Do Trump Supporters Mind When He Mocks Biden’s Stutter?

Recently the Atlantic political reporter John Hendrickson and I set out on a kind of social experiment. A friend of Hendrickson’s had sent him a video of Donald Trump mocking President Joe Biden’s stutter. In the hierarchy of Trump insults, this one did not rate especially high. But it resonated with Hendrickson, who wrote a book about his own stuttering. And what especially resonated with him was the audience’s laughter. “They don’t have to laugh,” Hendrickson told me. “They’re either choosing to laugh or it’s an involuntary reaction, and they’re naturally laughing.” Hendrickson had a theory that disability was politically neutral, or should be, so he decided to test it out. How do Trump’s supporters actually feel about him making fun of people with disabilities?

In this episode of Radio Atlantic, Hendrickson and I attend a Trump rally in Dayton, Ohio, to ask his supporters that question. Almost none of them like how Trump demeans people. And yet they all plan to vote for him anyway. The gap between those two sentiments reveals a lot about how people come to terms with their own decisions, values, and obvious contradictions.

Listen to the conversation here:


The following is a transcript of the episode:

John Hendrickson: I believe it was in the afternoon, early evening. I was on my way to meet my friends to go bowling.

Hanna Rosin: This is staff writer John Hendrickson. John covers politics for The Atlantic. He’s also had a stutter since he was a kid.

Hendrickson: And I was on the subway, and I got a text from a different friend who sent me a tweet that contained a video. So I held it up to my ear and I listened to it.

Donald Trump: Two nights ago we all heard Crooked Joe’s angry, dark, hate-filled rant of a State of the Union address. Wasn’t it—didn’t it bring us together? Remember, he said, I’m gonna bring the country tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-together. I’m gonna bring it together.

Hendrickson: And the thing that jumped out at me was how Trump’s audience laughed.

Trump: Tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-together. I’m gonna bring it together.

Rosin: I’m Hanna Rosin. This is Radio Atlantic. In his decade or so in politics, Donald Trump often talks like a bully. We know he nicknames opponents. “Little Marco.” “Crazy Nancy.” “Birdbrain”—that was for Nikki Haley.

Now, when it’s just him and Biden, Trump has used: “Crooked Joe” or “Sleepy Joe.” Or calls him “a low-IQ individual” or “cognitively impaired.”

But there’s one line he hasn’t crossed. Until this year.

Hendrickson: Through it all though, he never openly mocked Biden’s stutter. It’s been this ongoing thing about Biden has dementia—all different versions of that idea. But he didn’t outright make fun of Biden for being a person who stutters until January of this year.

Trump: That’s why Crooked Joe is staging his pathetic, fear-mongering campaign event in Pennsylvania today. Did you see him? He was stuttering through the whole thing. He’s going, I’m gonna—he’s a threat to democracy.

Hendrickson: Biden had delivered a big speech to mark the anniversary of January 6.

Trump: He’s saying I’m a threat to democracy. He’s a threat to duh-duh-duh-democracy. Wow, okay. I couldn’t read the word.

Hendrickson: Trump has said and done worse things than this, obviously. He’s done many, many worse things than this. But the juvenile element of it—there is just something really particular about this. It was sort of uniquely grotesque.

Rosin: So John and I decided to test out a question: What did Trump’s supporters really think of him making fun of Biden? If John went to a rally and asked them, what would they say to his face?

Before we get there, though, something to know first.

A lot of people think of Biden as someone who used to stutter, if they think about it at all. Biden himself has generally talked about it as something he overcame.

But when John was covering Biden in the 2020 race, he saw something different. As John described it, in the middle of a speech, Biden would suddenly stop, pinch his eyes closed, thrust his hands forward “as if trying to pull the missing sound from his mouth.”

In Biden, John recognized not a former stutterer but someone who was working very hard—and largely successfully—to manage his stutter.

In 2020, Biden agreed to sit down for an interview with John. Biden shared some painful memories with him, like the nun who made fun of him in seventh grade: “Mr. Buh-Buh-Buh-Biden.”

And in that same article, John—who hadn’t written much about his stutter—shared some of his own memories, like about the kid at baseball camp who would yell “stutter boy” and snap his fingers, as if John were a dog.

After that article came out, something unexpected happened to John: He became a kind of public face of adults who stuttered. Like, he even went on TV to talk about the article, something he’d never imagined he’d want to do.

Stephanie Ruhle: Joining me now, the author of that piece, John Hendrickson, senior politics editor for The Atlantic. John, I’m so glad you’re here. This story is very personal to you. You’ve experienced life with a stutter. What about your experience has helped you identify Joe Biden’s? And it’s something that most of us just saw as him misspeaking.

