The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Age-related mental decline is a real issue. For both Biden and Trump.

(Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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President Trump has decided to build his campaign on the accusation that Joe Biden is suffering a mental decline that makes him unfit for the presidency. Unlike many of the claims Trump makes, this one is not completely without evidence. So we all have to decide what we think of it and how it should factor into the election.

The first thing to understand is that this isn’t a matter of a joke or jab here or there. Trump and his allies are mounting a comprehensive and coordinated effort to paint Biden as senile. A sampling of recent examples:

  • Trump has begun attacking Biden’s mental fitness at every opportunity. “They’re going to put him into a home, and other people are going to be running the country,” he said at a recent rally. “Sleepy Joe doesn’t know where he is, or what he’s doing. Honestly, I don’t think he even knows what office he's running for!” he said on Twitter.
  • On Tuesday night, Sean Hannity ranted for almost 10 minutes about Biden’s mental state. This has been a regular topic of discussion for Hannity; he recently said Biden “seems to be in a rapid state of decline and not up to the rigors needed, even on a campaign.”
  • Tucker Carlson says Biden has “clearly lost it” and has a “fading intellect.”
  • Fox personality Brit Hume said Tuesday that Biden, “like so many people his age, is losing his memory and is getting senile.”
  • Rudy Giuliani said Biden is showing “obvious signs of dementia.”

Of course, coming from Trump and his allies, this is utterly bonkers. The president regularly gives remarks full of bizarre digressions, puzzling illogic, garbled words and slurred speech. He says his father was born in Germany (actually it was New York), says “oranges” when he means “origins,” thinks windmills cause cancer and appears to believe that stealth planes are literally invisible to the naked eye.

Trump’s entire staff treats him like a toddler, with whims so volatile and infantile that they have to constantly tiptoe around him lest he fly off the handle and do something crazy. He reportedly doesn’t get into the office until 11 a.m. and blocks out large portions of his day for “executive time,” i.e., watching television.

And just as Trump accuses his opponents of being corrupt to counter the weighty evidence of his own corruption, the attack on Biden’s mental state is in part an attempt to distract people from the fact that Trump himself is temperamentally, intellectually and morally unfit to manage a 7-Eleven, let alone the country.

To be clear, I’m not saying that discussion of Biden’s mental acuity should be off-limits (and we shouldn’t forget that some on the left, including advocates for Bernie Sanders, have aggressively promoted the idea that Biden is experiencing cognitive decline). While Biden has always had a propensity for rambling stories and cringe-worthy statements, in this campaign they have become more frequent. It’s undeniable.

But the danger is that we’ll overstate the importance of trivial mistakes that could happen to anyone (like Biden calling Chris Wallace “Chuck” after he had just done an interview with Chuck Todd), and more importantly, that Trump and the right will convince everyone in the media to stop asking about Trump’s own cognitive issues.

Now here’s the reality: If Biden is the nominee, we’ll have two candidates in their 70s, neither one of whom seems quite as sharp as they were in earlier years. You can see it with Biden on the stump every day, and you can see it by comparing the Trump of today to the one you’ll find in old interviews, in which he’s far more articulate and able to see a thought through from beginning to end.

We should also keep in mind that this isn’t a binary, yes-or-no issue. Everyone experiences certain kinds of cognitive decline as they age. Ask anyone in their 50s and they’ll tell you about it. But the fact that you misplace your keys more often or have trouble remembering the names of people you went to high school with — or if you get momentarily tongue-tied when making an extemporaneous speech, as both Trump and Biden often do — doesn’t mean that your ability to make sound judgments is necessarily compromised.

But having an older president, whether it’s Trump or Biden, does suggest certain things we’d want to have around him.

He should have a capable vice president ready to step in should it become necessary. He should have a strong chief of staff able to steer the flow of information, tasks and decisions to make the cognitive load on him as manageable as possible. He should have staff with the ability and willingness to be frank with him when his decisions are questionable or problematic. And he should have the self-awareness to understand his own weaknesses and make allowances for them, to constantly ask whether he knows what he needs to know, has understood each issue from all relevant angles and is making the best decisions.

Any president, younger or older, should have those things. And with the exception of a reasonably well-prepared vice president, Trump has none of them.

Which means that although both Biden and Trump may be facing cognitive issues that could affect their performance in office, the dangers are much more profound for Trump. We’ve already seen it play out over the past three years, and if he’s reelected, it’s likely to get worse.

If we’re going to talk about age-related cognitive decline, that ought to be at the forefront of the discussion.

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