Six months ago in the weeks leading up to the fifth Republican Debate on CNN, well before Donald Trump became the de facto Republican nominee, his campaign released a letter from the candidate’s doctor, Harold Bornstein, endorsing Trump’s health. Unsurprisingly, the report was quickly taken up and reported by news outlets. Not because of the health of the candidates. Rather, because the language used by the doctor resembled the overblown rhetoric of the candidate himself.
As the clip exemplifies, news outlets and ordinary people took the letter as an opportunity to not only make fun of Trump, but of Dr. Bornstein as well. Even CNN’s reporter found it difficult not to laugh. What this coverage makes clear is the way the letter about Trump’s health and the doctor who wrote it become surrogates for Trump and his own campaign rhetoric. Caught between surrogacy and metonymy, the critique of the letter’s rhetoric as well as more personal jibes directed at the doctor himself illuminate the spectacle of Trump, his campaign for president, the 24-news cycle, and the current state of memetic American politics where content is reduced to an easy to digest (and reproduce) bites.
It didn’t take me long to realize why my mom sent me this clip: Dr. Harold Bornstein is her (and therefore my) third cousin. He had first sent her the link which she forwarded to me. When I emailed to inquire about his impression of the news coverage, he expressed pride in seeing the letter in print, but disappointment that “The news media, of course, focused on my hair, beard and earring.” He noted, “It would not have been interesting to talk about my impeccable credentials and my scholarship fund at Tufts Medical School.” He chalked this up to the news being “jealous that I have all of my own hair at 69 years old” and that “a well respected and loved professional can be himself and not look like a modern doctor enslaved by government regulations and working for a for-profit hospital system.” Given his concern about hair, perhaps synonymy would be more accurate than metonymy, as this has been a line of Trump’s for years. More than their similarity, however, my cousin’s response highlights the shallowness and superficiality of our news, for which, ironically, Trump and his news coverage stand in.