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The Origin Of The Trump Campaign’s Bizarre Obsession With Hillary Clinton’s Brain

A case study in conspiracy theories.

CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHILOS /AP PHOTO
CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHILOS /AP PHOTO

According to her doctor, Hillary Clinton is in excellent health. But the internet doesn’t believe it.

The candidate released her health records in 2015, which showed her to be in physically fit to serve as president, if elected. But Clinton’s physician, Dr. Lisa Bardack, was forced to reiterate those facts this week in response to fake medical documents that cropped up online.

“Right now what you’re seeing on the right — and it’s really pernicious, but it’s really effective in the right-wing echo chamber — is the belief that Hillary Clinton isn’t healthy,” Donna Halper, an associate professor of Communication and Media Studies at Lesley University, told ThinkProgress. “It’s being spread by right-wing blogs, it’s being spread by the National Enquirer — where it’s a front page story — it’s being spread by memes, it’s being spread by doctored images that Sean Hannity put out there, and by Donald Trump: ‘Oh, well she doesn’t have the stamina!’”

Much of the supporting evidence for Clinton’s purported health issues borders on farcical: “MUST SEE: Photos of Hillary Clinton propped up on pillows” blusters an article published by the Rupert Murdoch-owned Heat Street.

Still, over the past few weeks, the conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton is in ill health has spread from the recesses of the right-wing internet to the mainstream media, culminating with a bizarre claim on Thursday by Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson on MSNBC that Clinton has dysphasia — a serious neurological disorder marked by severe language deterioration. If Clinton indeed had dysphasia, she wouldn’t be able to speak normally, let alone give stump speeches.

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How did a mild cough and a tendency to be in the general vicinity of pillows metastasize into a full blown, fake health crisis raising alarm about Hillary Clinton’s imaginary brain damage?

The trajectory of a conspiracy theory

The strategy to attack Hillary’s health and present her as too old and sickly to be president began back in 2014 with political axe man Karl Rove. The same man who had peddled suggestions that John McCain was mentally unbalanced from his time as a prisoner of war and that Howard Dean “looked like a madman,” warned of Clinton’s 2012 three-day hospitalization for a blood clot: “Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.”

As Trump’s campaign has fallen further and further behind, the conspiracy theory started to show up again on right-wing websites. Matt Drudge and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze circulated a months-old photo of Hillary Clinton being helped up stairs. Widely-debunked blogger Jim Hoft wrote on Instapundit that “exhausted Hillary is taking weekends off.” Pro-masculinity activist Michael Cernovich wrote that “Sick Hillary can’t stand up on her own, had hidden stool behind to keep her held up,” and that Clinton appears to travel with a “handler” who helps with her frequent “seizures.” 9/11 Truther site InfoWars posted an interview with “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli in which he diagnosed Clinton as having Parkinson’s. Days before its chairman became Trump campaign CEO, Breitbart.com published a story about a Tea Party-linked doctor who had not treated Clinton but claimed she appeared to have some signs that could indicate “traumatic brain injury.” Even Dick Morris got into the act, asserting that there are “all kinds of indications of health problems” and that Clinton “looks horrible.”

CREDIT: HEAT STREET
CREDIT: HEAT STREET

And then, this past week, Trump — who is actually older than Clinton — and his campaign apparatus entered the fray, elevating the conspiracy theory to the national conversation.

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Last Friday, the Republican nominee observed that Clinton’s speeches are “always very short,” and then claimed “she gives a short speech then she goes home, goes to sleep, she shows up two days later” — a reference to Clinton’s explanation about why she had not clearly answered a question from Chris Wallace in a recent TV interview. The New York Times noted that Trump had made similar claims about Clinton sleeping a lot in a 2015 Iowa speech.

Trump continued to subtly smear Clinton on Monday as someone who “lacks the mental and physical stamina to take on ISIS, and all the many adversaries we face.” Trump surrogate Mike Huckabee demanded that Clinton make her medical records public. Former surgeon Ben Carson made the same demand. Rudy Giuliani praised the septuagenarian Trump’s virility as better than that of Clinton, “who’s got to take three days off and one day on and seems to be sitting in a chair most of the time.”

