Donald Trump and Dr. Mehmet Oz have a lot in common. They’re both hucksters selling dangerous snake oils to the American public, obvious frauds who have yet to be cast out of normal society thanks to the mainstream frameworks in which they operate: for Trump, the political arena; for Oz, the medical establishment. And they prize showmanship and bombast over the truth. Oz, for instance, has been repeatedly and justly attacked for pushing green coffee bean extract as “a magic weight loss cure for every body type,” which it isn’t; as The Daily Beast has noted, Oz has a penchant for diet scams. He’s advocated at length for homeopathy, which does not work. He’s argued that GMOs are unsafe. And in December, the British medical journal BMJ found that there was no scientific evidence to support half of the claims made on his show. Trump’s tortured relationship with facts, meanwhile, is old hat by now.
But the thing that Oz and Trump have most in common is their shared affinity for easy answers to complex problems. Trump, who promised “I alone can fix it” at the Republican National Convention in July, has promised instant solutions to a number of intractable problems: His secret plan to defeat ISIS will destroy them immediately; the wall will stop illegal immigration; jobs will return from China and Mexico the moment he enters the Oval Office. In recent years, Oz has been dinged repeatedly for his reliance on pushing “magical” or “miracle” pills on his show for problems like obesity and poor skin. These pills don’t work, and two years ago Oz was forced to admit to Congress that these solutions “don’t have the scientific muster.”
Oz has deflected criticism of his practices by arguing that he is an entertainer, not a doctor. He’s said that his show is “not a medical show,” a claim he supported by telling NBC News that the “Oz” in his logo is much bigger than the “Dr.” And he’s also argued that he is the victim of a smear campaign brought by jealous doctors who want to violate his constitutional rights. After ten doctors wrote an open letter to Columbia University asking that Oz be stripped of his faculty position, he said, “No matter our disagreements, freedom of speech is the most fundamental right we have as Americans, and these ten doctors are trying to silence that right.”
Trump similarly presents himself as a free-speech defender who refuses to be silenced by the forces of political correctness. He believes he should be allowed to say whatever he wants, without any consequences—except, apparently, when he appears on pseudo-medical daytime TV talk show. That requires subtlety and insidiousness.
Trump’s appearance on The Dr. Oz Show, which was taped on Wednesday, could not have been more perfectly timed. Though it was booked before Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia-related fainting spell on Sunday, Trump made sure to capitalize on his fortune by playing coy for days about his own medical records. He promised to provide more information, then said he wouldn’t, and finally brought two pages’ worth onto the show (the same day, incidentally, that a poll revealed nearly half of voters think Clinton’s health could hurt her ability to serve). By submitting to this pseudo-checkup from Dr. Mehmet Oz, Trump was able to drive a false narrative that had emerged from the fever swamps of the alt-right—Hillary’s allegedly bad health—still further into the mainstream.
In other words, Trump had already gotten what he wanted from Oz even before the show was taped. That explains why the hourlong episode was a self-serious charade. Oz treated the first 20 minutes as if it was a real check-up, asking his patient about his medical history, exercise regimen, and diet. Trump said nothing revealing—everyone lies to their primary care physician in private, so why tell the truth to a celebrity doctor on TV?—except perhaps that he believes giving speeches is “a pretty healthy act. And I really enjoy doing it; a lot of times these rooms are very hot, like saunas; and I guess that’s a form of exercise.”
As for Trump’s health, we don’t know significantly more about it than we did two days ago. Trump’s doctor says he’s healthy, but the two-page document Trump showed to Oz does not count as transparency. Trump made a number of typically boastful pronouncements—that he “beat” hay fever as an adult, can “hit the [golf] ball as far” at 70 as he could when he was younger, that he feels four years younger than his “good friend,” the 39-year-old quarterback Tom Brady—but there’s no reason to believe he’s any healthier than Hillary Clinton, her bout with the pneumonia notwithstanding.
Trump’s health really was beside the point, though. Oz led off his show by making it clear that this was a show about health, not politics. It was also, despite Oz’s warning, about Clinton’s health as much as it was about Trump’s. When asked if disclosing health records is important, Trump responded by saying, “It does help address some of the comments about the candidates’ health. I think people expect to know something about the health of the people they’re voting for…. I think when you’re running for the president of the United States, you have an obligation to be healthy. I just don’t think you can do the work if you’re not healthy. I just don’t think you can represent the country properly if you’re not healthy.”
Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, joined him during the second half of the show, pushing the child care plan they unveiled earlier in the week. She also jumped in to save Trump when Oz asked about his previous comments about women. Calling it a “false narrative” she said, “My father speaks his mind, whether it’s a man or a woman. If you attack him, he’ll attack you back. It would be strange if he handled women and men differently.” Whereas Trump spent the first half-hour pushing the question of presidential stamina, he spent the second half—or rather, his daughter did—pushing the absurd idea that he’s pivoted into a kinder, gentler candidate.
While both Trump and Oz are both consummate showmen, Thursday’s show was a completely inconsequential hour of television. Anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to get clicks. And that, it seems, was the whole point: Oz and Trump both got what they wanted out of it. Oz got to play the serious doctor in front of a larger and more engaged audience, and Trump got to subtly push the question of Clinton’s health without seeming like he was being transparently political, even though he was—all without revealing any meaningful information about his own health.
That, if anything, is the big takeaway from Trump’s appearance on Dr. Oz: How little he has to do to get the attention that powers his campaign. Oz is proof that there are always people desperate to become part of the show, to use Trump’s status as a presidential candidate to further their own agenda (or simply their own fame). On Dr. Oz, Trump offered next to nothing, and he got two days of political narrative out of it.