The Curious Case of Donald Trump's Doctor: Metonymy in the Age of Memetic News

Curator's Note

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.


Excellent thoughts, Aaron. Trump has been playing the media his entire adult life. He knows it intimately. So, just like the accusation a few weeks ago that he was calling in to interviews pretending to be Donald J. Trump's publicist and referring to himself in the third person, I don't think Trump could have any more suitable a doctor. I'm surprised he found a real life physician to agree to it. There have been numerous articles on how Trump has ascended to where he is but there was one that appeared in US News by columnist Gloria Goodale that really broke down how Trump, the reality star, has turned the presidential race into the world's biggest reality TV show. 1) Drama and conflict: Like when Trump insulted Megyn Kelly and his GOP nomination mates with name calling, the McCain affair, made extreme policy comments like building walls across Mexico and keeping Mexican rapists out, alarming the world about nuclear weapons---the list goes on. We’re living them. 2) Like every reality show we’ve ever seen, casting himself as the hero of every scene and the villain as everyone who challenges him. He’s the best at everything and has the best of everything, the smartest, the richest, etc. Meanwhile, his challengers are little Marco, lyin’ Ted, low-energy Jeb, etc. 3) Takes advantage of news as entertainment: Trump is a media veteran. He is well acquainted with the news media’s horse race coverage of elections and constant need for profit. Using twitter as his publicity engine, whenever his name falls out of the headlines, he brings another outrage out of his bag of tricks. 4) Master of social media. As noted, twitter is the domain of Trump. It is where, through feuding and seemingly unfiltered pronouncements, he arguably is able to woo and retain his followers, who view him as “telling it like it is.” 5) A Jackpot: Playing up his wealth, getting free media is the big prize. Playing the capitalist success story. 6) Playing the victim with unforeseen plot twists: When he’s not on top, he plays the victim…whether of the media (as he did today) or of the rigged system. [1] In the end, Trump has nothing to lose because his voters are supporting him based upon emotion, not his knowledge base. For them, it is what they believe he stands for that is important. Meanwhile, his competitors have everything to lose by engaging him at his lowbrow level. You can’t outTrump Trump. He is willing to go lower than they are to win. So, Trump is basically playing himself. He has nothing to lose and everything to gain. He never believed he would get this far but since he has, he's willing to go all the way. For him, it is a competition to see if he if he can really pull it off. Although he was happy with first just knocking out Jeb Bush and rising to the top of the heap for a week or two, once he had attained that goal and more publicity than he could ever imagine (free too) then the target became all the rest of the Republicans. He would be happy just to be the nominee but on reality TV, seconds aren't remembered long. So, now, the challenge is to knock off the big kahuna herself (better showmanship if it had been Bernie but looks like that's not going to happen). As Michael Buffer says in boxing, he's "ready to rumble!" [1] Goodale, Gloria. Trump's reality TV playbook: Seven ways it changed 2016 election. April 12, 2016. Retrieved from

Thanks for the response Elisabeth. I appreciate the reference to Goodale and the reminder that Trump may be having a difficult time distinguishing between reality and Reality TV. He has been treating this whole campaign as if it were a Reality TV show, and perhaps instead of trying to out Trump him, his opponents should be turning to Reality TV for strategies. Or perhaps Hillary just needs to hire Kim as one of her political consultants.

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