Hendrickson: People misunderstand stuttering a lot. You know, it isn’t merely repetition of a word.

It isn’t merely blocking on a word. It’s tons of things. It’s loss of eye contact, as I’m doing at this exact moment. Just because it takes a little longer every now and then to get out a sentence, it doesn’t mean that the person doesn’t know what they’re trying to say.

Rosin: John got an overwhelming response to the piece. Within days, hundreds and hundreds of people who stutter sent him messages. They swapped stories about growing up with a stutter. John went on to write a book about it titled Life on Delay. And he got more comfortable talking in public. Here he is again on TV.

Hendrickson: Most people don’t even know what stuttering is. Barely anybody outside the community or outside the speech-language-pathologist community even knows that it’s a neurological disorder.

Pretty much everybody thinks it’s just a manifestation of nervousness or anxiety or that a person is dumb. We have a real antiquated cultural view of this thing.

Rosin: So John had spent several years dragging people out of those dark ages. And then, his friend sent him that video of Trump at the rally imitating the stutter in front of an audience.

Trump: Tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-together. I’m gonna bring it together.

Rosin: Why do you think Trump crossed that line? Like, he has not made fun of Joe Biden’s stutter for now years. So do you have any guesses about why now?

Hendrickson: I think it’s notable that the two times Trump has openly done this have both come on the heels of a big Biden speech.

In January, it was Biden’s pro-democracy speech on the anniversary of the insurrection. Trump mocked him, saying “duh-duh-duh-democracy.”

And then two days after Biden’s State of the Union address, Trump mocked him, saying he’s going to bring this country “tuh-tuh-tuh-together.”

Rosin: Now, here’s where I’d play some tape of Biden himself. Because he didn’t actually stutter on the word “together.” He actually didn’t even say those exact words. Trump is doing more of what John considers a vaudeville impression of Biden, knowing that the president’s stutter is a way to attack him.

Now, John’s a seasoned reporter, and Biden and Trump are politicians. So John isn’t worried about their feelings. He is, however, worried about the audience laughing, what it means that a crowd heard Trump say, “duh-duh-duh-democracy,” and found it funny.

Hendrickson: It’s too easy to roll your eyes and say, Oh, that’s just Trump being Trump, which I think, to a degree, I can be sympathetic to that argument. But that doesn’t mean his supporters, who are also adults—they don’t have to laugh. They’re either choosing to laugh or it’s an involuntary reaction, and they’re naturally laughing.

Rosin: Did you hear that immediately, or did you have to rewatch it to see that?

Hendrickson: I immediately heard it. And that happened back in January as well. And I think that’s the thing that compels me to go talk to his supporters this weekend.

[Turn signal clicking]

AI voice: Turn right onto Northwoods Boulevard.

Rosin: I guess we’re just at the edge of an airport.

Hendrickson: I think this is North Dayton.

Rosin: North Dayton. Okay.

Rosin: A week after mocking Biden’s stutter, Trump had a rally planned in Ohio.

AI voice: In a quarter mile, turn right onto North Dixie Drive.

Rosin: So John and I rented a car and made our way to the tarmac of the Dayton International Airport. John had a pretty specific goal.

Hendrickson: I am less interested in Trump himself and more interested in talking to as many of his supporters as I can and asking them: How do you feel about Trump mocking people with disabilities?

I’ve interviewed many Trump supporters over the past nine years, and 99.9 percent of them have been polite, and they don’t mock me or make fun of me. They’re human beings.

And so, given that Trump has now repeatedly—and openly—mocked Biden’s stutter, and he’s previously mocked other disabilities, I’m interested if it bothers his supporters or not, because a topic like disability is bipartisan. It is neutral. It is apolitical.

Rosin: Well, we hope. We hope. But that’s maybe the hypothesis that you’re testing.

[Music]

Rosin: After the break, John and I test that hypothesis with the crowd in Ohio.

Rally vendor: Trump shirts, Trump shirts, Trump shirts.

Rally vendor: Buy-one-get-one hats.

Hendrickson: I’m amazed at how his rallies have evolved into this kind of Grateful Dead traveling roadshow. Vendors follow him around the country, and even certain attendees follow him around the country.

Rosin: This is what you mean by the carnival atmosphere. There’s like lots and lots of merchants.

Hendrickson: I’m amazed at the sheer volume of different T-shirts: “Trumpinator: I’ll Be Back.” “Jesus is my savior. Trump is my president.” Trump and Mount Rushmore—and so he’s on there, but he’s also on a motorcycle.

