In 2019, a manipulated video spread through social media platforms showing Joe Biden on stage telling an audience that he “shouldn’t be president”. Biden’s voice had been slowed down, giving the impression he was slurring his words, while footage from a real speech he gave at an Iowa university was edited to cut out context, splice together clips and make it seem like he was calling himself “Slow Joe Bidens”.
It was a full year before Biden formally became the Democratic nominee for president, but already the narrative that he was in serious cognitive decline was beginning to take shape. Over the course of the 2020 presidential race, a procession of far-right meme-makers, Republican party operatives and Trump campaign officials would suggest Biden was losing it. More deceptively edited videos circulated, Fox News hosts claimed Biden was senile, attack ads ran suggesting he was mentally unfit and Donald Trump tweeted that his opponent had “dementia”.
The notion that Biden is suffering from cognitive decline or lacks the mental acuity to be president has been a fixture of conservative media for years, but questions about his abilities appear to have increasingly become a mainstream concern. A Washington Post-ABC News poll from earlier this month showed that only 32% of respondents believed Biden had the “mental sharpness” to be effective in the White House – a significantly lower share than previous polls over the last several years.
As Biden, now 80 years old, prepares for the 2024 presidential race, it’s likely that his age and mental faculties will be a primary target for conservatives during the campaign. AI-generated audio tools have also made it easier for anyone with a basic digital skill set to manipulate Biden’s persona, while his history of real-life gaffes, verbal stumbles connected to a lifelong speech impediment and limited news conferences provide plenty of ammunition for speculative claims he has mentally decreased.
Although asking whether the nation’s oldest-ever president is fit for a grueling and mentally demanding job is a reasonable question, much of this narrative has relied on either special accusations or outright deception.
The altered 2019 clip of Biden, for example, was made by prolific far-right meme-maker and ardent Trump supporter Logan “Carpe Donktum” Cook. At the time, Cook had partnered with Ali Alexander – later one of the key figures behind the “Stop the Steal” movement – to launch a Maga influencer site. Videos like Cook’s became part of a pipeline that saw Maga supporters or Republican operatives create content that would then move through rightwing media and get amplified by campaign officials or Trump himself.
At times in-office government officials or Republican party organizations are directly engaged in promoting this content. In one case from 2020, Trump’s White House social media director, Dan Scavino, tweeted out a manipulated video that made it falsely appear as if Biden had fallen asleep during a media interview with a local news station. The video, which Photoshopped captions and edited together footage, was originally created by a meme-making Maga supporter before being picked up by Scavino.
Trump’s campaign or Republican officials also made their own content. Over the course of just one month in the summer of 2020, Trump’s campaign ran more than a thousand Facebook and Instagram ads with various slogans attacking Biden’s mental abilities.
“Do you think Joe Biden is old & out of it?” one of the social media ads asked.
“Do you think Joe Biden has the mental fortitude to be president?” another read, linking to a poll on the Trump campaign site.
Trump’s campaign created four separate video ads suggesting Biden was mentally diminished, including one titled “What happened to Joe Biden” that took clips of him speaking fluently while vice-president and juxtaposed them with verbal stumbles on the campaign trail. One televised ad that ran in 12 states announced “Joe Biden is slipping.” Trump began repeating the attacks during media interviews, insinuating Democrats were covering something up.
“Biden is a shot. I’m telling you he’s shot. There’s something going on,” Trump told Fox News in August 2020.
These attacks kept up during Biden’s presidency and last year a group of 54 Republican lawmakers wrote an open letter to “express concern” with the president’s “current cognitive state” and demand that Biden take a mental fitness test. The letter cited by the Alzheimer’s Association’s signs of mental decline before listing a series of Biden gaffes and polling on his mental state. (Biden has a well-documented stutter which creates frequent verbal gaffes and repetitions, making it fairly easy to find videos of him stumbling over his words.)
Biden’s physician released a five-page summary of his current health status in February, detailing some issues such as arthritis and a need to take blood thinners, but describing him as “healthy, vigorous, 80-year-old male, who is fit to successfully executing the duties of the Presidency”. But such internal assessments have not stopped Republican attacks, while incidents like Biden’s onstage fall last week at the Air Force Academy commencement have fueled rightwing news cycles that Democrats are hiding his infirmity and legacy media outlets are acting as apologists.
On social media, the Republican National Committee created an account that served as an attack dog against the Biden administration. The @RNCResearch account has repeatedly promoted the idea that Biden is in mental decline and last year tweeted out a misleading video that took several seconds of out-of-context footage from Biden’s trip to Israel and framed it to make the president look lost and confused .
Fox News and other rightwing media networks have also kept a steady drumbeat of claims. The former Fox News host Tucker Carlson ran a segment last year alleging a Democratic party conspiracy to hide that Biden was “cognitively unable to serve”, while host Sean Hannity told viewers earlier this year that Biden was showing signs of dementia and was “plagued by his own cognitive decline”.
The “dementia” claims have been amplified further by conservative media across platforms like Rumble, while the immensely popular podcast host Joe Rogan – a longtime promoter of baseless conspiracy theories – told his millions of dedicated listeners last year that Biden was “basically a shell” cognitively. Clips of Rogan’s comments were then featured by rightwing outlets such as the Daily Caller, giving them even more reach.
One of the reasons that Republicans and Trump supporters have spent so much time and resources pushing the idea of Biden-in-decline may be that it seems to be a genuine polling liability for Biden, especially when compared with perceptions of Donald Trump. Despite Trump’s history of nonsensical statements and free-associating speeches, and the fact that he is only a few years younger than Biden, he has consistently scored much higher on surveys asking about his mental acuity and energy levels. A Pew Research poll in 2020 found that Trump had a 16-point lead over Biden when it came to being described as “energetic”, and a Washington Post-ABC News poll from May found 76-year-old Trump had a 22-point advantage over Biden when it comes to perceptions of “mental sharpness”.
Although Democrats haven’t waged the same level of attacks against Trump, the former president did face similar questions about his cognitive abilities while in office, with pundits like MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough claiming his generally erratic behavior was the result of dementia. The speculation grew to the point that he took the Montreal Cognitive Assessment – a 10-minute psychological exam of simplistic questions to determine medical issues like signs of neurological impairment – which he repeatedly bragged about performing well on. That Trump felt pressured to take the test is also part of the rightwing grievance against Biden, often framed as evidence that Democrats aren’t being fair or have something to hide.
If either Trump or Biden win the presidency next year they will both be in their 80s by the time their term is up, but there is already a rightwing ecosystem in place trying to make the age and mental abilities of the candidates focused solely on Biden. The latest polls on Biden’s mental abilities and the onset of the 2024 campaign have already revitalized attacks and given a sense of what the next year and a half might look like.
“President Biden announces his election campaign, but Americans say … HE’S ALREADY LOST IT!” the New York Post’s front page blared last month, alongside a Photoshopped image of a deranged-looking Biden peering out from behind window curtains.