The first college grade I received was a 4 on a 100-point scale. I was shocked and tempted to call my mother to retrieve me. To my relief, the professor then graded on a curve, with the highest score in the class, a 6, moving to the top of the arc and resulting in my receiving a passing grade. This was my first experience of grading on a curve. It made sense to me given the extreme difficulty of the quiz questions.
What makes no sense in these dystopian times is that we now grade our current president on a curve, heavily influenced by media coverage that has normalized and accepted as routine his dreadful behavior and chaotic governance. The mainstream media is contributorily negligent, having been numbed into reporting his extreme dysfunction as conventional. His blowing up of the norms of presidential conduct, plus his 12,000 lies since his inauguration, have somehow prompted the media to cut him undeserved slack. The absolute grading standards that applied to his 44 predecessors have been discarded. Today, Trump’s wretched performance gets graded on a curve. Were traditional media and public assessment parameters applied to him, he would flunk every test of presidential leadership.
Here’s an example that demonstrates how words used by the media matter: what has regrettably been trivialized as “Sharpiegate,” where Trump or someone in his obsequious orbit used a Sharpie to illegally doctor (in violation of 18 U.S. Code §2074) a National Weather Service map to include a small slice of non-hurricane threatened Alabama. The super-sensitive, thin-skinned Trump could not admit to his flagrant mistake. He had to be right even though dead wrong. So he “doubled down” and kept this “controversy,” as the media labeled it, going for more than a week.
Except he did not “double down.” Instead, he persistently lied like a rug. “Doubled down” makes the doubler appear strong. Trump is not. “Controversy” makes it appear that this was a debatable proposition. It was not. Alabama was not in any danger. Trump’s blunder quickly became a lie and the media should have said so. Worse, many worried Alabamans took steps to protect themselves from a non-existent peril.
We deserve better from a president, but we will never get that from Trump. We must instead depend on the media. The media is often called the “Fourth Estate,” which refers to the power of the press to be a check and balance on the three branches of government. Never has this responsibility been more important.
Grading a president or any other public figure on a curve does an enormous disservice to the public. We can afford no less than an absolute grading scale in weighing whether they deserve to remain in office and enjoy the many perks of the people’s house.
On an absolute scale, Trump is a corrupt failure the likes of which we have not seen before and against which the founding fathers took pains to protect us. The Declaration of Independence talks about English King George III’s tyranny. George Washington lectured the troops at Valley Forge about Julius Caesar and the dangers of despotism. In Essay 47 of The Federalist Papers, James Madison warned about a popularly elected leader who could amass all the power of the other two branches of government into his own hands and emerge an autocrat. The Constitution tried to prevent against tyranny by an unscrupulous executive through Checks and Balances and Separation of Powers. Unfortunately, they did not contemplate either a Senate of servile sycophants or a politicized Supreme Court majority comprised of ideologues rendered a tool of a malevolent president.
The media has an obligation to wake up and call a spade a spade before it is too late. We the public have an obligation to heed those warnings next year at the ballot box.
Canandaigua Academy graduate Richard Hermann is a law professor, legal blogger, author of seven books and part-time resident of the Finger Lakes.