Hendrickson: You know, not just food vendors and T-shirt vendors, but everything you can think of. And it truly is this community. It has this weird juxtaposition of being a very jovial, celebratory, warm—and he plays all this nostalgic music—and then he gets up there, and he delivers these apocalyptic monologues. So it’s just—it’s unlike anything else.

Rosin: We made our way through the vendors, across the windy tarmac, to the line of people waiting to get through security. John and I skipped over the guy in the “Media Lies” T-shirt and got to work with our informal survey.

Hendrickson: Do you have any interest in a brief interview about the event?

Rallygoer: Uh, sure.

Hendrickson: First time you ever seen Trump, or have you seen him before?

Rallygoer: First time in person, yes.

Rosin: There were diehards who’d traveled hours to be there, locals just excited he was back in Ohio, a couple of undecideds looking to hear him in person. We would get the basics, and then John would ask if they saw the Georgia rally where Trump had mocked Biden’s stutter.

Hendrickson: Did you happen to catch any of Trump’s Georgia event that he did a week ago on Saturday?

Rallygoer (Todd Rossbach): I did, as a matter of fact. Rome, Georgia.

Rallygoer (Melina): I did not. Actually, I didn’t even know he was in Dayton until I saw it on TikTok this morning. (Laughs.) We jumped in the car and came.

Rosin: And then the question.

Hendrickson: Last week, Trump mocked Biden’s stutter. He was saying: “We’re going to bring the country together. Tuh-tuh-tuh-together.”

Rallygoer (Cindy Rossbach): It’s not the Christian way to be. And it doesn’t—I just feel like it makes Trump look bad, when he’s probably not a bad person.

Rosin: This is Cindy Rossbach. She and her husband, Todd, had different opinions.

Rallygoer (Todd Rossbach): After what we’ve seen from the administration—you know, they wanna put him in jail for life—I think he’s got every right to do whatever he wants to do at this point.

Rallygoer (Cindy Rossbach): I disagree because I think when you make fun of people, it just makes you look bad.

Rosin: We kept talking to more people. This is Melina, from Chillicothe, Ohio.

Rallygoer (Melina): He’s going to say what he says. When he was in office, our economy was great. We got along with every other country. That’s all I care about. (Laughter.)

Rosin: And Vanessa Miller, from Cincinnati.

Rallygoer (Vanessa Miller): Trump is a good man. He’s not perfect. Biden is not handicapped. He’s just an ass, and he does not care about this country. So if Trump made fun of Biden, well, like I said, he’s not perfect, but it wasn’t about a disability. It was about how he has made this country dysfunctional, not disabled.

Rosin: A lot of people just detoured into the mental-acuity lane. Here’s Sharon, from the Dayton area.

Rallygoer (Sharon): The president that we have today can’t speak. He can’t walk. He can’t talk. And he’s definitely not thinking for himself. He’s not making the decisions. He is somebody’s puppet.

Hendrickson: And so, Biden has a neurological disorder. He has a stutter. I do too. Do you know anybody who has one?

Rallygoer (Sharon): Yeah, my cousin had a stutter. You know, it’s just, you can’t play into your feelings. You have to take this stuff seriously when it comes to our policy and our country.

Rosin: Most people touched it lightly, if at all, and then moved on to bigger things: dementia, economy, country. One man we talked to, R. C. Pittman, didn’t mind getting into it, though. He came with Bikers for Trump, and we chose to talk to him because we were interested in disabilityand Pittman was in a transport chair. He said he can’t walk very well.

Hendrickson: Have you ever known anybody growing up, or presently, like Biden, who has a stutter like I do?

Rallygoer (Pittman): Yeah. And we made fun of ’em. And we poked fun at ’em. And they didn’t get offended. You know, the same thing with me. I had big ears. They used to call me Dumbo when I was a kid.

We had a guy that rides with us, one of our chapter members—took his leg off from here down. So now instead of Geronimo, up there on his bike—like mine says Casper. That’s my road name. We changed his from Geronimo to Stumpy. I mean, did it offend him? Hell no. He’s Stumpy.

It would be the same as me saying: D-D-D-Damn, boy. Can’t you talk better than that? It’s not degrading. You follow me? It’s words. It’s an expression of thought.

Rosin: After we thanked him and moved on, I asked John what he thought.

Hendrickson: I am interested in that concept of, like, you know, the difference between teasing and degrading.

Rosin: Yeah, I actually thought that was interesting.

Hendrickson: Well, and I wonder if his biker friend who’s an amputee—you know, they call him Stumpy—like, does that secretly bother him or not?

