To counter Trump’s smears, Joe Biden must learn from Hillary Clinton’s mistakes

The Clinton saga in 2016 should serve as a reminder that fake stories can take hold, and a warning to not repeat the same mistakes.

SHARE To counter Trump’s smears, Joe Biden must learn from Hillary Clinton’s mistakes
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Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton in 2016

Sipa USA/TNS

There was a moment in 2016 that I’ll never forget.

I was boarding a train from New York to Washington, D.C., and ran into one of my favorite Amtrak employees, whom I’d gotten to know over years of commuting. He loved talking politics when we’d see each other. And while we didn’t always agree, I respected his informed opinion.

On this day in early August, he excitedly headed toward my seat, holding his phone up from nearly a car away. When he got to me, he had an unfamiliar website cued up.

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He clicked play on a 16-minute video made by a Florida doctor, featuring news articles, video clips and photos with the accompanying headline, “Hillary Clinton’s Illness Revealed.” In it, the doctor concluded she secretly had Parkinson’s disease.

I remember politely indulging my friend for a minute or so, and then telling him to just send me the link, so I could end the embarrassing public broadcast of this strange conspiracy theory while other passengers looked on.

Of course, the idea sounded absurd to me, but also troubling. My friend hadn’t seemed susceptible to these sorts of videos before. If they could convince him, would other people believe this s—t? A month or so later, a video of Clinton being helped into a van after attending a 9/11 memorial hit the airwaves. The campaign initially blamed it on the heat, blamed some concurrent coughing bouts on allergies, and then finally, days later, admitted she’d been diagnosed with pneumonia.

According to The New York Times, Clinton insisted the initial diagnosis be kept a secret, “certain that the illness was not a crucial issue for voters and that it might be twisted and exploited by her opponents” — a strategy that backfired considerably.

The clumsy obfuscation sent the conspiracy theorists into overdrive and began to take hold in mainstream media.

Per a Vox analysis at the time, Clinton’s “waffling statements” gave some credence to the rising interest level in her health. For his part, Donald Trump and his allies made the most of the campaign’s mistakes and jumped on the many bizarre conspiracy theories. Before long, Clinton allegedly had “dysphasia,” heart disease, seizures and multiple sclerosis. Television doctor Dr. Drew Pinsky suggested she had “brain damage.”

By mid-September, Clinton’s “health concerns” were actually being polled. A Morning Consult survey showed an alarming eight in 10 registered voters had heard a lot or some about Clinton’s health issues. In August, only 26% had said her health was below average or very poor — now, 41% did.

All of this is to say, Trump’s recent insinuations that Joe Biden is taking performance-enhancing drugs may sound absurd, baseless, desperate and even laughable on their face. Rest assured, they are all of those things — but the Clinton saga should serve as both a reminder that these stories can take hold, and a warning to not repeat the same mistakes.

Trump is essentially repeating the playbook he ran in 2016. For months, he’s questioned Biden’s cognitive health and his supporters have stoked theories that he’s being hidden to protect a secret illness.

Earlier this month, Trump told a Fox News personality of Biden that “There’s probably, possibly, drugs involved. That’s what I hear.”

On Monday night, Sean Hannity interviewed Trump’s former White House doctor, now running for Congress, to opine on Biden’s health. “I think it’s completely reasonable to ask if he’s taking medications to help him with his alertness and his memory,” Dr. Ronny Jackson said, offering no evidence that Biden is. Another Fox doctor has baselessly speculated that Biden is on speed and Adderall to “help in low doses for short periods of time.”

This all takes on an added irony considering that Trump’s own alarming behavior has long cemented in many an expert opinion that he is unwell. As a new film, “Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump” points out, his stunning lack of message discipline, late-night Twitter rants, delusional statements and inability to focus or complete thoughts put him in no position to question Biden or anyone else.

But that doesn’t mean his tactics against Biden won’t work to some degree. According to a Fox News poll this month, 51% of likely voters believe Biden has the “mental soundness” to be president, while 47% say the same of Trump.

That’s an alarmingly narrow margin for Biden. If he wants to widen it, and avoid Clinton’s mistakes, he’ll opt for maximum transparency on his health issues, meet questions about his health with openness instead of some of the hostility we’ve seen from him, and make himself more available to the press.

He’ll also do well to remember that conspiracy theories may sound too crazy for most Americans to believe. But Trump doesn’t need most to — he needs just enough, and believe me, they’re out there.

S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.

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