Opinion writer

Joe Biden’s Democratic rivals have now begun to raise questions about his age and mental competence. But they are doing so ever so gingerly, and even apologetically.

President Trump is not being nearly as cautious or circumspect.

In that contrast resides something that deserves more attention about the Biden age issue. The question isn’t merely whether Biden has the stamina for a grueling campaign, or whether Biden will be able to handle debates with Trump.

It’s also whether Biden or indeed other Democrats are prepared for the massive onslaught of absolutely brutal and distortive attacks that Trump and his propaganda apparatus will wage on this particular front — attacks that you can be certain will include all sorts of shamelessly propagandistic media manipulation and outright disinformation tactics.

The big exchange at the Houston debate between Julián Castro and Biden on the topic of Biden’s age is notable for how muted it seems. After some back-and-forth over Medicare, Castro pointedly asked: “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?”

Newly-minted pundit Rahm Emanuel promptly declared this “mean.” And after the debate, Castro immediately disavowed any such intentions, claiming it wasn’t meant as a “shot at his age.”

Cory Booker was similarly cautious. After the debate, Booker carefully supported Castro, noting that many people are “concerned about Joe Biden’s ability to carry the ball all the way across the end line without fumbling,” in a “long, grueling campaign.” The implication was clear, but unstated.

Now contrast all that with Trump’s approach. He gave a speech to Republicans during the debate, in which he mocked “Sleepy Joe,” adding: “He’s falling asleep. He has no idea what the hell he’s doing or saying.”

There is something deeply absurd, of course, about Trump raising questions about Biden’s fitness in a speech in which Trump rambled bizarrely about how light bulbs make him “look orange.”

But Trump’s comments should be taken as a sign of what’s to come — not from him alone, but from his massive disinformation machine.

A taste of what’s coming

For a taste of what this will look like, watch the disgusting video that the Trump campaign released after Hillary Clinton fell ill in 2016. It juxtaposes terrorist imagery with footage of Clinton coughing, stumbling outside her campaign van, and even a shot of a frail Clinton struggling to climb stairs. This whole line, as Media Matters documented, was heavily amplified by right-wing media.

That will look like video of a knitting session compared with this time, which will likely include full-saturation levels of deliberate disinformation. Look at this distorted video of Nancy Pelosi slowed down to look drunk, and imagine distorted videos of Biden’s rambles.

We might even get deepfakes — ultra-sophisticated computer-altered videos — done by somebody, somewhere, making Biden look even more frail, committing verbal stumbles he never actually committed.

Such things will be spread widely across social media, with the help of platforms not self-policing adequately, and shared with tens of millions of people via the Twitter feed of the president of the United States.

It’s understandable that Democrats want to be cautious about this topic, since they’re wary of alienating Democratic voters, and harbor genuine good will and respect toward Biden himself. Trump, and especially his propagandists, who will operate at a degree of separation from Trump himself, will be under no such constraints — or any constraints, really.

This eventuality is not Biden’s fault. But the episode at the debate that raised all the concerns about Biden’s long-term fitness did actually happen: Biden’s answer to a question about slavery really was a rambling mess that detoured into strange comments about record players.

It’s not fair to treat this as all that defining of the evening: Biden did turn in a performance that was often very energetic and combative. He mixed it up on policy in a way that plainly got across his intended message — he’s unapologetic about his embrace of Barack Obama, and is not the candidate who will imperil the Democrats’ general-election chances by threatening too much disruption from the left.

But worries about Biden’s age and stamina are not unreasonable, given all we’ve seen. Related questions about Biden’s competence are something we should be debating, as political scientist Dave Hopkins points out.

The problem isn’t necessarily that Trump will best him in debates. When Trump mocks Biden directly to his face by scoffing that he’s asleep on his feet — which will happen — Biden will likely counter this by highlighting Trump’s obvious unfitness.

Handled correctly, Biden stands a good chance of coming out better in such exchanges. Swing voters — particularly aging ones already alienated by Trump’s ugliness and depravity — will probably side with Biden and overlook his foibles.

But the all-but-certain magnification of subterranean voter concerns about Biden’s fitness and stamina — via unchecked disinformation and media manipulation — is something to start thinking about. Even if it doesn’t end up moving that many voters, it’ll be positively awful for our discourse, and will require a forceful and concerted response that is up to the moment we’re in.

This includes the media, which should be currently debating how to handle this type of disinformation onslaught.

Do they know what they’re up against?

We need to know that Biden, and indeed many establishment Democrats, are ready for this. Which feeds into a much broader topic: whether they know what they’re truly up against here.

When Biden talks about winning over Republicans who subtly fed the birther conspiracy, unabashedly held a Supreme Court seat, refused a united front against Russian sabotage of our democracy, and, now, won’t help safeguard our political system against another attack, the bigger question is whether Biden fully appreciates what the parts of the contemporary right wing that happily allied with Trump are made of.

The coming disinformation warfare on Biden’s age is of a piece with that. Biden and Democratic Party officials very well may appreciate what they’re facing. If so, we need to hear it.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Moderates stood out in the third debate. Too bad it won’t make much of a difference.

Alyssa Rosenberg: The Democratic debates are making me feel better about America

Ann Telnaes: Sketching the third Democratic debate

Ed Rogers: Ranking the Houston Democratic debaters: From Warren to Beto

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Democrats finally realized who their real opponent is: Trump

Highlights from the third Democratic debate

Fact-checking and analysis of key moments

Which candidates spoke the most?