Now the USA has a longstanding tradition of negative campaigning, so it is not surprising when the competence of a political opponent is questioned.

What is surprising however, is that while Democrats (and others) focus on depicting Donald Trump as dangerous, negligent, authoritarian, unlawful, racist, lying, and incompetent; Republicans such as Trump himself paint Biden as having dementia and even run re-election ads on it. In contrast, Democrats are much more careful in their denunciation; attacking character, policies, and abuse of power.

Why is it that Republicans attack Biden's intelligence while Trump's intelligence or mental state is seldom or only cautiously addressed, especially by political opponents or mass media?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – yannis
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 19:10

9 Answers 9


Because the Trump campaign crossed a line in 2016.

Before this point it was generally accepted, in American politics, that politicians and candidates did not use words such as "stupid" or "insane" when talking about one another. In return, it was fairly uncommon for the "proper" news media to use such terms when talking about politicians, especially the President. You might see a comedian use such terms, and people who disagree with a politician might mutter such things quietly to one another, but it was not something you would see in the newspaper or on a real news channel, most of the time. Overt and serious questioning of a politician's mental competence was even more taboo, and mental health professionals have been prohibited from engaging in such speculation since 1973.

Instead, you might hear about how a politician would be "terrible for business" or how they "don't care about the environment," and similar complaints up and down the political spectrum. Many of these arguments were shallow or even specious, but they were at least couched in the form of a policy argument, most of the time. In cases where they were not, euphemisms such as "heartless" or "inexperienced" were often employed. These were even more often shallow and meaningless, but at least they made for good television.

Donald Trump broke this model. His 2016 campaign made heavy use of insults heretofore unheard of in American political discourse. He regularly called people "liars" or "crooked," accused those who disagreed with him of being "stupid," and made a habit of giving his political enemies insulting nicknames, which he would frequently repeat and encourage his followers to use on Twitter.

Seeing as this worked so well for him in 2016, Trump has (it would seem) decided to double down on this model in 2020. He is now campaigning, in part, on Biden's alleged mental incompetence. The problem is that the rest of the political sphere is still not sure how to respond. Is the norm dead, now and forever? Will it snap right back into existence the moment Trump leaves office? Nobody really knows.

For now, Biden is running a "return to normalcy" campaign, and so it would be contrary to his core messaging to try and use the same tactics as Trump, because he is arguing against that very rhetoric. The media, for its part, has already been repeatedly vilified by the right as biased against them. You might think this would encourage the media to begin attacking Trump in response, but it's not that simple. They still need to sell subscriptions and ads. Further alienating the conservative half of the country is unprofitable, and significant portions of the liberal audience would also be turned off by overtly anti-Trump reporting (many liberals do enjoy reading such content, of course, but they want to see it in the op-ed section). So for the time being, they are going to follow Biden's lead.

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    I'm always skeptical of answers that claim without evidence "things used to be different".
    – user2578
    Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 14:24
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    He said, in particular, "My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos." referring to Clinton and Gore. I think Millie was most offended.
    – user33768
    Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 21:03
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    @MarkSapir: Perhaps, but today, things are different. Did you see the Presidential debate, and how various pundits reacted to it? My point is that civility has degraded substantially since 2016, and Trump is the impetus behind it.
    – Kevin
    Commented Oct 1, 2020 at 4:11
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    Civility has degraded substantially and the pundits are the ones responsible. Non-civility sells. In 2016 Trump realized and used it to his advantage: the news organizations spent most of the time throwing uncivilized dirt at him, so he got free advertisement.
    – user33768
    Commented Oct 1, 2020 at 6:14
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    @Kevin: I think you have agreed with yourself. Trump just used existing uncivility (read, say, what Obama, Hillary and their representatives in the media said about Trump in 2016. Read what Biden says about Trump now and has been saying for more than a year. This is no better than what Trump says in his twits.
    – user33768
    Commented Oct 1, 2020 at 13:07

I suppose that I disagree with the framing of the question. I would argue that Trump's mental health and intelligence are frequently criticized. There are a plethora of news articles characterizing him as poorly educated, incurious, not terribly bright, or even possibly having some sort of mental illness.

