June 26, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

What’s behind Trump’s lie that Biden is on drugs?

He's showing that he isn’t trying to win. He’s trying to cheat.

Courtesy of Right Side Broadcasting Network, via screenshot.
Courtesy of Right Side Broadcasting Network, via screenshot.

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Donald Trump has been preparing for his first debate by accusing the president of being on drugs. This is not new. He did it to Hillary Clinton in 2016. He did it to Joe Biden in 2020, too. The Republican leadership, including the speaker of the House, is backing up the lie. “Everybody wants to know,” Mike Johnson said. “Which Biden is going to show up? It doesn’t matter if he drinks a whole gallon of energy drinks. He’s not going to be able to match the acumen and the readiness of Donald Trump.”  

This is being interpreted as a confession – that Republican elites are worried that, on Thursday, their nominee is going to get smoked. They should be worried. Trump’s habitual incoherence has been obvious to those of us who have been paying attention. It was abundantly clear to America’s top CEOs during a recent meeting. And it will become more obvious, as millions of people who have not been paying attention will be checking in on politics for the first time since the last election. 

The hope is that by advancing the lie that the president is on drugs, whether through direct language or innuendo, the Republicans can raise the specter of cheating. That way, Biden’s expected aggression won’t seem like an asset, but instead a liability, as it will seem to prove the allegation. Meanwhile, Trump, who is greatly degraded, won’t seem so degraded. He’ll seem like a victim, as if he were cheated out of a chance to show acumen and readiness, because Biden was coked.

If he were behaving as if he intended to defeat Biden, he would see the moment as an opportunity to expand his base, and he would offer something, really anything, to people who are not already on his side.

While many seem apprehensive about Biden’s age, partly due to media outlets like the Times having made a fetish of it, the allegation that he’s on drugs – or “a whole gallon of energy drinks” – won’t convince anyone who’s not already convinced. Whatever swing voters think, they don’t think Biden is a snowblower. That’s convincing only in the upside down, backwards and prolapsed world of rightwing politics.

It’s important to think about the intended audience for the lie that the president is on drugs (or on performance-enhancing supplements), because that tells us a lot about the election. Specifically, it tells us a lot about Trump – that there’s more going on than merely masking his cognitive decline. Lies like this tell us he can’t win if he plays by the normal rules of presidential elections. And he knows he can’t. What he can do, however, is cheat. This lie helps pave the way toward that end.

“I don’t need any votes,” Trump said last weekend at a meeting of the so-called Faith and Freedom Coalition. “We got all the votes we need. All I want to do is make sure we guard our vote. We stop the steal. I want the vote guarded. I want the steal stopped. We don’t need the votes. We have the votes. We have more votes than we need.”

That’s what you say when you refuse to respect one of the fundamentals of modern presidential politics. A successful candidate can’t win with his base alone. He must add to his base by doing something to attract the support of some of the other party’s supporters, or more accurately, some of the voters who call themselves independents but who regularly support one of the parties. (Swing voters really do exist. Last time, they delivered victory to Biden.)

The president is doing that. Right or wrong, many (not just white) Americans believe the government isn’t doing enough to regulate the influx of migrants at the southern border. So Biden is implementing policies toward that end. Some are rather illiberal, but they seem to be working. “Border encounters” are reportedly down by 40 percent.

I can’t think of a policy idea that Trump has offered conservative Democrats and independent voters. (Flip-flopping on a national abortion ban doesn’t count.) I may be wrong, of course, but the only thing I see is what’s already appealing to the people whom he already has. In fact, whenever he’s given a chance to appeal to non-base voters, as he was when asked repeatedly to set aside his thirst for post-conviction revenge, he declines, choosing to say things that will rile up his base while alienating the very people he needs to beat Biden.

Indeed, you could say Trump’s campaign has devolved from one that used to at least pay lip-service to solutions – “I alone can fix it” – to one that has abandoned problem-solving altogether. (He famously killed, via Mike Johnson, a bipartisan package that would have addressed the “border crisis,” because he wanted a live issue to campaign on.) There’s only one thing on the menu these days, and while vengeance is mine may sound good to people he already has, he needs more than that. 

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Trump’s thinking, if you can call it thinking, seems to be if he smears his opponent hard enough – and if he gets enough help from his party, the rightwing media apparatus, and Russian and Chinese operatives – he’ll poison the electorate and come out on top. That worked in 2016 but only because the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state gave credibility to the smear. (Without James Comey, Trump’s allegation that Clinton should be locked up for her “crimes” would have been merely that.) The only equivalent external force this time around is a press corps that’s made a fetish of the president’s age. Anyway, Trump is the criminal now.

Trump knows a lot of people who have not been paying attention to politics are going to pay attention to Thursday night’s debate. If he were behaving as if he intended to defeat Biden, he would see the moment as an opportunity to expand his base, and he would offer something, really anything, to people who are not already on his side.

Instead, he’s choosing to smear Biden with lies that will, again, rile up his base while alienating the people he needs. He knows he can’t win by ordinary means and he’s not going to bother even pretending to try. As he did in the above clip, he’s practically admitting his path to victory is by invalidating as many of Biden’s voters as possible — or perhaps by mounting another insurrection. No one knows yet. In any case, he isn’t trying to win. He’s trying to cheat. We can expect that from a criminal. 

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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