Trump’s new attack on Biden exposes his own unfitness
The Press Needs to account
Greg Sargent March 3, 2020
At a rally in North Carolina on Monday night, this actually happened: President Trump ripped into a resurgent Joe Biden by claiming he bungles facts and often appears confused.
Yes, Trump suggested the former vice president is mentally unfit for the presidency.
Let it be noted that this came only hours after Trump held an open session on coronavirus, at which he stumbled over the concept of vaccines and seemed to suggest he has no idea that clinical trials are required for medications.
And this came at a time when the administration’s coronavirus response has been marred by Trump’s own all-consuming pathologies. Trump’s initial instinct was to rage at the media for treating him unfairly, to deny the outbreak’s seriousness because it might rattle the markets and to decline to bring in an outside coordinator in part out of fear of that person’s disloyalty.
Does Trump really want to open the door to a debate over mental fitness for the presidency?
Apparently he does. At the rally, Trump slammed Biden for botching a gun violence statistic, adding this:
“Sleepy Joe,” Mr. Trump continued, “he doesn’t even know where he is or what he’s doing or what office he’s running for. Honestly, I don’t think he knows what office he’s running for.”
If Mr. Biden won the presidency, Mr. Trump said, his staff would actually do the governing. “They’re going to put him into a home, and other people are going to be running the country,” the president said, “and they’re going to be super-left, radical crazies. And Joe’s going to be in a home and he’ll be watching television.”
Yes, those words were actually uttered by Trump, who regularly relies for his most urgent policy updates on none other than Fox News.
It’s often observed that Trump criticizes his opponents for failings that he’s taken to comical extremes himself. Trump is probably the most corrupt U.S. president ever — yet he often baselessly claims his foes are corrupt. Trump is the biggest liar and fabulist ever to occupy the Oval Office — yet he often falsely tars his critics as liars.
Moves like these are often described with euphemisms — Trump is just flooding the zone with chaos! But in truth, they constitute the serial, destructive exploitation of a major institutional weakness built into the conventions of contemporary political reporting.
Precisely because Trump has pushed his depredations to such monumental extremes — the relentless corruption and the celebratory flaunting of it; the uncontrollable lying about the most easily verifiable matters — any faithful rendering of them risks coming across as sharply negative. And that, in turn, would risk creating a fat target for bad-faith right-wing ref-working.
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The resulting reluctance to convey such things with appropriate fidelity enables Trump to lob similar charges in the other direction. He can be confident not just that those charges will achieve widespread uncritical media amplification, but also that his purported identification of such traits in opponents will, absurdly, be placed on a plane of equivalence with their identification of the same traits in him.
Now that Biden might be the nominee, Trump is already casting him as mentally unfit for the presidency. But Trump might not perceive the space to get away with this if the press corps had not thus far failed, in some very fundamental sense, to reckon with just how mentally unfit for the job Trump is himself.
This unfitness has many dimensions — relentless corruption, nonstop lying, public racism and naked contempt for our democracy and constitutional order. As it is, we have all struggled to find language adequate to rendering all of it.
But perhaps nothing drives home this unfitness as dramatically as Trump’s response to what is now plainly a public health emergency.
Last week, Trump announced he was putting Vice President Pence in charge of responding to coronavirus. Dan Froomkin summed up the event: Trump was “rambling, often incoherent.” He had “no real understanding of what he was talking about” and “no sense of what was required of him as president.” He saw it as being “all about him.”
Ask yourself this: How likely is it that many people in this country, learning of this event solely from local and national news sources, came away understanding how remarkable this all was?
Similarly, when Trump stages his hate rallies, which are replete with boasts about war crimes and calls for imprisoning his political opponents, how much is faithfully conveyed?
In this election, the institutional ability of the press to fully convey the abnormality of this presidency is in doubt. As Brian Beutler details, we’re already seeing a rerun of 2016, which was beset with the press corps’ failure to clearly demarcate Trump’s history of corruption and racism from the lesser sins of Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s allies are counting on these failures to resurface. GOP senators are intensifying sham investigations into Biden and his son, in the obvious expectation that if he’s the nominee, whatever they purport to find will be treated as legitimate news, casting a pall of corruption over him.
Yes, one can argue that in Ukraine Hunter Biden profiteered off proximity to power. But the conduct of Biden himself in Ukraine is not in doubt, something that was underscored by the utter failure of Trump’s own ongoing effort to extort Ukraine to produce any results. Will those facts be clearly rendered?
It’s also true that there are legitimate concerns about Biden’s age and mental acuity. But it simply cannot be that Trump can get away with muddying these waters without a very serious reckoning with his own towering mental unfitness for the presidency, which is currently posing a serious threat to the country.
It’s not easy to say how, precisely, the press should convey that unfitness.
And so, if Trump wants to open the door to a reckoning with it, perhaps that should also entail a reckoning with the conventions of political reporting that have impaired that task.