As President Donald Trump addressed the nation about the two mass shootings that had occurred over the weekend, he said, “May God bless the memory of those who perished in Toledo.” The public reacted with alarm and derision—somehow, the president seemed to have moved the Dayton, Ohio, massacre to the wrong city, and he’d left out El Paso, Texas, entirely. Shortly after his speech, a photograph of the teleprompter proved that the original text had been correct.
When Trump messes up this way, people tend to blame his mental condition. With advanced age and the stress of his job, the theory goes, the president finds it ever more difficult to organize his erratic thoughts. He loses focus and lapses into incoherence.
But what if Trump’s problem was a literal lack of focus? What if, where most people saw the words Texas and Ohio on the teleprompter, the president saw a capital T, a big blur, and maybe an O somewhere? Minor Ohio city, starts with T: Toledo.
In 2014, as Donald Trump took the stand to testify in a civil case brought against him by two would-be residents (had his tower in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, ever actually opened), he asked the judge presiding over the case if he could borrow the judge’s reading glasses. According to a photo caption in the Sun-Sentinel at the time, “Trump quipped that he should wear them all the time, but he’s ‘too vain.’ ”
Available evidence would seem to agree. There are few recorded instances of Trump actually wearing glasses, but many of the ones that do exist appear to have been taken when Trump thought no one could see.
Just this past February, in a speech to various assembled governors during a “White House Business Session,” Trump took some time to mock Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aides for wearing glasses.
Now, the mention of glasses paired with the Central Casting comment indicates that Trump was making a racist joke playing on outdated Asian stereotypes, as exemplified by Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.* But the fact that Trump locked on to the glasses, specifically, points to at least some degree of preoccupation with corrective lenses.
Might this all be because Trump himself is in desperate need of glasses? How much of the president’s erratic behavior could be because he simply prefers to be blind than to display any sort of weakness?
The question of Trump’s ocular health isn’t an entirely new one. In July of 2016, an ophthalmologist told Vice that Trump’s constant squinting could be him “trying to compensate for some blurry vision,” or, perhaps, chronic dry eye. And as someone who’s been told I can never wear contacts due to insufficiently productive tear ducts, I sympathize with both.
Based on the available evidence, and by Donald Trump’s own admission, it’s safe to assume that, like me, our president also walks around in a world made almost entirely of blurs and soft-edged shapes. And in fact, it would explain quite a lot.
Consider the teleprompter question again. Here’s Barack Obama’s prompter from 2009:
And here’s Trump’s:
The screen itself is significantly larger, and the font appears to be a few notches bigger, too. It’s the sort of adjustment a White House might make for a president with poor eyesight. But if that president also refuses to wear corrective lenses, there’s only so much a teleprompter can do.
Another curiosity of the Trump presidency has been his approach to stairs. Almost every time he exits Air Force One, Trump can be spotted white-knuckling the guardrail as he stares intently at his feet. And in 2017, The Times of London reported that widely mocked photo in which Trump grabbed Theresa May’s hand was due explicitly to his fear of stairs.
This could be explained away by the fact that our president is 73 years old, and his balance almost certainly isn’t what it once was. But Donald Trump has been hostile toward adept stair users since at least 2014.
A man with poor eyesight and perhaps poor depth perception, however, would indeed be far more cautious around stairs than most. And a man terrified of embarrassing himself in any capacity, doubly so.
Even more bizarre, in January 2017, Trump appeared not to recognize his dear friend and then–cybersecurity adviser Rudy Giuliani, who was sitting directly in front of him.
At the time, the most likely explanation seemed to be senile degeneration. But again, the simpler explanation would be that Trump just genuinely did not see him because he couldn’t.
This, too, would explain Trump’s aggressively large signature. And his insistence that all information fed to him include as many pictures and as few words as humanly possible. It also might explain one of the most chilling lines ever published about Melania Trump:
According to a pool report, President Trump responded by pointing to a window in the White House residence, and said: “She’s doing great. She’s looking at us right there.”
Reporters turned to look at the spot he indicated, but there was no sign of the first lady.
Sure, it wouldn’t be out of character for the president to tell a brazen, immediately disprovable lie. But when your family only exists to you as a series of vague, oval-like shapes in varying shades of beige, anything could be Melania. Even an empty window.
If you spent your days unable to see, constantly unsure of what you were doing and to whom you were speaking, wouldn’t you be agitated too? Wouldn’t you also probably resent being asked about details? And wouldn’t all of this result in a general state of surliness and short-temperedness?
There’s no question that our president’s brain is broken, and that his mental acuity isn’t anywhere near what it once was. But perhaps it all isn’t quite as bad as we thought. Perhaps Donald Trump just needs to wear his goddamn glasses.
Correction, Aug. 7, 2019: This post originally misstated that Mickey Rooney’s stereotypical character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was Chinese. He was meant to be Japanese.