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Ableism, Election Politics, and the Media

by Isa Meyers //

A Comprehensive Guide to Both the 2016 and 2020 Elections’ Ableist Rhetoric

Donald Trump has COVID-19. Some people feel this diagnosis to be poetic justice considering Trump has downplayed the impacts and effects of the coronavirus since late-February. Others pray for his speedy recovery. But regardless of how polarized we stand as a nation in the weeks prior to the November 3rd General Election, Trump’s contraction of COVID-19 serves as yet another example of how we allow covert ableism to dictate both our social and political spheres. It also further illustrates how we define power dynamics in general in both conservative and liberal ideology. 

Contextualizing Disability Theory 

Ableism’s dictionary definition includes “discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.” However, disability theory is far more nuanced than just the inequality of disabled individuals within Western society. The creation of the disable/able bodied dichotomy can be traced back to the establishment of the medical model by the European Enlightenment. This model, which laid the foundations for modern medicine, serves as a catalyst for how we view the body as a focal point for normalcy. In other words, our bodies are our outward expressions for complying to social norms.

This physical manifestation of normal allows for policing by every cultural institution, whether it be heteronormativity, the media, the Church, education, or the medical industry itself. Similarly, the concept of otherization lies primarily in the realm of the physical body. Disability studies seek to deconstruct this identity category; they assert that it is not our bodies that are disabled, but rather, society and its institutions that disable the body. Disability is not a noun, but rather a verb—it carries out cultural policing. For instance, a person who is physically handicapped is not disabled in a room with a wheelchair ramp. Only when they are placed in an environment that limits their mode of movement are they disabled by that building. 

The social model of disability indicates that the category itself comes into being through these factors rather than the actual pathologization of the body. The category of disabled remains the only social category in which any person, at any time, can enter. By viewing the definition of disability through a transient lens, we can understand and critique its social and medical construction. Only then can Western society abolish the disable/able bodied binary and its consequent social hierarchy. 

2016 Election Fears 

In the 2016 Election, the Stormy Daniels bombshell headlined every major news and media publication. Stories, tweets, and memes regarding Trump’s small hands and emasculation by Daniels circulated social media. It was inescapable: our nation was obsessed with talking about Trump’s (inferred) tiny penis. 

Our obsession with the body and placing cultural meaning on its functions remains perpetuated through political discourse in regards to both Clinton and Trump’s physical capability. The physically disabled body is often viewed as asexual and agendered, so Trump’s emasculation and perceived sexual dysfunction painted him as disabled.

There’s no question that this election heavily revolved around gender politics. Hillary Clinton was either too feminine (and inherently too sexual) or too masculine. If she wore a shorter dress, Trump and his campaign followers inferred she was a whore. If she wore a pantsuit, they speculated that she wasn’t a “real woman.” No matter what Clinton did, she could never amount to the toxic masculinity Trump radiated. In other words, she couldn’t “man up” to run the country like he could. 

Our fascination with Trump’s, and consequently Hillary’s, genitalia can be singularly summarized by toxic masculinity. The revelation of Trump’s inability to please Daniels in bed equates to his failure as a man. This destabilization of his manhood, then, became a tool by liberal news outlets, comedians, and influencers to link his sexual failure to being a bad leader. Thus, being a leader means having a penis. And being a great leader means having a large penis because the larger the penis, the larger the man. 

Our obsession with the body and placing cultural meaning on its functions remains perpetuated through political discourse in regards to both Clinton and Trump’s physical capability. The physically disabled body is often viewed as asexual and agendered, so Trump’s emasculation and perceived sexual dysfunction painted him as disabled. Media publications made it painfully clear through their coverage of Daniels’ story: disabled bodies have no place in politics. 

2020 Realities

Flash forward to four years later where Trump’s body is, yet again, on the frontpage of the media. As the oldest president ever sworn into office, criticism regarding his fitness to govern the country runs rampant. The notorious “#RampGate” serves as another indication of liberal media interpreting the inability to properly be in power as a symptom of disability. 

During his commencement speech at West Point this past spring, Trump walked slowly and with hesitance down the ramp to the stage. While speaking, he also seemed to have trouble lifting a glass of water to his mouth, holding the glass unsteadily with two hands. Immediately after, news outlets and late-night talk show hosts ran their course with the expected ableist rhetoric. Jokes and speculation on the health and wellness of Trump dominated the headlines and the hashtags “#TrumpIsUnwell” and “#TrumpWearsAdultDiapers” were trending. Not only do these hashtags and stories do nothing to actually critique Trump and his policies, but they reinforce the bodily hierarchy created by ableism and the stigmatization disabled bodies carry in public spheres. 

A few months later, trending posts regarding Joe Biden’s speech impediment circulated from both sides after the first presidential debate in late September. Fox News continues to spread misinformation regarding Biden’s health, dubbing him “Sleepy” or “Senile Joe,” while also mocking his stutter and putting together compilations of him “stumbling over his words.” Liberal news outlets jumped on this opportunity to call out the harassment of Biden’s impediment, claiming these remarks to be cruel and ableist. 

Both parties use ableism when it’s convenient for their platform. By degrading Trump for his inability to walk or for the size of his genitalia, the left perpetuates an ableist binary. The right does the same when spreading misinformation about Biden. These examples indicate that regardless of which party people plan to vote for, a disabled individual is not fit to govern. 

Trump’s Diagnosis: What Now? 

Trump’s initial diagnosis with COVID-19 at the beginning of October (with just a few short weeks until election night) has perpetuated our public’s fear of disability. Articles discussing his weight, underlying predisposition to the virus, and his age suggest that this could be potentially fatal. Part of the left has started to rejoice in the wake of this news, while others recognize that MAGA supporters and current American conservatism don’t need Trump alone to function anymore: his legacy already precedes his eventual death. Regardless of where the nation stands, these headlines continue to negatively politicize the pandemic. 

Biden’s campaign recently released a statement saying that they will disclose the results of every COVID-19 test Biden undergoes, effectively making the contraction of the coronavirus yet another competition between the two candidates. Similarly, during Trump’s hospitalization a few days after his initial diagnosis, doctors refused to inform reporters that he had been given supplemental oxygen. This upheld the facade that Trump remains unfazed by the deadly virus, as though showing any kind of “weakness” to a form of disease would paint Trump as temporarily disabled.

In the midst of a global pandemic that targets the elderly and immunocompromised, we have the chance to reconstruct our bodily ideals. The uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought forward indicates that regardless of ability, anyone can contract the virus. Only by eliminating the ableist rhetoric that guides both liberal and conservative campaigns can we abolish the stigma and prejudice that we carry towards disabled people and construct social and political environments that inclusively welcome bodily difference.