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Ad-dled brains

Biden and Trump would rather fight about mental acuity than promote their policies

August 19, 2020

2:13 PM

19 August 2020

2:13 PM

With the Democratic party’s (virtual) National Convention in full swing and Joe Biden officially accepting the nomination, Donald Trump’s reelection campaign is taking to YouTube and Fox News with a new attack ad that claims the 77-year-old former vice president is suffering from dementia.

The emergence of this ad means that one of the Trump campaign’s most common ‘whisper’ tactics about Biden is now an official campaign talking point. But it is also a risky move, as Business Insider points out, because Trump himself, nearly as old as Biden, has been the subject of widespread speculation about his own mental and cognitive state. The attack ads ‘are a task complicated by the President’s obsession with a dementia-screening test he took,’ writes BI’s Jake Lahut. 

Cockburn regrets this will just be the beginning: as November 3 approaches, ads for the political campaigns will increasingly resemble a pair of deteriorating old men yelling at one another, aggressively pointing fingers and claiming that the other is the crazier one. Who loses? The American voters, who have to put up with it.

While the Biden campaign itself isn’t putting out official campaign ads questioning Donald Trump’s mental fitness (yet), it’s more than happy to let the likes of the Lincoln Project and Meidas Touch do its dirty work. The former, run by a cadre of disgruntled GOP campaign veterans, has created ads that allude to aides calling Trump an ‘idiot’ and a ‘fucking moron’ behind his back (quoting a Spectator piece, no less); the latter recently released a video that implied Trump’s wife wants to leave him. These ads, conspicuously, aren’t earning any condemnation from the party of ‘when they go low, we go high.’

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What’s key here is that the barrage of claims about Trump’s and Biden’s mental fitness are an effective crutch for both candidates to avoid talking about substantial political issues. And it’ll probably work for both of them.

Unlike Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden was never an issues-driven candidate; he’s more closely associated with his Amtrak commute than with any signature policy. Frankly, he probably doesn’t want to address the fact he’s perceived as a centrist, out of the concern that young leftists will stay home on Election Day. On the other hand, Trump’s signature proposals — the Muslim ban, the border wall, ‘make America great again’ — certainly helped propel him past a lineup of milquetoast, consultant-groomed GOP bobbleheads in the 2016 primary. But in between their controversial nature, tendency to get shut down by courts, and Trump’s inability to execute (when is Infrastructure Week again?) he’s far weaker on that front than he was four years ago. The Donald can rile up his base with oddball claims that Biden wants to ‘abolish suburbs’, for example, but that’s more likely to engender loyalty among people who already love him than to win over anyone new.

So where does that leave voters? Less informed, more annoyed, and caught in the middle of two angry old men of questionable mental fortitude, screaming at one another as though they’re arguing over which one gets to buy the last chainsaw off the shelf of a suburban Home Depot. Cockburn suspects record numbers of voters who stayed home on Election Day in 2016 may well do so again…

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