Debates about the health of presidential candidates are a staple of modern politics; they are also almost never really about the candidates’ health. Historically, such complaints are more polite concern-trolling than real mudslinging: i.e., “I’m not saying John McCain is too old to be president, I’m just worried about him.”
In this unvarnished cycle, it’s easy to see real nastiness at the heart of these iffy diagnoses. (There’s so many, I wonder if the syndrome warrants its own place in the DSM: call it “hypochondria-by-proxy.”) Donald Trump partisans’ blithe accusations about Hillary Clinton — that she has cognitive difficulties and seizures, among other fantasy symptoms — are nakedly cruel and mocking toward Clinton, not to mention offensive to those who struggle in real life with the same afflictions. There’s only one instance of subtlety: When Trump says Clinton “doesn’t have the strength and stamina” to be president, he is being very polite. What he means is that she “doesn’t have a penis.”
Misogyny is at the heart of most all long-distance examination regarding Clinton. By the logic of male supremacy, there’s something defective about any woman who wants or has power. The ancient Greeks wrote off such unseemly ambitions to a “wandering uterus”; today’s armchair physicians imagine auto-injecting syringes and aphasia.
Trump critics are not much more responsible or subdued. Casting about real technical terms — like arguing that Trump is “a psychopath” — for instance, does no favors to the movement to destigmatize mental illness, and encourages confusion between psychological disorders (which are treatable) and deeply ingrained bigotry (for which, alas, there is no medical cure). Then again, there is an exam to determine psychopathology. Maybe that’s one of the many that Trump’s doctor says Trump tested positive for.
Certainly, candidates sharing their health records is one way to show just how transparent they’re willing to be. (On this score, there’s no contest between Clinton’s forthright disclosure and Trump’s laughable doctor’s note.)
And as voters, we should get some assurance that a potential candidate is capable of serving out the term of office. But it’s not as if “which candidate is more healthy” is a good indicator of who would make a better president. Some of history’s most lauded politicians had “preexisting conditions,” if you will: Winston Churchill, John Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, to name just a few.
When people ask about a candidate’s health, if they’re really concerned about continuity of government in the event of an untimely demise, what they should be looking at has nothing to do with blood pressure and everything to do with grace under fire — what are his or her planning and hiring capabilities? How well-thought-out are their contingency plans?
In that regard, the campaign itself is a good stress test to observe; or, as David Axelrod once put it, presidential contests are like “MRIs of the soul.”
You don’t need a medical license to determine which candidate is the one who’s probably thought about, and planned for, the absolute worst-case scenario. My guess is that Clinton already has a file folder in the campaign office safe, clearly labeled and probably notarized, filled not just with alternate cabinet appointments and a legislative priority list but funeral arrangement details and a memorial service seating chart. (“Be sure not to seat the Gores together; remember to put Leiberman with the Republicans.”) I’d bet she’s made Tim Kaine practice signing bills. (How over-prepared is Hillary Clinton? This is a woman who hired people to figure out how to get under Trump’s skin, a service half the nation performs capably and for free. She’s so temperamentally cautious, she might be not just the first president to wear a pantsuit, but the first woman to wear one with a belt and suspenders.)
On the other hand, Trump boasts of his aversion to forethought. His wildly erratic hiring practices should give pause to anyone enamored of his proposed immigration policies. His entire campaign is premised on the notion of his singular talents (such as they are): “I alone can solve.” To the extent that he’s given any thought to what happens after he dies, he’s presumably barely concerned with the state of his soul, much less the next head of state. I imagine he’d be surprised the presidency doesn’t just pass to Ivanka.
One last reason to stop poking and prodding into the well-being of Clinton and Trump: Their health concerns are pretty trivial next to the ones facing voters today. With insurers leaving the exchange, the Affordable Care Act needs to be stabilized. The opioid and addiction epidemic, forced into the spotlight during the New Hampshire primary, has now mostly become an ancillary (and stupid) argument for Trump’s wall. (Is he also planning on erecting a barrier around all-American pill mills?) The Centers for Disease Control has almost exhausted existing emergency funding in order to fight the Zika virus, which means we’re kind of screwed if anything else should happen. The United States is the only industrialized country in the world where pregnancy-related deaths are on the rise — a tragedy some trace to lack of access to abortion.
These aren’t the concerns of marginal populations, either. Trump's voters — mostly non–college educated, middle-aged white people — are having an epidemic all of their own: They are getting sicker and dying in greater numbers even as the rest of the country (and the world) live healthier and longer. Experts say this is due to increases in drug abuse, suicide, and alcoholism — a trio of causes they call “deaths of despair.”
It’s tempting to pathologize this demographic’s support for Trump as a symptom of the same melancholy self-destructiveness. Surely they recognize that his nostalgia-fueled campaign is white supremacy’s desperate last gasp and not its renaissance? Surely they understand that their Circus Peanut Messiah doesn’t offer salvation, only puffed up slogans and the ego equivalent of a contact high?
Sadly, I think that Trump’s supporters believe not just his crackpot Clinton theories, but also the prescription this quack politician has written for them. They’ve turned to Trump not with resignation but real hope, not realizing that he's just another snake-oil salesman whose cure will leave them sicker than before.