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Could COVID Karma Kill Trump's Campaign?

Was the 2016 presidential election shaped by Trump taunting Clinton re: health?

Is it possible that Donald Trump’s COVID-19 infection could be the key turning point of the US presidential election because of its psychological impact on voters?

Original from Library of Congress. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. Free Public Domain CCO
Walter Reed Hospital flu ward (ca. 1910–1920).
Source: Original from Library of Congress. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. Free Public Domain CCO

The answer to this question may lie in what happened with Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump’s rival in the last presidential election back in 2016, where she suffered a health scare with possible parallels to current events.

In the last few weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton departed early from a memorial service. Video posted on Twitter showed her surrounded by Secret Service agents as she left, requiring assistance as she stumbled to a van.

The footage went viral and forced her personal physician to report that the candidate was diagnosed with pneumonia, and had become dehydrated. The incident became a key turning point in the campaign—according to an Economist/YouGov poll, in just under a week the percentage of Americans who felt Clinton was in “good enough physical condition to effectively serve as president” dropped from 52% to 39%.

Maybe the pneumonia helped doom her campaign?

Now a new CNN Poll conducted by SSRS in the days following the announcement that the President had contracted COVID-19, has found that two-thirds of Americans say President Donald Trump handled the risk of spreading coronavirus infection to others around him irresponsibly.

University academics Ryan Neville-Shepard and Jaclyn Nolan have recently published an in-depth psychological and sociological analysis of the Hilary Clinton sickness scare. They argue that public perception of candidates’ health can have dramatic repercussions, including determining the outcome of an election. Health scares can deliver a wider impact on the voter’s perception of who has the stamina for the job of President.

The authors of the study, entitled, "'She Doesn’t Have the Stamina': Hillary Clinton and the Hysteria Diagnosis in the 2016 Presidential Election," point to other precedents, like the infamous Thomas Eagleton incident in the election of 1972. Senator Thomas Eagleton, the running mate of Democratic nominee George McGovern, was found to be suffering from bipolar disorder. Reports of Eagleton’s condition caused the McGovern campaign to panic, forcing Eagleton’s resignation.

The authors of this latest analysis, based at the University of Arkansas and the University of Georgia, ask why Clinton’s “overheating incident” marked such a turning point in the presidential campaign when the country went on to elect a man who, they contend, was clinically overweight, averse to exercise, suffering from high cholesterol, and devoted to fast food?

Perhaps Donald Trump is more alive to the profound psychology behind how health is communicated, or demonstrated to the public, hence his reassuring drive past in a motor cavalcade to wave to his supporters when not yet discharged from hospital. Perhaps in terms of voter psychology it won’t matter that this may have been dangerous to the other people in the car.

But maybe Trump is sealing his fate, more than he realises, in merely wanting to get re-elected?

Ryan Neville-Shepard and Jaclyn Nolan quote from a study entitled "The mortal presidency: Illness and anguish in the White House," which found that excluding four assassinated presidents, all of the remaining holders of the office “together paint a striking picture of premature death” (p. 2). Despite higher life expectancy for people in their social class, and top-notch medical care once they become president, almost two-thirds have died prematurely.

One theory about why this is focuses on the stress of the job.

The art of handling the stress requires the ability to relentlessly turn reversal of fortune into an asset, something perhaps Hilary Clinton never quite mastered.

Maybe it’s no accident that Donald Trump has deftly attempted to turn falling ill into a strength, referring to how he has now "learned a lot about COVID" and that this was the "real school." He also strode out of the White House to the helicopter taking him to the hospital.

In a recent phone-in interview with Fox Business Channel, President Trump said: "I'm back because I'm a perfect physical specimen."

Back in the 2016 Presidential campaign Donald Trump’s former physician promised Trump would be the healthiest president ever, yet later confessed that his hyperbolic letter had been dictated by Trump himself. Speaking with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Clinton complained that “Trump’s doctor said he’d be the healthiest president in history. That’s just not even serious."

Yet maybe in the war of words and public perception over candidate’s health Hilary Clinton never really grasped psychologically what Trump had understood about how to deftly exploit the emotions connected to presidential health.

For example, appearing on Fox News shortly after Clinton’s emergency exit, Trump stated, “I hope she gets well soon.” He then quickly added, “Something is going on but I just hope she gets well and gets back on the trail." Appearing magnanimous and generous also involved hinting she might be very ill.

Ryan Neville-Shepard and Jaclyn Nolan point out, in their analysis published in the academic journal Women’s Studies In Communication, that the conspiracy theorists rapidly took over; video of Clinton leaving her daughter’s apartment was interpreted as actually revealing that the campaign was using a body double. It was alleged that the healthy Hillary who emerged had a different nose, and that Clinton’s earlobes had somehow changed shape, her index finger was a different length, and she had apparently lost weight.

Neville-Shepard and Nolan quote a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled "The health of the president and presidential candidates: The public’s right to know," which concluded that "the things we want to know about the health of Presidents and presidential candidates tell us much more about ourselves than about the Presidents and would-be Presidents. They tell us what we fear."

Neville-Shepard and Nolan argue that the real reason Clinton’s campaign may have been undone by a health scare was that many Americans still fear strong women leaders, and public obsession about their health says much more about contemporary gender bias than it does about a candidate’s actual stamina to lead.

But, despite appearances to the contrary, physicians also suffer from fears too.

VIPs in the public eye might in the end suffer worse treatment than the ordinary patient.

Doctors could be frightened of the reputational implications following losing a famous patient, as well as too keen to chase the accolades of getting a famous person back on their feet; such excessive fears or ambitions may generate over-treatment. Donald Trump appears to have received a surprisingly extensive and intensive set of medical treatments reserved for the very ill, given that we are being reassured he was never that unwell.

Dr. Peter Bruggen passed away in 2018. While this post was written by Dr. Raj Persaud, Dr. Bruggen's name is retained biographically as a tribute to his contributions overall.


“She Doesn’t Have the Stamina”: Hillary Clinton and the Hysteria Diagnosis in the 2016 Presidential Election. Ryan Neville-Shepard &Jaclyn Nolan Pages 60-79 | Published online: 10 May 2019. Women's Studies in Communication Volume 42, 2019 - Issue 1

Most Americans say Trump acted irresponsibly and distrust White House on his health. By Jennifer Agiesta, CNN Polling Director Updated 2344 GMT (0744 HKT) October 5, 2020.…

The Mortal Presidency: Illness and Anguish in the White House. Robert Gilbert. Fordham University Press; 2Rev Ed Edition (28 Feb. 1998)

The health of the President and presidential candidates: the public's right to know. G J Annas. N Engl J Med

. 1995 Oct 5;333(14):945-9. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199510053331420

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