Questions About Hillary's Health: The Birtherism of 2016

Led by Rudy Giuliani, surrogates for the struggling Trump campaign are trying to seed doubts about the Democratic candidate’s fitness for office.

Hillary Clinton, wearing special post-concussion glasses, testifies to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Jason Reed / Reuters)

If you can’t beat ’em, you can at least hope they have to withdraw for medical reasons.

The last two weeks have seen a steady increase in innuendo by supporters of Donald Trump who claim—without evidence—that Hillary Clinton is frail, unhealthy, or on the verge of physical collapse. The rumors, spread by voices ranging from the conspiracy theorist radio host Alex Jones to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, represent a sort of updated birtherism for the 2016 election: a fervent hope for a deus ex machina that will rescue a struggling candidate by disqualifying his opponent.

The innuendo has reached the Sunday shows. “She has an entire media empire that … fails to point out several signs of illness by her.  What you’ve got to do is go online,” Giuliani said on Fox News Sunday this weekend. “So, go online and put down Hillary Clinton illness, take a look at the videos for yourself.”

One should be wary of taking too seriously the things that septuagenarians on television tell you to Google, but if you follow Giuliani’s advice, you are apt to find a piece on that shows that many of the rumors are based on fake documents spread online. Other analyses, such as one by the television personality Dr. Drew, are based on a two-page summary released by Clinton’s doctor. A third bunch are actually farcical, like a post on the conservative website Heat Street suggesting that pictures of Clinton with pillows indicated some frailty.

Also on Sunday, the conservative activists and Trump supporter Amy Kremer claimed on CNN (again, without proof) that Clinton suffers from CTE, the degenerative disease caused by repeated blows to the head that some former NFL players have been found to have suffered. The influential Drudge Report has often made space for stories suggesting Clinton is unhealthy. Breitbart, the Trump-adoring conservative website whose CEO Steve Bannon recently became CEO of the Trump campaign, has also been a central purveyor of rumors.

Trump has gotten in on the act, dog-whistling toward the health worries. He has warned that Clinton “lacks the mental and physical stamina to take on ISIS, and all the many adversaries we face,” and there was this peculiar tweet last week:

(Trump has said in the past he sleeps for only four hours a night.)

Concerns—or more frequently concern-trolling—about Clinton’s health dates back to 2012, when she reportedly fainted while suffering from a stomach virus and sustained a concussion. After the injury, doctors found a blood clot and prescribed thinners. She later appeared before a Senate committee discussing the Benghazi attacks wearing special glasses.

In June 2014, Andrew Stiles, then of the puckish conservative site the Washington Free Beacon, wrote a satirical post questioning Clinton’s health, based on a People cover in which the former secretary of state clutched a patio chair, which he claimed resembled a walker.

“Notice the subtle placement of the word ‘grandmother’ at the bottom of the page, next to what a layperson might reasonably assume to be an old person’s walker in Clinton’s hand,” Stiles wrote. “Then there is the juxtaposition of a graphic celebrating the life of [recently deceased] Brady Bunch star Ann B. Davis. Taken together, these aspects of the cover raise troubling questions about PEOPLE Magazine’s political agenda.”

Stiles then wrote a follow-up post with a photoshopped image of Clinton using a walker. Both posts were tagged as “parody” on the Free Beacon. He would go on to write the recent Heat Street post, a series of images showing Clinton leaning against pillows with exaggerated arrows pointing to them.

These satirical posts are relevant not because they are especially dangerous or unusual, but because they are so indistinguishable from the innuendo of folks like Giuliani, Jones, or Kremer. In fact, lots of news stories treated Stiles’s latest post as earnest, and Drudge also featured it. “There are lots of idiots on the internet, unfortunately,” Stiles wrote in a message. He noted that the Heat Street post never actually makes any assertions about Clinton’s fitness, although “people might assume that based on context of other, more earnest, nonsense.”

On that earnest (if not sincere) side of the ledger, it’s not just Giuliani’s flacking of random conspiracy videos, or Kremer’s insinuations without evidence. Bloggers have taken Clinton’s scratchy throat as evidence of serious illness rather than, you know, the result of spending a lot of time speaking. (My colleague Olga Khazan spoke to voice experts who suggested Clinton is speaking in a needlessly strained manner, but that’s separate from illness.)

There is, as noted several times now, not unintentionally, no evidence for these theories. That isn’t to say that Clinton may not have some lurking, undiscovered health problems; that’s how undiscovered problems work. What is available is a report from Clinton’s doctor, Lisa Bardack, who actually examined her and determined, “She is in excellent health and fit to serve as president of the United States.” Bardack’s assessment, in fact, offers significantly more detail than a letter released by Trump’s doctor, Harold Bornstein.

The fact that there’s no evidence for serious ailments plaguing Clinton is not an impediment to these conspiracy theories; it’s essential to them. In the absence of evidence, campaign surrogates can espouse the theories on television and elsewhere, under the old guise of “just asking questions.” This is a favorite Trump trick. He doesn’t know whether Ted Cruz’s father was implicated in the Kennedy assassination, but he saw a story saying that in the National Enquirer and he’s just asking some questions. Or, to connect this back to the birther issue, Trump doesn’t know that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, but there are some fishy things, and he’s just asking whether there’s any evidence he wasn’t.

The approach requires a certain degree of complicity, from both Democrats and the press. First, it relies on the assumption that Clinton’s backers will be unwilling to fight fire. (Not that they couldn’t do so, extrapolating irresponsibly from a few data points just like their counterparts: Hey, listen, Trump is older than she is, and he’s a great fan of fast food, and …) Second, it depends on the fact that major news outlets will invite Trump surrogates to comment in the name of even-handedness, giving them a chance to air these ideas to a national audience. Poppy Harlow may have been appalled at Kremer’s comments on CNN, but Kremer still managed to get a chance to make them.

Political tactics like this—there’s a delightfully filthy term for it—make for fun for operatives, and they can produce some mayhem, but they seldom win elections, especially at a national level. The birther movement reached a huge range of people; as recently as this month, a plurality of Republicans in an NBC News poll disagreed with the assertion that Obama was born in the United States. The movement may have greased the skids for Trump, too. But it didn’t have much luck stopping Obama, who won two terms. With Trump trailing by a decent margin nationally and in swing states, a focus on Clinton’s health may serve as a distraction, but probably won’t close the gap. That makes it look more and more like an unhealthy obsession.