While teaching a class today, I slurred over a word. I’m so far gone that I don’t even remember what word it was. It might have been “statistical,” but I can’t remember.
Am I drunk? Am I on drugs? Am I suffering from ADHD, or some neurological disease? All of the above?
No, as it turns out, I only got four hours of sleep last night. When I’m tired, I slur my words. Illy coffee helps, but not entirely.
Is this chronic insomnia? Is it drug induced? Am I going to go mad and die?
No. This happens to people. They don’t get enough sleep. Then they slur their words–a fact known to everyone who engages in public speaking for a living. It’s a good reason to get a good night’s sleep, but believe it or not, there are no guarantees in life.
I thought of this as I scrolled through Facebook last night, reading breathless tales of Donald Trump’s slurred speech. This “slurred speech” trope has been a thing since at least 2017, when amateur neurologists began to listen carefully to Donald Trump’s speeches, marking the micro-syllables between each word, and discerning ominous things in them.
Maybe Donald Trump is an insomniac drug addict with ADHD, dementia, and Huntington’s disease all at once. I couldn’t say. If so, his health problems probably wouldn’t be all that much worse than those of Eisenhower, JFK, or Reagan, who managed the Quemoy/Matsu crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Reykjavik summit, respectively, under seriously problematic medical conditions. But I can’t say because I don’t know.
And given that I don’t know, I hesitate to speculate. If forced at gunpoint to speculate, I would probably go with the least consequential diagnosis that explains all of the symptoms: sleep deprivation. And if called on to give medical advice, I’d tell the president to get some more sleep. Of course, at some level, I wish I could tell him to resign the presidency and drop dead, but that’s political rather than medical advice.
The obsession with Trump’s slurred speech looks a lot like the opposite of what it pretends to be. It pretends to be inside knowledge, or amazing prescience. It actually sounds like growing Democratic desperation in the face of the ascendancy of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Unable to accept the fact that Donald Trump won the 2016 election, unable to accept the defeat of the centrist drones that were/are supposed to win the Democratic nomination, unable to accept the possibility that Trump might win again in 2020, the brilliant minds of mittel-Democratic opinion have seized on their one last hope–that Donald Trump, suffering from some inscrutable medical condition, will magically vanish from sight, and absolve them of their Ahab-like quest to defeat him in electoral combat.
I don’t claim to know who’s going to win the 2020 election. I don’t particularly like any of the most likely choices. I’ll probably end up voting for Bernie. But there is at least a 50/50 chance that Donald Trump will win the 2020 presidential election. There is no magic bullet solution to this problem. But if I could give the Democrats one prescription–one nostrum–one piece of advice they might take to heart, it would be: please stop believing in magic. Please. Please just accept that you live in the country that elected Donald Trump, and might well do it again. Please stop blaming that situation on fact-deprived conspiracy theories plucked from the feverish minds of party hacks like Hillary Clinton, James Carville, and Neera Tanden. It doesn’t make things better. It just makes them worse.
Trump won in 2016; we dealt with it. He may win again in 2020; if so, we’ll have to deal with it. But conspicuous desperation and magical thinking do no one any good. Panic eventually becomes contagious, and there’s already enough of it around. Stop grasping at straws, for God’s sake, before people start diagnosing you.
PS, February 25, 2020. Going after Biden on the same issue is not an improvement. Honestly, what the fuck are these people talking about? It’s one thing if you want to make substantive criticisms of Biden; no shortage of reasons to do so. But how is it that Mehdi Hasan and Shaun King (and so many others) have suddenly become gerontologists-at-a-distance? Hasan: “When you add up all his weird lines and comments and mistake together…” what follows, exactly? Shaun King tweets as though he was sure that Biden had aphasia or dementia, except that he lacks the courage to put it that explicitly.
Contrary to King, what’s “sad” are the depths to which people will stoop to look knowing and clever for public approbation. Call it another minor win for Jason Brennan’s (overstated) thesis that “politics threatens an idea of mutual respect and mutual regard” (Against Democracy, p. 231). It doesn’t have to, but it often does. No political victory is worth the price of this sort of irresponsibility. (Same goes for the attacks on Amy Klobuchar for momentarily forgetting the name of the President of Mexico. Her response to those criticisms was unanswerable: the presidency is not, after all, an extended geography bee.)