In the span of a few weeks, rumors about Hillary Clinton’s supposedly failing health have wormed their way from conspiracy websites into a Donald Trump speech. At a campaign rally in Ohio yesterday, Trump questioned Clinton’s “judgment, stability, and temperament,” adding that she “lacks the mental and physical stamina to take on ISIS.”
The rumors—or, renewed rumors—about Clinton’s health emerged from the conservative website the Drudge Report. Earlier this month, Drudge published a Reuters photograph which appears to show Clinton being helped up porch stairs by two aides. The photograph was, apparently, evidence of some kind neurological disorder that Clinton had been nefariously keeping under wraps since 2012. In 2012, Clinton had a well-publicized blood clot, the result of a concussion she had sustained months prior. It’s worth noting that blood clots following head injury are common, particularly among women.
Since then, Clinton has been on blood thinners and, last year, her physician said she is in “excellent physical condition” in a health report that included Clinton’s test results. Clinton’s health should be much of an issue, blood thinners are commonly prescribed—Americans spend roughly a billion dollars on different kinds of anticoagulant—but instead of leaving the rumors to the grind of the conspiracy mill, they’ve become the cause du jour of Fox News.
In a segment this morning, Fox and Friends welcomed radio host Mark Davis to offer perspective on Clinton’s health. The segment begins with host Steve Doocy wondering aloud that the seven days that Clinton has reportedly taken off this month are a sign of her impending physical decay.
The most recent Fox and Friends might be Fox’s most restrained coverage of Clinton’s health. Network personality Sean Hannity has run numerous segments on Clinton’s health. In one Hannity, speaking with Fox News medical expert Dr. Marc Siegel, speculates that Clinton might have aphasia, a brain disorder that affects language. Or maybe, Hannity suggests, she’s just suffered simple traumatic brain injury, or maybe Clinton has a seizure disorder. But whatever the exact nature of the disorder Hannity believes Clinton to have, her gestures, her speech, and even her delivery are all evidence of disorder, symptoms awaiting the diagnosis of medical experts.
Last week, CNN’s Brian Stelter had a helpful montage of the handful of segments Hannity has run on Clinton’s health.
If Hannity’s concern for Clinton’s health seems suspicious, then he’s quick to frame the speculation under the broad banner of “the public’s right to know.” In an early August segment, Siegel again told Hannity, “I think a traumatic brain injury with symptoms down the road is very, very likely here especially since she had a blood clot on her brain.” Fox News is just doing their job, the argument goes, reporting on potential health problems that could result in a disastrous presidency.
But there’s something unsettling about this concentrated focus on Clinton’s health, it’s not simply because it’s “conspiratorial,” as Stetler suggested (though it is that, too). Rather, there’s a strain in here of old stereotypes—of irrational women who are unable, perhaps for reasons beyond their control, to maintain themselves. Clinton’s tone is, by a handful of accounts, already evidence her ability to assert herself correctly. Clinton shrieks, she grates, and she yells, but she rarely just gives a speech
Similarly, too with Hannity’s interest in Clinton’s comportment, his overblown descriptions of her deficient speech delivery or head nodding or tripping, point solely to her inability to exercise control over her own body and thus the free world. It’s telling that the conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health point directly to neurological disorder rather than good old-fashioned heart problems.
There are repercussions for calling Clinton old or crazy; that’s more familiar language that would reek of desperation. Turning the focus instead to Clinton’s health problems is an easier way to depict a woman who is fragile, irrational, and unable to control her tone or the tics and twitchings of neurological damage. Name-calling isn’t serious; health problems are.
The mentally frail woman is the flipside of another time-honored stereotype: the sinister woman who silently plots, purposefully aiding evil for her own gain. Trump and the far right from whom he draws his rhetoric have already, it seems, devoured that stereotype up and spit it out. Clinton’s plotting of Benghazi and that the persistent belief that she’s a criminal hasn’t done much to improve Trump’s poll numbers.
Perhaps this tactic will be more effective. If not, there are always rigged elections to blame.