Donald Trump has a new bit. You may have seen it if you’ve caught footage of a recent rally. He turns away from the podium and lurches stiffly toward the back of the platform, pawing at the backdrop like an exhausted actor unable to find the gap in the stage curtains. It’s supposed to be Trump’s parody of President Joe Biden. But the problem for Trump is that this whole act seems a lot closer to a barely exaggerated take on another aging character: Donald Trump.
Trump’s speeches, especially his lengthy rambles at rallies and other Trump-friendly events, have always been strings of disconnected claims, the impact of which comes more from a tone of snide certainty than any of the actual words. His supporters are left free to generate any impression of Trump they want, buckling together dropped words and phrases to find a message that agrees with their views. In a sense, Trump can’t get much worse—because he was never coherent in the first place.
But this time, the front-runner’s Republican opponents are starting to see an opportunity in Trump’s delirium. They’re throwing at him exactly the kind of insults that Trump has been slinging at Biden. And there’s good evidence that the perception of being old and out of it hurts Trump far worse than it does Biden.
Even to the most casual observer, it’s clear that Trump’s onstage appearances are more chaotic than they were in 2016. Trump’s original campaign tour was full of vitriol, insults, racism, and misogyny. It was disconnected from reality, but it presented an internally consistent view of a world woven around oppression and fear.
That’s not the case with Trump 2023. If Trump has a theme for his second coming, it’s just that he intends to hurt people. Whether that means Democrats, insufficiently loyal Republicans, military officers, the legal system, the entire government, allies, or protesters, Trump is promising vengeance. For his core supporters, that’s probably enough.
But once he veers away from declaring his “shoot first, ask questions never” policy, Trump just tends to … wander. In recent days, Trump has:
Discovered that the U.S. is spelled with both a “U” and an “S,” which he thinks is “genius.”
Warned that America is about to get into “World War II” just moments after he warned that Biden was cognitively impaired.
Declared that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is the leader of Turkey, then talked about Turkey’s border with Russia—which doesn’t exist.
Developed a weird obsession with the court clerk in his New York fraud case that has already earned him two fines from the judge.
Forgotten what city and state he was speaking in, earning some boos from his audience.
Declared that he will win the election over Barack Obama before completely derailing his own speech.
Repeatedly asked why Biden didn’t investigate him three years ago … which would be the fall of 2020. When someone else was in the White House.
Trump’s actions go well beyond the realm of gaffes, and as The New York Times reports, some of his opponents are smelling blood in the water.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has started making attacks directly on this point, euphemistically saying that Trump has “lost the zip on his fastball,” and that Trump’s current state is “sad to see.”
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has expressed concern about Trump being “confused,” has been pressing for all candidates over 75 to take a mental competency test, and suggested that all Republican candidates need a note from their doctor attesting to their mental abilities. Of course, Trump probably still has “person, man, woman, camera, TV” written down somewhere, and he’s never had a problem finding a doctor to lie for him.
Republicans have been out there swinging around the claim that Biden is too old and playing up every out-of-context quote they can find to suggest that the president is just barely hanging onto life. But polling suggests this issue could hurt Trump far more than it hurts Biden.
The two men are only three years apart in age, and in an August poll from the Associated Press, 43% of Americans felt both were too old to serve another four years in the White House. However, of those who expressed that belief, 61% said they were voting for Biden and only 13% said they were voting for Trump. Similar results have appeared in other polls, leaving some analysts to feel that people have already accepted the idea that Biden is 80. The attacks have been made, and his age worries them, but they’ve come to accept it.
But when people start to realize that Trump is right on Biden’s heels, it seems to have more impact. According to polling director Berwood Yost, “The age issue is one that if Trump gets tarred with the same brush as Biden, it really hurts him.”
Trump spokesman Steven Cheung insisted to The New York Times that it’s Biden who people are seeing stumble and have apparent difficulty. But that seems to be more about the reporting than the reality.