Decoding the Issue of the Presidential Candidates' Health

by Michael Dorf

In the last week or two, some of the presidential campaign coverage has focused on the health of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (e.g., here). The media's interest is understandable but the interest of Trump supporters in Clinton's health and (to a lesser extent) vice-versa leads to a puzzle: why do the political opponents of either candidate want to call attention to the possible ill health of the opposing candidate? After all, in Trump and Clinton we have the most and the second-most unpopular presidential nominees since polling about such matters began.

If we assume that a generic Democrat handily beats Trump and that a generic Republican handily beats Clinton (both of which are assumptions that seem warranted by each candidate's negatives), then telling an undecided voter that the unpopular candidate at the top of the other party's ticket could die soon should make the other party's ticket more attractive, not less. If we assume that Pence beats Clinton and Kaine beats Trump, then, to put the point as bluntly and insensitively as possible, each campaign should welcome doubts about its presidential candidate's health. The last thing either campaign should want to do is to tell swing voters that the unpopular candidate at the top of the other ticket may not be so much of a threat because he or she could die before taking office or shortly thereafter, leaving a more likable vice president to become president.

Accordingly, the issue of the health of each candidate must really be about something else. But what?

For Clinton, the explanation consistent with the media narrative appears to be that it's not about her health but about her campaign's honesty and transparency about her health and thus about other matters. Proving once again their ability to make unforced errors, last week the Clinton team bungled the announcement that Clinton was suffering from a bout of pneumonia by initially attributing her collapse at a 9/11 ceremony to dehydration, even though pneumonia had already been diagnosed. That "cover-up" then predictably led to a news cycle rehash of other concerns about honesty and transparency.

The problem with the foregoing explanation, however, is that Trump and his supporters had been harping on Clinton's supposed health issues for weeks before the announcement that she had pneumonia, relying mostly on debunked nonsense. I suppose that part of what the Trump team was trying to accomplish was simply to kick up a lot of sand so that the media's reflexive impulse of "balancing" every Trump story with a Clinton story would be activated. Trump hasn't released his tax returns? Well Clinton hasn't released her medical records.

There's probably something to that, but not a lot, I think. Trump's go-to moves on the stump when asked why he hasn't released his tax returns have been first to say he's being audited--which to the uninformed might sound like a valid reason--and then to ask why Clinton hasn't released deleted emails. Quite apart from the merits or lack of merit of these responses, they seem more likely to be effective than to endorse conspiracy theories about Clinton's health.

Thus I come to my second hypothesis: The Trump campaign's focus on Clinton's health was always a means of playing to sexism. Because the Trump campaign has been filled with so much overt racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and sexism, our collective ability to detect coded appeals to prejudice may have atrophied somewhat. But just because a candidate trades in overt prejudice doesn't mean he can't also trade in more subtle appeals to stereotypes.

So, how are Trump's and his people's claims about Clinton's health sexist? I'll begin by acknowledging that it's not inherently sexist for a male candidate or his campaign to raise a concern about the health of his female opponent. Putting aside the question of survival, whether a candidate is in good health can surely affect his or her ability to perform the duties of the presidency. And while not making the point in terms of health, during the primaries Trump (completely baselessly) attacked Jeb Bush as "low energy," suggesting that Trump is an equal-opportunity accuser.

Nonetheless, the fact that Trump has gone after men on the basis of their energy level does not alter the basic nature of his claims, which is rooted in machismo. Before Trump and the almost equally truth-challenged Dr. Oz concocted their infomercial, Trump released the ridiculous letter of his personal physician claiming "unequivocally" that "if elected" Trump would "be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency."

This is the sort of thing one sees from and about strongman dictators, like Kim Jong-il's multiple holes-in-one during his first round of golf or--more to the point perhaps--Vladimir Putin's takedown of a tiger. As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has repeatedly emphasized, Trump's campaign, indeed his persona, is mostly about dominance. In appealing to people who want to be led by a strongman, it is crucial that Trump appear not only reasonably healthy but super-virile. Recall Trump's boast that, contrary to Marco Rubio's suggestion, there is "no problem" with Trump's seventy-year-old penis. Or, in Kim-style, Trump's rhetorical question about his own golf prowess during a news conference: “Do I hit it long? Is Trump strong?”

To state the obvious, machismo codes as male. When Trump was demeaning his male GOP opponents as "Little Marco" and "Low-Energy Jeb" he was pretty clearly saying that they were insufficiently manly to be president. He has said the same thing almost explicitly about Clinton, in claiming that Clinton lacks a "presidential look" but neither he nor his campaign (now that it is being packaged for women by Kellyanne Conway) will come right out and say that Clinton can't be president because she's not a man. So they go after her health as a way to bolster Trump's relative manliness.

That's my working hypothesis, anyway.