Donald Trump’s Slurred Speech: A Diagnosis and Prescription

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.)  

2 thoughts on “Donald Trump’s Slurred Speech: A Diagnosis and Prescription

  1. Useful pair of (contrasting) articles on this (ht: Annette Bryson):

    https://www.politico.com/story/2019/08/20/joe-biden-old-age-1468635

    https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/08/02/joe-biden-age-media-227499

    I’m not a fan of Biden’s, but I’ve run the first of these articles past a lot of people aggressively adamant about their “diagnoses” of Biden’s “dementia.” Not one of them could defend the claim that they were in a position to offer a medical diagnosis, much less a diagnosis of dementia.

    Lots of people have cited this article as their definitive diagnostic verdict on Biden:

    https://caitlinjohnstone.com/2020/03/05/stop-calling-it-a-stutter%e2%80%8a-%e2%80%8ahere-are-dozens-of-examples-of-bidens-dementia-symptoms/

    It isn’t one. The author, Caitlin Johnstone, opens with this promising tweet, then conspicuously fails to deliver:

    A “serious and empathetic conversation” about a medical diagnosis would make a serious attempt at differential diagnosis. You can’t make a differential diagnosis by downloading two lists of symptoms, watching a couple of videos, and refusing to consider alternative explanations for the presenting symptoms besides what you find polemically convenient to discuss.

    Is Biden’s health a legitimate question? Of course. Do Johnstone’s videos look damning? Yes, they look damning, at least to the medically untrained eye. Are the medical implications transparent? No. Does Johnstone make them transparent? No. Does she have the credentials to do so? No. What she does is to make insinuations out of one side of her mouth while backpedaling them by saying that we need to have a “conversation” about Biden’s “neurological misfirings.” This looks to me more like an attempt to play the clever derby while covering one’s ass than a serious and empathetic attempt at a medical diagnosis. No competent diagnostician would diagnose someone from afar in the way Johnstone attempts.

    One anti-Biden interlocutor I queried finally conceded–after I started wondering out loud about the possibility that his incomprehension might be a sign of dementia–that what we really need is an independent medical examination of Biden. Fair enough. But you don’t do a medical examination of a patient in the full certainty, ahead of the examination, of what the diagnosis “has” to be “if we’re to defeat Trump.” It doesn’t strike me as wise to try to defeat Trump by employing Lysenkoist methods: to adopt medical or biological hypotheses, not because the evidence favors them, but because doing so would best serve our political purposes. This seems a stupid enough procedure under any circumstances, but seems particularly stupid in the midst of what might be a major pandemic. That hasn’t stopped legions of keyboard diagnosticians, and probably won’t.

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  2. Another author unsure of whether he’s offering a medical diagnosis or political advice–or perhaps, medical diagnosis versus a plug for Bernie.

    https://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/bidens-brain-is-breaking-down/?fbclid=IwAR3nWPbDYw5HzO0Q1V-CERxdJFfW6cNn_CnK8mCkvxPLMSoozg1MaADSq80

    Just to be clear, “Biden has dementia because Bernie’s mind remains sharp, and the mainstream media is employing a double standard in judging the two” is not a medical diagnosis.

    Some more questionable claims:

    If these were just isolated incidents, perhaps they could be chalked up to lack of sleep or the side effect of some medication.

    Why would the side effects of a medication result in isolated incidents? Given consistent adherence and consistent side effects, wouldn’t the side effects of a medication result in consistent symptoms consistently producing the same sorts of incident?

    Continiung:

    But he struggled to recite the words every child in America memorized in grade school: “We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men and women are created, by the…you know…you know the thing.”

    What’s the evidence that “every child in America” memorizes the Declaration of Independence? I didn’t.

    More:

    But when it’s happening with great frequency to a politician pushing 80 who previously had surgery for a brain aneurysm, maybe it’s a sign of something more serous.

    Right, but maybe it isn’t. From the Politico article I cited in the last comment:

    The two brain aneurysms Biden suffered in 1988 were fully treated and he showed no signs of mental trouble as a result, said Dr. Neal Kassell, who performed the surgery on Biden three decades ago. Nor did Biden suffer any brain damage that could come back to haunt him in old age, Kassell said.

    “He is every bit as sharp as he was 31 years ago. I haven’t seen any change,” Kassell said. “I can tell you with absolute certainty that he had no brain damage, either from the hemorrhage or from the operations that he had. There was no damage whatsoever.”

    Should we believe that? I don’t know. But it obviously has to be weighed in the balance as against the assertions of a journalist with zero medical qualifications whatsoever.

    Back to the original article:

    With all four remaining contenders over age 70, the candidates’ health is a legitimate topic to discuss, but so far the focus has overwhelmingly been on Bernie Sanders, who had a stent procedure last fall. Debate moderators have quizzed him about it. His health has been the subject of countless articles. He’s almost daily being hounded to release more medical records, which his campaign has likened to “birtherism.”

    If Bernie’s heart is fair game, then so is Joe’s brain.

    Yes, if Bernie’s heart is fair game, so is Joe’s brain. But if Joe’s brain is fair game, why is a demand for Bernie’s medical records a case of “birtherism”?

    Sometimes, I know, partisans get carried away:

    Sanders hasn’t fallen ill since his procedure. He has, however remained mentally sharp, maintaining flawless message discipline. He’s prepared for every question and always expertly pivots with grace to his core issues whenever there’s a risk he might falter.

    He “always expertly pivots with grace to his core issues whenver there’s a risk he might falter.” You mean he knows the uses of a rhetorical security blanket?

    More nonsense:

    He’ll likely face more questions about his son Hunter and his relationship with the Ukrainian company Burisma, which nearly 60 percent of independent voters consider a scandal. If he responds to these questions with anything other than a concise, calculated answer, he’ll be perceived as crooked.

    How do you answer an open-ended, tendentious question about nothing in particular except to dismiss it out of hand? But if Biden does that, will he then be accused of exhibiting the crabbiness characteristic of dementia?

    I really did laugh out loud at this:

    Of course, Trump is most likely suffering from some kind of dementia as well, but he’s better at managing it. Trump’s ability as both showman and conman enables him to mask his incoherence or transform it into an entertaining spectacle. Biden tries to come off as presidential—to project gravitas—which is hard if you’re having trouble stringing sentences together.

    A simpler explanation might be that Trump doesn’t have dementia.

    Finally:

    So while all candidates have liabilities, Biden’s are all compounded by his biggest: his mental decline.

    The same might be said of a lot of journalism today.

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