Donald Trump is the most ableist presidential nominee in modern American political history.
Trying to stay on top of Trump’s outrages is exhausting. The 2005 tape of him linking his fame to consequence-free sexual assault overshadowed his racist comments about the guilt of the Central Park 5. At the debate, he threatened to jail Hillary Clinton, so we had to talk about his fascistic tendencies — before returning to his abhorrent behavior toward women. Now that he’s released an ad mocking Clinton for her alleged physical ailments, it’s time to talk about his ableism.
Ableism, the individual or systematic discrimination against and stigmatization of people with disabilities or people perceived to have disabilities, is still an unfamiliar concept to many Americans — some of whom aren’t even willing to admit that racism or sexism are real. Ableists convey the message that disabled people are not full members of our society, leading to exclusion and even abuse. Trump is fully complicit in sending precisely that message.
Here are just a few examples. Trump has fixated on Clinton’s health for months now, but it’s gotten worse. At a recent rally, he pretended to wobble and then faint in front of a laughing crowd. He routinely questions her stamina (a thinly veiled code for health) and he and his surrogates promote conspiracy theories that Clinton has conditions including strokes, Parkinson’s and epilepsy. While it’s not necessarily ableist to want to know about a candidate’s health, Trump is using invented illnesses to try and portray Clinton as not fit to lead.
Fat-shaming is another kind of ableism, and Trump especially likes to mock women he deems overweight, such as Alicia Machado (the former Miss Universe) and Rosie O’Donnell. He has also made fun of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s weight.
Bizarrely, Trump’s supporters have lately been using the candidate’s routine ableism as a defense against accusations that he mocked a disabled New York Times reporter last November. Supporters are arguing that Trump wasn’t specifically insulting the reporter, but that he routinely uses spastic arm motions — what Ann Coulter calls “standard retard” — to make fun of people.
I’m a disability rights journalist and the father of a boy with Down syndrome, but these are not just my concerns. The disability community as a whole has been watching Trump’s campaign unfold with increasing concern. Not only do his insults hurt, raising the specter of bullying and social exclusion — there’s also every indication that his ableism would extend to policy decisions.
What will happen, for instance, if Trump succeeds in repealing the Affordable Care Act, as he has repeatedly promised? The ACA, as is well known, made it illegal to deny insurance on the basis of a preexisting condition. Under Trump, will insurance companies have the right to exclude children with asthma? People with cancer? People with mental health needs? My own son with Down syndrome?
Just as significant as Trump’s promises are his silences. A group of disabled activists have spent months organizing online around the hashtag #CripTheVote in order to make the political conversations around disability more visible. They’ve been waiting, in vain, for Trump to take positions on major issues. According to Gregg Beratan, a co-founder of #CripTheVote, Trump “has shown no sign that he is even aware of the Disability Integration Act, the lack of accessible housing, employment discrimination or the numerous state and federal bills threatening to undermine the ADA.”
I myself spent all spring sending media queries to Trump’s campaign, asking how he stands on various disability-rights issues. I did not receive a single answer. Major disability rights organizations such as the American Assn. for Persons with Disabilities and RespectAbility sent out questionnaires to all candidates on key issues related to disability. Trump never answered at all.
Clinton’s team, it should be said, not only answered the questionnaires but has also published formal positions on several disability rights issues, and responded to my requests when I wrote about the candidate’s positions this summer.
It’s not going too far to say that Trump’s ableism borders on a eugenic mentality. He thinks some are born with the qualities to lead, while others are not. He told the writer Michael D’Antonio that “I’m a true believer in natural ability” and that President Obama can’t stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin “because it’s not in his DNA.” Several news articles have documented that Trump believes that he has the best German genes.
Naming something an “-ism” won’t persuade the bigoted to surrender their bigotry and might even harden differences. But sometimes it’s important to identify ideas and acts that marginalize and discriminate, to group them together, and to name them as a system. Trump is empowering ableism. Let that be one of the many reasons he should never be president.
David Perry is a disability rights journalist and history professor at Dominican University.