The 2016 race has taken an increasingly ghoulish and morbid turn as Donald Trump’s campaign has decided to start making allegations about Hillary Clinton’s health. In keeping with the chaotic nature of the campaign, these accusations are internally inconsistent but they all allege that Clinton is too physically fragile to be president.
Last Monday, the Republican nominee suggested that Clinton “lacks the mental and physical stamina to take on ISIS, and all the many adversaries we face.” His spokespeople, surrogates and media allies have been much more blunt. On CNN on Thursday, Trump national spokesperson Katrina Pierson claimed that Clinton suffered from dysphasia, a dysfunction in the brain that hampers the ability to both understand and communicate. As a guest on Fox News Sunday, Rudy Giuliani attacked the media for failing to “point out several signs of illness by [Clinton].” Giuliani suggested viewers “go online and put down Hillary Clinton and illness and take a look at the videos for yourself.”
These rumors date back to at least 2014, when Republican operative Karl Rove used a three-day Clinton hospital stay to deal with a blood clot to suggest that the former Secretary of State might have a “traumatic brain injury.” Trump flirted with this rhetoric occasionally in the early days of his campaign, but since he’s been sinking in the polls, it has become the mainstay of his campaign. Yet by focusing on Clinton’s health, Trump is proving the frailty of his own campaign, not just because these desperate arguments are based on lies (although they are) but also because they show that Trump’s retreating from any sort of political debate with Clinton. Indeed, increasingly shrill speculation about Clinton’s health bolster the idea that Trump is already moving beyond politics and is trying to position himself for a post-election role as a media magnate.
From a political standpoint, the argument that Clinton isn’t healthy enough to be president makes no sense. The Constitution dictates what happens if a president too sick to perform their tasks (the Twenty-Fifth Amendment) or dies in office. Clinton, like all presidential candidates, has a running mate who is prepared to become president. As it happens, Senator Tim Kaine is a less polarizing and controversial figure than Clinton herself. So even if we accept, for the sake of argument, these absurd allegations about Clinton’s health, they really give no reason why someone who prefers the Democrats to the Republicans on policy grounds would switch. After all, if Clinton proves incapable or even dies, Kaine is there as a replacement. Indeed, given Kaine’s relative inoffensiveness, rumors of an ailing Clinton might make wavering #NeverTrump Republicans more inclined to vote for the Democratic candidate.
The bashing of Hillary Clinton’s health does make sense as part of Trump’s modus operandi. It’s part of the same game of dominance politics that he won at in the primaries when he created nicknames like “low energy” Jeb, Lyin’ Ted, and Little Marco. Further, there’s a gender dynamic which Trump might think plays to his advantage: By talking about Clinton as frail, he’s highlighting the fact that he’s a man and she’s a woman, deploying longstanding gender stereotypes. Gendered dominance politics might be the hidden logic of this line of attack, but it still makes little sense politically since Trump’s big polling hurdles are his own reputation for instability (which this type of attack re-enforces) and his unpopularity with women (who aren’t likely to be won over by a heavy-handed appeal to sexism).
While stirring up a bogus Clinton health scare makes little sense as politics, it does fit with the way Trump is returning to his roots as a political entertainer. He first made a splash among Republicans by being an Obama Birther, so now he’s completing the circle by becoming a Clinton Deather. His campaign is demanding Clinton release her medical records, a stunt that recalls Trump’s well-publicized hunt for Obama’s birth certificate. Like his Birtherism, his Deatherism isn’t no much about politics as creating a spectacle. In effect, even before the election is over, Trump is moving into the post-political realm where he’ll safely comment on politics without engaging in it.
If he does launch Trump TV, as many suspect he will, he could easily devote many hours to a ghastly Hillary Clinton Death Watch. Such a program would, like so much of Trump’s campaign, be not about actual politics or policy but simply an exercise in spite. The stirring up of vengeful emotions is Trump’s true métier; it comes easy to him, while thinking about policy or political compromise bores him. The type of revenge fantasies that Trump is engendering about Clinton’s death satisfy an audience that is more into wish-fulfillment than politics. Trump himself already seems to be entering into the post-political phase of his career—or at least laying the groundwork for producing and starring in shows where he can gleefully attack foes like Clinton without having to worry about dull matters like winning elections.