Donald Trump Is Old
Donald Trump is an old man.
He’s 77 years old. When Trump was born, Harry S. Truman was president and Perry Como topped the year’s pop charts. Betty White hadn’t yet started her career in film. Israel and Pakistan didn’t exist. Korea was a unified country, and Vietnam was not. The pioneering computer ENIAC was just four months old.
Trump’s cultural references are dated, and only getting more so. Elton John and the Rolling Stones headline his rally playlists. When, as president, he had a chance to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, his selections included Babe Ruth (who died in 1948) and Elvis (who died in 1977—perhaps).
The same goes for his political touchstones. His view of immigration, in which foreign countries dispatch their undesirables en masse, seems to be shaped largely by the 1980 Mariel boatlift. His trade policy is steeped in ’80s-era fears of Japan. He rails against “Communists” and “Marxists” like a Cold Warrior of yore (only with a peculiar affection for the Russians, rather than enmity).
Trump’s older sister died recently—at the age of 86. His younger brother died in 2020; another brother died in 1981. His first wife died last year.
And these days, Trump sure seems to struggle with mental acuity. At a rally in Iowa, he confused Sioux City with Sioux Falls, a city in South Dakota, and had to be corrected by a state senator. He said that Kim Jong Un rules a nation of 1.4 billion, appearing to confuse the North Korean leader he so admires with China’s Xi Jinping. He has on multiple occasions mixed up his past election opponents, confusing Barack Obama for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, and Jeb Bush and George W. Bush. (The campaign of Governor Ron DeSantis put together a long thread of such mix-ups.)
All of this might seem blazingly obvious, or else just mean-spirited and ageist. But these signs of decrepitude are relevant because of an odd dynamic of the presidential race, which is headed inexorably to a Trump-Biden rematch that most Americans don’t want. Biden’s age has received intense, and well-deserved, scrutiny; he’s already the oldest president in American history, and is running for a term that would begin when he is 82. Yet Trump’s own aging has not received nearly so much attention in the press or from the public. Next to Biden, Trump just doesn’t seem as old. But he is elderly—less than four years younger than Biden. To the extent that old age is an issue for a presidential contender, it should be an issue for both.
In August, the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research gave Americans an open-ended question soliciting their associations for each candidate. Age topped the list for Biden, with 41 percent calling him “old,” “slow,” or “confused.” Only 4 percent said the same of Trump. (The top descriptors for him were “corrupt,” “crooked,” “criminal,” and “liar.”) In a September poll from Monmouth University, three-quarters of voters said Biden was too old to be president, versus almost half who said the same about Trump.
Why has Trump managed to get a pass? Long attuned to the power of appearances, Trump has focused on how he looks. He is often mocked for his heavy orange makeup, his hair dye, and the elaborate nest of hair he constructs atop his head, but those embellishments have also done their job, making him look less old than he might otherwise. (Biden is also widely thought to have gotten a hair transplant.) Trump has calculated that it’s better to be mocked as a fraud than to be patronized as a fogy.
He has also been lucky in his opponents. Biden’s campaign has no interest in talking about age, given the polling about the president (though his aides surely don’t mind coverage of Trump’s gaffes). And Trump’s ostensible rivals for the Republican nomination were until recently hesitant to attack him, which meant they were unlikely to question his robustness, though now DeSantis is starting to emphasize the issue.
“This is a different Donald Trump than 2015 and ’16—lost the zip on his fastball,” DeSantis told reporters while campaigning in New Hampshire in October. “In 2016, he was freewheeling; he’s out there barnstorming the country. Now it’s just a different guy. And it’s sad to see.”
This is almost, but not quite, right. DeSantis is implying that Trump isn’t as combative as he once was, and that he, DeSantis, can be. Trump isn’t as freewheeling, but the plain fact is that he hasn’t lost any of the edge of his 2016 campaign. If anything, he’s even harsher, as rants about “vermin” and political retribution come to dominate his public remarks.
In fact, Trump’s tendency to bluster has probably also helped hide his aging. Biden’s tone of voice is soft and sometimes slow; he sounds old, in a simple aural sense. If you look at what Trump is saying, especially written out, much of it is unintelligible. But it’s barked out in that familiar overbearing voice, papering over the disturbing substance.
Finally, detecting a decline in Trump may be challenging because his language and reasoning skills started at such a low place. His pronouncements in the 2016 campaign and throughout his presidency could be baffling or nonsensical. Asked at a recent event whether Trump was losing it, former Attorney General Bill Barr said, “His verbal skills are limited.” The audience chuckled, but Barr seemed entirely serious.
But what Barr didn’t say was that Trump was slipping, perhaps because this is who Trump has long been. In that sense, a discussion of time’s ravages on Trump seems misplaced. During his years in the White House, a few incidents of physical struggles—lifting a glass, walking down a ramp—raised just the sorts of doubts that are being raised about Biden now. I argued at the time, during the 2020 presidential campaign, that the discussion missed the point: “There is extensive evidence that Trump is unfit to serve as president for reasons that have nothing to do with his physical health.”
This has not changed. The idea that Trump has the stamina for the presidency but Biden does not has little evidence to back it up—and even if he did, that would be no reason to risk another round of his administration.