For instance, from the Atlantic, Trump does not read books. From Business Insider, Trump's mental health is deteriorating.

Still, that leaves open the question of why Democratic politicians do not talk more about these arguments. I see a few reasons.

  1. They may not see it as bad. Of the two parties, the Democrats have more consistently been vocally opposed to prejudice against people with disabilities or with mental health issues. They have also been more likely to explicitly criticize ageism, and despite being perceived by some as ivory-tower intellectuals, they have also championed common people without much formal education. So imagine if Democrats were to make the following argument explicitly: that Trump is a bad president because he has a low IQ, is uneducated, is senile and has various mental illnesses. Many of their voters would speak out, arguing that these are characteristics that do not deserve to be stigmatized, or even, in some cases, that should not serve as an obstacle to being president. Recall the backlash by some left-leaning voters over Pelosi's comment on Trump's obesity. Many Democrats would not see this as a legitimate line of attack.

  2. They believe it would be an ineffective line of argumentation. The two parties are very polarized, so mobilizing the base is usually seen as a priority. Trump either thinks his base will be excited by Biden's supposed senility, or he does not care, and says it because he is just that kind of person. In addition, it ties into his only viable line of attack against Biden, who is perceived as quite moderate: that his weak mind will make him easy prey for radical left-wing Democrats. By contrast, Democrats recognize that their base is far more concerned about Trump's moral failings than about his incompetence. Even when the economy was relatively strong and there was no pandemic, most Democrats still strongly rejected Trump. His racism, sexism, corruption and general uncouthness is what drives Democrats.

  3. They fear it could play into Trump's hands. By adopting such a strategy, they signal to potential undecided voters that this is an issue that they should be considering, which in turn carries the risk of making them pay closer attention to Trump's argument along the same lines. And they can't beat Trump at insults.

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    The distinction here is that these are articles written by the media/news sources, rather than actual political ads, which is what the OP asked about. It does show that people are actively putting doubt into the mental health of Trump, but it's not being done in ads by a political party. Commented Sep 16, 2020 at 20:49

The answer is consistency. If you look at videos of Trump campaigning 5 years ago he looks approximately the same as he looks today. His speech patterns in 2015 were odd, but they remain odd in 2020. Likewise his physical appearance remains similar - he started out looking unhealthy and continues to look so today, but not any worse than 4 years ago. Journalists did speculate about his mental and physical condition back in 2016, but at this point it's an exhausted subject as Trump made it through the presidency without major signs of further mental or physical degradation.

Now compare this to Biden. During the 2016 campaign he was still a proficient public speaker, arguably a pleasure to listen to in terms of his rhetorical skills. He glances at the teleprompter from time to time, but overall you can tell he knows most of the speech by heart or at least he's good enough to give you that impression. Now fast forward to the 2020 DNC convention. Here, Biden speaks a lot more slowly and doesn't take his eyes of the teleprompter. He doesn't gesticulate as actively and his physical appearance is a lot more tired, which of course makes sense given that he turns 78 soon. Not to mention the many gaffs he became known for during his campaign, such as angrily asking a primary participant to go vote for someone else.

In 2016, 36% of voters ranked Trump's health as "above average" or "excellent". In 2020, 40% of voters believe Trump's health to be good, with a similar figure for Biden. As you can see, voters have been consistently skeptical of Trump's fitness for all these years, but it's a new concern for Biden. Not everyone would necessarily agree with the assessment, but in a campaign perception can be just as important as facts, and the truth is that most Americans have become quite familiar with how the President talks over the past four years. They're probably not as familiar with Biden, and because of COVID-19 and political considerations they haven't heard a huge amount from Biden during this campaign either, leaving fertile ground for concerns over his mental state to blossom.

