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14 February 2024

No country for old men?

As a Trump vs Biden rematch looms, the US prepares for a second term with an octogenarian in the Oval Office.

By Jill Filipovic

Whatever happens in the 2024 election, the US will be a country led by an old man. Joe Biden, now 81, unseated Donald Trump as the oldest ever person to be sworn in as US president. Biden is the first octogenarian in the White House. If 77-year-old Trump wins and carries out even half of his term, he’ll be the second.

And yet it’s primarily Biden’s age that makes headlines. A recent inquiry into allegations that Biden mishandled classified documents cleared him of wrongdoing. Unlike Trump, who also allegedly mishandled classified material and is facing obstruction charges for allegedly concealing evidence that he did so, Biden cooperated fully. Yet in the inquiry report, the Republican special counsel took a shot at Biden’s age, calling him a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”. Biden responded with frustration in a press conference on 9 February, where he mixed up the presidents of Mexico and Egypt and only inflamed the issue.

To many Democrats, the furore felt eerily like the “but her emails” debacle of 2016, when, less than two weeks before the election, the then director of the FBI, James Comey, announced he was reopening his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. The FBI eventually found no criminal wrongdoing, but that announcement prompted scandalised coverage. Clinton lost the election.

A special counsel report that makes claims about a president’s faltering memory is certainly newsworthy, although the special counsel in question is not a medical doctor nor a specialist with any apparent expertise in cognitive decline. The question, though, is not whether coverage of the report is merited: it is one of proportion.

On 9 February, Trump told the National Rifle Association he would begin the mass deportation of migrants “within moments” of assuming the presidency. His leading immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, has previously elaborated on this plan, saying a Trump administration will rely on red states to staff private armies that will round up millions of migrants in internment camps and expel them from the country. The next day, Trump told rally-goers that he would “encourage” Russia to “do whatever the hell” it wanted to Nato countries that don’t “pay up”, suggesting he sees the alliance as a Mafia-style protection racket. These events were covered by the media, but the proportions were way off. In the New York Times alone, there is a dedicated news analysis section called “Focus on Biden’s Memory and Age” and the paper printed six op-eds on the same topic in just 48 hours.

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There are other profound asymmetries at play. Biden’s “softer and raspier” voice is mentioned to highlight his age, but when he turns forceful and angry at being labelled doddery it’s cast as a lack of stability. Trump’s rage-filled rallies are seen as evidence of his virility, his rants less an indication of a man whose mind has left the building and instead of “macho rhetoric”.

The kinds of mistakes Biden has made are not all that unusual, particularly for the long-gaffe-prone president, although they are of greater concern given his age. But Trump also routinely mixes up the names of leaders, and has sworn dozens of times under oath that he is unable to remember a great many events. He has said he won an election against Barack Obama and claimed Nikki Haley oversaw security on 6 January 2021 (he meant Nancy Pelosi, although Pelosi was not, in fact, in charge of security that day). He has repeatedly boasted about acing an aptitude test for adults suspected of cognitive decline, while getting basic facts about the content of the test wrong – suggesting he doesn’t remember what that memory test entailed.

His mistakes rarely result in blanket coverage. Trump also often lies with apparent intention and regularly discusses his plans to dismantle core facets of US democracy. The Washington Post tracked Trump’s untruths for four years and found that he made more than 30,000 false or misleading claims; on one particularly wild day in November 2020, he made a whopping 503 false statements. But since journalists and voters expect outrageousness from Trump, even dangerously scaled-up rhetoric that sounds reminiscent of 1930s Germany doesn’t move the electoral needle much.

Coverage of Biden’s age does: two days after the special counsel report was made public, 86 per cent of respondents told ABC/Ipsos pollsters that Biden was too old to be president. In September, it was 74 per cent.

Trump’s issues also appear to be both cognitive and temperamental. Yet the press has largely shied away from suggesting he has the kind of serious personality disorder – narcissism, sociopathy, perhaps a combination of the two – that should disqualify one from holding the nuclear codes. When journalists have dug into Trump’s mental fitness, the results are damning. Generally, though, this kind of enquiry is considered out of bounds. So narratives about Biden’s equally unproved cognitive decline are absorbed into America’s perception of him, while Trump’s apparent cognitive issues don’t register.

Anyone who dismisses concerns about the ages of either candidate is kidding themselves. But come November, American voters will likely have a choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump: one candidate who is elderly and deeply imperfect, and one who is elderly and profoundly dangerous. And voters deserve to understand not just what might be happening inside each candidate’s head, but exactly what each plans to do with his immense power as president.

[See also: Joe Biden faces voter backlash over Gaza]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland