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With the 2020 presidential election only four months away, this election cycle remains one of the most unusual in recent history. In addition to the candidates trying to figure out how to meet with potential voters while cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, coverage of the campaigns has mostly ignored policy. Instead, much focus has been on the cognitive abilities of the two septuagenarian candidates.
Both President Donald Trump and his presumptive challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, have been accused of being in cognitive decline. Each has publicly struggled with their words and made frequent gaffes. Biden has generally downplayed the accusations, but Trump has pushed back.
In multiple interviews, Trump has bragged about passing a cognitive test. Instead of putting the issue to rest, though, this has only raised more questions and left the president open to mockery.
The struggle to speak
Public speaking is not easy for many people. It’s frequently cited as one of the most common fears, a condition known as “glossophobia.” Yet, for politicians, public speaking can be one of the most important parts of the job and is certainly the most visible.
When politicians misspeak, those so-called “gaffes” are frequently latched on to by late night comedians and opponents. Former President George W. Bush was so famous for his tendency to mangle expressions and misuse words, the term “Bushism” was created to classify his numerous malapropisms.
Both Trump and Biden have made verbal mistakes on the campaign trail. Trump has struggled to pronounce various words, such as at a 2018 campaign rally when he couldn’t get out the word “anonymous.” He also seems to lose his train of thought at times, forgetting names and other words as he speaks.
Biden, likewise, has had his share of trip ups and malapropisms. In February this year, Biden told a group of supporters at an event in South Carolina that he was a “Democratic candidate for the United States Senate.” (Biden left the Senate in 2009 to be President Barack Obama’s vice president.)
Similarly to Trump, Biden has also appeared to lose his train of thought while speaking. Conspicuously, he appeared to forget the words of the Declaration of Independence at a March campaign rally. He began by saying, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: all men and women were created by the… go… you know the thing."
Compilations of both men misspeaking are easy to find as opponents of Biden and Trump have widely spread them online to attack the opposition candidate.
Trump’s cognitive ability
Since both candidates are prone to gaffes and verbal slips, it wouldn’t seem to be an issue in the campaign. However, Trump has regularly made a point of arguing that Biden is in mental decline or, as he tweeted in March 2019, “another low I.Q. individual!”
Trump has also bristled at any suggestion that he isn’t in top mental shape. In recent weeks, he has used multiple interviews to brag about his performance on mental acuity exams.
In two Fox News interviews, one with Chris Wallace and another a few days later with Marc Siegel, Trump bragged he “aced” a cognitive test he had taken.
Wallace, having taken the test himself, was unimpressed, saying, “it’s not the hardest test.” He pointed out one of the first questions was identifying an elephant. Trump pushed back, saying, “they get very hard, the last five questions.”
Wallace countered, “One of them was count back from a hundred by seven.”
In his subsequent interview with Siegal, Trump explained that he asked his doctor for an acuity test. Of the test, he stated, “The first questions are very easy, the last questions are much more difficult.” He then explained one question focused on memory.
Trump was asked to memorize five words – “person, woman, man, camera, TV” in Trump’s example – and then repeat them a few minutes later in the test. “If you get them in order, you get extra points,” he claimed, though there’s no indication that’s true.
What is an acuity test?
Both Trump’s response in the interview and his answer about the memory question were immediately mocked online.
Furthermore, Trump’s insistence that the test proves he has superior mental acuity is inaccurate. The test is not designed to prove one’s intelligence, it is a test to check for signs of dementia. While passing the assessment is certainly the goal, it is not designed to be “very hard” as Trump insists.
A version of the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), which was shown during Wallace’s interview with Trump, can be taken online. In addition to a section about identifying animals, the assessment has the taker draw an analog clock and repeat two phrases back. That person must also be able to identify the date, month, year, place and city.
Are Biden’s gaffes a campaign issue?
Biden has not denied his penchant for misspeaking, even labeling himself a “gaffe machine.” In an interview on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in September 2019, Biden acknowledged his history of misspeaking and mixing up facts. However, he asserted that such “details are irrelevant” compared to his actual policies.
Earlier this year, in The Atlantic, senior editor John Hendrickson disputed the idea that Biden’s gaffes represented a liability as a candidate. Instead, Hendrickson contended, Biden’s tendency to misspeak is based on a lifelong struggle with stuttering.
Though Biden has previously said he overcame his stutter, there is evidence it continues to be an issue. Hendrickson believes it’s the reason for Biden’s frequent verbal slip ups.
In a Twitter thread in November 2019, political reporter and editor Daniel Nichanian, who also struggles with stuttering, discussed Biden’s verbal slip ups. Nichanian said they appeared to be the result of a common coping mechanism he called “word avoidance.”
Not everyone is convinced by that argument, however.
Writing in the National Review last week, conservative pundit Dan McLaughlin stated, “Nobody had to make this argument for Biden when he ran for the Senate in 1972, or when he ran for president in 1988 and 2008, or when he chaired the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings in 1990, or when he ran for vice president and debated Sarah Palin in 2008 and Paul Ryan in 2012.”
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