Why the growing list of Donald Trump’s verbal missteps matter

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Why the growing list of Donald Trump’s verbal missteps matter

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Former President Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump delivers remarks during a campaign event in Derry, N.H., on Oct. 23.Scott Eisen / Getty Images file

At a campaign event in New Hampshire last week, Donald Trump told an audience that Viktor Orbán is “the leader of Turkey.” He was, of course, mistaken: Orbán is the authoritarian prime minister of Hungary.

The slip-up came on the heels of remarks in which Trump said President Joe Biden might be responsible for starting “World War II.” Soon after, the former president confused Jeb Bush and George W. Bush. That was soon followed by an interview in which Trump also mixed up Biden and Barack Obama.

This week, the Republican also declared at a rally that Hungary borders Russia. It does not.

It’s difficult to speculate about the explanation for these missteps. Maybe the former president — who’s notoriously vain about wearing eyeglasses — misread his trusted teleprompter. Maybe he was fatigued. Maybe the errors were related to his age. Maybe he’s made roughly the same number of verbal mistakes each of us makes all the time — I briefly forgot Jim Jordan’s name at a staff meeting last week, to my great embarrassment — but Trump’s incidents stand out because he has a vastly larger platform and receives greater scrutiny.

The trouble, however, is that the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination is also going after the Democratic incumbent as someone experiencing cognitive decline. The New York Times noted this week that one of Trump’s comedic bits at his rallies features him impersonating Biden “with an over-the-top caricature” mocking the president’s age.

With droopy eyelids and mouth agape, Mr. Trump stammers and mumbles. He squints. His arms flap. He shuffles his feet and wanders laggardly across the stage. A burst of laughter and applause erupts from the crowd as he feigns confusion by turning and pointing to invisible supporters, as if he does not realize his back is to them.

In other words, the top Republican contender, who would turn 80 in the White House if given a second term, is going after his slightly older rival as if Biden were a doddering old fool. To bolster their case, Trump and his allies routinely point to examples of the Democratic president misspeaking, concluding that Biden is “cognitively impaired” and “in no condition to lead.”

And if Trump were a model of eloquence who never made verbal mistakes, this might be a more potent line of attack. But it’s a much tougher sell when the likely GOP nominee makes the same kind of missteps that Biden makes — and everyone notices.

Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer for “The Rachel Maddow Show,” the editor of MaddowBlog and an MSNBC political contributor. He’s also the bestselling author of “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics.”

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