‘I don’t know, folks, you think Hillary would be able to stand up here for an hour and do this?” Donald Trump asked supporters at a rally in Ohio. “I don’t know. I don’t think so… This isn’t easy.”
This cant is all part of an ongoing effort by Trump to instil the idea that Clinton’s bout of pneumonia, which has kept her out of action for three days of a ten-month campaign, is indicative not of normal human physiology, but of a deep unsuitability to govern. To some extent, his efforts – in combination with some inherent American aversion to the idea of illness – are working: Clinton’s numbers have dropped while she’s been, as he slyly phrased it, “lying in bed”. Even though lying in bed is surely the best thing to do if you happen – as any one of us might – to get pneumonia.
Trump has, of course, the moral character of the snake from The Jungle Book and the intellectual credibility of a Church of Scientology Personality Test – so the extent to which the mud he flings should be lent any attention whatsoever is arguably limited. He is also so desperate for new ways to smear an opponent who he knows might beat him through the sneaky application of experience, ideas and effort, that he’s probably on the verge of claiming that she was built on an ancient Indian burial ground or once mis-sold him PPI.
Still, his deliberately vague insinuations about Clinton’s health being “an issue” chime with some pervasive and nefarious social messages that threaten a lot more than just America’s immediate chances of not being run by a poisonous bile-merchant. They’re part of a macho code (ironic, coming from one who secured a judgment that he was absolutely unfit to serve in Vietnam due to some calcium build-up on the bones in his heel) which positions the ills of the body as evidence of an insufficient commitment to WINNING. Might is right. Vulnerability is suspect. It’s a creed within which stopping to take a breath, stopping to think, stopping to rest – all the physical checks and balances that tend to help us make decisions that are more considered, less emotional and better-founded – implicitly become soft or self-indulgent options. It’s like that boast about how Margaret Thatcher only slept for four hours a night, always rolled out to indicate how uncompromising and driven she was. Well, does no-one ever consider that she might have been a less judgmental and intolerant human if she’d permitted herself the odd lie-in?
Quite what Clinton was supposed to do by Trump’s reckoning is unclear (Campaign sick? Or stand down from the race on the basis of having contracted an illness that affects a million Americans every year?). But his smears have some purchase amid those elements of society who prize money over quality of life; who believe in rewarding boneheaded aggression and minimising co-operation and caring. It’s the mindset played on by painkiller manufacturers when their ads encourage us to dose ourselves up to the eyes and GET BACK TO THE OFFICE lest some whippersnapper steal our job while we’re away. Work! Work is everything! The pursuit of money trumps the preservation of personal wellbeing!
Not only is that attitude scary in itself: it leads to offices full of ill people making each other iller, and so ultimately lessens productivity, even if that IS what you care about the most. More insidiously, it mitigates against employment rights for pregnant or nursing women; for carers; for those advancing in age and for those with chronic conditions. It’s the reason that America has no guaranteed paid sick leave whatsoever; why a quarter of Americans have been fired or threatened with being fired for taking time off to deal with their own or a family member’s illness; and why even workers who do have paid sick leave often don’t take it for fear of professional repercussions. It aids in the idea that letting your children fight it out against infections, rather than protecting them and the people around them with vaccination, is somehow a more noble or natural path. Finally, it perpetuates the idea that disabled people are of less value than able-bodied people – that your value is measured not in your character or abilities, but in the reliability of your physical functions, or your ability to “overcome” any shortcomings you might have.
Trump also likes to dog-whistle his misogynistic base, of course, and his comments about Clinton’s health continue a theme in his campaign of women’s bodies being inherently icky, suspect and malign. There was his pink fit when Clinton took a bathroom break during a debate (“I know where she went; it’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it, it’s too disgusting”); his comment that interviewer Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her whatever”; his assertion that while women who seek abortions should be punished, their impregnators bore no blame. By signalling that Clinton’s illness has some mysterious deeper meaning, he forces home his agenda that she is biologically unsuited to the role. Not that men escape his contempt, of course: his claim that he would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” implies a dig at Franklin D Roosevelt for having polio, John F Kennedy for his Addison’s disease, and Ronald Reagan for that time he carelessly got shot. (The bony heel thing, though – that was legit.)
The idea that illness signifies weakness or unreliability is easy to propagate. It plays on both our urge to win, and our deep fear of contamination. The dual tendency to sentimentalise and shrink from weakened bodies has just seen clear expression on this soil, in the rapid demotion of Pauline Cafferkey from heroine to object of suspicion via a disciplinary process that has been deemed a “needless exhibition”. Both Cafferkey and Clinton deserve sympathy and discretion, not innuendo and accusation – and all of us deserve the space to heal and regain our strength when we get ill.