Is This the Dementia Election?

Here’s something I wish more people could read — at The Atlantic, see What Biden’s Critics Get Wrong About His Gaffes by staff writer Yair Rosenberg. .Rosenberg makes the point that people who speak a lot in public will sometimes get caught mis-stating things, like names and places, and this is normal,

On Sunday, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson went on television and mixed up Iran and Israel. “We passed the support for Iran many months ago,” he toldMeet the Press, erroneously referring to an aid package for the Jewish state. Last night, the Fox News prime-time host Jesse Watters introduced South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem as hailing from South Carolina. I once joined a cable-news panel where one of the participants kept confusing then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions with Representative Pete Sessions of Texas. I don’t hold these errors against anyone, as they are some of the most common miscues made by people who talk for a living—and I’m sure my time will come.

Normally this sort of thing is just overlooked, unless the speaker is elderly.

Yesterday, President Joe Biden added another example to this list. In response to a question about Gaza, he referred to the Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as the president of Mexico. The substance of Biden’s answer was perfectly cogent. The off-the-cuff response included geographic and policy details not just about Egypt, but about multiple Middle Eastern players that most Americans probably couldn’t even name. The president clearly knew whom and what he was talking about; he just slipped up the same way Johnson and so many others have.

Plus, Biden has been famously gaffe-prone his entire political career. “In other words, even a cursory history of Biden’s bungling shows that he is the same person he has always been, just older and slower—a gaffe-prone, middling public speaker with above-average emotional intelligence and an instinct for legislative horse-trading.”

Trump, on the other hand, most of the time is spouting word salad. He doesn’t just mix up names and dates; he doesn’t appear to grasp the subject matter. This was Trump last month —

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Yes, we all remember the heroic defense of Fort Benning from the Panzerwaffe. (/sarcasm) Trump was in New Hampshire, mind you, not Georgia, and there was no reason to bring up forts. (Full disclosure, my dad was stationed at Fort Benning for a time in World War II, where he repaired military aircraft. So I know they did important work there. The fort was named for Confederate General Henry Benning, who died in 1875 and played no part in World War II.) But Trump seems confused about where World War II was actually fought. And the repitition is a bit odd. Of course, it’s not quite as off the wall as the time he said the Continental Army beat the British in the Revolution because it took over the airports. Or the time he suggested drinking disinfectant to cure covid.

Melinda Henneberger writes at the Kansas City Star that “Biden does move more slowly and speak more haltingly now. While Trump, though he often makes no sense, spews words easily and everywhere.” But see also ‘Yikes’: Internet erupts after ‘Dementia Trump’ makes several verbal slip-ups at NRA rally at Raw Story. Trump was having a hard time pronouncing words and reading off a teleprompter.

One would have to have spent a lot of time with both men to really know if they are in some kind of cognitive decline. In Trump’s case, maybe he’s always been stupid. But I found an article from 2017 that said Trump already had declined.

In interviews Trump gave in the 1980s and 1990s (with Tom Brokaw, David Letterman, Oprah Winfrey, Charlie Rose, and others), he spoke articulately, used sophisticated vocabulary, inserted dependent clauses into his sentences without losing his train of thought, and strung together sentences into a polished paragraph, which — and this is no mean feat — would have scanned just fine in print. This was so even when reporters asked tough questions about, for instance, his divorce, his brush with bankruptcy, and why he doesn’t build housing for working-class Americans.

My impression is that he is even less articulate now than he was in 2016, but I confress I avoid listening to him as much as possible.

My mother had Alzheimer’s, and in the early stages she could be just fine in most social situations, with people and in places she had known for a long time. It was her short-term memory that was gone. I can’t tell if either Trump or Biden has lost short-term memory. But dementia can take a lot of different forms and have a lot of different causes.

[Update: As Biden’s memory issues draw attention, neurologists weigh in. (Subtitle: Forgetting the names of acquaintances or having difficulty remembering dates from the past doesn’t affect decision-making or judgment, brain experts say.)

It’s normal for older brains to have more difficulty retaining new information and then retrieving the information, but mental processes like decision-making and judgment can actually improve with age, said Dr. Thomas Wisniewski, director of NYU Langone Health’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and its Center for Cognitive Neurology.

“Although the raw power of memory has some degree of decline, perhaps wisdom can increase because the individual has a greater backlog of experiences and different situations as to what is the best thing to do,” Wisniewski said.]

