As important as the primary process and poll numbers are for candidates in presidential election years, too often do polls and the mainstream media reflect and rely on speculation of what and who “looks presidential.” While the public’s attention and discourse can feed off of presidential and non-presidential looking moments in candidates’ campaigns, such discourse in recent news has been mostly petty, if not discriminatory.
Current Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson and his wife Lacena recently found themselves on the laughing end of a widely circulated meme on social media, which aimed to portray the candidate and his wife as being a lesser-quality version of President Obama and his wife, Michelle. The meme shows both politicians with their wives, all in formal attire but with Michelle Obama being the decidedly better dressed, and posits that Lacena, AKA Candy Carson, would somehow be the “cable” equivalent to Obama’s “direct TV.”
What does it say about our public discourse when our perception of presidential candidates is predicated on judgment of appearance, especially in ways that play into racist undertones as well as standards and expectations clued in by stereotypes? These are the same frameworks that focus around “other-ness” of two black presidential figures; the same frameworks that demanded – and then tried to refute – Barack Obama’s birth certificate before his presidential election in 2008.
These implicit standards come to the forefront of public discussion through the Internet and mainstream media, which greatly affect the public impression of candidates and also enforce certain discriminatory standards around what a president can, or should, look like.
Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz faced similarly petty scrutiny last week from MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews, who wasn’t sure whether the two candidates should be perceived as Hispanic.
“So you’re trying to insinuate that Marco Rubio, a fellow, uh, Spanish surname, I’m not sure the right word is ‘Hispanic’ for them,” Matthews said. “Because they are Cuban nationals or whatever, or come from Cuba.”
While some white Cubans do decide not to identify as Hispanic, Matthews’ comments seem to be less concerned with properly discussing an ethnicity and more concerned with shaping the public’s view of, or agreement with, these undeniably Hispanic candidates.
Mainstream media, social media users and political campaigns only seem bent on sharing and talking about the kinds of propaganda that make their political rivals seem less credible or legitimate. Such lazy attacks to warp public perception can be expressed in ways as simple as most news outlets’ consistency in only using pictures of Bernie Sanders on his worst hair days, or pictures of Former Secretary Clinton with her eyes wide, mid-cackle.
As for what is seen at a presidential or strong performance, on the other hand, it usually only involves expressions of power. We’re often told the winner of the debate is the one who spoke the loudest over the others, or whichever candidate delivered the best rhetorical attack on another. Rarely does the discussion focus on clear distinctions in policies and views that could shape America’s history in extraordinary ways through the tenure of the next president.
Just last week, renowned blogger Matt Drudge of The Drudge Report posted a series of tweets claiming that Hillary Clinton wears a wig, and that she never shows her scalp. As petty as that may seem, the posts have already widely circulated, and CNN even dedicated one of there “today’s moment in politics” to a joke by Clinton saying that her hair is real, but the color isn’t.
These are the kinds of stories the mainstream media is encouraging us to care about, but shouldn’t we be having more discussions on Clinton’s ties to Wall Street, Sanders’ stances on gun control, Rubio’s anti-choice rhetoric, Carson’s lack of foreign policy understanding or maybe even Cruz’s opinion that America should only be accepting Christian refugees from Syria? Shouldn’t there be some sort of consensus that these are the more important issues to be talked about?
In the end, the lackadaisical and surface level discussion of who and what “looks presidential” forces the public discussion presidential elections to be less intelligent, less focused on policies and ideas and less worthwhile. The public should demand and be news from the mainstream media that is informative, worthwhile and not dominated by expectations to look presidential through unrelated or shallow criteria.
Bennett Cognato is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.