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Donald Trump Is Losing It. Will the Media Make It a Story?

The media’s obsessions with the mental acuity of our presidential candidates seems dangerously one-sided.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I know that you come here for my honeyed prose and can’t bear the idea of turning away, but I have to recommend that you watch the video below. It’s a clip of Donald Trump speaking in Concord, New Hampshire, last Friday night. He’s laying into Nikki Haley. That’s nothing new; he’s been doing a lot of that. What’s new is the topic. He’s criticizing Haley for her failure to act on January 6.

Her what?! Don’t take it from me. Here’s what he said: “She gets like nine people, and the press never reports the crowd. By the way, they never report the crowd on January 6. You know, Nikki Haley, Nikki Haley, Nikki Haley … you know they … do you know they destroyed all of the information, all of the evidence, everything, deleted and destroyed all of it? All of it! Because of lots of things. Like Nikki Haley is in charge of security. We offered her 10,000 people. Soldiers, National Guard—whatever they want. They turned it down. They don’t wanna talk about that. These are very dishonest people.”

That’s what the man said. He confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi. And not once. Twice. Maybe four times, if you want to be technical about it.

You’d think that this would be pretty big news. And it was, but mostly only because Haley herself ran with the comments and made an issue of them, questioning Trump’s mental fitness for office. A handful of outlets, including very prominent ones such as NBC, CNN, and The New York Times, ran articles on the statement itself. But if you google “Trump Haley Pelosi,” you’ll see that far more outlets waited until Haley starting making hay of it. (And who was apparently first in line to defend Trump, saying it “wasn’t a mix up at all”? If you guessed Elise Stefanik, take your lightly earned bow.)

Now, you know where I’m going here. Let’s imagine that Joe Biden—well, what would the precise equivalent be? Haley, remember, worked for Trump. He appointed her to his Cabinet, for God’s sakes. Who is a Biden equivalent? He’s had very little Cabinet turnover, but one who left, last year, was Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

Pelosi, to Trump, was the former opposition leader in the House. To Biden, that would be Kevin McCarthy.

So let’s imagine together that last Friday night, Joe Biden had been speaking at a campaign event and had said: “You know, Marty Walsh, Marty Walsh, Marty Walsh … it was very disappointing the way he criticized Trump privately on January 6 but then two weeks later went down to Mar-a-Lago and posed for that picture. I was very disappointed in Marty.”

Of course, Haley was on Trump’s mind because she’s running against him, not because she worked for him. OK. There’s a very clear equivalent there too. Minnesota Representative Dean Phillips is running against Biden right now. So imagine Biden had said: “Now, Dean Phillips, Dean Phillips, Dean Phillips.… You know, we offered him a great deal on the border last year, a very good deal. He refused. Refused. He was so afraid of the right wing in his caucus. So, Dean Phillips, not my favorite.”

In either case, you can easily imagine the howling that would ensue. Fox News would be looping it nonstop. They’d be leading the wider feeding frenzy. Reporters would be shoving microphones in the faces of Democrats all across the country—from senators to dog catchers—asking about Biden’s mental state. It would be a four-day story, maybe more. Columnists, including several liberal ones, would be demanding that Biden stand down. It would be a five-alarm fire. Seven. Ten. Indeed, things might well cascade to the point that Biden would have to stand down. After all, it would be a pretty shocking thing to hear.

But when Trump says it—it’s not like it’s nothing. But the reaction doesn’t begin to compare to what the reaction would be in either of my hypotheticals.

Last Friday, I wrote about how the right-wing media is taking over across the country. This is a crisis on which liberals aren’t nearly as focused as they should be. For 30 years, I’ve been watching the right-wing media grow and grow. And it’s still expanding, at a feverish pace. The people behind this effort are not going to stop until they’ve taken over.

It’s quite plausible—and this may sound outlandish to you, but if it does, you haven’t been paying attention—that 15 years from now, the only non-right-wing media of note in this country will be The New York Times, National Public Radio, and a couple of the legacy networks, which will be shells of their former selves. (Yes, The Washington Post could easily be gobbled up, as I explained in that column.)

So that’s one big difference between the mainstream media and the right-wing media: The moguls of right-wing media are not out simply to cover the news. They, and the editors and reporters they hire, are out to change what even counts as news because they want to remake society along illiberal, Orbánesque lines.

Here’s another difference. The right-wing media are far more relentless on the attack. One little whiff of blood, and they’re like sharks to a hobbled seal. If Biden had misspoken in this way, they’d make sure it was an issue that everyone else had to cover and comment on. And that is why the right-wing media drives the news cycle and the mainstream media does not.

Watch this other recent piece of Trump video.  

This was shot at the funeral of Melania Trump’s mother last Thursday, as the service ended. In it, you see Melania get in a big Chevy Suburban. Donald is two steps behind her. But rather than get in the SUV, he stops. He appears to be speaking (there is no sound). Whatever was said or not said, he does not enter the vehicle. He pivots and walks away.

Maybe there’s an innocent explanation for this. Maybe they were just headed to different destinations. Fine.

Still. Can you imagine what would be happening on Fox right now if we had parallel video of Jill Biden seeming to shoo Joe Biden away, wanting to ride separately from him—that is, spurning his company and comfort—right after burying her mother? We’d be enduring endless talk on Fox, which would eventually bleed into mainstream outlets, about the state of the Bidens’ marriage. This would be an ongoing story, and, within about four months, roughly two-thirds of America would believe the Bidens had a sham marriage.

There has already been a ton of chatter about the condition of the Trumpian matrimony. She didn’t really live in the White House. She had an apartment in Bethesda. Who knows what’s true. But there have been several instances caught on video of Melania refusing to hold his hand.

Let me be clear here. I am not saying that I want the mainstream media to be exactly like the right-wing media. No. The right-wing media makes stuff up, all the time, and runs irresponsibly with unsubstantiated lies (remember Barack Obama’s “cocaine-fueled gay affair”?). Also, on some level, the state of the Trumps’ marriage is their business. If it’s on the rocks, that would not disqualify him from being president. 

But if they’re lying, if he’s lying, if the marriage is as fake as his hair and his complexion, then that does become a potential public concern, and voters have a right to know if he’s lying about such a central aspect of his life. That’s a legitimate news story in anyone’s book. Then it’s up to the voters to decide how important it is.

But let’s go back to Nikki and Nancy. That wasn’t just confusing names. Confusing names is understandable. If Trump had said, “Gosh, Gary Cooper was great in North by Northwest,” that would be one thing. But Trump confused Pelosi and Haley as people. And it’s just the latest in a long string of such incidents (and yes, Biden has had his share of these too, but the world knows all about those; they receive constant coverage on Fox). The New York Times did one story on this, last October. But one story doesn’t qualify as “coverage.” If Donald Trump is losing his marbles, it would be good to know that before he has the power to decide that Daniel Ortega is destroying his country and we have no choice but to invade El Salvador.