The New York Times is now in full “but her emails” mode, running news stories and op eds about how the Democrats need to do something about Biden. But we still have Paul Krugman.

When the news broke about the special counsel’s hit job — his snide, unwarranted, obviously politically motivated slurs about President Biden’s memory — I found myself thinking about my mother. What year did she die? It turned out that I didn’t know offhand; I knew that it was after I moved from Princeton to CUNY, because I was regularly commuting out to New Jersey to see her, but before the pandemic. I actually had to look into my records to confirm that she died in 2017.

I’ll bet that many readers are similarly vague about the dates of major life events. You remember the circumstances but not necessarily the precise year. And whatever you think of me, I’m pretty sure I don’t write or sound like an old man. The idea that Biden’s difficulty in pinning down the year of his son’s death shows his incapacity — in the middle of the Gaza crisis! — is disgusting.

As it happens, I had an hourlong off-the-record meeting with Biden in August. I can’t talk about the content, but I can assure you that he’s perfectly lucid, with a good grasp of events. And outside of that personal experience, on several occasions when I thought he was making a serious misjudgment — like his handling of the debt ceiling crisis — he was right, and I was wrong.

And what about the other guy?

And my God, consider his opponent. When I listen to Donald Trump’s speeches, I find myself thinking about my father, who died in 2013 (something else I had to look up). During his last year my father suffered from sundowning: He was lucid during the day but would sometimes become incoherent and aggressive after dark. If we’re going to be doing amateur psychological diagnoses of elderly politicians, shouldn’t we be talking about a candidate who has confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi and whose ranting and raving sometimes reminds me of my father on a bad evening?

So to everyone who’s piling on Biden right now, stop and look in the mirror. And ask yourself what you are doing.

I saw most of President Biden’s press conference Thursday night. Some commentary said Biden came across badly because he was angry. . WTF? Is he not allowed to be angry? Josh Marshall:

Aside from discussions of the President’s cognitive faculties, the main focus — actually the two were melded together — was commentary about his anger. This seemed to be a universal response from the DC press corps, that the whole impromptu press conference was a mess because the President displayed clear and clearly genuine anger.

Is that wrong? As George Constanza might have said.

This goes to the heart of the etiquette of official Washington and who plays by those rules and who doesn’t. Anger is a natural human emotion. It’s a reaction to being attacked, being treated unfairly. Whatever you think of Biden, he clearly had a lot to react to. Special Counsel Robert Hur was charged with investigating whether Biden had violated the law by retaining classified documents. He decided, quite likely because he had found no basis for bringing charges, to take a series of gratuitous and transparently political swipes at Biden’s mental faculties, going so far as to claim that Biden was unable to remember when his son Beau died. Everyone knows that this was the central injury and core event of the latter part of Biden’s life. I experienced one profoundly traumatic loss in my life and four decades on if anyone seems to disrespect or make light of it, even unintentionally, it puts me in a mood to fight. It would be unnatural not to be angry. It’s a gratuitous and deeply personal swipe.

It’s probably not lost on you that Donald Trump is basically permanently angry. And not just angry in response to particular events but the kind of perpetual and often peristaltic anger that in day to day life most people find threatening or at least off-putting. But we virtually never hear anything about the purported damage from expressions of anger when it’s Donald Trump. That’s not bias. It’s simply that it’s assumed. So it just doesn’t come up. It’s no longer policed. That’s just what Donald Trump does. But there’s an additional factor that people don’t notice. Being responsive to this kind of press policing signals a basic weakness, a perpetual hedging, a practice of being controlled and responsive to the press chorus rather than indifferent to it. Trump’s able to work outside this framework of policing because he simply ignores it and because of that reporters decide it doesn’t apply to him. This isn’t just Biden. It’s not even just Trump. Democrats for a host of reasons tend to be far more responsive to this kind of policing. People want to see expressions of agency and power from political leaders. Trump’s ability to set the terms for how the press reacts and interprets his actions is itself an expression of power.

Psychologically, I think we’re looking at a “who gets to be angry?” situation here. Awhile back I formulated an Anger Theorem, which says that “The degree to which one is allowed to be angry, and at what, depends on how much power you have. The powerful can be as angry as they like, without criticism. But when those with less power are angry, they are condemned for it.”

