By Frank Bruni, The New York Times, May 11, 2023.
Given all the attention to President Biden’s cognitive fitness for a second presidential term, it seems fair, even mandatory, to assess Donald Trump’s performance at a televised town hall in Manchester, N.H., on Wednesday night through the same lens:
How clear was his thinking? How sturdy his tether to reality? How appropriate his demeanor?
On a scale of 1 to Marjorie Taylor Greene, I’d give him an 11.
He was asked to respond to a Manhattan jury’s verdict the previous day that he had sexually abused and defamed the writer E. Jean Carroll.
He said that Carroll once had a cat named Vagina.
He was asked about his failure to deliver on his signature promise to voters in 2016 — that he’d build a wall stretching across the southwestern border of the United States.
“I did finish the wall,” he said, just a few beats before adding that Biden could have easily and quickly completed the stretch that still hasn’t been built if he’d cared to. The statements contradicted each other. They made no sense. They were his entire performance in a nutshell.
He was asked about his role in the Jan. 6 violence and whether he had regrets.
He reminisced mistily about addressing the rally before the riot — “It was the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken to,” he boasted — and about how they were there “with love in their hearts.” The problem, he said, was “Crazy Nancy,” meaning Pelosi, whose fault all of this really was.
It’s never Trump’s — not on this score, not on any other, not when a jury rules against him, not when voters pick someone else to be in the White House, not when he’s indicted, not when he’s impeached, not when he’s impeached a second time, not when he’s caught hiding classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, not when he’s caught on tape.
He was grilled about such a tape, the one after Election Day 2020 that has him ordering the Republican secretary of state in Georgia, which Biden narrowly won, to overturn that result by finding him more votes.
“I didn’t ask him to find anything,” Trump insisted, incorrectly. “I said, ‘You owe me votes.’” Whew! I’m glad that’s cleared up.
In response to question after question, on issue after issue, Trump denied incontrovertible facts, insisted on alternative ones, spoke of America as a country swirling down the toilet, spoke of himself as the only politician who could save it, framed his presidency as one that outshone all the others, projected his own flaws and mistakes on his critics and opponents, expressed contempt for them and claimed persecution.
He was, in other words, a font of lies keeping true to himself, ever the peacock, always cuckoo. The evening made utterly clear — just in case there was a scintilla of doubt — that his latest, third bid for the White House won’t be any kind of reset, just a full-on rehash. And that was inevitable, because someone like Trump doesn’t change. His self-infatuation precludes any possibility of that.
The town hall, hosted by CNN and moderated heroically by the anchor Kaitlan Collins, played like a kind of Mad Libs of hundreds of Trump’s public appearances and interviews since he jumped into the presidential fray back in 2015. Some of the proper nouns were different. Some of the dates had changed. Almost everything else was the same.
Instead of complaining about the insufficient financial contributions of NATO’s member countries, he complained about the insufficient financial contributions of European nations to Ukraine’s war effort. His descriptions of the evil, dangerous hordes poised to stream into the United States from Mexico right now sounded like a remix of his descriptions, on the day he announced his first presidential campaign nearly eight years ago, of the evil, dangerous hordes supposedly streaming in then.
In an ugly echo of the 2016 presidential debate when he called Hillary Clinton “nasty,” he called Collins “nasty.” The “very stable genius,” as he once pronounced himself, has a very static vocabulary.
And he has no acquaintance with a thesaurus, dignity or maturity. “Stupid,” “stupid,” “stupid” — he kept using that word, I guess because it’s so presidential. He applied it to anyone who doesn’t believe that the 2020 election was stolen and rigged. He applied it to everything about the Biden administration and Democrats in Washington.
“Our country is being destroyed by stupid people — by very stupid people,” he said. He never ascended to an altitude of eloquence above that.
A word about CNN: Its decision to give Trump this platform was widely attacked, but the network was correct to recognize that he is a relevant, potent political force who cannot be ignored and must be thoroughly vetted. Collins was clearly and rightly encouraged to challenge every false claim that he made, and she did precisely that, demonstrating great knowledge and preternatural poise.
But where CNN went wrong was in the audience it assembled, a generally adoring crowd who laughed heartily at Trump’s jokes, clapped lustily at his insults and thrilled to his every puerile flourish. When several of them had their turns at the microphone, their questions were air kisses, which is why Collins had to keep stepping in to slap Trump around with her own. The contrast — her righteous firmness, their star-struck flaccidity — was disorienting and repellent. Between now and November 2024, we’re in for a stranger and scarier ride than in any other presidential election in my lifetime, and there’s no telling how it will end.
That was the moral of the much-discussed poll by The Washington Post and ABC News that was released last weekend. It not only gave Trump a six-point lead over Biden in a hypothetical matchup but also showed that voters deem Trump, 76, more physically and mentally fit for the presidency than Biden, 80.
I’ll grant Trump his vigor. During the town hall, he spoke emphatically and energetically.
But vigor isn’t competence, and that brings me back to the start. I myself have observed that Biden often doesn’t seem as clear and focused as he did in the past, but next to a man who insouciantly brags that he could end the war between Ukraine and Russia in 24 hours, as Trump did on Wednesday night?
Next to a man who also reprised his claims of some godlike power to declassify documents by simply staring at them and thinking unclassified thoughts?
Next to a man who sires his own reality, comes to believe in that fantasy while it’s still in diapers, considers himself omnipotent, fancies himself omniscient and replaces genuine reflection with disingenuous navel gazing?
That was Trump at the town hall. That was Trump for his four years in office. That would be Trump if he gets back to the White House. And it’s no display of superior cognition. Just a reminder of the madness that this country can’t seem to put behind it.
Image credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times