We know relatively little about the health of the two major presidential candidates, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a minor campaign issue over the past few weeks. Trump’s campaign, continuing its habit of breeding narratives in the fever swamps of the alt right, is suggesting that Clinton suffers from a myriad of strange and mysterious ailments, with allies claiming that she has a hidden defibrillator (reminiscent of George W. Bush’s hidden mic), and that she has to sit on cushions because if she doesn’t, her head will fall off. Clinton’s campaign has responded by calling Trump’s long-haired quack doctor a long-haired quack.
It was easy to assume that the health of both candidates probably would not be an issue because both are relatively old. Clinton is 68 and Trump is 70. Neither would have much of an advantage questioning the health of the other. But when we talk about the health of presidential candidates we are not actually talking about their health. In presidential elections, bills of health are narrative tools.
The 2008 election is instructive, when the young Barack Obama took on the old John McCain. McCain’s health was called into question not just because he was old, but because it was a clever way of pointing out that he had selected an insane person as his vice president. For Trump and his supporters, the talk of cushions and defibrillators is in keeping with their larger message, which is that Hillary Clinton is full of dangerous secrets and, if put in power, will do Benghazis all over the country. For Clinton, attacking Trump’s doctor for being a quack is in keeping with her larger message, which is that Trump is a quack surrounded by quacks and, if elected, this group of quacks will start a nuclear war with France.
If this discussion was really about their health, which it isn’t, it would revolve around the one thing we know for sure about the shape they’re in: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both old.