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Sweet Dreams

Liberals Are Trying to Make Trump’s Age an Issue. It Won’t Work.

Biden’s defenders can’t win this debate—and they should be attacking Trump’s more obvious vulnerabilities anyway.

Donald Trump looks into the camera, looking a bit haggard (and old).
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Sleepy Donald in a New York City courtroom on Tuesday

As his attorneys and prosecutors barter over pretrial motions and potential jurors in the first criminal trial of a former president in American history, Donald Trump simply cannot keep his eyes open. On Monday, the defendant appeared to doze off for several minutes as the rules of his trial were being established, only “jolting awake” after his lead attorney passed him several notes. A day later, Trump fell asleep again, this time as potential jurors were being quizzed. “Trump’s head slowly dropped, his eyes closed. It jerked back upward,” tweeted Law360’s Frank G. Runyeon from the courtroom. “He adjusts himself. Then, his head droops again. He straightens up, leaning back. His head [droops] for a third time, he shakes his shoulders. Eyes closed still. His head drops. Finally, he pops his eyes open.”

Trump’s inability to stay awake at this historic moment is undoubtedly funny. He very clearly would like to be anywhere other than a courtroom in Lower Manhattan, where he is being regularly humiliated and faces potential jail time. But some media figures have found more than humor in Trump’s shut-eye, instead seeing a serious opportunity to critique the mainstream press’s coverage of President Biden’s physical state.

Doug J. Balloon of New York Times Pitchbot, an X account that makes up things to be mad at the Gray Lady about, tweeted a fake headline: “Donald Trump repeatedly fell asleep during today’s trial proceedings, raising alarms about Biden’s vigor and stamina.” Substacker and former Vox writer David Roberts connected the incident with a much-reported incoherent rant Trump made about the Battle of Gettysburg over the weekend, tweeting, “Pretty funny that after the weeks-long (largely bad-faith) freakout over Biden’s age & mental acuity, Trump is now sundowning in front of us, regularly lapsing into literal gibberish.”

These quips are part of a broader liberal narrative that has taken hold lately: Media coverage of Biden’s age is unfair and one-sided. It’s true that there has been a surge of news and analysis about Biden’s age and verbal stumbles. It’s also true that Trump is really old too! And yet, much of this griping feels like sour grapes, not to mention strategically unsound. The best argument against Trump’s return to the White House isn’t that he’s senile and somnolent. It’s that he’s truly deranged—and getting worse by the day.

There’s no denying it: A majority of voters are more concerned about Biden’s age (81) than Trump’s (77). A February Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll of swing state voters found that roughly eight in 10 voters thought Biden was too old, almost double the number who felt the same about Trump. This divergence is perhaps surprising, given the negligible age difference between them, and it has given rise in liberal circles to the idea that this must be the media’s fault: that by running stories about Biden’s gaffes and concerns about his age, and not assigning at least as much coverage of Trump’s own age and syntactical incoherence, the press is tipping the scales in this election.

But there’s reason to believe that voters have come to these conclusions on their own—or at least not at the mainstream media’s behest. Although coverage of Biden’s verbal miscues has been widespread both online and in conservative media, it has only recently begun to regularly appear in mainstream outlets like the Times and CNN. Voters think that it’s important, and these outlets have, belatedly, begun to treat it as newsworthy. One could quibble about the fairness of these concerns given the relatively insignificant age difference between Biden and Trump, but there is no doubting that the concerns are widespread. Even Democrats on Capitol Hill have voiced them.

Part of the delight in Trump falling asleep comes from the fact that it’s seen as a kind of market correction: Now the media will have to cover Trump’s age the way it has covered Biden’s. At the same time, it also feels like a gift in kind: It muddies the waters, allowing the president’s defenders to argue that the other guy is also really old. (They’ve already been doing that for a while, to be fair.)

Still, there are a number of reasons to believe that this is not a particularly wise course of action for Democrats. For one, voters overwhelmingly think that Biden is older than Trump (because he quite literally is), and raising the salience of the age issue would likely backfire even more than it already has. Experience was once a winning issue for Biden; in 2020, many voters looked to him as a steady hand who could help steer the country out of the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, it’s a clear loser: He is seen as lacking the fitness and stamina for the job. Telling voters that the other guy also doesn’t have fitness and stamina may not be a winning issue. At the very least, it could push voters toward comparably chipper third-party candidates like Cornel West and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who are both 70.

Whining about Trump’s age also distracts from more potent questions about his figurative fitness for office. As he faces numerous criminal trials, Trump has grown more vengeful and unhinged. He has repeatedly threatened the presiding judges, their families, and key witnesses. He has pledged a massive authoritarian crackdown—and a purge of the federal workforce—if he retakes office. His rallies have taken on a significantly darker and more messianic tone. His speeches are every bit as impenetrable and weird as they were eight years ago, but they are now even more fascistic. Trump does not seem well. He does not necessarily seem old in the way that Biden does, but he is clearly not all there.

The idea that Trump is too unhinged to return to the White House is a significantly better argument than one that insists that he is senile. For one thing, it meets voters where they are: In the aforementioned Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll, nearly six in 10 thought Trump was “too dangerous.” For another, it allows Biden and his allies to make a positive argument—albeit a relatively subtle one—that helps answer the age issue. Biden may be old, but he is surrounded by competent, experienced people who have restored sanity and stability to the government. Trump, meanwhile, is bent on upending the government once again and contorting it into his hideous image. Yes, he’s also old. But more importantly, he’s a maniac, and Biden is not.