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    This is barely an answer, it's a polemic opinion piece against a specific politician and his supporters
    – divibisan
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 19:34
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    This post is nothing but a partisan opinion. Just like the (now deleted) anti-Trump answer, it only contains a single person's opinion instead of facts or objective knowledge about Biden. Links within can't salvage this post either; they all are of "go judge for yourself" kind. The question asks, "Why is there such a discrepancy in the perception of Trump's mental capacity within the USA?", and this opinionated post does not take its reader even a tiny bit closer towards the answer. VTD/NAA. Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 20:23
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    @bytebusterforLongUsernames have you seen the videos I've linked? Do you disagree that Biden is showing signs of mental decay compared to 4 years ago? "See for yourself" links are actually the best kind, as they let you form an objective picture of the physical reality, rather than reading someone's interpretation of it. Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 20:24
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    Attention flaggers: politics.stackexchange.com/review/low-quality-posts/35014 Just because you don't like what an answer says, does NOT mean it's low quality. Use that flag sparingly for actual junk posts and don't clutter up the review queue. Commented Sep 16, 2020 at 0:37
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    Which specific politician do you think that this answer is biased against? Honestly, I thought it seemed even-handed. Commented Sep 16, 2020 at 14:48

There are two different election strategies at play, mostly aimed at two different kinds of people. This is to be expected in most elections but the tunes that the two parties are playing are so obviously different this year that it is being noted.

The Republican campaign essentially continued its strategy from 2016 with minor tweaks. Then, the key point of attack was Clinton allegedly being criminal (‘crooked’, suplemented with chants of ‘lock her up’ and frequent pointers to instances she was being or – in the campaign’s eyes, should be – investigated for). Now, I see the major points being the candidate’s age and alleged mental demise as well as Biden allegedly being too close to or being controlled by China.

The Democratic campaign seems to have decided to explicitly not attack Trump’s mental state. Instead, it seems to me that they chose a variation of Michelle Obama’s line from 2016: ‘when they go low, we go high.’ Rather than pointing to character issues, they concentrate on pointing to (perceived) political failures, policies they disagree with, etc.

From the Republican point of view, the simplest explanation is ‘never change a winning team’. This campaigning style was successful for Trump in 2016 so they are betting on it being equally successful in 2020. Furthermore, it is a campaign style that is connected to their candidate, fits him and is a continuation of how he campaigned in the 2016 primary. It intends to send largely the same message to largely the same audience. There is not much to add.

From the Democratic point of view, the simplest explanation in my opinion is the image they want to cultivate of themselves. Many people have been discontent with the president’s style since he took office (his approval ratings never crossed the 50 % mark), so one of the simplest ways to set oneself apart is to act in a strikingly opposite manner. That would, most obviously, include restraining from personal or character attacks which Trump is so well-known for.

Furthermore, one can look at the audience the Democratic party is trying to reach. Essentially, because Trump has been in office for over three years (and campaigning for a good year before that), his character and style are not a secret. Next to mobody can be swayed to voting Democratic by pointing out the expletive obvious. Instead, by focusing on political issues (and thereby, in passing, displaying a vastly different, more issue-focused and rational style) they might be able to sway more rationally thinking Republican-leaning voters who are put off by the style Trump has displayed. In addition, it sends the message back to the home base that they are doing their best to keep the moral high ground by not engaging in tit-for-tat character attacks.

Taking all this together, the Republican party has little to lose but much to gain by attacking Biden’s mental state. On the other hand, the Democratic party has little to gain but much to lose if it tried attacking Trump likewise.

