Eight years ago, at a campaign town hall meeting in Minnesota, a woman told Republican nominee John McCain that she was troubled by the prospect of a Barack Obama presidency.
“I can’t trust Obama,” the woman said into a wireless microphone Sen. McCain had handed her. “I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not, uh — he’s an Arab.”
It was a sentiment Republicans had expressed frequently at events that week in 2008. It was, for Sen. McCain, a moment that candidates regularly face — a decision about which thresholds they’ll allow their campaigns to cross.
So it is — once again — with Donald Trump. This time it involves old rumors that Hillary Clinton has significant, hidden health issues. Until recently, those murmurings had mostly resided in the same dark corners of the internet that other conspiracy theories fester. No longer.
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Last week, Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani told Fox News that the media were covering up “several signs” of Ms. Clinton’s health problems. “Go online and put down, ‘Hillary Clinton illness,’ take a look at the videos for yourself,” Giuliani said, incredibly.
We’ll save you the trouble. The videos claim that Ms. Clinton is hiding varying levels of head injury or brain affliction. Her health is in severe decline, they say, and as proof they offer (falsified) medical records signed by Clinton’s physician.
As with many conspiracy theories, the Clinton health claims grew from a seed of truth, in this case Ms. Clinton falling and sustaining a concussion in December 2012. She was hospitalized that month and treated for a blood clot in a vein behind her ear, but she has had no similar episodes since, including during this year’s grueling campaign.
That hasn’t stopped the speculation, which begins on pro-Trump social media accounts and is fanned by media types such as Matt Drudge and Fox News personality Sean Hannity. It wouldn’t be fair, certainly, to hold Mr. Trump or any candidate responsible for all the wild things supporters say. But his campaign has jumped in the mud with the conspiracists.
Spokeswoman Katrina Pierson told MSNBC that Clinton has dysphasia, a brain condition that affects a person’s ability to speak and comprehend language. Ms. Pierson, apparently, has some of Mr. Giuliani’s internet sites bookmarked. “There are really interesting things out there,” she said.
Mr. Trump, for his part, hasn’t yet directly engaged in speculation about a Clinton brain injury, choosing instead the barely higher road of questioning her stamina and strength.
This is the point at which we’d normally urge Mr. Trump to disavow speculation about dysphasia, concussions and the rest. But given his fondness for conspiracies — he was an enthusiastic Obama birther — we know that’s not going to happen.
Instead, we’ll finish the story of John McCain and the Minnesota town hall. It’s a reminder that at least some of the choice voters will be making this November is how we want to engage in discourse, political and otherwise, in this country.
“No, ma’am,” the Arizona senator said about Obama being an Arab. “He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”
Maybe Mr. Giuliani can Google that.
This editorial was originally published by the Charlotte Observer.