Rosin: Yeah, I did wonder about that. Like, can we have Stumpy’s phone number?

Rosin: If teasing is a thing between friends, Trump and Biden are clearly not friends. But again, John did not come here to think about how Trump’s words affect Biden’s feelings. Biden’s a public figure and a politician. He came here to see how they land on the crowd and then beyond the crowd, outside in the world.

Hendrickson: But I think that the concern among members of the disability community is that kids and teenagers are going to watch Trump say, “tuh-tuh-tuh-together,” and then think it’s okay to then go do that to other people.

Rallygoer (Todd Rossbach): There is an aspect of that. It’s unfortunate, yeah.

Rosin: One striking thing from our time in Ohio was the number of people we talked to who worked with kids, sometimes even kids with learning disabilities. Cheryl from Ohio, for example. She has a learning disability herself, so she feels especially connected to kids who struggle.

Rosin: And if a kid asks you, Why is the president making fun of people with disabilities? What would you say?

Rallygoer (Cheryl): I tell them they’re not actually making fun. They’re just trying to—they are using those words to win. That’s how you win. You’re just finding a way for you to become the winner, and they become the loser.

Rosin: So it’s like trash-talking?

Rallygoer (Cheryl): It’s just trash-talking.

[Music]

Rallygoer (Shana from Indiana): I’ve worked in special education my whole life, so I definitely don’t agree with that at all.

Rosin: You don’t agree with what?

Rallygoer (Shana from Indiana): Anybody making fun of people that have disabilities.

Rosin: This is Shana from Indiana. She has a special-ed degree. She taught middle schoolers with learning disabilities. I asked her if she’d ever seen bullying in her classroom or if kids ever made fun of each other. And she said, “All the time.”

Rosin: If one of your kids said, Hey, why is our president making fun of disabled people? Like, I thought you told us not to do that. What would you say to a kid, as a teacher?

Rallygoer (Shana from Indiana): What would I say? That regardless of what comes out of people’s mouths, that we’re to forgive them. And does it mean that they did it on purpose? Because our hearts are wicked.

Rosin: Lastly, this is Susie Mikaloff, from Ohio, who taught math for three decades.

Rallygoer (Susie Mikaloff): This is small on the scale of what the kids are subjected to nowadays. So I think, overall, he can show them he’s a good leader. So when you look at what he’s done and what he can do with the nation, then you just have to put that aside. You have to forgive that. So I forgive him for doing that.

[Music]

Hendrickson: I find it interesting that some of these teachers, and special-ed teachers, could be so compassionate Monday through Friday and then go to a Trump rally on Saturday.

Trump: They’re sending their prisoners to see us. They’re sending—and they’re bringing them right to the border. I’ve seen the humanity, and these humanity—these are bad. These are animals. Okay? And we have to stop it.

Rosin: Back in the hotel after the rally, John and I unpacked our thoughts about the day of interviews. We both were stuck on the people who worked with kids, in particular the special-ed teachers.

Hendrickson: And that doesn’t mean that they’re not compassionate on Saturday, but it’s another level of Trump supporter to go to the rally.

It’s just an odd juxtaposition to think of a really thoughtful, compassionate special-ed teacher, Monday through Friday serving their students and then getting up Saturday and going to this rally where the person’s talking about “bloodbath.”

Rosin: Mm-hmm. Do you think they think of him as compassionate or not compassionate, or they just don’t think about it?

Hendrickson: I think people are attracted to Trump’s power.

Rosin: It’s just interesting to see the different slices of them, like the way they were in the Trump rally, the way they could be moved by that. But then there’s this whole other side of them.

Like, I believe that those people who said they had a friend who stutters, that they would be kind to that friend. Like, I could see that, that they would care about those people, in context with those people. And that’s all I have to say. There’s no, like, squaring the two different versions of that person.

There’s, like, rally person, and then there’s classroom person, and they’re both inside the same person.

Hendrickson: And that’s what Trump is so good at, is pulling out the darker side of people.

Rosin: Yeah.

Hendrickson: Yeah. That doesn’t mean that a person’s a bad person. And it’s not like every day you walk around in life and you’re 60 percent good, 40 percent bad. But just, Trump has a way of making the bad stuff okay.

[Music]

Rosin: This episode was produced by Kevin Townsend and edited by Claudine Ebeid. It was engineered by Rob Smerciak and fact-checked by Yvonne Kim. Claudine Ebeid is the executive producer of Atlantic Audio, and Andrea Valdez is our managing editor. I’m Hanna Rosin. Thank you for listening.


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