  • 13
    Also there's a purely practical matter. Since Trump is the sitting President, he has a 3 1/2 year track record of actions (or lack of actions, as in e.g. Woodward's "Rage") which can be attacked. Biden has no such recent record, so if the Trump campaign wants to attack, they can only do personal attacks. If they wanted to take the high ground and focus on Trump's accomplishments, they face the fact that most are going to be seen as accomplishments only by his base, not the undecided voters who will ultimately decide the election.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Sep 16, 2020 at 16:53
  • 6
    @jamesqf Biden has 47 years worth of records to attack though... including stuff like his 90's crime laws and his inaction as VP. Those are attacked as well as his mental health. It's not like health wasn't an issue between Trump and Clinton in 2016 either - fainting spells and what not for Hillary. Same rules apply here... health and records are definitely both on the table. "supposed policies" anti gun laws, silence on riots, past crime laws (or, in harris' case, past corrupt DA history)... plenty to go on against Biden/Harris (or is it Harris/Biden?)
    – WernerCD
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 7:01

For the Trump campaign, the aim is to project and deflect from concerns about Trump's own mental competence. For the Biden campaign, it's likely a combination of a desire to appear "above the fray" and a sense that everyone who can be moved by concerns about Trump's mental competence already has been.

There's a popular quote attributed alternately to Josef Göbbels, Karl Marx, or Saul Alinsky:

Accuse the other side of that which you are guilty

This has been one of the central principles of Trump's campaign (and other politicians – Trump is by no means alone in this) so far and he is continuing to use it in the present to try to deflect from his own weakness on this issue.

Voters have serious concerns about Trump's mental accuity:

Recent surveys show that voters believe Biden’s mental acuity either matches or exceeds Trump’s. In a Fox News poll released Sunday, registered voters said by an eight-point margin that Biden has the mental soundness to serve effectively as president, while voters doubted Trump’s mental soundness by eight points. And a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted at the end of May found that 46 percent of voters thought Trump had the “mental sharpness” necessary to serve effectively as president, compared with 49 percent who thought Biden did.

And Trump has done little to quell concerns by claiming that a cognitive assessment for people with dementia was "very hard":

“Well, it’s not the hardest test,” [Fox News anchor Chris] Wallace said. “They have a picture and it says, ‘What’s that?’ And it’s an elephant.”

But Trump was insistent. “Yes, the first few questions are easy, but I’ll bet you couldn’t even answer the last five questions,” the president continued. “I’ll bet you couldn’t. They get very hard, the last five questions.”

“Well, one of them was count back from 100 by seven,” Wallace quipped, before deadpanning the answer: “Ninety-three.”

One way to defend against this is to muddy the waters by throwing the same attacks back at his opponent. Voters hear "Trump has dementia" from one person and "Biden has dementia" from another. For those who don't follow politics closely, it's hard to compare the degree and legitimacy of the two claims so there's a tendency to say: "eh, it's a draw". That's why there's been such a laser focus on trying to push this issue, including creating and pushing doctored videos to try to get this issue into the public consciousness.

As Jasen points out, this is far from new: the most famous pre-Trump example was the "Swiftboating" of John Kerry in the 2004 Election. James Fallows of The Atlantic provides a good definition:

'Swiftboating' is, as I pointed out, to change a candidate's presumed strength into his weakness, or vulnerability. The term's origin is of course the 2004 general election campaign, when falsehood-filled accounts of John Kerry's record (as a Swift boat naval officer in Vietnam) turned what he presumed would be a strength, his military record, into something he had to defend and explain

Although none of the attacks had and substance, reporting on the attacks muddied the waters and convinced enough people that the two candidates' records were pretty equivalent the same despite John Kerry being a decorated Vietnam War veteran, while George W. Bush avoided serving overseas, with many suspecting that he did so thanks to his Father's influence.

This is the same strategy behind accusing his opponents of corruption based on flimsy evidence while he is famously and openly corrupt and has continued this corruption through his time in office, or accusing Biden of being "weak on China" when Trump has praised the Tiananmen Square Massacre and promised President Xi Jinping that the US would remain quiet about their efforts to crush pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, or Donald Trump Jr. attacking Hunter Biden for nepotism, despite being the poster child for nepotism himself.

