Normal vs. Abnormal

Ezra Klein wrote a piece this summer (which I’ve linked multiple times and surely will again) about how this election was really normal vs. abnormal.  One big problem is just how much we have acclimated to Trump’s abnormality.  Chait has an interesting take arguing that another big problem is that the media is also abnormalizing Hillary Clinton:

Americans deem Clinton less honest and trustworthy than a man who lies in public about opponents in both parties with a frequency and brazenness unsurpassed in national politics, who has broken precedent by refusing to disclose his tax returns, who routinely refused to pay contractors for services rendered, who abused a charitable foundation for personal and political gain, who once boasted in a best-selling book about his habit of lying, and who is currently facing trial for bilking thousands of victims in a massive fraud. [emphases mine]

Clinton, as I have conceded, has done some bad things born of secrecy and paranoia. But those bad things have not merely tainted her image but defined it. The email story has utterly dominated the public’s impression of Clinton, who is the second-most-unpopular nominee of all time and whose shortcomings compare in the public mind with those of her grossly unqualified, authoritarian opponent. Open up any interview with undecided voters, and you will find them equating Trump’s shocking lack of qualifications with Clinton’s mundane transparency issues. (For instance, this Florida voter: “Mr. Trump scares him, Mr. Lewis said. Mrs. Clinton, he believes, is dissembling about her health. He, too, is considering sitting out the election.”) The ongoing normalization of Trump is the most disorienting development of the presidential campaign, but the most significant may be the abnormalization of Clinton.

The news media’s obsession with the emails has, without necessarily intending to do so, conveyed the impression that Clinton committed not just run-of-the-mill political scandals but extraordinary offenses of a historic scale. Indeed, this is exactly what most Republicans, even staunch critics of Trump, believe — for all of Trump’s flaws, she too is disqualified…

The funny thing about the scandal surrounding Clinton’s private email account is that there was a similar scandal in the Bush administration. Dozens of White House staffers, including Karl Rove, improperly used email accounts provided by the Republican National Committee, which were supposed to be for political work only, for their official duties, thus evading public-records requirements. They then deleted some 22 million emails, thus systematically flouting the same public-records principle that Clinton evaded.

If you forgot about this episode, it is because it was merely a secondary scandal within a larger one, involving a Bush administration scheme to politicize the Department of Justice…

But even if we saddle Hillary Clinton with every ethical failure of her husband’s administration alongside her own tenure as secretary of State, and include those of the Clinton post-presidency, it simply does not compare with Bush’s. And it should go without saying that the comparison does not excuse Clinton’s very real failures of ethics and judgment. Yet the question is not whether Clinton’s ethics problems exist at all but whether they ought to separate her from normal politicians. The inability to contextualize these flaws has been a signal failure of the general election.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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