Opinion: Face It, the Way Biden and Trump Look Matters to Voters

Photo Illustration by Luis G Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Luis G Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

Jill Filipovic is the author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.

Thursday’s presidential debate will pit the two oldest-ever candidates for president against each other. Despite being nearly the same age, Donald Trump has tried to paint Joe Biden as elderly and doddering, and voters also seem to worry more about Biden’s age than Trump’s. And though Trump’s “angry grandpa” persona makes for entertaining television, it doesn’t necessarily instill confidence.

Ever since FDR hid his wheelchair from the public, presidents and presidential candidates have understood that TV is a visual medium, and aesthetics matter. But perhaps no two presidential candidates have gone to such lengths to broadcast youth and vitality to the American public, even as they enter their ninth decades.

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Part of this is simple vanity. But it’s also our social, cultural, and political reality. Male politicians are lucky in many ways—like how they can be outwardly slovenly and still taken seriously, while also being allowed to age in public and see their gravitas grow.

While men get several extra decades that aren’t generally afforded to women, this election suggests that even their time comes, too. There comes a time when “distinguished elder statesman” declines simply into “old man.”

Which is why both Biden and Trump are raging against their own mortality.

A close up of Joe Biden speaking in the White House

President Joe Biden

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Biden, to his credit, doesn’t exactly project youth, but he does look damn good for 81. His suits fit well, and though he moves and talks a little slower than he used to, he’s trim and in good physical shape. He hasn’t dyed his hair a ridiculous color, even if his veneers are a bit ridiculously white. His facial work, perhaps Botox, seems to be doing a lot of work, but even at his age he appears far less injected than your average Fox News anchor. Could he ease up on the facial freeze? Probably—but then we’d never hear the end of Biden’s wrinkle analysis. And judging from his clothes alone, the man knows the power of a timeless look (if only he could wear his signature aviator sunglasses to the debate).

Trump is hanging onto his youth a little differently, with carroty spray tans, white under-eyes, and a notoriously bizarre and gravity-defying swirl of a thinning canary coif. He is not a man who appears physically well, and it should not surprise anyone who looks at him that he has subsisted on fast food and well-done steaks. Despite being spectacularly rich and famously vain, no one has ever accused him of being stylish, or even of wearing clothes that fit properly. I’m not an esthetician, but I suspect there isn’t enough Botox in the world to relax Trump’s long-cultivated scowl lines. If Biden is trying to preserve, Trump is trying to project an image—although what, exactly, is said by his sour-lemon expression and ombre-orange cranial color scheme is unclear.

The men approach aging with differences in actions, too. Biden has long positioned himself—by all accounts honestly—as a family man, and now he’s the patriarch of a sprawling clan. His persona hinges on him being a loyal husband, a loving father (even when his children behave badly), and a doting grandfather. He captures a particular kind of good-guy masculinity: The strong provider who is never too tough to give his kids a hug.

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Trump, on the other hand, isn’t anyone’s genteel fantasy grandpa; he more resembles many of our actual Fox News Grandpas. His family has been folded into his political rise, but there’s little evidence of paternal warmth; one has a hard time imagining Trump bouncing a grandchild on his knee, or even remembering each of their names.

In the same way he largely left parenting up to his three wives, he seems to also have rejected the role of grandfather—a coldness that would hurt many politicians but instead cements the view that Trump is young enough for the White House, while Biden is not. That Trump is married to a woman nearly a quarter-century his junior, has a teenage child with her and is essentially never seen with his grandchildren only reinforces this image, while its distastefulness is broadly overlooked by supporters who are happy to forgive Trump of anything and liberal opponents who are hesitant to criticize less-than-traditional family situations and romantic decisions.

The scrutiny over Biden’s age and the relative lack of scrutiny over Trump’s is less about how either of these men is working with what they’ve got, how distinguished and professional either of them looks, the steps they’re taking to appear younger, their actual abilities, or even their numerical ages; the scrutiny is more about vibes.

A close up of Donald Trump speaking into a mic

Former President Donald Trump

Samuel Corum/Getty Images

And that is where Trump has a real advantage, because a great many Americans seem to read unhinged rage-frothing as youthful vigor—and, more dangerously, put perceived vigor ahead of clear competence.

There is something unseemly about picking apart candidates’ looks. Female politicians, after all, have been subjected to endless criticism of their bodies, their clothes, their hair, their weight, their wrinkles, their suspected cosmetic procedures, and on and on. Putting men under the same microscope feels less like equality than watching men gain ground in a race to the bottom.

But it’s also true that appearance matters for public figures, whether we want it to or not, and it especially matters when voters have the candidates’ ages near the top of their concerns.

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It's easy to write this off as ageism, and indeed, judging a person’s fitness for a job on the basis of how old they look (or how old they try not to look) is straight-up discrimination.

But there is plentiful evidence that cognition and energy really do decline with age. Appearance is not a good metric of cognitive health. But the way a person appears, moves, and speaks gives a generalized impression of their sharpness. Wishing it weren’t true doesn’t make it so. And wondering about the wisdom of putting an octogenarian in office is a valid concern. American voters really do deserve better than two elderly men vying for the most important role in the world.

Unfortunately, though, these are the elderly men we’ve got, and no matter who wins, he will be into his 80s when he leaves office (assuming the next president lives that long). And tonight, both will be hoping they look good enough that the audience doesn’t start doing that math.

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