Donald Trump has ideas, and he has feelings. He wants to “build the wall.” He wants Mexico to “pay for it.” He wants to do something “for the veterans.” He wants to “take care of our people.” He wants to “win so much your head will spin,” and he wants to deport “illegal immigrants.”
What Trump doesn’t have are policies. We don’t know how he’ll build a wall on our border with Mexico or how he’ll force the Mexican government to pay for it. He doesn’t have details for what he’ll do to improve the Department of Veterans Affairs or how he’ll implement his ideas for health care or trade reform. Go to his website, and you’re met with vague assertions and broad rhetoric. There’s little detail on what Trump plans to spend, how he plans to pay for it, and what he thinks his programs will look like. There is no Team Trump policy shop translating his feelings and ideas into actual plans. Or at least not anymore. It was disbanded.
His rhetoric is even more remarkable. Trump evinces little knowledge of the details of public policy, stumbling over the basics of American governance and frequently demonstrating his ignorance of key challenges and issues in policymaking. On Monday morning, for instance, Trump accused President Obama of keeping interest rates down, oblivious to the fact that the White House isn’t responsible for interest rates—the Federal Reserve is.
Trump, simply put, doesn’t know anything, and we don’t know anything about him. He is a political cipher who exists outside traditional performance standards for presidential candidates, and as a result he has dictated the terms on which the political press judges him. Think of this as Trump’s first public works project: He has built the curve on which he is being graded.
This makes for a real contrast with Hillary Clinton, who is known for the depth and breadth of her policy knowledge. And regardless of where you stand on Clinton and her priorities, you know what they are. Go to the issues page of Clinton’s campaign website, and you’re bombarded with policies. Want to know Clinton’s plan for criminal justice reform? Just click the widget. Want to see what she’ll do about addiction and substance abuse? There’s a four-point plan and a full fact sheet for her proposals. Curious what Clinton thinks about environmental conservation? There’s a full plan, ready for your consumption. Overall, her website has policy statements available for 38 different issue areas.
Clinton has given enough detail that we can begin to speculate about what she would do as president. For Trump, we have to guess at his agenda—or at least, anything beyond “build the wall” and “make Mexico pay for it”—and at how he would behave as president.
This dynamic goes beyond questions of policy. It is one of the defining features of this campaign. Clinton behaves like a normal politician, albeit one on the secretive side, and Trump is a radical outlier, revealing nothing about his health, his taxes, or his business dealings.
On Sunday, the political press was consumed with the story of Clinton’s apparent illness at a 9/11 memorial event in New York City. A video, captured by a bystander, shows Clinton collapsing as she entered a vehicle. The Clinton campaign refused to inform its press pool and stonewalled on the event until persistent criticism forced a response. Clinton has been battling allergies and is sick with pneumonia. She was dehydrated and exhausted, and she went wobbly as a result.
The reaction to this, from the press, is that Clinton should have been more transparent. And they’re right. Team Clinton should have revealed the candidate’s illness. And after the incident in New York, the Clinton campaign should have immediately informed the press of the situation. Team Clinton seems to have learned its lessons; this week, the candidate will release more detailed medical records to the public. Even if they won’t tell us much, it’s a victory for campaign transparency.
But lost in the controversy is this fact: Insofar that we can even speculate about Clinton’s health, it’s because she released a detailed doctor’s note to the public, shortly after announcing her campaign.
Other than a bizarre statement from his alleged doctor, we know little about Trump’s health. Indeed, despite his ubiquity on television and cable news, we know little about Trump as a candidate. He refuses to release his tax returns (you can read every one of Clinton’s going back to 1990); refuses to say what he’ll do with his businesses and assets if elected president, despite unsavory associations and real conflicts of interest; and refuses to answer questions about his foundation.
None of this makes Clinton a model citizen. From her private email server at the State Department to her speeches to banks and other institutions, Clinton has been opaque and unwilling to divulge details. She is secretive, even when the truth is far from scandalous, as with her illness this past weekend. Given this, we should press her for more transparency. We should demand more disclosure from her campaign and more time with reporters. But in making those demands, we should neither forget nor neglect the extent to which Trump is unprecedented in his contempt for transparency.
Given the tenor of coverage in this election, it is fair to say that there is a double standard at work. Clinton is covered like a presidential nominee, while Trump is still treated like a sideshow, as if he’ll never be president. We saw this last week, at NBC News’ Commander-in-Chief Forum. Clinton was questioned like someone who might soon sit in the Oval Office, while Trump enjoyed the soft bigotry of low expectations.
That may make sense—the polls are still in Clinton’s favor. But the more Trump isn’t scrutinized for his unusual disdain for disclosure, the more likely it is that we find ourselves in a world where Donald Trump is president, and we know nothing about him or how he intends to lead the country. This is how the sideshow wins.