Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The battle of the big brains

The 2024 presidential campaign is yet another battle between two unpopular candidates. This year, one of the big issues is mental fitness… or rather the lack thereof. While this issue is often connected with Joe Biden, there are legitimate questions about Donald Trump’s mental fitness as well.

I agree that Joe Biden has aged and gotten slower, but it’s also true that many of the videos circulating on the internet that purport to show his problems have been deceptively edited. That has happened in the past, such as a photo from the 2020 campaign that purported to show Biden inappropriately touching his grandson at Beau Biden’s funeral. The photo's photographer told Politifact that it showed Biden comforting his grieving grandson at the public ceremony. This is an extreme example of the dishonesty of some Biden opponents and in my opinion, it’s pretty sick to paint the moment as something bordering on pedophilia.

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash


There have been a few additional doctored photos and videos that showed up recently. The Washington Post ran a helpful side-by-side comparison of several videos from the D-Day anniversary ceremonies that had been doctored to make Biden look shaky and mentally deficient with the actual unedited videos. One of the videos, which showed Biden bending to sit down, crops out the chair leaving online accounts to suggest that Biden was about to fall or had an unfortunately timed bowel movement.

One tell that the videos are doctored (aside from the actual unedited video) is that we have the video of Biden’s speech to the gathering just a few moments later. Biden is lucid, intelligible, coherent, even eloquent, and if you’ll excuse the expression, not a drooling idiot. It seems unlikely that he could go from wandering aimlessly at one moment to delivering a good speech a few minutes later. I have seen dementia and I don’t know of any drug that could pull that off.

The most recent of these “cheapfake” videos shows Biden at the G7 summit in Italy. The video from this conference “appears,” in the words of Republican-leaning outlets, to show Biden wandering off after G7 leaders had just watched a parachute demonstration. Another comparison on NBC shows Biden at the edge of the screen in the clip used by the Republican outlets while an uncropped video shows Biden talking to a parachutist who is packing up his chute before being called back for a group photo.

In this case, it isn’t just the side-by-side video that breaks the cheapfake narrative, we also have the eyewitness testimony of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Sunak told reporters, “I think he went to go talk to the pilot. I mean, or the parachutist. From what I remember, because he went to go and shake all their hands."

Sunak continued, "He was being very polite. And he just went over to kind of talk to all of them individually and Giorgia (Meloni) was saying ‘Don't worry, they're all coming to [us]’. We were meant to line up so they could come and then shake all our hands. I had a chat with a guy with the British flag. Everyone wanted to. But they all came to us."

If that weren’t enough, there is also a second camera angle that makes it even more obvious that Biden is addressing the parachutist. You can see that on NBC News.

It may be fair to say that Biden was paying attention to the parachutist when he should have been paying attention to the photographer, but that is not what the anti-Biden outlets were saying.

If all you see of Joe Biden, the cheapfakes are easy to believe. On the other hand, if you watch Biden deliver live speeches like the State of the Union or live interviews like Biden’s sit-downs with CNN’s Erin Burnett or Seth Myers, they don’t ring true.

It’s like Abraham Lincoln said in the classic meme, “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”

In fact, I recommend that you don’t automatically believe anything you see on the internet, especially on social media, without checking it out from a reliable source. (I try to be one of those reliable sources, but don’t take anything I say as gospel either.)

This problem is going to get worse with AI and deepfakes that can go far behind just cropping the corner of a video. It is going to become harder and harder to distinguish truth from fiction, especially when people don’t want to know the truth.

As Mark Twain said, “It's easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

Because we want to be fooled. We want to believe what we want to believe.

I’ll be the first to admit that Joe Biden isn’t as sharp as he was 20 or 30 years ago. He wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed then. He does make real flubs and misstatements. But that’s a far cry from saying that he needs to be on a leash to be kept from wandering off.

And Joe Biden isn’t the only candidate whose mental capacity is in question. And I’m not just talking about Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s parasitic brain worm.

Donald Trump also has a history of making off-the-wall statements. One such example came at a televised rally in Las Vegas in which he riffed about batteries on boats and sharks. You can see the video here, but the comment in full was:

So I said, ‘Let me ask you a question, and [the guy who makes boats in South Carolina] said, ‘Nobody ever asked this question,’ and it must be because of MIT, my relationship to MIT —very smart. He goes, 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 is now underwater and there’s a shark that’s approximately 10 yards over there?”

So I said, “So there’s a shark 10 yards away from the boat, 10 yards or here, do I get electrocuted if the boat is sinking?” Water goes over the battery, the boat is sinking. Do I stay on top of the boat and get electrocuted, or do I jump over by the shark and not get electrocuted? Because I will tell you, he didn’t know the answer. He said, “You know, nobody’s ever asked me that question.” I said, “I think it’s a good question.” I think there’s a lot of electric current coming through that water. 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.

This is as bizarre as Biden allegedly wandering off from a group photo, and there is no question that Trump really said this. Beyond the question of why he was talking about sharks at a political rally, he does not seem to know that boats have contained batteries for decades.

And the shark rant is not a one-off incident. There is now a long list of examples of Trump’s bizarre behavior and verbal foibles. Nikki Haley, who has now endorsed Trump, made The Former Guy’s mental fitness an issue in the Republican primary, and Punchbowl reported that two-thirds of Republican leaders privately doubt Trump’s mental and physical fitness.

“This is a different Donald Trump than 2015 and ’16 — lost the zip on his fastball,” Ron DeSantis said last October. “He is wedded to the teleprompter. He can’t get off that teleprompter. Anytime he does, he says things like ‘don’t vote.’ He’s telling people not to vote, like, we have all the votes.”

Trump’s reliance on the teleprompter may explain his shark tale.

When the Wall Street Journal ran a hit piece questioning Biden’s mental fitness, a former aide to Mike Pence offered to discuss Trump’s “closed doors [sic] discussions on milkshakes during intel briefings, windmills causing cancer, what bleach does & doesn’t do [and] go from there.”

Many of Trump’s outlandish statements, such as warning of a “bloodbath” if he loses, get reported and then forgotten because of the sheer volume of inanity that The Former Guy generates.

Neither candidate is a great example of mental acuity, the belief of most Republicans that Trump is a genius notwithstanding. The mental fitness of both candidates is legitimately under question, especially since Trump has a family history of dementia. As I’ve said in the past, Americans have a choice between a slow but happy grandpa or a malevolent, crazy uncle.

Voters will have to decide for themselves which of the candidates is more trustworthy and mentally fit for office. Next week’s debate will be a rare opportunity for Americans to assess the two hopefuls without editing or teleprompters. For that reason alone, anyone who wants to make an informed choice about the election should tune in.

In the meantime, remember Abraham Lincoln’s words.

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