Election 2016

Clinton's Health Is a Barely Disguised Way for Conservatives to Wallow in Bigotry

The Clinton health hysteria is about painting women as too fragile to hold office.

NEW YORK CITY - MARCH 2 2016: Hillary Clinton affirmed her status as front-runner for the Democratic presidential nominations with a speech at Jacob Javits Center
Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com

Any other year, a presidential candidate who got wobbly at a 9/11 memorial service because he was battling a minor case of pneumonia would be regaled as a hero. How tough and patriotic he is, to brave the summer heat while wearing a Kevlar vest, even though his doctor told him to stay in bed for a couple days!

But since the candidate in question is a she and not a he, the narrative is very different this time around. Now that it’s Hillary Clinton, everyone’s wondering if Grandma is too weak and fragile for the job. Never mind that she’s running against a man who is himself an elderly grandfather, or that most presidents have been older men. Or that, as Digby noted in Salon on Monday, previous male presidents have had a slew of common health problems, from the common flu to cancer surgery. Or that getting sick occasionally is just the price you pay for being human.

“Have you told everyone every time you’ve come to work with a bad cold?” Sady Doyle, a feminist author whose upcoming book “Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear ... and Why” looks at how women in the public eye are shamed for having human flaws we tend to forgive in men. “It’s very strange to me because we know that campaigns are long and grueling and candidates are working seven days a week. They don’t get a lot of sleep. They’re constantly on airplanes and buses and shaking hands with strangers. We know they get tired. We know they get sick. But with Hillary there is this weird, conspiratorial, possessive attitude.”

The hysteria over Clinton having very normal and minor health problems is “uniquely tied to her gender.” Doyle continued. 

“The fact is that Trump is older than her,” Doyle continued, also nothing that Bernie Sanders is 6 years older, as well. 

“But she is the one we want to see as this withered up, useless old crone,” she added. “We want to believe that an older woman is not capable of contributing to the world in any important way. For that reason, people are exaggerating and exaggerating concerns about her age, which is coded as physical fitness.”

A huge part of the reason that this episode is catching so much media attention is that, for weeks now,  Trump has been making insinuations about Clinton’s “stamina” and allowing his right-wing shock troops to spread ridiculous myths about her health. Even Wikileaks got in on the misogynist feeding frenzy by putting up a poll — which they quickly deleted — inviting people to speculate about Clinton’s body.

Previous presidential candidates have endured partisan chatter about their health, of course. John McCain’s disability has been the source of speculation, as has Barack Obama’s history as a smoker. But there’s never been this much attention paid to a candidate’s body.

Women are perceived as public property in the way men are not, which is why “nip slips” and “upskirts” are a much bigger business than monitoring the state of celebrity penises.

Trump, in particular, has a long history of displaying outright disgust at any evidence that women have biological bodies. As I noted on a Facebook live video for Salon, the list of instances here Trump has shamed women for having normal and basic bodily functions is as long as your arm.

Or this lovely exchange, from the Howard Stern show:

Trump: Howard let me just ask you. You said something a while ago about Beth that amazed me because it applies to Melania. You said you’ve never seen her do anything, like, bad, in terms of her own personal.

Stern: That’s true. She would never even do another chick.

Trump: No, no, not even that. You said you’ve never heard her fart…

Stern: Not only is that true, she doesn’t make doody. She hasn’t made doody…

Trump: I can say the exact same thing about Melania.

I cut much of it because they talked, at length, about their shared obsession with believing that women don’t — or shouldn’t, anyway — have normally functioning digestive systems.

Or, last December, Trump went on a rant shaming Clinton for using a commercial break during a primary debate to use the bathroom.

“I know where she went — it’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it,” Trump sneered, though he clearly wanted to talk about it. “No, it’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting.”

And who can forget what he said about Fox News host Megan Kelly, when he was angry with her for asking him tough questions during a primary debate: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

Or what attorney Elizabeth Beck said about how Trump reacted during a meeting when she asked for a break to breastfeed: “He got up, his face got red, he shook his finger at me and he screamed, ‘You’re disgusting, you’re disgusting,’ and he ran out of there.”

“Historically, women’s physical weakness relative to men has been used as an excuse to prevent us competing for everything from corporate promotions to Olympic medals,” Ann Friedman wrote for the Los Angeles Times. “A similar fallacy about female fragility crops up in politics.”

But there is no evidence-based reason to think Clinton is fragile. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“A 68-year-old woman, with pneumonia, still kept a schedule that most of us wouldn’t make it through, flying here and there, holding multiple events and briefings a day,” Eric Schmeltzer wrote in the Huffington Post. “That’s not weak. That’s actually strong and tough as hell.”

If she were a man, it would be easy to see that. Especially when the opponent is Trump, a man who rejects the grinding schedule of the typical presidential campaign in favor of flying home, in his private jet, to sleep in his own bed. It’s hard not to notice that Trump’s preferred outreach — rallies and phone calls to cable news shows — are exactly the sort of things that make it a lot easier to sleep in your own bed at night, whereas Clinton maintains a grueling campaign schedule.

This fits into history, as well. Trump isn’t shy about his hatred of traveling overseas and he famously once nearly lost out on an important business deal because he didn’t want to travel to China and eat foreign food.  Clinton, in contrast, was the Secretary of State and kept a schedule — including mountains of foreign travel — so dense that her two-and-a-half year stint resulted in 3,721 pages of schedule.

(Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s new campaign manager, is reportedly trying to steer Trump away from the rally-heavy schedule and towards more time-intensive voter outreach efforts, and it will be fun to see if her efforts have an influence over her notoriously stubborn — and travel-averse — candidate.)

The feigned concerns over Clinton’s health strongly resemble the feigned concerns that Barack Obama was faking his natural born citizenship, right down to the posturing about how this is all the target’s fault for not providing more and more documentation, to drive home how much those of us who aren’t white men cannot be trusted. In both cases, it’s about wallowing in ugly stereotypes — that black people aren’t patriots, that women are inherently fragile — without admitting that’s what’s going on.

And no surprise that the person behind the Clinton health hysteria is also the same man that was pushing the Obama birth certificate hysteria: Donald Trump.

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte. 

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