I think the other answers cover the second part of the question, why Biden's campaign doesn't respond in kind, better than I can.

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    Yes this is "swiftboating" stirrred once and reheated. attack your enemy where you are weak. Bush the draft dodger, McCain born in Panama, Romney the liquidator, Trump the crook, Trump the old man.
    – Jasen
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 8:01
  • @Jasen You forgot McCain loser because he was captured. Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 18:41

I think this is, in part, due to the failure of the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016. Part of the reason many believe she lost was due to her campaign's focus on attacking Trump's personality, instead of highlighting policy differences.

Looking at this study on campaign ads from 2016, Clinton's ads were nearly all personal attacks - not policy. That is not necessarily a good idea. From the study (quoted in the article):

Evidence suggests that negativity in advertising can have a backlash effect on the sponsor (Pinkleton 1997) and that personally-focused, trait-based negative messages (especially those that are uncivil) tend to be seen as less fair, less informative and less important than more substantive, policy-based messaging (Fridkin and Geer 1994; Brooks and Geer 2007).

In stark contrast to any prior presidential cycle for which we have Kantar Media/CMAG data, the Clinton campaign overwhelmingly chose to focus on Trump’s personality and fitness for office (in a sense, doubling down on the news media’s focus), leaving very little room for discussion in advertising of the reasons why Clinton herself was the better choice.

As such, the Biden campaign is presumably learning from the failures of the Clinton campaign, and instead focusing on policy issues and not personality.

  • 3
    Clinton's use of "deplorables", an insult targeted at voters rather than an opponent, was a complete failure in that regard. It wasn't going to win any more votes from any committed Dems but it was going to turn off anyone who was sitting on the fence and felt targeted, while doing its best to get the Rep base out to vote. Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 16:42

The reason why Trump is using this tactic is because it works.

In 1988, George H. W. Bush ran an extremely successful campaign against Michael Dukakis. Like Trump, early in the campaign, Bush steeply trailed his opponent in the polls, sitting around 37% to Dukakis' 54%. At some point, the Bush campaign ran an ad that lampooned Dukakis by inserting grinding gear sounds over video of Dukakis riding in a tank, wearing a seemingly ill-fitting helmet and uniform. It was clearly implying that Dukakis was an idiot.

Later, rumors spread about Dukakis' feeble mental state, so some people were asking for his medical records (sound familiar?). When asked his opinion on the matter, President Reagan responded,

Look, I'm not going to pick on an invalid.

Ultimately, Bush won 40 states and a surplus of 7 million votes - a blow out. It is hard to say if the attack on Dukakis' intelligence was the deciding factor, but it was certainly a very important part of the Bush campaign strategy.

If you would like to hear more about this, Now This made an excellent video describing the situation.

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    I'd argue that it only works if people don't want to look at actual facts. If individuals really only care about popularity, it works, otherwise it doesn't. If you look at Joe's Answer about the 2016 Clinton campaign, it didn't work, but rather backfired. Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 17:27
  • @computercarguy It certainly doesn't always work, but I'd say it might have worked in the past. Certainly Trump thinks it will work. I would suggest that @BlackThorn soften the tl;dr for this question to "it has worked in the past" for accuracy, though
    – divibisan
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 17:45
  • I find this very, very, unlike the personal name-calling that Trump has been engaging in. Making fun of candidates photo-ops is a long standing tradition. The closest would indeed individual Dems calling Bush retarded from 00-08, but that wasn't generally done by the candidates against Bush themselves. Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 16:47
  • @Italian Reagan, as the sitting president, literally called Dukakis an invalid.
    – BlackThorn
    Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 19:21
  • Thanks for the video link; I remember the time well, it's interesting to see the effectiveness of these reviewed (Willie Horton and the tank footage)
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 3:52

The bottom line is that a campaign is going to highlight an issue if they think it will resonate. Trump clearly believes this one does. The question then becomes: why might he think that?

