At the 2016 Value Voters Summit on Friday, U.S. Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX) went on a bizarre, two-minute tear calling Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton “mentally impaired” and peddling a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton’s health.
Gohmert framed the diatribe as a mocking appeal to his listener’s Christian values, saying that like Jesus, they shouldn’t make fun of the mentally ill.
“Hillary Clinton has made clear she is mentally impaired and this is not somebody you should be making fun of,” he said. “We need to be praying for Hillary Clinton. There’s special needs there. There’s mental impairment.”
Gohmert, in a half-apology that managed to reiterate the original offending point, repeated a claim he had made the day before on Fox News saying that Clinton had her “brain in a blender,” a reference to a parody song promoted by talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh.
“But that was not a proper thing to say, because I’m making fun of the mentally impaired and that’s not right,” he said.
Gohmert also repeated the debunked claims about Clinton’s health that have been playing out in the national news for the past few weeks.
He said that while Clinton was acknowledged to be extremely bright in law school, “I don’t know, maybe it was the concussion, the fall back when she did, or maybe, who knows, they won’t tell us what’s really going on with her.” He also speculated that maybe someone “got to wailing around and hit her again,” sparking renewed theoretical brain damage.
Clinton’s physician, Dr. Lisa Bardack, released detailed medical records in July 2015 showing Clinton to be in “excellent physical condition.” The records included a detailed account of Clinton’s 2012 concussion. Bardack, however, has been forced to repeat her professional medical assessment in response to fake medical records that cropped up online alleging that Clinton was ill, part of the metastasizing conspiracy theory that holds that Clinton is practically on the brink of death.
The theory originated in disreputable internet corners of the right-wing echo-chamber, such as 9/11 Truther sites (which peddle in many conspiracy theories, including that President Obama was born in Kenya and that the Sandy Hook massacre was faked) and alt-right messaging boards. From there, the conspiracy has migrated through talk-radio and pundits such as Sean Hannity onto Fox News, and in conjunction with Trump campaign mouthpieces and public officials such as Gohmert, moved into the mainstream.
Typical evidence floated in support of the debunked theory include the various facts that Clinton coughs, wears coats, wore glasses, and sits on stools. And while proponents of the theory sometimes cloak their comments in concern for Clinton’s health, it is a key piece of the narrative pushed by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and others that smears Clinton as too frail and weak to be president.
The narrative pushed by Gohmert that Clinton is mentally impaired, however, is a particularly bizarre and insidious part of the theory. As made clear by his reference to the “brain in a blender” parody, conservative attacks on Clinton’s intelligence are hardly new. They’ve been eagerly seized upon in the 2016 election cycle, including when Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson made the bizarre claim on MSNBC that Clinton suffered from dysphasia — a type of brain damage marked by the inability to speak or comprehend language. Clinton, traveling the country and giving regular speeches as part of her campaign, clearly is not afflicted.
Nonetheless, despite attacks on Clinton’s health, both physical and neurological, having been repeatedly debunked, they keep cropping up — often, as Gohmert’s tirade was met with, to uproarious applause.
“This is really where we started to see beliefs overcoming the facts.”
Allegations that Clinton is suffering from brain damage are a convenient way of undercutting the candidate’s legitimacy without actually confronting any of her policy proposals. And while they may seem ridiculous to many, as they’re trafficked in the media by elected officials and public figures, they’ve taken root for many voters.
This is particularly insidious because psychology research shows that once a convenient belief — for example, that Clinton is unfit for the presidency because of her imaginary brain damage — takes hold, there’s very little factual debunking can do to change people’s minds. So while the facts run counter to Gohmert’s claim that “Hillary Clinton has made clear that she is mentally impaired,” chances are there’s little Clinton or media fact-checkers can do that will make a difference for a good portion of his audience.
“What worries me more than anything is that this seems to be an election where beliefs are front and center,” Donna Halper, an associate professor of Communication and Media Studies at Lesley University, previously told ThinkProgress about the recurrent and persistent health conspiracy theories. “This is really where we started to see beliefs overcoming the facts.”