Excitement seizes Donald Trump’s face when it’s time, once again, to humiliate another human. His eyes narrow and he curls the corners of his lips. You’re likely to spot the sinister grimace during one of the president’s campaign rallies. Yesterday in Michigan, Trump turned to the screen behind him to watch a clip of former Vice President Joe Biden stumbling while trying to say, “I’ll lead an effective strategy to mobilize true international pressure.” Biden stuttered between the words true and international then rushed toward the end of the sentence, yielding muddled speech. The crowd roared. Trump’s smile turned to laughter.
Rallies are Trump’s lifeblood. They are large, loud, directionless events that tend to start late and, in recent days, have left attendees stranded in the cold. Trump’s authoritarian monologues oscillate between deception and humiliation. He rattles off hypothetical scenarios that are conspiratorial, farcical, or a bit of both. In Pennsylvania on Saturday, Trump warned rally-goers: “Under Biden there will be no school, no graduations, no weddings, no Thanksgiving, no Christmas, no Easter, no Fourth of July; there will be no future for our country.” He aims to portray Biden as limp, scared, and ineffective. He attacks Biden’s intermittently disfluent speech as a sign of cognitive decline and weakness. Others have followed his lead.
The Biden video at yesterday’s rally was paired with a clip of a sputtering Jim Carrey from the 1997 film Liar Liar. It was a shrewd, crude attack: Carrey’s character in the movie is incoherent every time he’s about to lie, which is often, and Carrey now plays Biden on Saturday Night Live. Bumbling equals stuttering equals slapstick equals Biden. Or maybe he’s just a liar? On it goes. Trump’s campaign staged five rallies yesterday and another five are scheduled for today. The president grips the podium, fearmongers across disparate topics, the Biden blooper reel rolls, and thousands of Americans laugh at the guy who can’t talk.
Joe Biden does not need our pity. He is a 77-year-old wealthy white man with a loving family and a beach house on the Delaware coast. By running for president this third and final time, Biden has opted in to a level of criticism that few can fathom. Biden’s platform and policies deserve scrutiny, as do his votes in the Senate. He doesn’t require kid gloves—the media have and will continue to talk about his role on the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas hearings, his sponsorship of the 1994 crime bill, his criticism of federally mandated busing, his current stances on fracking and court packing, and other contentious aspects of his record.
But Biden, along with the 3 million other Americans who wake up every morning and try to manage the neurological disability known as stuttering, is worthy of simple decency and respect when attempting to speak. Trump is incapable of offering either.
The president likely knows that calling Biden “Stuttering Joe” would be politically damaging. (To paraphrase Michael Jordan, Republicans stutter too.) Instead, Trump stops just shy of the S-word and lets his allies go further. Last year, Trump’s son Eric barked that Biden “can’t get through two sentences without stuttering.” Eric’s wife, Lara, infantilized Biden at a Women for Trump event: “Joe, can you get it out? Let’s get the words out, Joe.” The Fox News guest Tony Katz recently asked, “Haven’t we heard enough Stuttering Vice President Joe Biden? Is this really the imagery the Democratic Party wants to put out there?” Last month, the Newsmax host Greg Kelly posited that Biden’s stutter is “a phony little campaign gambit for sympathy.”
Phony is an interesting word choice there—as is the idea that someone would actually pretend to stutter to make you like them more. Nearly every stutterer I know would give anything not to stutter in public. In the year since writing a story about Biden’s lifelong journey with the disorder, I’ve corresponded with hundreds of people who stutter from all over the world. Part of me wishes that I could share some of their stories directly with Trump. I wonder what advice the president would offer to the stutterers—there are multiple—who have told me that their feelings of shame and inadequacy have brought them to the brink of suicide.
Trump will crisscross the country on Air Force One today. He will take stage after stage and tell lies. At some point, he may dance to “Y.M.C.A.,” “Fortunate Son,” or some other nostalgic song whose message is out of sync with his presidency. Eventually, the Biden verbal montage will roll on the screen behind him, and he’ll turn to watch it again, his face lighting up with delight at another’s difficulty. He will lead his supporters in jeering, because it is a cruel and easy thing to do, and, as my colleague Adam Serwer wrote in the defining essay of the Trump era, the cruelty is the point.
The video will eventually end and Trump will return to the podium and smile and lie and taunt some more. In 2020, it is both natural and acceptable for the president to act this way. He has found success by acting this way. All day today, Trump will show millions of Americans who he is as a person. Tomorrow, they will decide if that is who they are.