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How Trump gets away with being so old

Of all the themes of the 2024 campaign, perhaps none is as recurrent, delicate, and sticky as the topic of President Joe Biden’s age. He’s 81. It’s top of mind for many American voters. It’s a go-to topic of discussion whenever Biden makes a public appearance…



How Trump gets away with being so old
How Trump gets away with being so old
Of all the themes of the 2024 campaign, perhaps none is as recurrent, delicate, and sticky as the topic of President Joe Biden’s age. He’s 81. It’s top of mind for many American voters. It’s a go-to topic of discussion whenever Biden makes a public appearance or address. And it’s received its fair share of coverage in the mainstream political press, especially the New York Times. But Donald Trump is pretty old too. He turned 78 on Friday. Until Biden was elected, Trump held the record for the oldest person elected to the presidency. And he has a long track record of flubs, gaffes, and perplexing mannerisms that mirror many of Biden’s concern-inspiring moments. And yet, American voters across the political spectrum do not seem as concerned about Trump’s age as they are with Biden’s. Just three years separate them, but across just about every poll that asks voters whether they are concerned, a consistent gap appears in public opinion. Take the New York Times/Siena College poll released in March. When asked whether Trump and Biden were “just too old to be an effective president,” 42 percent of respondents said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that was the case with Trump. Nearly three-quarters — 73 percent of respondents — said the same about Biden. It’s a dynamic that, understandably, frustrates Democrats immensely. They argue that the three-year age gap between Trump and Biden is being held up as equally damaging as the fact that Trump is an extremist who tried to steal the last presidential election. But this raises an obvious question: Why? Why does the public seem captivated by Biden’s age, but rarely talks about Trump’s? This is one of those questions that’s hard to answer quantitatively, but I think it can be boiled down to a few theories. Some of it can be explained through the nature of who Trump is, some through some media criticism, and some of it by just looking at the two men. Theory 1: Trump’s age is already baked into the public’s perceptions of him After nearly a decade of Donald Trump playing a central role in our politics, opinions about him as a person have crystallized in the minds of many Americans — and he hasn’t really changed that much over those years. Perhaps we’ve gotten used to his antics and verbal tics — the outbursts and bits, the weird capitalization in tweets, the random intonations of his speech, the plethora of run-on sentences. We’ve seen that all before in two presidential campaigns. Why would we begin to think differently about all that now? So when he mixes up the names of cities he’s in, when he mispronounces “Hamas” as “hummus,” and when he mistakenly refers to the prime minister of Hungary as being the president of Turkey, it’s not a matter of Trump being old, but of Trump being weird. The same isn’t as true for Biden — who many millennials and Gen Xers can remember as a sharp, off-the-cuff everyman politician whose retail politics and banter were a hallmark of the Obama years. Even the Biden of the 2020 primary season seemed a touch more spry than the president running for reelection today. And the public has gotten to know a different kind of Biden during his presidency. Additionally, partisanship is one hell of a drug — particularly when it comes to Trump. If you dislike Trump, odds are that him being old and behaving erratically in public addresses are not tipping-point factors in deciding whether you start to like him or begin to worry less about him. His age isn’t the thing that is driving you away from him or the main reason you can’t support him — everything else about him (his authoritarian tendencies, his policy positions, the company he keeps) is. At the same time, if you really like Trump, his age and how that shows up in his peculiar mannerisms are probably not that relevant to your decision to support him in 2024, or the thing you want to discuss when explaining, describing, or justifying the reason you still back him. His accomplishments in office, the tear-it-all-down movement he represents, and his promises for a second term are. Pew Research’s public surveys provide some additional proof for this. They have found sharp partisan divides on the question of age and media attention with both candidates. In those surveys, Democrats seem quite flummoxed about how the media treat Biden and Trump on the age question. Republicans, meanwhile, don’t seem to think about age that much when it comes to Trump. Theory 2: Media coverage of Trump and Biden follows different imperatives The media, though fragmented, can still exert a lot of influence on the national conversation. That’s particularly true when it comes to how they cover presidential candidates and politicians, and it has been evident when it comes to the age question. News organizations and individual reporters have to make editorial