burden of proof and a halfwit speaking at a fourth-grade reading level while shielded by wealth and masculinity raises troubling questions of implicit sexism that should cause self-reflection for every media personality. Gender is arguably the defining aspect of the entire 2016 race.
But before we delve too deeply into the treatment of Donald versus Hillary, let’s consider a different political contrast that proves the same point: Donald versus Sarah. Because Donald Trump’s closest comparison for any major party candidate seeking national office is Sarah Palin. That would be the Palin who was torn apart in 2008 for her ignorance and stupidity, for her lack of experience, for her petty retributions, for her suspect spending habits, and for her lack of transparency. And this would be the Trump who is similarly (if not more so) shady, senseless, inexperienced, thin-skinned, and opaque. Trump’s raison d’etre in this campaign is cultural resentment against coastal elites, thinly masking an ugly streak of white grievance. That was Palin’s calling card, too. Yet, while Palin was widely considered a dangerous laughingstock by the national press, Trump gains legitimacy by the day. This despite Palin’s second billing compared to Trump’s pursuit of the oval office.
Though today Palin is a complete mess, let’s not forget that despite her unsuitability for the vice-presidency, Palin was not nearly as unhinged and undignified in 2008. She was actually more serious and qualified then than Trump is now. Palin was disciplined, an effective speaker, and mostly “on message.” Trump is the most undisciplined and scatter-brained candidate in history. And Palin actually was a governor, and a decently effective and public-minded governor at that. It was only after the pull of media stardom and money-making schemes transformed her into an extreme cultural warrior that her actual record of compromise and raising taxes on oil companies was lost.
The press coverage of Palin was suffocating; she received significantly more coverage during the week of the GOP convention than Barack Obama did during the DNC. Studies showed that after an initial honeymoon period, coverage of her was overwhelmingly negative. It’s true that much of this was brought on by Palin herself. She was, after all, a horrendous choice for Vice President. But a great deal of the coverage was unfair and based on unfounded innuendo (such as the shameless conspiracy that she was not in fact the mother of her infant child). Meanwhile, Trump is Palin’s equal in every negative respect, and though he, too, has received negative coverage, his most outrageous transgressions have not received a fraction of the wall-to-wall attention that Palin received.
Take a quick look at Palin’s disqualifying personality traits. First and foremost, she was portrayed as unintelligent and ignorant. Tina Fey’s enduring impersonation of Palin on Saturday Night Live was a devastating mix of an innocent, folksy twang with an embarrassing series of mispronunciations and misstatements. This perception was underscored by the candidate’s every utterance. There was the cringe-worthy interview with Katie Couric, replayed ad nauseam, in which Palin could not name a single newspaper she read for information, saying instead she read “all of them, any of them.” Palin was also mocked for strange and convoluted sentence construction that suggested a lack of facility with grammar and diction. Yet Trump has a breathtaking level of ignorance about current affairs, typified by his on-the-fly bullshitting about his plans (on Obamacare: “repeal and replace with something really terrific”; to reduce crime, be “very much tougher than [we] are right now”; etc.). And as for his elocution, Trump has a well-documented issue with stringing even two complete sentences together. You can cover his statements as deal-breaking gaffes or “Trump being Trump.” The media has chosen the latter.
Second, as a first term governor of a small state, Palin was rightfully interrogated about her lack of experience and suitability for national office. While deserved, this skepticism was a defining feature of the 2008 coverage. Palin’s selection even became a major piece of criticism of John McCain’s judgment, spawning commentary that he was “out of his mind” and “fundamentally irresponsible” for choosing the Alaska Governor. Her lack of policy chops became ingrained in the national consciousness by her repeated citation of Alaska’s proximity to Russia as alleged foreign policy experience. Her argument to Charlie Gibson in an ABC News interview that: “You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska” was transformed into Fey’s iconic, “I can see Russia from my house.” Trump, however, has no elective experience and made far more outlandish and false statements about foreign affairs. The criticism he’s received from the press on those points, however, has been balanced by the “analysis” that voters are responding to his outsider status. In a March 2016 interview on MSNBC, Trump could not name a single foreign policy expert with whom he consults. His response was eerily reminiscent of Palin’s newspaper answer and even more preposterous: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.” The response garnered headlines for a single news cycle and then disappeared.
Third, Palin developed a reputation for being vindictive, petty, and easily offended. The media gave strong play to the infamous Troopergate scandal where Palin abused her authority as governor to fire a former brother-in-law state trooper. Palin was also known for obsessive interest in press criticism, to the point that she planted fake, positive letters to the editor in Alaskan newspapers. Trump, of course, lets no slight go unremarked on. He has banned news agencies, roughed up reporters, and continues to go on Twitter tirades against all who offend him. It is unfathomable that Palin—whose press antipathy was highlighted by the media in 2008—could get away with even one statement like the petty, every-day Trump tweets. Earlier this month he used middle-school language and innuendo to call MSNBC personality Mika Brzezinski “crazy and very dumb” and implied she was having an affair with her co-host Joe Scarborough. Yet, this is accepted as normal Trump behavior.
Finally, Palin was considered secretive and non-transparent. She was torn apart for resisting media inquiries and interviews after her disastrous sit-downs with Gibson and Couric. There has been little coverage, however, of Trump’s non-Fox News media blackout since the conventions. Trump’s last interview with a non-Fox mainstream news organization was with George Stephanopoulos during the Khan controversy. Palin was also resistant to allowing her records from Alaska into the open. Meanwhile Trump refuses to release his tax returns, health information, charitable giving records, or to disclosure his business interests.
So Palin’s disqualifying qualities are rather similar to Trump’s, and she also shared Trump’s positive political talents that are cited for why he gets a pass. Palin also had magnetism and stage presence. She, too, had a rabid political base. That she was (rightfully) cut down to size by the press and public, while Trump maintains a certain legitimacy among national media figures and Republican elites (one that remarkably enabled him to win the GOP nomination), suggests that Palin very well might have become president if she was a man. Media talking heads can hardly discuss Palin these days without a smirk, and yet in June and July 2015 they sat down, brows furrowed, to seriously inquire what Donald Trump thought about everything from Syria to trade to healthcare. If there’s one under-covered aspect to Trump’s rise, it is the disturbing reality that masculinity alone lends a candidate an air of legitimacy.