The campaign’s narrative was bolstered by Fox News, who quickly picked up the story. Trump cheerleader Sean Hannity launched a week-long “investigation” into Clinton’s health, falsely claiming that a reporter “got scared” when seeing her make a funny facial expression. Fox & Friends cited Loveline’s Drew Pinsky to remind viewers that Hillary Clinton wore “prism glasses” immediately after her 2012 blot clot, which host Steve Doocy called “a sign of brain damage.”

And on Thursday, Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson told MSNBC that “it is extremely important to note that Hillary Clinton has taken a lot of time of the campaign trail” and has “dysphasia” — a language disorder resulting from brain disease or damage, in which people have noticeable difficulty speaking and understanding language. Host Kristen Welker noted that Clinton’s actual doctor released a statement that “Secretary Clinton is in excellent health and fit to serve as president of the United States.

“These health questions have been debunked,” Welker added.

How a conspiracy takes root

This is hardly the first conspiracy theory tacked onto Hillary Clinton — nor the first fringe idea to take root in American politics, where conspiracy theories have a long and storied history.

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There’s the Kennedy assassination, the trial of Alger Hiss, McCarthyism, Area 51. Popular, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories are given fuel by the few that are eventually borne out, like Watergate and FDR — a president who actually did hide ‘ill health,’ his use of a wheelchair, for the duration of his presidency (though it had no effect on his ability to serve).

In 1964, Richard Hofstadter, then a Professor of American History at Columbia, traced what he called the “Paranoid style” back to the 1800’s. Hofstadter wrote that he chose the word “paranoid” because “no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspicious, and conspiratorial fantasy,” which at the time he concluded was the main trait drive behind radical right movement backing Barry Goldwater.

“America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion,” he wrote. Conspiracy theories about the “other” overtaking “their” country gave them a sense of control, and fueled a surprisingly powerful movement that demonstrated, said Hofstadter, “how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”

“You can take a meme that has something utterly false — something that the person never said — and suddenly thousands and thousands of people are retweeting it.”

It’s a description that eerily echoes the complaints of the radical right today. In 1964, Hofstadter noted that thanks to the era of television, the “villains of the modern right” were much more accessible and visible than their shadowy predecessors, strengthening the “paranoid style.”

Now, we have the internet.

“Today, everyone’s a producer. Everyone can create content,” Halper told ThinkProgress. “Years ago, if I wanted to put out a theory about — pick a politician, it doesn’t matter who — I would tell my friends. Maybe if I were an opinion leader, I’d have some kind of meeting where we’d all talk about the politicians. If I was lucky I might be able to get a newspaper or magazine to cover my theory. But that’s usually as far as it would go. Today, anybody can spread a bizarre theory. You can take a meme that has something utterly false — something that the person never said — and suddenly thousands and thousands of people are retweeting it.”

CREDIT: BREITBART NEWS
CREDIT: BREITBART NEWS

Unsubstantiated beliefs, like those about Clinton’s health, germinate in the right-wing echo chamber. They can come from anywhere — a cough, a fondness for pillows, a casual comment about going to sleep at night — and from anyone. And now they can spread quickly past the echo chamber, where everyone already believes the claims, and into the broader public.

“Because you have this coordinated effort between social media, talk radio, partisan talk television, and a candidate, these things can spread like lightning,” said Halper. “What these people on the right are trying to do is they’re trying to get these things that they deeply believe, even if they’re not factual, and move them into the mainstream media.”

As a theory spreads — even if it gets debunked at various points along the way — sheer density confers a sense of “truthiness,” to borrow an apropos term from Stephen Colbert. What we know about people, including our presidential candidates, comes from the stories we tell about them and about our country. These stories come from what Halper calls the “dominant discourse,” the common wisdom that everyone knows (whether or not it’s factually true).

Not every conspiracy theory can pass into the mainstream. The key factor in whether a conspiracy theory sticks — and ultimately moves out of the sphere of confirmation bias and into the more skeptical general population — is whether or not they fit with an already prevalent dominant discourse. This is where the story about Hillary’s health gets dicey for the candidate.

The Clintons have been the subject of negative media coverage since the 1980s, when Bill Clinton was the governor of Arkansas. They have weathered countless scandals, emerging each time officially cleared but under a cloud of persistent suspicion. Today, the dominant narrative about Hillary Clinton is not exactly positive.

