The irrelevance of Biden’s senility

An old saying warns that we are better off knowing neither the process by which our dinner is made nor the process by which we are governed. 

That bon mot seems first to have been printed in 1798, ascribed to Nicolas Chamfort, the witty noble-born secretary of the Jacobin Club who had committed suicide rather than endure a second imprisonment under Robespierre – although its best-known form, likening the making of laws to the making of sausages, is often misattributed to German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

In the era in which that saying originated, before the advent of radio or television, that saying gave thanks for a reality: Few people knew the details of how they were governed, just as few townsfolk slaughtered and butchered their own meat or manured the fields that grew the grain for their bread.  

Few people saw their rulers save on ceremonial occasions or heard them speak at length extemporaneously. Few read speeches or writings by their rulers that had not been carefully prepared and edited.

The inner workings of Elizabeth Tudor’s privy council, of Talleyrand’s or Metternich’s foreign ministry, of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, or of Bismarck’s chancery, were largely unknown to the public until decades or centuries later.

Rulers were loved or loathed, and remained or fell, based on the quality of governance they provided – on the quality of the sausage, not on how it was made. They were judged on the aptness and results of their policies, not on any personal characteristics. Having incentives to govern well, they often did so.

How senile was George Washington by 1797, when, at age 65, he ceased to be president of the United States? The evidence now available suggests that he was far less sharp during his second term than he had been during his first term.

Few of his countrymen then knew that and most of them supported his government for its policies, which were largely formulated and executed by advisors, notably Alexander Hamilton.

How egomaniacal was Pyotr I Alekseyevich, Czar of Muscovy from 1682 to 1721 and Emperor of All Russia from 1721 until his death in 1725? Very, by any standard.  Yet he governed so effectively that Russians have remembered him as Peter the Great and their second-biggest city bears his name.

In sum, from five hundred to one hundred years ago, a leader’s personal character and mental acuity mattered only insofar as they affected the policies he pursued or the quality of governance he or she provided.  

Rise and fall of presidential nannying

All that changed when we became able to have our rulers serve as our nannies, appearing on screens in our homes to comfort us whenever any public unpleasantness occurs.

 If a US president fails to travel to the site of a natural disaster to console its victims, or to offer public condolences to the survivors of a much-publicized homicide, he is widely and publicly excoriated – even though a president cannot prevent natural disasters and preventing and punishing homicide is the responsibility of local governments, not the federal government. 

In the US, Franklin Roosevelt honed the art of public nannying by radio in his “fireside chats” during the Great Depression – when, admittedly, Americans needed a bit of nannying. 

In the age of television, our rulers have developed that art to include visual appearance. They assiduously avoid the mistake widely thought to have lost Richard Nixon the 1960 US presidential election, namely failure to use enough makeup during the first of his nationally televised debates against John Kennedy – the first such debates in the US.

When appearances mattered: Presidential candidates Senator John F Kennedy, left, and then-vice president Richard M Nixon are shown following their nationally televised first of four presidential debates at a television studio in Chicago, Ill., Sept. 26, 1960. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / AP

Many of us now see and hear our rulers as often as we see and hear family and friends, and demand a personal relationship with them. Many of us even expect our rulers to look their best for us, as if we were dating them or having an affair with them.

This development is more pronounced in the US, where the president is both head of government and head of state, than in other Western countries where the head of government is not head of state. A US president now can and routinely does use his head of state functions to try to gain votes. 

Consequently, the advent of radio and television led to an expansion of the president’s head-of-state functions into public and publicized comforting, consoling, reassuring and ego-boosting – functions largely outside the purview of the presidency as recently as a century ago.

However, this development seems recently to have been reversed by the growing seriousness of political conflict in the US, which seems to have caused voters to care less about a president’s character, appearance or mental acuity relative to his policies.

Biden’s meaningless senility

Since years before the nationally-televised Biden-Trump debate of June 27, 2024, it has been obvious, to anyone who has paid even a little attention to US public affairs, not only that Biden is increasingly senile but also that his performance of presidential functions has been directed by or through advisors and handlers with deliberately low public profiles.

For any American who, despite decades of systematic political infantilization, does not need a personal relationship with a nannying president, that simply does not matter. What matters is the quality of governance that the Biden administration has provided during the past four years and the aptness or results of the policies it has proposed or pursued. 

Similar governance and similar policies can be expected if Biden is re-elected, until Biden’s death or the end of his second term, whichever comes first.

If Biden is re-elected, whatever interests are now controlling Biden will continue to control him either through the same advisors and handlers or others of their choosing. That is true regardless of who those advisors and handlers may be. Their identities and specific functions are irrelevant.

In the recently-released second part of Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel “Dune, the high priestess of a cult that covertly manipulates the rule of a galactic empire to install as emperor a young man who all know to be a psychopath. 

What matters, she points out to one of her protégé-priestesses, is not that this prospective emperor is a psychopath but that he can be controlled and that the high priestess knows how to control him.

That Biden can be controlled, and to what effect he has been controlled and will continue to be controlled if re-elected, are amply evident.  His senility, like the psychopathy of the prospective emperor in “Dune”, is immaterial.

The irrelevance of Trump’s egomania

For any American who has not been infantilized into needing a personal relationship with the president, Donald Trump’s egomania is no less immaterial. Trump has unabashedly displayed his egomania to the American public for half a century. A description of its countless public manifestations even before 2016 could fill a book.

Nevertheless, Trump, by winning the Republican nomination in 2016, accomplished the astonishing feat of transforming the Republican Party from a fat cats’ party into a socially conservative populist party. He was also elected president.

