We’ve all seen the clips from President Trump’s commencement speech at the United States Military Academy on June 13. One clip of Trump drinking lasts approximately three seconds, while another of him walking down a ramp lasts 15 seconds. In no time, then, the truth is out: Trump is not well. The evidence can be watched on loop and shared easily via hashtag–a visual tactic I call “diagnosing by gif.” Rewind and retweet after me: #TrumpIsNotWell.
Just days after Trump’s speech, the Lincoln Project, a group whose mission is to “defeat President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box,” released a 45-second mash-up video designed to weaponize weakness as a form of illness politics. The video intends to be merciless: “He’s shaky. He’s weak,” the voiceover intones, drawing on cultural associations between physical decline and moral decay. The irony, of course, is that weaponizing weakness, or a perception of weakness, has been one of Trump’s signature political strategies. In 2016, Trump and his campaign used this tactic extensively against Hillary Clinton—recall #SickHillary—and we are already seeing similar tactics against Joe Biden. The Lincoln Project aims to shamelessly hoist Trump on his petard.
Many disabled writers and activists immediately objected to the ableist attitudes that the tactic of weaponizing perceived physical weakness reveals. Advocates like Rebecca Cokely, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, rightly argued that the focus on Trump’s difficulty drinking water and walking down a ramp detracted from the real issues, including that his policies and positions have been harmful to disabled and chronically ill people. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), who was disabled in combat and uses a wheelchair, also called out the ableism of the clips on Twitter, retweeting David A. Graham’s article in the Atlantic which offers a more extended case as to why the “search for some disqualifying physical ailment is a distraction.”
Visual tactics like freezing and looping, cutting and splicing, slowing down and speeding up, all of which amount to forms of manipulation—or “doctoring”—of evidence to help us see something that we are led to believe might otherwise remain out of sight. Put all together, we viewers participate in the practice of “diagnosing by gif,” in which a short video played on loop allegedly reveals a person’s secret illness and related moral failing. The Lincoln Project’s #TrumpIsNotWell ad is a classic of the genre. “Trump doesn’t have the strength to lead. Nor the character to admit it,” the ad tells us, directly linking physical ability with moral character. The images accompanying these two statements are of Trump yet again appearing to have difficulty drinking followed by the oft-repeated image of Trump at a campaign rally in 2016 mocking the disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski. The ad creates a chain of verbal and visual associations connecting Trump’s supposed physical weakness with his mocking of disability. The juxtaposition of images suggests that the best way to respond to Trump’s mockery is with more mockery of his own weakness and disability. Yet, I believe that it is crucial that we understand these visual tactics so that we do not fall prey to the spurious message that illness and disability make a person unfit for public office.
Diagnosing by video is not a new political tactic. I first became interested in this phenomenon in 2005 in relation to the use of a videotape provided to the media by the parents of Terri Schiavo as evidence that she was not brain dead. I have written at greater length about the Schiavo case as a “mediatized medical event,” but here I simply want to mention some of the ways illness politics operated visually in this case. Although social media was only just emerging at the time, images from the videotape of Schiavo were shown over and over on cable television, often in a constant loop as background to reporting on the story. In another twist, Senator Bill Frist, a former transplant surgeon and then presidential candidate, took to the Senate floor to proclaim that Schiavo was not in a persistent vegetative state. His diagnosis was based on his examination of the videotape, not of Schiavo herself. Although he hoped his diagnosis of Schiavo would breathe life into his presidential campaign, Frist was widely criticized for this stunt. Moreover, although there was clearly sympathy for Schiavo’s parents throughout the case, the images of Schiavo on loop did not generate recognition among the public so much as fear of her condition and horror at the media spectacle surrounding it, as the increase in calls to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization’s (NHPCO) helpline before and after Schiavo’s death indicated.
The looping phenomenon has since become standard fare on 24-7 cable news channels. Now with social media, the phenomenon is more condensed and concentrated and images can circulate even more widely. Looping and other visual techniques direct our attention to something that has been made visible that we too can now see. Look closely. Look again. There it is: Donald Trump mentally and physically declining, Hillary Clinton having a seizure, Nancy Pelosi slurring her words, Biden suffering from dementia.
“We’re not doctors,” the Lincoln Project video admits, as it shows an image of Trump’s doctor Harold Bornstein. The ad’s visual gag plays on the assumption that we can see for ourselves that Bornstein doesn’t look much like a “typical” doctor, visually calling into question his diagnosis of Trump as fit. “But, we’re not blind.” In other words, we—and now you too—can diagnose Trump. It helps to recall that the verb “to doctor” means both “to restore to good condition” and “to adapt or modify for a desired end.” Diagnosing by gif is a form of doctoring—“to alter deceptively”—because it takes a brief moment out of context that focuses the viewer’s attention on a sign that is then claimed to be symptomatic of a personal problem. This is what we need to see better: Using visual tactics promotes an illness politics that weaponizes weakness, and limits our image of what makes a leader. Only when we recognize this, can we begin to counteract the ableism that undergirds and undermines our politics.