“She’s definitely the lesser of two evils, but I don’t trust her,” Bernie Sanders supporter Bako Nguasong told Bloomberg about Hillary Clinton, saying she wasn’t sure she’d vote if Sanders dropped out. “She lied!” RNC chairman Reince Preibus cried at the convention in Cleveland to thunderous applause, hammering Clinton on her email scandal. These are just two isolated examples of a general trend; over and over, surveys show that the majority of Americans don’t think that Clinton is trustworthy or honest.

And if the dominant story about someone is that they’re not trustworthy, then almost anything will stick.

“If that’s a narrative that’s already out there, what is the right-wing going to do with that?” said Halper. “’Oh, we’ve got a secret that shows she’s really not trustworthy! She’s not even telling the truth about her health!’”

Why conspiracy theories never seem to go away

The problem with conspiracy theories is that they are nearly impossible to counter. Rather than facts, conspiracy theories are based on beliefs — and it’s nearly impossible to argue with a belief.

If you believe Hillary Clinton is untrustworthy, you’re not going to believe her doctor when she presents the facts about her patients’ health. And you’ll be predisposed to believe a new story that seems to confirm your belief — say, that she’s hiding an explosive secret, like a debilitating illness.

This plays right into the quirks of our partisan brains.

“That’s part of the Republican playbook: Delegitimize the places where you get your facts.”

Scientists have long shown that we tend to distort facts to support conclusions we’ve already drawn. Evidence that confirms our beliefs is more likely to get encoded in the brain, and might even spark a jolt of happy chemicals from the brain’s reward system, the striatum. And, as exhaustively documented by psychologist Drew Westen in his book The Political Brain, we’re far more likely to vote with our guts than with our logic.

Ironically, presenting people with facts that counter their beliefs can actually make those beliefs stronger — a phenomenon a group of Dartmouth researchers dubbed “the backfire effect.” When people read “objective” news reports that represent two opposing sides, the researchers write in their report, “citizens are likely to resist or reject arguments and evidence contradicting their opinions.” This research suggests that exposure to a false narrative, even if it’s just explained for the sake of “objectivity” and thereafter soundly debunked by facts, only makes it stronger.

It’s a psychological quirk that’s often been exploited for partisan political gain. Take the example of climate change. Even if a news organization, in a bid to seem transparently objective, presents a climate denier only to scientifically debunk their claims, among a certain population that will only reinforce the false belief that climate change is a myth — and that the media is perpetuating a giant cover-up about it.

CREDIT: FOX NEWS
CREDIT: FOX NEWS

This distrust of the media, fostered over years of accusations by the right, is a big factor underlying the wild growth of conspiracy theories.

“The liberal media” is a favored talking point of the right, from Donald Trump to the shadowy corners of Twitter. This has two effects: It puts the media on the defensive, so in an effort to seem objective they give airtime to factually incorrect information, and it ensures that no one on the right will believe it when the media tells them that this factually incorrect information is wrong.

“That’s part of the Republican playbook: Delegitimize the places where you get your facts,” said Halper. Then in the trust vacuum, beliefs and conspiracies can take hold.

An election season straying far from the facts

So, if Hillary cannot shake the narrative that she is untrustworthy, and the narrative about her poor health has traveled, as fast as Usain Bolt, from the far corners of the internet straight to MSNBC, is there any hope for the facts?

The only way to counter a public discourse, according to Halper, is to slyly debunk it without referencing it.

“She needs to acknowledge it without giving the negative discourse any credibility,” said Halper. If Clinton mentions the rumors, she gives them strength. But if she subversively mentions how much fun she’s having and how great she feels, she promotes the opposite idea without lending the false story any credence.

“What worries me more than anything is that this seems to be an election where beliefs are front and center.”

It’s a tactic Donald Trump, who at a year older than Clinton, constantly talks about his “stamina,” is a master at. His entire empire is built on stories about his strength, intelligence, and power — stories that hold up among his supporters despite fact check after fact check.

But this election, bolstered by years of Republican narratives tearing down the credibility of the media and the vicious efficacy of the internet echo-chamber, is ultimately being driven by people’s beliefs and feelings — and facts can’t seem to keep up.

The conspiracy theory about Clinton’s health is only the latest to crop up, and likely not the last. But by giving it prominent airtime, Trump and his campaign, flagging in the polls, are giving it their best shot.

“What worries me more than anything is that this seems to be an election where beliefs are front and center,” said Halper. “This is really where we started to see beliefs overcoming the facts.”

“We ignore this at our peril.”