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It’s Not Just You: Nobody Can Understand Donald Trump

Could be exhaustion, could be cognitive decline, or both.

Drake Baer
May 23, 2017 · 2 min read
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Image for post
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Trump may brag about taco bowls, but his main dish is word salad.

Consider, as he told Lester Holt on NBC just last week: “When I did this now I said, I probably, maybe will confuse people, maybe I’ll expand that, you know, lengthen the time because it should be over with, in my opinion, should have been over with a long time ago.”

This is garbled, strange, unintelligible syntax. But, as STAT’s Sharon Begley observes, Trump didn’t use to be this way.

The psychologists, psychiatrists, and cognitive assessment experts she spoke with agreed that there’d been a deterioration in Trump’s speech since his finding the spotlight in the 1980s. Some think it shows how his brain health is changing.

Back in his 1980s moguling days, the Penn-educated Trump came off articulate, and was able to foray into a dependent clause without losing his train of thought. He could even turn a phrase or two, like “If you get into what’s missing, you don’t appreciate what you have.”

But today, not so much. Take this gem from an interview with the AP: “From the time I took office till now, you know, it’s a very exact thing. It’s not like generalities,” Trump said. “Do you want a Coke or anything?”

If the eyes are windows to the soul, then words are windows to the mind: Linguistic analysis assesses brain functioning because of the demands that speaking places on thinking. When people are fluent in their speech, it means the prefrontal cortex — a polymathic brain region involved in everything from self control to attention to bodily movement — is doing well, as is the temporal lobe, associated with retrieving words from memory. This analysis has been used to look at presidential speech before, suggesting a cognitive decline in Ronald Reagan, but not George H. W. Bush.

Still, without first-hand analysis of the man, this is all diagnosis at a distance. Many factors could be involved in the president’s speech: the stresses of his office, the exhaustion that’s got him flubbing in the Middle East, and his age — 71 next month. His word salad may sign serious cognitive decline, or a simply a seriously stressed out septuagenarian. Maybe he’ll be more articulate when out of the presidency. After all, Obama looks great.

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