Young girls are growing up today watching the first woman nominee of a major political party run for the most powerful position in the world, president of the United States of America.
They are also watching, however, arguably the biggest double standard to ever exist in American electoral politics.
The historicity of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is undoubtedly and most importantly cause for celebration - however the way in which Donald Trump has blatantly relied on misogynistic stereotypes and rhetoric in portraying Clinton, and how he has in some ways succeeded, is also cause for concern. While Trump has received criticism for incoherent policy, his use of such language is anything but: his words are purposeful, targeted attacks to undermine and take away Clinton’s humanity and true experiences as a woman, mother and grandmother, continuing to paint her as a Lady MacBethian caricature. It’s no accident; it’s been incredibly effective and part of the reason a sizeable portion of Americans believe that Clinton and the most dangerous man to ever run for the American presidency are somehow comparably qualified.
The crux of the double standard is this: long-standing, but seemingly unapparent, attitudes about gender legitimize and provide another line of attack that Trump can use against Clinton, and he’s relatively let off the hook for doing it - just like with some of his other outrageous behavior. The difference between the two candidates’ levels of governing experience fails to compensate for the double standard when it comes to character and morals.
Repeatedly throughout the campaign, media commenters, supporters and reluctant Republicans alike have given Trump the benefit of the doubt that he will “pivot,” whether in policy or methods. Repeatedly, he has shown us the opposite, whether defending his criticism of Mexican Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the Khan family or hiring Stephen Bannon as his campaign chairman. Trump is repeatedly judged at a lower standard, as he is applauded for managing to read off a teleprompter and allowed to claim he was simply “being sarcastic” when he invited Russian intelligence to hack United States officials without president. He is also the first presidential candidate since 1976 to not release his tax returns, and proceeds to distort legitimate journalistic inquiries to demonize the Clinton Foundation, an organization that has planted over 2.6 million trees to reduce the effects of climate change, increased access to vaccinations and treatments for infections diseases such as HIV/AIDS, and received an A-rating from CharityWatch, for not being as transparent.
As such, given the flexibility afforded to him by this double standard and increasing desperation, Trump has been relying upon it as we enter the final two months of the election. Last week, in an interview with ABC’s David Muir just as he had in rallies earlier, Trump critiqued: “Well, I don’t think she has a presidential look, and you need a presidential look.”. There is literally only one standard for “looking presidential” imaginable in which Trump would pass and Clinton would fail - being male.
Matt Lauer of NBC faced criticism Thursday morning for how he moderated a back-to-back, primetime forum with the two candidates - many claiming he let Trump off the hook with more basic questions and not fact checking him on the spot as he should have. Clinton, on the other hand, was pressed harder and put on the defensive - just as any person running for president of the United States should be - although also interrupted more often. As Michael Grynbaum wrote in the New York Times, the criticism reflects a trend of “news organizations and interviewers treat Mrs. Clinton as a serious candidate worthy of tough questions, while Trump is sometimes handled more benignly.”
Just this past Saturday, Clinton released a statement apologizing for calling half of Trump supporters “deplorables…. Racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic” at a fundraiser. Certainly regrettable, GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted “Hillary Clinton should be ashamed of her comments” - however Ryan’s continued failure to stand up to Trump shows that his expectation of a higher standard from Hillary is less an act of conscience and more so political maneuvering. Trump tweeted a response claiming he respected all of Hillary’s supporters, an insulting display of entitlement that he can disparage vast groups of citizens and still have the audacity to say he’s shown respect.
Trump has remorselessly alienated millions of Americans from his campaign, while heralded by supporters for being tough and brash. And yet it is Hillary Clinton who is facing pressure - and hurting in the polls - for not being “human enough,” the subject of a recent Humans of New York series in which she discussed the unique balance between strength and emotion for women leaders. If Trump is liked for being his “authentic self”, and Hillary distrusted for failing to do so, the question becomes: what do we expect authenticity to look like for both of them, and how are our expectations gendered?
Of course, there are legitimate reasons why many voters choose to oppose Clinton. However, it is hard to argue that deciding not to vote in this election with so much at stake is anything more than an act of privilege legitimized by this double standard.
Many girls (and boys) across the country certainly see and are aware of Hillary Clinton as a role model, but what they may not be aware of is the depth of the forces that have shaped the nuances of her public perception. The same goes for some young voters today, who became acquainted with Clinton as a public figure already well into her career, rather than the Hillary that caused pause and a unique intrigue as a political spouse, whether for having a career as the first female partner at Rose Law Firm in Arkansas, or not wanting to enter a spouse bake-off.
Clinton’s candidacy has and will continue to inspire and break barriers, however both the “Trump standard” and its acceptance with much of the public and mainstream dissemination can feel discouraging at times, especially as a young woman. It is a truth and source of frustration that is not unique for trailblazers throughout history, but that needs to continue to serve as motivation as we envision the type of election, informed debates, and civil discourse we want as an example to our youngest citizens, all Americans, and the world.