Let’s Talk About Trump’s Gibberish

Perhaps the greatest trick Donald Trump ever pulled was convincing millions of people—and the American media—to treat his lapses into fantasies and gibberish as a normal, meaningful form of oratory. But Trump is not a normal person, and his speeches are not normal political events.

For too long, Trump has gotten away with pretending that his emotional issues are just part of some offbeat New York charm or an expression of his enthusiasm for public performance. But Trump is obviously unfit—and something is profoundly wrong with a political environment in which he can now say almost anything, no matter how weird, and his comments will get a couple of days of coverage and then a shrug, as if to say: Another day, another Trump rant about sharks.

Wait, what?

Yes, sharks. In Las Vegas on Sunday, Trump went off-script—I have to assume that no competent speechwriter would have drafted this—and riffed on the important question of how to electrocute a shark while one attacks. He had been talking, he claims, to someone about electric boats: “I say, ‘What would happen if the boat sank from its weight and you’re in the boat, and you have this tremendously powerful battery, and the battery’s now underwater, and there’s a shark that’s approximately 10 yards over there?’”

As usual, Trump noted how much he impressed his interlocutor with his very smart hypothetical: “And he said, ‘Nobody ever asks this question,’ and it must be because of MIT, my relationship to MIT. Very smart.” (MIT? Trump’s uncle taught there and retired over a half-century ago, when Trump was in his 20s, and died in 1985. Trump often implies that his uncle passed on MIT’s brainpower by genetic osmosis or something.)

This ramble went on for a bit longer, until Trump made it clear that given his choice, he’d rather be zapped instead of eaten: “But you know what I’d do if there was a shark or you get electrocuted? I’ll take electrocution every single time. I’m not getting near the shark. So we’re going to end that, we’re going to end it for boats, we’re going to end it for trucks.”

Hopefully, this puts to rest any pressing questions among Americans about the presumptive Republican nominee’s feelings on electric vehicles and their relationship to at least two gruesome ways to die.

Sure, it seems funny—Haha! Uncle Don is telling that crazy shark story again!—until we remember that this man wants to return to a position where he would hold America’s secrets, be responsible for the execution of our laws, and preside as the commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world. A moment that seems like oddball humor should, in fact, terrify any American voter, because this behavior in anyone else would be an instant disqualification for any political office, let alone the presidency. (Actually, a delusional, rambling felon known to have owned weapons would likely fail a security check for even a visit to the Oval Office.)

Nor was the Vegas monologue the first time: Trump for years has fallen off one verbal cliff after another, with barely a ripple in the national consciousness. I am not a psychiatrist, and I am not diagnosing Trump with anything. I am, however, a man who has lived on this earth for more than 60 years, and I know someone who has serious emotional problems when I see them played out in front of me, over and over. The 45th president is a disturbed person. He cannot be trusted with any position of responsibility—and especially not with an nuclear arsenal of over 1500 weapons. One wrong move could lead to global incineration.

Why hasn’t there been more sustained and serious attention paid to Trump’s emotional state?

First, Trump’s target audience is used to him. Watch the silence that descends over the crowds at such moments; when Trump wanders off into the recesses of his own mind, they chit-chat or check their phones or look around, waiting for him to come back and offer them an applause line. For them, it’s all just part of the show.

Second, Trump’s staff tries to put just enough policy fiber into Trump’s nutty verbal soufflés that they can always sell a talking point later, as if his off-ramps from reality are merely tiny bumps in otherwise sensible speeches. Trump himself occasionally seems surprised when these policy nuggets pop up in a speech; when reading the teleprompter, he sometimes adds comments such as “so true, so true,” perhaps because he’s encountering someone else’s words for the first time and agreeing with them. Thus, they will later claim that questions about sharks or long-dead uncles are just bad-faith distractions from substance. (These are the same Republicans who claim that every verbal stumble from Joe Biden indicates full-blown dementia.)

Third, and perhaps most concerning in terms of public discussion, many people in the media have fallen under the spell of the Jedi hand-waves from Trump and his people that none of this is as disturbing and weird as it sounds. The refs have been worked: A significant segment of the media—and even the Democratic Party—has bought into a Republican narrative that asking whether Trump is mentally unstable is somehow biased and elitist, the kind of thing that could only occur to Beltway mandarins who don’t understand how the candidate talks to normal people.

Such objections are mendacious nonsense and represent a massive double standard. As Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post wrote today: “It is irresponsible to obsess over President Biden’s tendency to mangle a couple of words in a speech while Donald Trump is out there sounding detached from reality.” Biden’s mush-mouthed moments fall well within the range of normal gaffes. Had he or any other American politician said anything even remotely like one of Trump’s bizarre digressions, we’d be flooded with front-page stories about it. Pundits would be solemnly calling for a Much Needed National Conversation about the 25th Amendment.

It is long past time for anyone who isn’t in the Trump base to admit, and to keep talking about, something that has been obvious for years: Donald Trump is unstable. Some of these problems were evident when he first ran, and we now know from revelations by many of his former staff that his problems processing information and staying tethered to reality are not part of some hammy act.

Worse, the people who once managed Trump’s cognitive and emotional issues are gone, never to return. A second Trump White House will be staffed with the bottom of the barrel—the opportunists and hangers-on willing to work for a reprehensible man. His Oval Office will be empty of responsible and experienced public servants if the day comes when someone has to explain to him why the war might be about to erupt on the Korean peninsula or why the Russian or Chinese nuclear forces have gone on alert, and he starts talking about frying sharks with boat batteries.

The 45th president is deeply unwell. It is long past time for Americans, including those in public life, to recognize his inability to serve as the 47th.

The Atlantic