Figuring out what Trump might be trying to say tends to be easier when you watch him. Almost no one speaks in carefully organized paragraphs, but facial expressions, pacing, tone, and gesticulations can help you decode what someone means. Trump is an extreme case: Watch him speak, and you can at least tell roughly what he’s talking about; it’s only when you try to figure out precisely what he means and look at a transcript that you are likely to see how hollow the core is.
There’s one more thing that helps cover up Trump’s incoherence, which is his energetic speaking style. The president is not a good speaker, per se—there’s a reason Stephen Miller drew ridicule when he pronounced Trump “the best orator to hold [his] office in generations”—but he is a transfixing one. His “low energy” insult stuck to Jeb Bush in the 2016 GOP primary not only because of Bush’s laid-back demeanor but because of Trump’s own animation. “The most accurate way to predict reaction to a debate is to watch it with the sound turned off,” my colleague James Fallows wrote in 2016. Trump not only grasps that truth, but he probably does better if voters aren’t listening too closely—or at all. Because he looks and sounds vigorous, his meandering sentences recede from focus.
To prove this point, consider what happens when Trump’s words are divorced from images of Trump. The virality of the comedian Sarah Cooper, who has made a series of videos in which she painstakingly lip-synchs Trump’s words, is premised on the absurdity of the pronouncements themselves. In 2017, the comedian and late-night host John Oliver made a similar point by having an actor read Trump’s words, underscoring their incoherence.
Putting an impressive facade on a shoddy edifice is the story of Trump’s pre-political career, too. Commentators mock his orange complexion and apparently artificial tan, his hair style, and his hair coloring, and they do look faintly ridiculous, but they also serve their purpose—they make him seem younger. Biden must relate, at least a little: His own locks look much fuller than they did 35 years ago, a fact that Politico in 2008 attributed to hair transplants.
Given the importance, and success, of creating this impression of vigor, it’s no wonder that Trump has reacted so fiercely to questions about his health this summer and fall. In June at West Point, Trump seemed to struggle to drink a glass of water and descend a ramp. Matt Drudge spread a video from July in which Trump seemed to be dragging his leg. When a New York Times reporter’s book said Vice President Pence was on standby to take over the duties of the president during a mysterious trip by Trump to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last year, Trump fiercely denied having a series of mini-strokes—though the book had made no such allegation. Trump’s denial only fed speculation. As I have written, speculative, long-distance diagnoses about Trump’s health are beside the point. Whatever the cause for impairment, it’s the president’s ability to do his job that matters most.