Behind the right wing's nefarious obsession with calling Joe Biden 'senile'

Behind the right wing's nefarious obsession with calling Joe Biden 'senile'
President Joe Biden walks with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken after delivering remarks Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

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If you haven't heard anyone tell you, with complete confidence, that President Joe Biden is senile and has had numerous strokes, it says something about you.

You have no right-wing friends.

The charge that Democratic leadership was too old has been a coordinated right-wing media strategy since early 2020. In January, pundit Laura Ingraham implied that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had "dementia"; on May 7, Dinesh D'Souza began referring to Biden as senile. As the election grew near, he called him a "senile dotard."

Deliberate falsehoods and wisecracks about Biden's mental state (Tucker Carlson referring to him as "President Houseplant") are not really about age. They imply that Biden, a liberal, is a figurehead being controlled by his party's left wing. This narrative is foundational to the evolving conspiracy theories, and doubts about democracy, that activate far-right partisans today. Biden, they believe, is fronting for the deep state.

Age was worth discussing last year. It featured five of the 10 oldest candidates in American history, four of them Democrats. There were widespread doubts that, at almost 78, Biden could withstand the rigors of a national campaign, or the work of the presidency. Those doubts have proved to be unwarranted. Yet the Republican right remains unshaken. Partisans still comb every second of video for evidence of Biden's decline.

Deliberate falsehoods and wisecracks imply that Biden, a liberal, is a figurehead controlled by his party's left wing.

Donald Trump set things in motion with a nickname: "Sleepy Joe." Invoking the image of an old man nodding off, he implied that Biden's occasional verbal stumbles, many related to a congenital stutter, were signs of decline. "Sleepy Joe doesn't know where he is or what he's doing," he tweeted on March 2, 2020. Three weeks before Election Day, he said Biden was afflicted with "obvious & rapidly getting worse 'dementia.'"

In this narrative, aneurysm repairs that Biden underwent in the late 1980s were "strokes." As Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted, even "two explosions in his brain" did not explain why Biden "can't remember where he is most days." Fox News political analyst Brit Hume imagined a larger deception. Hume "didn't have any doubt that Biden's senile," but warned that such people are adept at concealing their condition.

Such comments lead us to another theory. Portrayals of Biden as senile allowed right-wing conspiracy theories that the election had been "stolen" to thrive. On November 6, the late Rush Limbaugh expressed disbelief that Americans elected "the most socialist, leftist, senile man ever." A columnist for alt-right Taki's Magazine imagined that "when the reality of a dementia patient in the White House becomes more than just a joke" Democrats "push him aside" in favor of a true socialist—like Kamala Harris.

Biden's competence and likability have awakened a desire among some ordinary Republicans for a functioning government. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, assertions that he is fronting for socialists may be a tactical diversion on the part of right-wing operatives. As one partisan fantasized this week, dangerous "leftists" like White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Pelosi (who is, oddly, no longer senile) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are actually in control of Biden. They "are telling him what to do," this Trump supporter insisted. "The old senile man has no other choice."

The idea that Biden is an empty suit also helps the QAnon conspiracy theory hang together as a social movement, even though none of what the mythical "Q" has promised actually occurred. As QAnon defectors explained to CNN earlier this month, friends and family members believe that what appears to be Biden is either an occasionally malfunctioning robot with humanoid skin, or that the president is an actor on a White House movie-set. Either way, the "deep state" has taken control.

As Democrats and Republicans benefit from the $1.9 trillion American Recovery Plan Act, Biden's effectiveness will become harder to dispute. Unless, of course, Americans can be persuaded that, one way or another, Biden isn't even there, that good government is an elaborate deception perpetrated on the American people, and that we are all now living under socialism.

Which makes the image of Joe Biden as a senile old man crucial to keeping alive, not just for right-wing conspiracy theories, but for the Republican party's hope that it can return to power in 2022.

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