Generally it’s White men who get away with being angry, and Black men and all women who have to keep anger in check. But here we have two White guys, and one is the current POTUS, which would normally put one on top of the power totem pole. It would be interesting to take a survey of which commenters were offput by Biden’s anger and how right-leaning they might be, but I don’t have the time. And Josh Marshall’s analysis of why the two men are held to different standards may be the right one. But I’m guessing some of this is just deep and unexamined psychological reaction to the Trump and Biden personas. Trump presents himself as larger than life, all powerful and all knowing. Biden is more folksy and self-effacing. Those who are un-self-aware (most of the Washington Press Corps?) might unconsciousnly react to Trump as the more powerful of the two, so he gets to be angry, but Biden does not.

But what I fear now is that we’re going to spend the next few months dissecting every verbal mishap by both men instead of dealing with the substance of their campaigns.

9 thoughts on “Is This the Dementia Election?

  1. Everybody wants to focus on the events. Doesn't matter if it is an utterance or a thunderstorm. The only way to gain meaning is to look at patterns. In this case the patterns are incredibly different. The NYT and their ilk "don't have time for patterns", only headliner events.  I am afraid you are correct. We will focus on events and not focus on contextual patterns.

  2. When Biden talks about a subject, I generally gain some knowledge about that subject.  When Trump speaks about a subject, I generally think I know less that I did before he said anything about it.  

    Covfefe is a nonsense word, widely presumed to be a typographical error, that Donald Trump used in a viral tweet when he was President of the United States. It instantly became an Internet meme.
    Six minutes after midnight (EDT) on May 31, 2017, Trump tweeted, "Despite the constant negative press covfefe". He deleted the tweet six hours later but implied that its wording was intentional. Most media outlets presumed that he had meant to type "coverage". White House Press Secretary

    Wikipedia · Text under CC-BY-SA license

     

  3. But what I fear now is that we’re going to spend the next few months dissecting every verbal mishap by both men instead of dealing with the substance of their campaigns.

    I fear that too.  They're making this election about everything but what it should be, to focus on train wreck entertainment journalism, for clicks and views.

    The press focusing on verbal missteps, cultural-based faux pas, not to mention the usual craziness of Trump, absolves them from focusing on substance, which would greatly benefit Joe Biden while shining a critical light on Trump that would not be favorable, just by virtue of the fact that Trump has few if any policy accomplishments.  And as much as they don't want to seem as if they are favoring the democrats and Biden, even if his accomplishments warrant it, I believe they will retreat to focusing on trivia and the bread and circuses of horse race politics, as a safe, and profitable space for them.

    On a different note, I find it rich that the press has taken to pearl clutching and the fainting couches over Biden's "anger."  He wouldn't be human if he wasn't, and if he hadn't they'd be criticizing him for that.  But the press has normalized Trump's anger and that of the MAGA movement.  They've been running on anger for the last eight years, staying angry even after Trump was elected, and never stopped.  And they express their anger in the form of threats and sometimes physical attacks.  But the press treats these stories, well that's just how they are.  But when Biden's cheeks get ruddy, its the end of the world.

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  4. IMO, it's better to have some degree of dementia than to be as demented in as many areas of life as tRUMP is.

    And while Biden looks and sounds like the same stumbling and bumbling gaffe machine he always has been – just stiffer and creakier – tRUMP's current appearance is borderline slovenly compared to Young Donald, and his verbal skills have dramatically devolved from his 80's and 90's TV appearances.

    But you can't tell tRUMP's MAGAts!*

    tRUMP is Jesus, Apollo, and Zeus to them.

     

    *Or the DC MSM, either – come to think about it…

    Collectively, and individually, they want the politicians to follow the script they've planned out for the race.

    Course deviations just confuses the narrative: "Just stick to the script, folks.  Let's just stick to the script."

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  5. I am perfectly fine with the prospect that many years from now history chooses to look back on Joe Biden as a kind, well-intentioned, forgetful, gaffe-prone old man who saved America from fascist authoritarianism – twice.

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  6. Joe's people need to exploit Trump's biggest failures. And where Trump's performance is markedly different from Biden's. A few examples.

    Rachel Maddow kept track for months, maybe longer, the turnover in Trump's administration. People who got to know Trump in his role as POTUS fled Trump. Contrast the turnover of the Biden administration with the Trump administration. 

