Trump is degenerating before our eyes — MAGA voters don't notice or don't care

GOP base is now so consumed by incoherent QAnon babble that Trump's obvious deterioration doesn't even register

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published March 6, 2024 6:00AM (EST)

Former president Donald Trump speaks after he was projected to be the New Hampshire primary winner during a watch party on Tuesday, January 23, 2024 at Sheraton Nashua in Nashua, NH. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Former president Donald Trump speaks after he was projected to be the New Hampshire primary winner during a watch party on Tuesday, January 23, 2024 at Sheraton Nashua in Nashua, NH. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Despite the best efforts of the Beltway press to present him as a spry young man next to 81-year-old Joe Biden, it's getting harder by the day to ignore that 77-year-old Donald Trump is decompensating rapidly. He wasn't all that healthy or coherent to begin with but, lately, watching him speak has the feel of getting cornered by the weird creep at the nursing home. Around lunchtime on Monday, all three cable news networks cut to Trump awkwardly accepting the Supreme Court nullifying the 14th Amendment on his behalf. After a few semi-coherent, if gross, remarks about how he was "honored" by the ruling, Trump launched straight into a stream of paranoid jabber more appropriate for someone having a psychiatric episode on a city bus than for a major presidential candidate. 

He started rambling about how he wanted "immunity" for all his crimes, claiming that without that, "You really don’t have a president, because nobody that is serving in that office will have the courage to make, in many cases, what would be the right decision — or it could be the wrong decision." By the time he got to defining "migrant crime" as a "new category of crime," both MSNBC and CNN were cutting away. Not because it wasn't newsworthy, but I suspect it was more a reasonable worry that viewers would be driven away. It's much like the way folks avert their eyes when a delusional person on the sidewalk starts screaming at the demons he wishes to fight with "sticks and stones," to quote something Trump said about immigrants. 

His appearance got stranger after most networks had muted him. A bit later, he complained that it takes him 10 minutes to wash his hair, which he somehow blamed on Democrats instead of on the full bottle of hairspray he uses on his remaining locks every morning.  

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Hard as it may be to believe, this lunchtime perfomance was less of a sundowning moment than his speech in Virginia on Saturday night. Trump repeatedly forgot what he was talking about, despite the Teleprompter, even drifting off at one point into literal babble. 

As he has done multiple times this campaign season, Trump also forgot that Barack Obama hasn't been president in nearly eight years. 

It's not even clear what the "ding boom" gibberish was about. 

It's gotten to the point where late-show hosts can't resist dunking on it. Even Jimmy Fallon, who tends to be cautious about mocking Trump, joked on Monday night, "It sounds like his brain got a flat," and suggested Trump's new campaign slogan should be "Trump 2024 WI-RI-BI-GYU ... AHHH." Most people who hear Trump speak these days get uncomfortable "Grandpa needs a nap but I worry he's going to bite me" vibes. But that doesn't seem to be registering at all with most Republican voters, at least not the ones who show up at his rallies. He could be up there prattling on about how a whale and a windmill are to blame for "The Apprentice" getting low ratings, and they'd keep cheering like he was the reincarnation of George Washington and George Wallace at the same time. 

One commonly held theory is that Trump has always been a moron, creating an expectation of cognitive function so low that it's hard to notice he's failing to meet it. But even looking back at his dumbest White House moment — perhaps the suggestion that injecting bleach was a COVID-19 treatment — he didn't sound quite so out of it. His train of thought was idiotic, but it wasn't derailing into "ding boom" or baby talk. Of course he's always been an ignorant loudmouth, but you could largely follow the dumb things he was trying to say. Now he often sounds like a meth-head trying to explain the law of gravity to a dog. 

No, it's not just that Trump's own intellectual baseline is so low. It's that Republican voters have lost the ability to notice when someone isn't making sense, because they've fried their minds with right-wing propaganda. At best, these voters ingest a regular diet of Fox News fantasia, where millions of migrants are setting cities on fire in between casting illegal ballots. But the hardcore Trump fans, the ones who follow him around the country and buy merch at his rallies, go much deeper into the black hole. They live in a world where QAnoners announce the return of JFK Jr. as Trump's running mate and Newsmax hosts explain that Taylor Swift was making "Satanic hand gestures" at the Super Bowl.

Conservative arguments have long based on shoddy evidence, but once upon a time their exponents tried to pound them into a logic-shaped appearance. Now it's all just emotions, a series of post-verbal impulses to hate, fear, bullying and lashing out at phantoms. There's a real "Living Dead" component to it, except screaming "woooooooke," instead of "braaaaainnns." Watching the audience at a Trump rally, it's clear they're half-listening, at best. His speeches could be composed of a series of words pulled at random, but as long as he drops in the key terms that get their juices flowing — "migrant," "crime," "Pelosi," "retribution" — they cheer wildly. It's why there's a musical soundtrack under his speeches — to let the audiences know the moment is very dramatic, even if they have no idea what Trump is going on about. 

Even right-wing conspiracy theories aren't what they used to be. It was certainly hard to follow the "Benghazi" conspiracy theory, for instance, but you could tell that the people making that soap opera up were trying to create a storyline. With Trump's Big Lie, however, there's always been a remarkable lack of specifics about how the supposed theft of a national election even happened. There were a few half-baked efforts to falsify evidence, but more as an excuse to terrorize election workers like Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman than to create a convincing narrative of causality. To this day, when reporters ask Big Lie proponents how the election was stolen, they dodge the question and just claim there was something "fishy" about the 2020 returns. 

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MAGA voters occasionally notice that their god-emperor is missing a step these days. The audience got really quiet during the Virginia speech, when Trump mistook Biden for Obama. I suspect they're aware that the outside world is beginning to notice how often Trump mixes people up. Not only does he routinely say "Obama" when he's supposedly talking about Biden or Hillary Clinton, he also talked at some length, about how Nikki Haley was "in charge of security" at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Blaming the victims of the Capitol attack is part of his insurrection-apologia shtick, but he was mixing up his Republican opponent — whom he appointed as U.N. ambassador — with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. MAGA voters probably understand that not being able to tell completely different people apart could hurt him in a general election where a certain amount of normal people vote. You can almost hear them flinching whenever he does it again. 

Still, the culture of unintelligibility that defines the MAGA movement is so dense that most of them can't even perceive that Trump's verbal diarrhea is highly disconcerting to outsiders. Anyone who's watched comedian Jordan Klepper's interviews with Republican voters has witnessed that logic-free tone poetry is just the way Trump folks talk. Their views don't make sense, and they really don't care. Trump speeches may sound like listening to a four-year-old explain "The Lord of the Rings," but, in terms of lucidity, he's only a notch below your average MAGA dude tweeting misogynist invective at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Yeah, it's pretty depressing to watch millions of Americans scramble their own brains, just so they can avoid trying to explain why they vote the way they do. But this whole debacle offers a ray of hope: Trump's decay isn't likely to sit well with ordinary voters. Right now, Trump consistently leads Biden in the polls, due in large part to swing voters who have somehow forgotten how awful things were under Trump. Most of those people haven't heard him speak in years, since they lack the self-loathing necessary to turn up the volume when they see his face onscreen. They likely have no idea how much worse he sounds these days.

Many more voters are likely to tune in closer to Election Day, and many will be shocked by seeing what more politically conscious folks have seen over the last couple of years: A guy who didn't have a lot of mental resources to begin with shedding brain cells by the minute. There are lots of good reasons to vote against Trump, with his fascist impulses at the top of the list. But for those voters who are concerned about the candidates' ages, Donald Trump's obvious cognitive decline should matter. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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