Some conservatives are hard at work spreading conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health in an attempt to disqualify her from seeking higher office. Video footage of the Democratic nominee stumbling as she abruptly departed a 9/11 memorial on Sunday, combined with news that she had contracted pneumonia, has fueled rumors on the right that Clinton may be concealing a far worse medical condition. But it’s not just conservatives indulging in wild speculation. At least some die-hard supporters of Bernie Sanders are echoing, and in some cases amplifying, unproven claims that Clinton may be covering up serious health problems.
For a contingent of Sanders supporters who remain convinced the primary was rigged and distrust the media and the Democratic establishment, it isn’t much of a leap to believe Clinton has been dishonest about her health. Some have even raised the possibility that she’s gone to great lengths to conceal the truth: In a video posted to Facebook on Monday that has been viewed 11,000 times, Sanders supporter Adryenn Ashley suggests that Clinton may have used a body double after leaving the memorial to conceal health problems. “I think she’s way, way, way sicker than just pneumonia,” Ashley says in the video.
Speculation that Clinton has employed a body double to hide illness has spread on right-wing websites in the aftermath of her swift departure from the ceremony last weekend. The Clinton campaign dismissed the idea as an absurd conspiracy theory, but that won’t put an end to the rumor—or others like it—for anyone inclined to believe. “There is something the campaign is hiding,” Ashley, who identified herself as a progressive, told me in an e-mail. “They want to call any question of her health a conspiracy theory. It’s not a theory, it’s a fact.”
Such conspiracy theories are far more likely to originate in—and be spread by—conservative media and far-right corners of the Internet than in the Sanders crowd. High-profile Republicans have engaged in aggressive speculation about Clinton’s health in a way that has no equivalent on the political left. Republican nominee Donald Trump has implied that Clinton is not physically fit to serve as commander in chief. At an Ohio rally Wednesday night, he posed this question to the crowd: “I don’t know folks, do you think Hillary Clinton would be able to stand up here for an hour? I don’t know.” Television personality Sean Hannity has used his platform on Fox News to provide airtime to speculation over Clinton health problems.
Still, the tendency to raise vague questions—as well as make specific claims without concrete evidence—about Clinton’s health clearly exists across the political spectrum. Some disappointed Sanders supporters appear to be promoting full-fledged, unproven narratives about Clinton’s health, while others seem willing to believe a cover-up might exist, even if they don’t go so far as to articulate what Clinton might be covering up.
The possibility of a cover-up even seems to have kept some Sanders supporters’ hopes alive that he could get back in the race. “This does NOT look like heat exhaustion to me,” a Reddit user recently commented in response to video showing Clinton leaving the 9/11 memorial. “It looks like she has a serious neurological disease; maybe she was having a stroke, maybe she has MS. Whatever it is, we the people need to know. SOON! Bernie must replace her, NOT Tim Kaine or Joe Biden!”
At a rally against the Dakota Access pipeline on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Oscar Salazar, a self-described Democrat, told me that he wants Clinton “to be as healthy as possible.” He was quick to add, though, that “if she’s not able to come out and rally everyone to come together and vote against Donald Trump, then Bernie should take over.” Salazar, who was sporting a onesie with Sanders’s face printed all over it, said that after seeing video of Clinton leaving the ceremony, he “think[s] there’s something going on, and she’s not really coming out and saying what it is, which is making her look bad even more.”
The health of a potential next president is a relevant consideration for the American public. The Clinton campaign has pushed back hard against health conspiracy theories. Still, it’s not difficult to see why the revelation that Clinton contracted pneumonia, along with her campaign’s apparent hesitation to immediately disclose the diagnosis, sparked speculation and concern. When Clinton left the memorial, her campaign said she felt overheated, and only later announced she had pneumonia. By waiting to make the diagnosis public, the campaign created conditions for wild speculation to flourish. Even Jennifer Palmieri, the communications director, acknowledged the campaign could have handled the situation better. On Thursday, Clinton agreed that her campaign could have reacted faster in responding to the incident.
Clinton health conspiracy theories existed long before her recent bout of pneumonia. Conservatives have raised questions about Clinton’s health and speculated about cover-ups dating back to at least 2012. That’s when Clinton was diagnosed with a concussion; she’d fainted due to dehydration, her doctor said. The intense scrutiny to which Clinton’s health has been subject may have made her campaign reluctant to announce she had pneumonia. Any diagnosis is bound to be picked apart and held up as evidence of weakness by her political enemies.
After taking time off to recover earlier this week, Clinton returned to the campaign trail on Thursday. Her team released a letter from her physician on Wednesday declaring Clinton “healthy and fit to serve as President of the United States.” Of course, no matter what the Clinton campaign does, there will be no stopping some conspiracy theorists. Sanders, who has endorsed and campaigned for Clinton, is likely powerless to stop his supporters’ speculation as well. “I can’t help what other people say, but none of that nonsense is coming from us,” Michael Briggs, a spokesman for the Vermont senator, said, adding that Sanders is headed to to Ohio on Saturday to campaign for Clinton.
Unfounded assertions that Clinton may be hiding serious medical problems do double duty: They feed the ever-present narrative that Clinton cannot be trusted, and suggest she is physically unfit for the presidency. The more partisans on the left and right willingly traffic in these theories, the more they will move from the margins to the mainstream.
These health theories—which portray the first woman presidential candidate of a major U.S. political party as weak and frail, qualities often assigned to women as a way of dismissing them—recall the way Barack Obama’s opponents have tried to delegitimize him. Critics of the president have suggested that Obama, the first black U.S. president, is not a citizen. That speculation did not keep him out of the White House, but it also didn’t irreparably damage the reputation of one of its chief proponents: Donald Trump. That outcome suggests the American public has high tolerance, or acceptance, for fact-free allegations.
This isn’t the first time Sanders supporters and conservatives have fixated on rumor and innuendo in the hope that Clinton might be disqualified from the race. Before FBI Director James Comey recommended in July that Clinton not face charges over her use of a private email system, Republicans and Sanders supporters alike speculated that she could face an indictment that would force her to exit the race. And both expressed disappointment when she did not.
Concerns over the Clinton campaign’s transparency are understandable, but that doesn't justify unfounded speculation from political opponents on either the left or the right. It’s important to distinguish between real medical problems and health conspiracy theories. That alone won’t be enough to stop unproven claims about Clinton’s health from taking hold across the political spectrum, but it could at the very least help relegate conspiracy theories to the fringes of political debate.