Election 2016

How Sexism Like Matt Lauer’s Could Imperil the Nation

In a presidential forum, the Today show host held the two candidates to very different standards, depriving one of the chance to display her expertise.

Photo Credit: screen shot / NBC News

In what many believe to be the most important presidential election in a generation, the two major-party presidential candidates were held to very different standards in Wednesday night’s televised forum on national-security issues. As Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute tweeted, “Tough to be a woman running for president.”

The forum, hosted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City, was broadcast by NBC News and moderated by Matt Lauer, host of the Today show. The event was supposedly designed to explore the candidates’ potential in the role of commander-in-chief, and Lauer apparently felt compelled to demonstrate his hard-news chops by badgering Democrat Hillary Clinton about her personal email server while allowing Republican Donald J. Trump not only to lie about his support for the Iraq war, but to make key assertions, left unchallenged, that legitimately raise questions about his allegiance to his own country and its warfighters.

When questioning Clinton, Lauer was all alpha-male, interrupting her and tsk-tsking her for criticizing her opponent after he had asked her not to do so. But when paired with Trump, it became clear who was the alpha in that set-up. It clearly wasn't Lauer, who allowed Trump to talk over him, and to evade specifics. When Trump criticized Clinton, Lauer allowed him to slide.

At this point in the campaign, Lauer’s obvious sexism is not simply a problem of unfairness in the treatment of the individual candidates; such performances have serious consequences for the fate of the nation. When one candidate is constricted to answering repeated challenges to her on one topic for a third of her time on stage (and interrupted with reminders to shorten her answers), while the other is never challenged on his troubling recent behavior regarding matters of national security, the American people are being cheated.

While Clinton was forced to dwell for some ten minutes on why her use of a personal email server during her tenure as secretary of state ultimately did no harm to national security, Trump’s praise of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin—on which he doubled down—was not met with ten minutes of questioning about his invitation to Russia to hack into his opponent’s email server. And never mind that the outsized attention paid to the email issue deprived Clinton of precious time to display what is clearly her presidential advantage over Trump: her understanding of policy, and the ways in which both the government and the military function.

OK, so Lauer did push back a bit on Trump’s praise of Putin—whom Trump has lauded as a great leader, apparently for calling Trump’s “brilliant”—noting that Putin is at work in the world undermining U.S. interests, and is implicated in the hacking of the email system of the Democratic National Committee. “Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters, who, by the way, some of them are based right here,” Trump replied. Here, Lauer might have pointed out that a populace that has seen Putin’s opponents turn up dead might be inclined to say nice things about the dictator when questioned by “pollsters.” Or he might have questioned why Trump would invite a rival government, headed by a dictator whose opponents often turn up dead, to hack into the email server of a former U.S. secretary of state for the presumed purpose of exposing whatever state secrets Trump is insinuating exist on that server.

In fact, Lauer might have explored that question for, say, ten minutes, given its implications for the future of America’s national security. If only Trump were a woman and Clinton a man, that might have happened.

The forum also dealt with the treatment of veterans and their families, but Lauer never questioned Trump about his rhetorical attacks on the parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan, a Muslim who was killed by a car bomb in Iraq. After the captain’s father, Khizr Khan, challenged Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States, Trump took to Twitter to say that the late officer’s mother stood silently next to her husband on stage at the Democratic National Convention as he made those remarks because her religion deprived her of her right to speak. (Ghazala Khan maintained she felt too overcome by emotion to speak of her dead son.)

Feminists often make the case that sexism hurts everyone. The pay gap between men and women hurts whole families, especially those headed by single women. (Note: Those families often include boys.) Sexism against girls hurts society at large, shrinking the talent pool in fields from which women are excluded, or discouraged from joining. And sexism against a woman presidential candidate could help elect a recently minted politician with questionable allegiance to the United States, who sees himself in eyes of the cold-blooded autocrat who rules a rival nation.

Matt Lauer’s sexism, as displayed last night in the vastly different standards of debate he set for each candidate, cheated the American people in ways that could actually pose a danger to the security of the nation.

Adele M. Stan is a weekly columnist for The American Prospect. Follow her on Twitter @addiestan.

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