March 18, 2024


Biden and Trump will again duke it out to become President of the United States, and the issue of age is no longer relevant. That’s because both are old. Republican primary candidate Nikki Haley labelled the duo “the Grumpy Old Men” and suggested that there be mandatory “mental competency tests” for politicians older than 75. She dubbed herself a “new generational leader” and said Trump or Biden will turn the White House into a “taxpayer-subsidized nursing home”. Her crusade attracted attention, but her vote-for-me-because-I’m-52 pitch fell flat. Deservedly. The issue of age is off the mark. Occasional verbal slips or memory lapses are common as people age and are not evidence of cognitive decline. But the issue of personality is criticial and Donald Trump is unwell. Haley said “chaos will follow him”, he has “tantrums”, and is “unhinged and diminished”. And Trump’s niece, a clinical psychologist, also wrote recently that he shows signs of “mental confusion”. On television, she warned that “somebody who is as unhealthy [sociopathic] as he is, who is under the extraordinary amount of stress he’s under, would have a harder time holding it together cognitively.”

And yet the press spills more ink on Biden’s verbal stumbles than on Trump’s. This is natural, because he’s the incumbent, but there are other factors behind this attention. He looks older than Trump. His voice has grown softer, his hair thinner, his stammer more frequent, and his stride more tentative. By contrast, Trump’s hair and tan are cosmetic, and he still delivers lengthy, angry, and bombastic speeches. This exhibits vitality, but he also churns out gaffes galore. However, cognitive experts don’t regard such verbal flubs as symptomatic of decline per se. “When I see somebody make a flub on TV, I’m really not all that concerned,” said Jay Olshansky, a researcher on ageing at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “What science will tell you about flubs is that they’re perfectly normal, and they are exacerbated by stress. Mixing up names is common.”

Last month, Biden’s age made headlines following a gratuitous comment by a Trump-appointed special counsel, who is not an expert on cognitive capability. He excused Biden from facing charges for his handling of classified documents, but described him as an old man with trouble remembering dates, including the date his son Beau died. Trump and MAGA media mocked Biden over this even as Trump carried on making goofs too. For example, he predicted the President could “plunge the world into World War II”. And his name-slippages and date mix-ups are so commonplace that Governor Rick DeSantis highlighted the problem by launching a “Trump accident tracker” during a primary. In recent days, Mary Trump posted a few doozies on her blog, citing that he said “wall mongers” instead of “warmongers” at a rally and confused the current President with a former one when he said Putin “has so little respect for Obama”.

The media exploits mistakes, but experts are non-plussed. “Forgetting an event doesn’t necessarily mean there is a problem,” said Dr. John Morris, a neurology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He added that any valid assessment requires extensive

neuropsychological tests, not a 30-questionnaire that Trump once boasted he “aced” — or an “opinion” by a special counsel after an interview.

Biden’s competence was defended by Wall Street Journal and Republican columnist Peggy Noonan. Her March 8 review, entitled “There’s Life in the Old Boy Yet”, praised Biden’s vigorous State of the Union address. “His speech showed energy and focus, though he blurred some words and thoughts. The cumulative effects of 50 years of speaking sort of made Joe Biden the figure he is, but he never really had a make-or-break speech, and maybe this was it. And boy, he came in hot. It was fiery.”

She was viciously attacked by some readers and her praise was in stark contrast to the Journal’s assessment last year that Biden “running for re-election in his condition is an act of profound selfishness”. However, both nominees are old, which the public is concerned about, but Trump has grave character flaws.

Of course, concern about age is always valid and also related to the issue of succession, a valid concern when voters are asked to hand over the reins of the most powerful country in the world. With Biden, worries are that he won’t finish a second term and his Vice President Kamala Harris is not ready to be President. With Trump, worries are more dramatic: That he will wreak widespread revenge again opponents or critics, that he will dismantle America’s democracy, and that he will upend the world order.

Both men are dogged by this issue. When challenged, Biden said straight up, but petulantly, in a press conference that “I’m well-meaning and I’m an elderly man, and I know what the hell I’m doing.” By contrast, Trump ignores the issue and campaigns against “immigrants who are animals” and portrays all the cases against him in court as “a witch hunt”. But he has been convicted by a jury of rape, and of massive fraud by a judge. He also faces 91 felony counts in two state courts and two federal districts, any of which could potentially produce a prison sentence. Then there is litigation concerning the riot at the Capitol and his efforts to overthrow the 2020 election. So he now seeks legal immunity from the Supreme Court in order to become a de facto dictator, not a constitutionally-tethered President.

But a new poll illustrates that if he is convicted of just one criminal allegation before the election, he will lose. A critical portion of Republicans will abandon ship. This is why he desperately tries to delay the four criminal trials he faces. These include the hush money payoff case involving stripper Stormy Daniels, a Georgia case about election tampering, the secret documents case, and his attempt to overthrow the 2020 election. Just one conviction “is absolutely a potential dealbreaker” said GOP strategist Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.

In essence, this election demonstrates that America’s democracy needs a reset. Why haven’t these elderly gentlemen had to compete openly and vigorously for their nominations against other candidates? Why are there no competitive conventions anymore? Instead, America’s voters head to the polls this fall and must make a binary choice on election day: Vote for the friendly old guy who’s been President for four years, or vote for the angry old guy who is clearly unwell.