Donald Trump is skipping another GOP primary debate this week and the theories abound as to why. Some paint it as a smart strategy, setting his opponents to take each other apart while he sails into the presidential nomination. Others, including the right-wing editorial board at the Wall Street Journal, have accused Trump of being afraid to debate. But watching clips of some recent Trump speeches, I have a different theory: His team is worried Trump will start talking about how he bested Teddy Roosevelt in a bear-hunting competition, before trouncing the 26th president in the 1904 presidential election.
To be sure, Trump was never playing with a full deck. Never forget when he recommended bleach injections for “cleaning” COVID-19 from lungs. Lately, however, his brain functioning, as impossible as it may be to believe, seems even worse. He appears to believe he’s won every presidential election in the last two decades, instead of that one electoral college-based win against Hillary Clinton in 2016. During a campaign stop in South Carolina, Trump spun out a whole story about defeating a famous military leader named “Bush.”
“When I came here, everyone thought Bush was going to win,” he rambled, saying it was “because Bush supposedly was a military person.” Then he added, “He got us into the, uh, he got us into the Middle East. How did that work out, right?”
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Trump did prevail over Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida in the 2016 GOP primary. But he appears to believe he defeated President George W. Bush, Jeb’s older brother, who is actually the guy who “got us into the Middle East,” when he invaded Iraq.
Before bragging about besting two-term winner George W. Bush, Trump gave another speech boasting about his imaginary win against another two-termer, President Barack Obama. “With Obama, we won an election that everyone said couldn’t be won,” he prattled on in a speech in Washington, D.C. last week. In the same speech, he confused Obama with President Joe Biden, and warned that, if he didn’t win in 2024, we would enter “World War II,” which famously ended the year before Trump himself was born.
While Trump, who likes to call Biden “cognitively impaired,” got widely mocked on social media for this, the audience he’s speaking to doesn’t seem to notice their god is brain-farting. That’s because Trump fans, as I’ve written about before, don’t actually listen when Dear Leader is talking. Instead, they wait for him to say buzzwords they can cheer, like “lock her up,” but otherwise they tune him out. After all, MAGA is an authoritarian movement based on tribalist politics. Merit-based systems allow women and people of color to rise up, which is intolerable to the GOP base. What Trump says is not imporant. What they like about him is he’s rich, white, male and a bully.
There’s no way to know from afar what’s going on with Trump. On one hand, he’s 77 years old, and his own father died of Alzheimer’s. On the other hand, Trump’s narcissism has long fueled a willingness to lie shamelessly about his own supposed accomplishments, from making up golf scores even pros can’t achieve to pretending he had a chance with women who hated him to falsifying charitable donations to claiming his inauguration drew crowds it didn’t.
But claiming to have won elections he didn’t run in would be next-level lying, even by Trump standards. Plus, it doesn’t explain really his confusing Biden with Obama, or confusing the two Bush brothers. The likelier explanation is he’s confusing his fantasies with memories. Nor does it explain how his social media presence, which was always ungrammatical and silly, has become even more unhinged and incoherent. Perhaps we’ve all become numb to it, but stepping back, it’s really remarkable that he regularly issues violent threats on Truth Social that get ignored mainly because they’re as incomprehensible as they are terrible.
That the press understands Trump isn’t doing well is evident in the way they all politely ignore him screaming for the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, much like one would smile patiently at a dementia patient yelling invective about long-dead relatives. But of course, this is unbelievably unfair, because the very same press is in an endless hype cycle about “concerns” that Biden, who does not issue grammar-challenged murder threats regularly, is slowing down from age.
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“Biden is old” is swiftly turning into one of those self-perpetuating B.S. media cycles that only end up seeming to smear Democrats unfairly, such as “Hillary Clinton’s emails.” First, the press runs a million pieces on this non-story, creating the illusion of controversy where none exists. Then voters start to parrot the “concerns” back in polls, concerns they only have because they’re being told by a 24/7 news cycle to worry about this. Then those polls are used to justify even more coverage of a non-controversy, making sure a candidate is defined by something that was never a real problem.
With Biden, the rejoinder is “but he actually is old!” But of course, so is Trump. Worse, Trump, who is only 3 years younger, is clearly feeling his age a lot more than Biden, who does not forget what elections he ran in or how many world wars there were. Crucially, Biden isn’t displaying the loss of impulse control we see with Trump, whose baseline of self-control was not good to begin with. Trump struggles to get through interviews without confessing to his crimes. Good for prosecutors, but also a reminder that a man who can’t be a passable steward of his own freedom has no business running the country.
As Salon’s Heather “Digby” Parton pointed out on Twitter, the press actually knows they’re treating Biden and Trump very differently, even though the latter is way worse.
CNN asks if it’s important to hold Trump to the same standard as Biden when he confuses who ran against in 2016 over and over again. They aren’t really sure.
— digby (@digby56) September 26, 2023
Part of this is the same old bothsiderism that has cobbled Beltway journalism for decades. The press exaggerates the flaws of Democrats while minimizing the transgressions of Republicans, in order to create a false sense that the two parties are equal. They do this to seem “fair,” even though it’s the opposite of fair to handicap one party so thoroughly. They also do it for market reasons, because horse race coverage benefits from false equivalence, while giving audiences clear and accurate information would take some of the sport out of it. It gets to downright silly levels the closer elections get:
Trump has called for terminating the Constitution if he determines an election was fraudulent, called for the Chair of the Joint Chiefs to be executed, says he will remove media companies from public airwaves who don’t treat him well. So let’s do a story on Biden’s sneakers. pic.twitter.com/SfUvk7Plnp
— Ron Filipkowski (@RonFilipkowski) September 26, 2023
A lot of the double standard is driven by perceptions of what the two voting bases care about. Mainstream journalists believe, with good reason, that Democratic voters care about qualities like intelligence, competence, and mental fitness. They also believe, with good reason, that Republican voters don’t care if their candidates are babbling morons, so long as they a rich, white men. Indeed, being seen as “too” smart can hurt you with the GOP base, which suspiciously eyes intelligence as a gateway drug to rationality. So the Beltway press, in an attempt to be “objective,” ends up covering candidates through these perceived partisan biases. A Democrat saying something wrong or off is “news” because his own party members won’t like it, even if the mistake is inconsequential. Meanwhile, flat-out dumbassery or overt bigotry from Republicans is shrugged off, because of the belief that their base voters don’t care anyway.
And it’s true enough that most Democratic voters care about competence and most Republican voters do not. But that doesn’t excuse the press’s wild double standard on this. For one thing, it’s basic journalistic ethics to report the truth without worrying whether their most loyal voters care. But also, it’s foolish to think that giving audiences greater context doesn’t matter. There are a lot of swing voters, independents, and people who haven’t decided if they’re going to vote yet. Those folks can actually have their opinion shaped by the information they’re taking in. If the media focuses on Biden’s age while ignoring that Trump is worse, a lot of those fairweather citizens may vote in ways they come to regret — or not vote at all.
That’s bad news in any environment, but especially bad considering how much of a threat Trump is to our democracy and the nation’s future. He was bad enough in his first term where he, as much as the media might often forget, attempted a coup. If, as all public signs indicate, his already fragile mental state is getting more disjointed and reckless, that’s terrifying. What may be more dangerous than Trump’s idiocy is that, while he’s always been sociopathically impulsive and evil, he seems to be getting worse in his late 70s. If he gets power again, there’s little that could contain him.