Friday, July 24, 2020


The Trump campaign keeps trying to make an issue of Joe Biden's mental acuity. There's some reason to be concerned -- at times Biden struggles to remember words in a way that could suggest impairment (or could just suggest that he has a normal older person's difficulty with word memory, something I've experienced since I was about fifty, as have most people my age, with no other evidence of decline).

President Trump rarely gropes for words -- as we've seen in his many recent interviews and off-the-cuff diatribes, he just talks and talks. The words flow.

But sometimes they're odd words. A couple of years ago, he said, "I have the best words." That's ... not normal English. Repeatedly, on Twitter, he's called himself a "stable genius" or a "very stable genius." We're used to Trump's massive ego (which itself seems like a mental impairment), but who would put these words together and expect them to be received as an ordinary boast, rather than a denial that he's volatile and ignorant?

This seems like a serious mental impairment: Trump seems incapable of understanding how his words and deeds are received. Lately he's been boasting about the results of the cognitive exam he took a couple of years ago. As Steve Benen notes, in a Fox interview that aired this week, his questioner, Dr. Marc Siegel, fed Trump a question designed to get the president talking about the cognitive test.
According to the transcript, Siegel initially asked Trump to reflect on what "should come out" about Joe Biden's health. It was, to be sure, a curious question.

But not as curious as the president's answer. To demonstrate how difficult he found the cognitive exam, Trump said the administrator read him a list of five random words, which he was expected to read back. In this case, the Republican listed five nouns: "Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV."

... the president said ... that he was able to recite the five random words, both immediately after hearing them and then again 10 to 20 minutes later. Trump boasted, “They say, ‘That’s amazing. How did you do that?’ I do it because I have, like, a good memory, because I’m cognitively there."

As part of the same celebration of himself, the president added, “They said nobody gets [the five words] in order. It’s actually not that easy, but for me, it was easy."
Since this was Fox, where I assume most interviews with favored subjects are structured to elicit predetermined answers, it's clear that Fox and Trump wanted this answer to be a key part of the interview -- or at least that Trump wanted this out there and Fox dutifully complied. (Remember, the tough Chris Wallace interview wasn't on Fox News -- it was on the Fox broadcast network. Wallace is a token objective reporter in the Fox news operation, kept on as window dressing to shield the biased nature of the rest.)

The problem with Trump's incessant talk about this cognitive test is that we know the test isn't difficult. Chris Wallace said so in the Fox News Sunday interview. This has been widely reported elsewhere. Those of us who've watched elderly parents take the test, or similar tests, know that it's designed to measure cognitive decline, not brilliance.

Yet Trump keeps portraying it as a mark of genius. What mental impairment does he have that makes it impossible for him to perceive how his words are received? Or does he seriously not understand that the test is easy for anyone with normal cognitive function? Why can't he learn that?

For that matter, why can't he learn that tariffs are passed off to consumers, not paid directly out of national treasuries? I would assume that Trump is trying to bamboozle the public about how tariffs work, but he mischaracterizes them so often, and so insistently, that it's hard to believe he genuinely understands how they work.

And then there's his take on coronavirus testing.

We know that the narcissistic Trump finds the pandemic embarrassing -- he had everything going great, low unemployment, booming stock market, and then this came along. We know he's incapable of empathy (another mental impairment) and doesn't feel anything when he's told about death and suffering in the pandemic.

But beyond that, he seems unable to grasp the purpose of widespread testing. You test for a deadly contagious disease in order to limit its spread until its transmission is reduced to very low numbers. I don't think Donald Trump can follow that sequence of events. I don't believe he's a denialist exactly -- a person who thinks the virus is no worse than the flu. I think he can't wrap his mind around the way viruses spread and the way testing helps human beings to contain that spread. A reasonably intelligent grade schooler can grasp it, but there's no sign that Trump can.

This is more worrisome to me than Joe Biden groping for the occasional word. I don't think it's mental decline -- I question whether Donald Trump could ever think or reason like a normal person. And yet he's president.

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