For years, Republican partisans, often working in outlets like Fox News or Breitbart, have promoted conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s heath—that she’s never recovered from her 2012 concussion, that her weak heart prevents her from climbing stairs, that she carries around a hidden defibrillator, and that she suffers from dysphasia, among many other alleged ailments. Donald Trump has tried to piggyback on these unsubstantiated theories by saying Clinton lacks “strength” and “stamina.” Last December, he said on Fox News that “she’s not strong enough to be president. We need a president who can go 24 hours a day, seven days a week—she can’t do it.” In the same interview, he said Clinton “goes to sleep” when she’s not on the campaign trail.
Clinton’s dizzy spell during a 9/11 memorial on Sunday, exacerbated by the slowness of her campaign in explaining to the press that the cause was pneumonia, means that these sexist, once-fringe speculations are now aired by mainstream media.
On Monday, NPR commentator Cokie Roberts, a paragon of beltway respectability, said that Democrats were “nervously beginning to whisper about having her step aside and finding another candidate”; she didn’t cite a single source for this claim. On the same day, Charlie Rose, the embodiment of sonorous PBS self-seriousness, asked former President Bill Clinton if his wife’s pneumonia was caused by her concussion four years ago. Rose’s scientific illiteracy (pneumonia is a lung infection) was not that far removed from Fox News’ Sean Hannity suggestion in August that Clinton’s facial expressions were “seizure-like.”
In taking up the issue of Clinton’s health in the most sensationalistic ways possible, Rose and Roberts are helping to amplify the very sexist narrative Trump has worked so hard to promote. On Monday, on the podcast Keeping It 1600, former Barack Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett astutely analyzed Trump’s strategy:
Trump’s bet has been “I can paint her as weak and vulnerable. Part of that will be making things up about her health because I have an old-fashioned notion of masculinity. Presidents should look and act like men do in some old-fashioned macho kind of way.” That’s a bet. I agree that it will ultimately not pay off but I don’t think you can totally dismiss that there won’t be people affected by that.
Focusing on Clinton’s supposed frailty is a continuation of Trump’s exploitation of gender norms, seen earlier in the primaries both in his assertions of his own masculinity (assuring debate watchers of the size of his penis) and also in his emasculation of his rivals, especially his jibes about “low energy” Jeb Bush and “Little Marco” Rubio. Trump’s oft-expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin is another facet of the Republican nominee’s cult of manliness: The Russian president, who’s fond of being photographed bare-chested in the outdoors, is a strongman in more ways than one. Trump is selling the promise that he, too, is brimming with testosterone, unlike the wasting-away Clinton.
The health of both Clinton, 68, and Trump, 70, are legitimate issues worthy of exploration. The presidency is a demanding job, after all. To date, Clinton has released a relatively detailed two-page letter from her doctor that divulged her drug prescriptions, cholesterol levels, and various diagnoses over the years. Trump released a four-paragraph letter that his doctor wrote in five minutes and declared, in language that sounded a lot like Trump himself, “His physical strength and stamina are extraordinary.... If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”
Clinton and Trump have both promised to release additional records this week. But the debate about their respective health and fitness for office won’t be settled on facts alone. In his attacks on Clinton, Trump has appealed to deeply held gender stereotypes. His supporters, especially those in the alt-right movement, might buy the suggestion that he’s stronger simply because he’s a man. But shame on anyone in the media who echoes the sexist conspiracy theories that seek the same end.