The policies that a second Trump administration will pursue are no less well-known than those that a second Biden administration will pursue. During his first administration, Trump tried harder to keep his campaign promises than any other president in living memory.

There is no reason to think that he will not do so again and his 2024 campaign promises are both candid and similar to his 2016 and 2020 campaign promises. Most Trump supporters are well aware of his character defects but like both his rhetoric and his policies. 

Donald Trump sees migrants as a threat to “real” Americans. Image: X Screengrab

Trump speaks truths that no one else who could get a large hearing was willing to speak before 2016. One such truth is that America’s ruling elites, abetted by academia, the media and the federal bureaucracy, have impoverished American workers by their ceaseless quest for access to cheap foreign labor through free trade with poor countries and immigration from poor countries.

Other such truths are that social justice is not merely or even chiefly a matter of race or gender or sexual preference; that the number of human genders is not infinite; that white skin does not necessarily make one evil; and that keeping Muslims out of the US is a cheaper, more humane and more effective way of protecting America from Islamist violence than is invading Muslim countries.

Moreover, Trump’s deeds in office were extraordinarily congruent with his campaign rhetoric. Lest we forget: Franklin Roosevelt, in his 1932 campaign, promised to balance the federal budget; Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, promised not to send US troops to Vietnam; and Bill Clinton, in 1992, vehemently opposed free trade with China. Each of them did the opposite of what he had preached. Trump did not.

Why character and mental acuity now matter less

Advocates of voting for a president based on personal characteristics rather than solely on policies and quality of governance often cite the need for good character and mental acuity in some unforeseen crisis. They often cite the possibility of nuclear war, asking: “Do you want a senile dotard’s finger – or an egomaniac’s finger – on the nuclear trigger?”

However, an egomaniac’s finger was on the nuclear trigger for four years during which relations with other nuclear-armed countries were never allowed to become so bad as to threaten nuclear war. 

An increasingly senile dotard’s finger has been on the nuclear trigger for the past four years, during which the first major war in Europe since 1945 has erupted and relations with both Russia and China have worsened but the prospect of nuclear war has remained remote.  

Furthermore, a president is constrained in diverse ways that prevent him from starting a nuclear war out of either senility or egomania.  That is illustrated by General Mark Milley’s insubordinate but never-punished actions as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to restrict then-president Trump’s nuclear options from late October 2020 through January 2021. 

In addition, to prevent a president from using nuclear weapons without ample cause is among the prospective uses of the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution.

In crises more unknown and unforeseeable than a prospective nuclear war, constraints on a senile or egomaniacal president might be weaker, and his mental acuity and character might matter more, but that is uncertain, as are all aspects of unknown and unforeseeable contingencies.

A president’s character and mental acuity may seem to matter less when perceived problems are chronically worsening and threaten to become critical than when potentially grave problems are sporadic but frequent. 

The Cold War was an era of sporadic but frequent potentially grave problems, such as the Berlin crises, the Korean War and the Cuban missile crisis, each of which threatened nuclear war. Under those conditions, a president’s character and mental acuity seemed to matter greatly. 

However, what averted nuclear war during the gravest of those crises, the Cuban missile crisis, was not president Kennedy’s character but rather Robert Kennedy’s constraint of his brother’s bellicosity.

In recent years, America’s perceived problems have been chronically worsening and now threaten to become critical. The ruling elites, academia, the media and the federal bureaucracy claim that the country’s gravest problem is the decade-long growth of populism, which, they claim, threatens to end democracy. 

Populists perceive the country’s greatest problems as decades-long impoverishment of the working class by free trade and immigration to provide cheap labor for the rich to employ, decades-long and worsening cultural rot, decades-long growth of federal government debt that threatens to become crippling, decades-long ideologization of all institutions, and decades-long increasing intolerance and demonization of dissent from an ideology that defines social justice solely in terms of race, gender and sexual preference and is unconcerned with inequality of wealth or income or economic opportunity per se.

Populists perceive democracy as having been dying for decades but perceive its demise as accelerating. They perceive the ruling elites as resorting since 2016 to increasingly undemocratic means in order to curtail the populist threat to their interests and expect them to continue to do so.

Under these conditions, a president’s character and mental acuity matter less than they did during the Cold War. And American voters grasp all this far better than their politicians and pundits.

Despite the panic of Democratic Party politicians and pro-Democratic media since the June 27 debate displayed the extent of Biden’s senility, neither Biden’s job approval rating nor the proportion of voters planning to vote for him seems to have dropped more than about two percentage points as of July 6.

Moreover, this modest debate-induced erosion of support for Biden is likely to diminish as memory of that debate is overtaken by other highly publicized events.

Biden’s debate performance will matter less as new events come to dominate headlines. Image: CNN Screengrab

Similarly, in November 2016, voters proved wrong the majority of media pundits and the many politicians of both parties who had opined that Trump had no hope of being elected president after The Washington Post published, a month before the election, a transcript of a 2005 recording of Trump telling a TV show host, before appearing on his show, that he did “try and f*ck” a married woman and that “when you’re a star, [women] let you do anything. … Just grab them by the p*ssy.”

Admittedly, pollsters report that a minority of Americans, many of them young, claim to be unwilling to vote for Biden because he’s too old, and that another minority of US voters, many of them college-educated women, claim to be unwilling to vote for Trump because he’s too nasty.

However, for most Americans, the political conflict between the country’s ruling elites and populists bent on ending those elites’ political and cultural dominance has intensified enough to negate the long-ingrained need for a kind, attractive, comforting and ego-stoking ruler on the boob tube. 

The battle lines have been drawn and most Americans will choose a side based on considerations more compelling than which side offers the better nanny.

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