Biden-Trump, first TV duel with (suspected dementia)

The countdown has begun and is now in its final stages. The first TV duel between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is ready. It will be hosted by CNN, which imposed very strict rules on duelists. Who accepted them, including the “silent” microphones during the opponent’s speech. In short, no overlaps and no interruptions. But while the American media quibble over the ways in which the first real step towards the US presidential elections will take place, what is taking center stage (not only in newspapers, TV and social media) are the conditions of the American president. The proof is that in the Democratic house there are those who are running for cover and thinking about how to “protect themselves” in the event of Trump’s (less and less unlikely) victory. There CNN hosts the very harsh comment of Dean Obeidallah, who thunders: «Don’t focus on bracing for a Trump win», breaking the taboo of a possible return of The Donald in the White House for a second term.

The commentator explains that «the only sure way to prevent a subversion of the balance of government, with a redistribution campaign with Trump loyalists in key positions (…) is to beat him in November. We need to focus on the fact that the barbarians are outside the gate, not think about how to limit the damage once they are inside.”

Yet among the Dems the concern is palpable, especially after the repetitions gaffes And defaults of Biden, including those at the G7 in Puglia. The unjustified 20-minute delay, with Giorgia Meloni forced to make a joke through gritted teeth (“Women don’t keep themselves waiting”), but also the absence from the gala dinner (too much fatigue for the tenant of the White House, veteran from the D-Day celebrations in Normandy?) and then the disoriented look during the paratroopers’ performance, with Meloni once again ready (and forced) to draw his attention in the right direction on the lawn of Borgo Ignazia.

All signs that worry US public opinion and which add to similar episodes recorded in recent months and which are becoming more and more frequent. The stumbles and falls on ceremonial stages or on the steps of Air Force One, the gaffes like when Biden misspelled the name of French President Macron by calling him Mitterrand or when he confused the war in Ukraine with the one in Iraq appeared more than isolated cases. It is not for nothing that Trump (just 78 years old) went on the attack, challenging the almost 82 year old Biden to undergo the same cognitive tests that he himself performs, to rule out the possibility that he is suffering from the onset of dementia.

«They are used to evaluate cognitive functions, for example memory, ease of language, attention, or motor and perceptive functions», states the neuroscientist Graziano Pinna, associate professor at the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Illinois-Chicago College of Medicine. «They are important for evaluating human cognitive abilities at different ages to monitor cognitive changes or a person’s decline. They consist of a series of tests and activities that test memory, attention and concentration, and study the promptness of the response in discriminating similar figures or in reacting to auditory or visual stimuli. The tests also check language and the ability to solve logical puzzles, problems and complete a task, together with the speed with which this happens”, explains the expert.

Could they be useful or important in understanding whether a person, especially if they hold a certain public, political and responsible role, is suitable or up to the task entrusted to them? The question is no longer a taboo, neither among ordinary people nor in some “palaces”. The images of the recent Memorial Day, at the end of May, went around the United States and the world. They show Joe Biden with his eyes closed, as if he were asleep, during Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s speech. But already in February the Wall Street Journal it was headlined «Biden shows signs of sleeping», citing the various speeches delivered with marked slowness, long pauses and a weak voice. But Pinna holds back on the possible “seriousness” of the situation. «Just in February 2024, President Biden demonstrated extreme clarity during the “State of the Union”under the eyes of the whole world and also in responding promptly to events during the ceremony, without these having been planned or which could have been expected in this very formal circumstance – recalls the neuroscientist – I believe that this can remove any doubt about his state cognitive and emotional.”

But then why so much apprehension and, above all, how can some behaviors be explained? «Verbal gaffes and name confusion can be the result of various factors: for example, high levels of stress and distraction, which can happen to anyone especially if you are exposed to constant public attention. I believe that both of the last presidents have offered several examples of distractions and verbal errors.” Yet even the US press, traditionally more accommodating towards Democratic candidates, does not fail to raise some doubts. After a periodic screening at the beginning of the year, with which the presidential medical staff declared Biden absolutely “fit”, “suitable”, another report disclosed by the media described him as “hazy”, “fuzzy”, “faulty”, “poor” and with “significant limitations”, in short with “confused”, “tarnished”, “defective”, “poor” and with “significant limitations”.

If a certain muscular stiffness and signs of mild cognitive impairment are a physiological effect linked to age and various circumstances that one goes through in life, the crux is to what extent these signals fall within a normal threshold and when not. «Cognitive tests, together with the clinical history of an individual and other studies at a clinical level (and therefore not from observations of gaffes during public exhibitions) can help to frame the situation – explains the Chicago expert – On these occasions the political leaders they are under intense scrutiny and gaffes that can happen to anyone. In this case, however, it would seem that they have more different influences biaswhich lead to perceiving these errors as “anomalous” given the leadership role of those exposed to the public.”

The test, however, will be the TV comparison on June 27th because speech represents a potential signal to monitor. This is why Trump insists on the need to resort to cognitive tests for his opponent on the eve of the face-to-face match followed by millions of American voters and international observers. The two candidates for the US presidency, in fact, will debate for 90 minutes, without being able to use notes or make use of collaborators during commercial breaks: concentration, preparation, improvisation, but also memory and dialectics will be fundamental.

«I would urge caution, therefore, in drawing quick conclusions on the cognitive and emotional mental state of an individual only on the basis of simple public performances or single episodes. Having said this, it would be a good idea to introduce tests that evaluate not only the cognitive aspect, but also the emotional and psychiatric state of those who are preparing to take on such a high role as becoming the president of the United States”, concludes Pinna.