A few weeks ago, a constellation of right-wing blogs, that few outside that fringe had heard of, started circulating an ominous rumor: Hillary Clinton was sick. She was regularly passing out, or having seizures, or she had difficulty walking—maybe it was Parkinson's—and a doctor was by her side at all times to administer treatment. All of this could be proved by way of a few videos and still images showing just how tired and sick she looked. Most ominously, the mainstream media was accused of COVERING IT UP.
On August 8, Dave Weigel at the Washington Post pretty thoroughly debunked all of this stuff, which by then was going by the hashtag #HillarysHealth. The photos and videos were all taken out of context, the "doctor" who was around her all the time was Secret Service Assistant Special Agent in Charge Todd Madison, Clinton's own doctor said she was in good health. There was no story here, just the usual collection of conspiracy theorists and trolls peddling nonsense.
Except the story refused to die.
In the days after Weigel's story, Sean Hannity, the Fox News host who has turned into a Donald Trump sycophant, devoted a whole series of segments to Clinton's health, bringing on doctors and asking them if Clinton was having seizures. Trump himself then questioned Clinton's "physical stamina" in stump speeches. A campaign spokesperson, Katrina Pierson, appeared on MSNBC last week to toss out the idea that Clinton suffered from a condition called dysphasia—a neurological condition that makes it difficult to communicate and comprehend speech—without any particular evidence. Rudy Giuliani, another Trump surrogate, went on Fox News this Monday morning and told viewers to "go online and put down Hillary Clinton illness and take a look at the videos for yourself." Ben Carson, the slow-talking neurosurgeon who ran a fairly bizarre Republican primary campaign, is going around saying that both candidates should release their health records. Even celebrity physician Dr. Drew has weighed in, criticizing Clinton's physician during a radio-show appearance in which he also theorized that Trump might have hypomania, but "if someone were the president, I kinda want them to be hypomanic." By this week, the rumors had become so pervasive that Clinton opened a jar of pickles in front of Jimmy Kimmel to prove she was healthy. So how did all this start?
The Clinton health rumors spawned the same way that a lot of dubious tales spread on the right-wing corners of the internet. The vague outlines of the story were percolating through YouTube months ago—a video of Clinton having a "seizure" (really just moving her head about a bit as part of a joke) was posted on July 21, and now has more than 2 million views. On August 4, British conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson put up a video examining what he called Clinton's "weird seizures, psychotic facial tics, over-exaggerated reactions, coughing fits, strange lesions on her tongue. Is Hillary on the verge of a mental breakdown due to stress, or are her strange outbursts linked to a medical condition?" That video now has close to 3.5 million views.
The really viral piece of "evidence" is a photo of Clinton being held up by staffers after slipping while climbing some stairs, which was circulated on a variety of no-name conservative sites and Twitter on August 7 before being picked up by the Drudge Report that same day. Drudge, the highly trafficked conservative news aggregator, can grant semi-legitimacy to anything it touches, and from there the story went to WorldNetDaily—a conspiracy-minded right-wing site whose work Trump has cited before, and to Fox News. By the time something hits Fox, it's gone mainstream. Articles like Weigel's, and statements from Clinton's own doctor that she was "in excellent health and fit to serve as president of the United States" can't convince anyone who knows that Clinton is on the brink of collapse or even death.
The conspiracy theories about Clinton's health all point back to a very real 2012 incident when the then secretary of state fainted and hit her head so badly it resulted in a concussion and a blood clot. This was a serious condition that put her in the hospital and led her to miss testifying before a congressional committee on Benghazi. At the time, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza wrote, "It's clear that Clinton will have to answer lots—and lots—of questions about her health if she decides to get into the next race for president." (Presumably to get out in front of these questions, Clinton had her doctor publicly declare her fit to be president last year.)
As a ThinkProgress piece noted, none other than Karl Rove, the Republican operative, floated the idea that Clinton had a "brain injury" in 2014. But the guy who really got the ball rolling was Ed Klein, a rabidly anti-Clinton journalist who has been criticized roundly for, basically, being full of shit—he's maybe most famous for saying that Chelsea Clinton was conceived by rape, though he later disavowed that story. In two books published in 2014 and 2015, Klein claimed that her medical problems were worse than the public knew and that she had suffered a series of strokes that left her worried she couldn't win the election. (Klein's claims were reheated by sites on the #HillarysHealth bandwagon this week.)
No right-wing conspiracy would be complete without a Breitbart connection, and in January, the white supremacist–friendly site published a hearsay-based story alleging that Clinton was impaired by post-concussion syndrome and had trouble walking to her car after campaign events. Breitbart quoted Roger Stone, the notorious Trump-aligned political hatchet man, as saying, "I don't think she has the physical stamina to be president" months before Trump used nearly those exact words. WorldNetDaily ran a similar article in February; both articles quoted physicians who hadn't examined Clinton personally but seemed happy to imagine medical conditions she could have.
Wild theories about the rich and famous are nothing new, of course. There's plenty of ugly gossip about Trump as well—that he's suffering from dementia, or that he's hopped up on speed. The difference is that during the 2016 election cycle both sides have been willing, even eager, to embrace conspiracy theories. Trump especially has gone down this road, hiring Breitbart executive Steve Bannon to oversee his campaign and having lunch with Ed Klein—both figures ordinary campaigns would keep at arm's length. And of course, Trump rose to prominence in the first place for his belief that Barack Obama wasn't born in America. But Clinton's camp is perfectly fine with spreading gossip too, as illustrated by a recent ad insinuating that Trump is an agent of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
This sort of gossip-based campaigning distracts from actual issues, of course—but this election stopped being about issues a long time ago. Both candidates are viewed as untrustworthy by voters, and partisans from either side seem willing to believe any charge leveled at their hated opponent. So why not target Clinton as being not just shifty but hiding a fatal secret? Why not push the narrative that Trump is not just a blundering fool but might be an actual traitor? The high road has been not just abandoned at this point, but burned to the ground, so who cares whether these attacks are true? Who decides what "true" is anymore, anyway?
The toxicity of this campaign won't really matter in the short term. Someone is going to win, no matter how nasty things get before November. The problem is, these conspiracy theories won't stop spinning once Election Day passes. If you think things are ugly now, just imagine what's going to be said about Clinton when she's the president.
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