Biden has scaled back his public appearances to limit gaffes, and the article says that Democrat donors are concerned that he has "lost his mojo". This has continued right up to the present.Biden calls a lid on public appearances before 9am

And when he does appear, so do the gaffes. For example, he seems to replace "thousand" with "million" when talking about Covid deaths.

120 million deaths in July
200 million deaths as of a few days ago

And then there's 59% Think Biden Unlikely to Finish A Four-Year Term in White House

As for why wouldn't the Democrats make the same attack -- it wouldn't resonate. Trump could, for example, point to his public schedule. There are way too many events for this type of attack to be effective.

  • This isn’t an answer. You’ve got a one line answer that amounts to “Trump must think it will work” and then you dive into a few paragraphs of smears. Come on, you’ve been on this site long enough to know that this kind of thing is not ok
    – divibisan
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 3:18
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    A "smear" generally means a false accusation. Which part isn't true? Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 3:35
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    Re "why might he think that": No, the Q. isn't asking for a rehash or update of JB's gaffes, it's asking why the dems and kindred PACs don't follow suit with attack ads about DT's grey matter. As such please develop the on-topic first sentence more.
    – agc
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 7:03

It may be that the Democratic party is trying to stay away from ad hominem attacks/fallacies.

This is the kind of thing that can be simplistically described as an attack on a person because you don't have anything real to counter their arguments.

Person A: Climate change is drastically changing how the weather interferes with business and even residential care.
Person B: And how would you know that. You aren't a scientist and you're just a dumb blonde, anyway.

In this instance, Person B is using a personal attack instead of refuting the claim. This would be an ad hominem fallacy, since they aren't saying anything they can reasonably prove or has real relevance. Even if the person isn't a scientist, that doesn't mean they are clueless to what real scientist are saying about climate change.

An example response that wouldn't be a fallacy, but would still be an ad hominem attack could be:

Person B: You have a long history of misinformation and you constantly publicly support conspiracy theories, so why should we believe anything you say?

This would have to be backed up by facts that the person does actually believe debunked conspiracy theories and other misinformation, otherwise it's still a fallacy.

General claims

In the case of the presidential candidates throwing around claims about the other's intelligence, mental capacity, or other personal attribute, that can be considered an opinion, which can be refuted. One party can provide "evidence" of the other's mental incompetence and the other party can provide "evidence" to the exact opposite. Because it's so subjective, it's considered the 2nd lowest form of attack.

The lowest form of attack is name calling, which Trump also does, but I digress.


The Democrats appear to be sticking to things that are pretty cut and dried when it comes to provable results. When they talk about China relations, they talk about the sales and other financial losses America has seen because of how Trump handled those foreign affairs.

Even when they do attack Trump for being "dangerous, negligent, authoritarian, unlawful, racist, lying, and incompetent", they are still pointing to specific instances where it's fairly obvious.

They talk about how Trump attacked AOC and other Congresswomen for their heritage and calling Mexicans "drug dealers", "criminals", and worse when they say he's racist.

They talk about the whole "grab'em by the pussy" incident when they say he's a misogynist.

Democrats also point to specific instances when he outright lied about a number of things or specifically about the coronavirus.

These are still ad hominem attacks, but because they are factual and not based on bad logic, they aren't fallacies. Because it's considered "dirty politics", as another Answer mentioned, it should still be avoided. They feel they can get away with it because the ad hominem part isn't the center point of the advertisement, but rather the evidence is. On the other side of the aisle, the Trump campaign focuses on the ad hominem attacks as the entire ad.

Side note

As an example of this opinionated form of attack ads put on by Trump's campaign, I just listened to an advertisement on my current favorite internet audio streaming site. It was a collection of Trump supporters talking about their fears of Biden and how good they think Trump is doing. The fact that what they say can be easily disproven makes this an ad hominem fallacy and very bad form of advertising.

  • 1
    The terminology discussion has been moved to chat.
    – yannis
    Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 18:44

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