One of these politicians is not like the other. Credit: AFP/DSKDSK/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Krugman warns against “false equivalence” in the coverage of the presidential race between Trump and Clinton. I agree—with a stipulation. False equivalence is something the media should avoid yet pay close attention to: it could be Donald Trump’s ticket to the White House.

False equivalence, says Krugman in a recent New York Times column, would be asserting that both Trump and Hillary Clinton “fight dirty” because Clinton has roughed up Bernie Sanders over some of his policy ideas while Trump “has impugned his rivals’ manhood, called them liars, and suggested that Ted Cruz’s father was associated with J.F.K.’s killer.”

False equivalence would be addressing Clinton’s budget proposals and Trump’s “wildly irresponsible fantasy” of huge tax cuts and less national debt as if each was a plausible alternative to the other.

Let me offer an example of false equivalence of my own. It’s from the lead editorial in Tuesday’s Tribune—a paean to the virtues of voting for third-party candidates. As for the choices at hand, “it’s not impossible that surprise developments could upend the race,” the Tribune observed.

“Trump could commit a gaffe so outrageous that many of his followers would abandon him and the Republican Party would be forced to find a way to deny him its nomination.” Ditto with Clinton. She “could be indicted over her private email server. . . “

In order to put one candidate in as much jeopardy as the other, the Trib has lumped together two very different predicaments. Yes, Clinton might be indicted, though what I’ve read about the e-mail probe suggests she won’t and shouldn’t be. Trump, on the other hand, has already committed too many outrageous gaffes to list (though see Krugman above), and made the party say thank you and ask for more. Are both Trump and Clinton still in the running for the Tribune‘s endorsement? If they are, that’s a real equivalency for the paper to talk about.

Another good place to start thinking about false equivalence is with John Kass’s column in last Thursday’s Tribune: “Trump vs. Clinton: What’s the difference?” What we have here, wrote Kass, is an important national choice that must be made “against the backdrop of Trump’s insane and boorish insults, and Clinton’s long history of lies and deceit.” 

I’m apparently blind to that long history of hers, which is so self-evident to Kass that—in this column at least—he didn’t bother arguing it. Nevertheless, I respect his overall disgust. “You might be asking yourself,” wrote Kass: “What difference, at this point, does it make” whether Clinton or Trump is elected? If he thinks the choice does make a difference, he didn’t say why. 

But there’s time for that down the road—”at this point” finds us still six months before the election. Kass and everyone else as disgusted as he is have until November to work through their feelings and deal with the reality that one candidate or the other is going to take the White House. Kass will disappoint me if he doesn’t hold his nose and eventually make a case for one candidate over the other (or for a third-party candidate, should one arise), but he doesn’t have to do that yet.

It’s in Trump’s interest to keep columnists and editorial pages befuddled as long as possible, too caught up in posing the big question, “What’s the difference?” to answer it. Trump’s own image is beyond rehabilitation, but he might win anyway by obliterating hers. If in November the race actually comes down to his ignorance and misogyny against her “long history of lies and deceit,” voters might decide to pull the lever for grandiosity. 

That’s why I think the story of this presidential race will in large part be the story of how quickly and thoroughly the “false equivalence” between Trump and Clinton is challenged. Will we see a line drawn as voting blocs capable of making a distinction form with names like “Democrats Who Can’t Stand Hillary for Hillary” and “Gagging Republicans Just This Once for That Woman”?

These are the constituencies that could elect her president.