    That's significant because the administration is not one guy – it's the team the one guy assembles. The Trump administration was a clown car. On the rare occasions that a real administrator was introduced, they found Trump was impossible to work for.  That's true of the guy who took over the State Department, and the military people who could not keep order. 

    Someone can check the numbers but I believe if a poll was done, most of the people who occupied key positions in the Trump administration would not return to work for Trump again, Yes, assembling those numbers would be a lot of work and respondents would have to be offered anonymity but to know Trump is to hate Trump unless you are also a sick as Trump. 

    Someone can do a count of how many Trump associates went to jail before the 2020 election. Then there's the list of people Trump pardoned and the crimes they committed. And the people Trump did NOT pardon because they told the truth about the crimes. There's the list of people who have been convicted or disbarred or are bankrupt for the crimes they committed for Trump. And there's the list of people facing charges for the crimes related to Trump, including some of the fake electors. Trump is a one-man crime spree. (Under no circumstances do you provide Trump with grounds for an appeal by bringing up the charges Trump is facing.) 

    Covid needs to be mentioned. What was the rate of death when Trump left office? What was the rated six months after Trump left? A year after? How about Trump' ideas of cures? Drinking Cloroz or sticking a light bulb up your rectum? His ideas are on tape and voters need to consider how badly this fool bungled the most severe health crisis the country ever faced. It didn't just "go away" under Biden. The VAX and professional administration by medical professionals turned the tide. What's the death rate today?

    Where did Trump leave the economy? Unemployment? The Dow? Wages? The economy under Biden is so good Trump is trying to take credit for it three years after he left office. Yes, we had inflation but that's under control. Interest rates are projected to come down. We have an infrastructure bill.

    Speaking of bills, the Democrats were willing to make a bad deal on immigration to get any kind of a deal that would allow the president to take action. The GOP walked away in orter to keep a "crisis" going that Trump wants to run on. We need to beat the GOP over the head on that every day of every week until November. 

    But Democrats need to focus on TEAM BIDEN, not just Joe Biden. We've done well in the last three years because Joe was able to attract team players and Joe provided the leadership and direction for these people to deliver. And they HAVE! They can continue to do so and Joe's got his shit together enough to lead them for four more. Trump will assemble a crew of lawless pirates if his previous term is any guide. 

     

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    • Re: people who fled; I think its time Rex Tillerson exhibited some of his Boy Scout bravery to say "Hell yeah I called the guy a fucking moron and now I'll tell you why… ".  That might be a pleasant surprise.

      I wonder if anybody in media is trying to reach out to Tillerson for comment on current events as tRump now insanely blabbers about encouraging Putin to attack NATO allies?  Does anybody in media remember Rex Tillerson, formerly tRump's Sec of State whose short tenure ended controversially?  Could the media possibly have a memory problem of its own?

    • I bet Jeff Sessions would be eager to don a MAGA hat again. Talk about fuckin' somebody over. Sessions parting words as Trump sent him into political oblivion were…I never said a cross word about Trump. One thing I could say about Sessions is that he took his fuckin' over like a man.

       I can still see Sessions beaming with pride when he was crowned as the first MAGA idiot when they slapped a MAGA hat on his head before a national audience. Seems he didn't know how to navigate the shoals between maintaining his dignity and loyalty to Trump's criminal agenda.

  7. Trump, on the other hand, most of the time is spouting word salad. He doesn’t just mix up names and dates; he doesn’t appear to grasp the subject matter. 

    That's among the main differences I see between Trump and Biden. As we age we tend to lose our ability of recall for names and dates. I'm aware of experiencing those symptoms on a near daly basis, usally the frustration of that awareness is internalised so others don't get to see my diminishing abilty to recall things that at one time were firmly etched in my memory. They are still there, but are a little slow coming to the fore.

     One thing that I am fully aware of is that my ability to reason, grasp concepts and analyze is as good as it's ever been. That isn't diminished. Another thing that I would point out is that in Special Counsel Hur's attempt to denigrate President Biden he described him in terms of being well meaning. I assume it was an attempt to sugar coat his slur of Biden so it wouldn't be obvious he was taking a political shot at him. But to me that wording to conceal his motive illustrates the biggest difference between Trump and Biden. Trump is not well meaning. He's a self centered spiritual mess who could care less for anybody but himself. To me the values in a man's heart is paramount in the need to lead our nation.

    Trump is a big bag of shit who is intent on destroying our democracy.

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