There’s a famous bit by stand-up comic John Mulaney in which he compares Donald Trump’s presidency to a horse getting loose in a hospital.
“No one knows what the horse is going to do next. Least of all the horse.”
The analogy requires an update. Because instead of a horse, we’re now dealing with a pair of geriatric elephants stamping around clumsily in a surgery theatre.
Their patient, which in this increasingly tortured metaphor is the world, requires a triple bypass to fix Israel-Palestine, Ukraine-Russia and – imagine me waving my arms in a vague way now – all that other stuff.
The elephants cannot do this. They lack the necessary skills, and in any case are far too busy flailing their shrivelled old trunks at each other (I did say the metaphor was tortured). Yet they are the only doctors on offer.
A top-line summary of Joe Biden’s week: he confused the current French President, Emmanuel Macron, with former president Francois Mitterand, who has been dead for nearly three decades. A report from special counsel Robert Hur expressed severe doubts about Mr Biden’s acuity, saying he often struggles “to remember events”.
And in a press conference he called to allay people’s fears about said dodgy memory, Mr Biden described Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the president of Mexico. Cue the end credits music from Veep.
Not to be outdone, Mr Trump promptly managed to confuse Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is becoming something of a habit for him.
This after repeatedly mixing up former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, and his pantomime rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Nikki Haley. The two women share little beyond their anatomy.
Quite the pickle, isn’t it? A nation of 330 million people, many of them presumably smart and sharp and gifted, must now choose between only two viable candidates for the presidency, one of whom is losing his faculties, while the other appears to have lost touch with reality.
The brief snippets of Mr Biden and Mr Trump that make the nightly news don’t illustrate the full scale of the problem. For that, sit and watch a full speech from either of them – you’ll be entertained and mortified in near equal measure either way.
Mr Biden is plodding and halting, and frequently struggles to recall precise details. These are not the minor stumbles of his earlier career, caused by his lifelong fight against a stutter. Nor are they the gaffes of a man who was once notorious for speaking rashly. They’re worse. We all know it, and we all know the cause.
He’s almost 15 years past America’s retirement age, after all. Mr Biden, 81, is 19 years older than Barack Obama. Heck, he’s older than Bill Clinton, who left office more than two decades ago. You have to go back to John Howard to find an Australian prime minister who is older than Mr Biden, and his career ended in 2007.
Mr Trump, meanwhile, is ranty, aggrieved and often borderline incoherent. The stream of consciousness we get whenever he speaks publicly is a relentless flurry of conspiratorial and paranoid thinking, interrupted only by the occasional bizarre tangent.
A recent quote: “The simplest of problems we can no longer solve. We are an institute in a powerful death penalty. We will put this on.”
Right. OK. Sure.
I’d compare them this way: with Mr Biden, the frustration comes from knowing the rough point he’s trying to get across, and watching him struggle to find the words. With Mr Trump it comes from frequently having no idea what he’s even talking about.
Members of their inner circles, hardly neutral analysts, insist Mr Biden and Mr Trump are sharper in private. Hmm, yes, well, I could have told my school maths teacher I was really very good at calculus in private, but it wouldn’t have changed my abysmal test scores.
For years, neither side of US politics has been willing to wrestle honestly with the mental decline and infirmity of its leader. But more importantly, neither man has been willing to wrestle honestly with his own weaknesses. Now it’s too late.
Mr Biden could have decided not to seek re-election, allowing younger Democrats to compete for their party’s nomination. Most people would have respected his self-awareness. Instead his party is left with a President most voters think is too old to do the job and a Vice President, Kamala Harris, whose shaky public performances are a hindrance.
What happens now, if Mr Biden belatedly steps down? The Democrats either flock to Ms Harris and hope she spontaneously transforms into a more competent politician, or they subject themselves to an ugly, rushed contest between candidates who have laid no groundwork whatsoever for the demands of a presidential campaign.
So they’re stuck with him.
And Mr Trump. Well, he could have recognised his succession of electoral rebukes for what they were, and retired to a comfortable life of obscene wealth and golf and nightly adulation from the sycophants at Mar-a-Lago. But his pathological fear of being called a loser would never, ever have allowed such sense.
What happens if Mr Trump drops out? The question is too laughable, too preposterous to even contemplate (though the answer is that his replacement would almost certainly win).
So barring a medical catastrophe, America is trapped, held hostage by these two egos, each long past his prime and incapable of mustering the self-awareness required to realise it. The elephants in the room keep blundering around, while the patient quietly bleeds out.
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