decisions about what to cover when on the Trump or Biden beats. When it comes to covering Trump, they have plenty to choose from. On any given day, it seems, the former president is: * mired by legal troubles, whether that was being indicted on a range of state or federal offenses (classified documents, hush-money payments, trying to stop the certification of the 2020 election), being deposed for those indictments, actually on trial, or — most recently — having a jury find him guilty of 34 felonies; * saying some incendiary thing in a speech or social media post (that he wants to be a “dictator,” that he would “pardon” insurrectionists, that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” or claiming that Nancy Pelosi’s daughter told him that he and Pelosi were meant to be “together”); * campaigning or fundraising with questionable figures who also say incendiary things; * or announcing one position on an issue, like potentially backing a national abortion ban, and then walking it back when it seems politically expedient. And so much more. There’s an abundance of material to work with that goes beyond just his age — tremendous content, I fear. And that’s often not the case when it comes to the highly orchestrated operations run out of the Biden campaign and White House. In fact, the opposite is often true, almost by design. Biden’s pitch for the presidency was to do away with drama and to bring back boring in the name of competence. And on the policy front, the president and congressional Democrats have accomplished a lot, as we have covered here at Vox. But is any of that the most exciting stuff to cover, if you’re a politics reporter used to covering symbolism, tradition, palace intrigue, or internal dynamics within a historically leak-proof White House? The campaign, similarly, is a low-key affair. Biden has visited battleground states to speak directly to local audiences and tout his administration’s accomplishments, but he still opts for releasing content on social media and running scores of ads as the primary way to reach voters. It’s no surprise that the brightest, eye-catching moments of his presidency have been his State of the Union addresses, when he also has managed to show vigor and wits, reminding folks he’s still got it. And it’s essentially always been the opposite for Trump, whose every thought (and whose advisers’ every thought) gets communicated to the media. Way back in 2018, Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon had a name for this strategy: “flood[ing] the zone with shit.” In other words, there’s just too much for the media to cover when it comes to Trump. His beat reporters have plenty to work with as he’s always making news; Biden beat reporters meanwhile have the option of falling back to Biden’s age more frequently when he’s not making news. Biden also can’t change his age, and therefore it can always be a news story. And that also creates a bit of a feedback loop of incentives, since voters say they care about his age, creating demand for more stories about his age, amplifying concerns about his age, and so on. Theory 3: Visuals matter, and Trump just doesn’t look, act, or present as old as Biden Two videos that went viral during Trump’s birthday week demonstrate another explanation for why we don’t really discuss Trump’s age: The first came from a White House celebration commemorating Juneteenth. As singers and musicians perform on the South Lawn of the White House and Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff sing and dance along, Biden looks ahead, smiling for a few seconds before his body stiffens and the smile fades. His gaze then drifts to the side before an audience member gets his attention. “NO ONE’S HOME,” read the headline from Fox News. The second came from Trump’s campaign account on X and TikTok promoting a collaboration between Trump and wrestler/influence Logan Paul. In that video, Paul and Trump literally face off in front of a championship belt, as two boxers do before a match. They stare each other down for a few seconds before breaking into laughter and hugging. Both videos represent the asymmetric nature of Biden and Trump’s public appearances: Biden, as chief executive, is (rightly) called on to make public appearances outside the carefully manicured environs of campaign events. And while sometimes that has gone well (like his SOTU), it has also paved the way for some cringe-inducing moments: He’s tripping up the steps to Air Force One, he’s shuffling to Marine One, he’s swaying at public events, he’s slurring his words while speaking. Trump, on the other hand, gets to hand-pick the moments he goes in front of massive crowds and audiences. Sure, he goes on tangents about electrocutions, wind turbines, and teleprompters, but as we’ve discussed above, that’s dismissed as Trump being Trump. Instead, we see clips of him moving fairly normally — as in the “just guys being dudes”-style clip with Logan Paul, or in ways that might make you laugh instead of furrow your eyes, as when he does his weird dances or interesting body movements. In short, both candidates have plenty of gaffes and quirks. But while Biden’s are interpreted as a sign of advanced age, Trump gets away with just being seen as weird.