Two Old Men and Masculinity in the Race for President

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Former president Donald Trump uses churlish masculinity like a shot of Botox.

In American culture, women have always been unfairly burdened with expectations surrounding age. As the years pass, men gained gravitas; women became increasingly obsolete until they simply vanished from the collective consciousness. Older women moved through life like phantoms, ever present but unseen.

That sort of vaporous existence resulted because as women aged, they no longer fit into the narrow definition of fulsome femininity and desirability. Age might have brought self-assurance, authority and a bigger bank account, but it also brought wrinkles, gray hair and, perhaps, a few extra pounds. Over the years, women fought back. The culture evolved. Invisibility is no longer a woman’s destiny, even in places that once ignored older women in particularly brutal ways, such as in Hollywood and on Seventh Avenue.

In Washington, where experience and long-standing relationships carried a certain amount of currency, a bit of age on a woman was never such a bad thing. It was more likely younger women who had to prove their mettle and watch their back. And if younger colleagues came gunning for a more senior woman, as they did with former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, she merely shooed them away with her impressive ability to get things done.

Now men are learning what it’s like to have an arbitrary expiration date stamped across their forehead. Or at least one man is. And in the same way that ageism against women was really a disquisition on femininity, the broad obsession with President Biden’s age speaks to our vision of masculinity.

Perhaps the only issue that has bridged the divide between Democrats and Republicans is the recognition that the president is old. Biden is 81, and he moves through his days like a man who has carried burdens, tackled problems and endured – and enjoyed – the full measure of what life has thrown at him. As measured by charts and graphs, he is not aging badly as far as the public knows. Indeed, one public health expert described him as a “super ager,” someone who is facing fewer age-related medical issues than others of his generation. But the president’s blood pressure is a poor retort to the signs of aging that are in plain sight. Biden is getting older in the era of social media and relentless scrutiny. And he’s doing so without bluster and bravado. He’s not aging like a petulant rock star with a girlfriend several decades younger on his arm. He’s not running marathons or winning championships in rowing. He isn’t bellowing from a lectern for 90 minutes at a time.

That’s what Donald Trump, his likely opponent in the November election, is doing. The former president spends much of his time belittling others, boastfully repeating lies, characterizing himself as a martyr in the face of his many legal woes and throwing monkey wrenches into a congressional system that already barely functions.

Trump, at 77, is not much younger than Biden. And like Biden, he misspeaks, screws up names and rambles his way through speeches. But Trump is a blustering, angry old man who performs a version of masculinity that’s immediately recognizable and, in some quarters, still admired as a sign of vibrancy. His is the kind of masculinity that once defined superhero blockbusters and spy thrillers and still drives cop shows such as “Blue Bloods.” He plays the outlier who saves the day by ignoring the rules or intentionally breaking them. He offers up a Clint Eastwood version of masculinity that’s defined by toughness, meanness and chest-beating. That definition might be old-fashioned, but in terms of age, it remains stubbornly vigorous.

Trump isn’t defying age. He’s grabbed onto hands and handrails as he minced his way down ramps and steps. He’s brayed about Jan. 6, 2021, and Nikki Haley, his last remaining opponent for the Republican presidential nomination, when he really meant Pelosi. He camouflages his age behind a facade of cartoon masculinity. A version of masculinity that’s just another form of Botox and filler. It distracts from the truth, but it doesn’t erase it.

When Robert K. Hur, the special counsel looking into Biden’s mishandling of classified documents, issued his report, he couldn’t resist characterizing Biden’s memory lapses under questioning as a sign of frailty even though the phrase “I do not recall” is a favored mantra of countless witnesses facing legal jeopardy. And frankly, could a 20-year-old remember where they purchased a particular file cabinet years prior? Hur described the president as “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” He didn’t simply say that the president had a bad memory or that the president was unable to recall certain dates. He took the extra step to describe the way in which Biden presented, each word a counterpoint to our understanding of masculinity. Masculinity doesn’t command sympathy. To be well-meaning is to be tentative and unsure. It allows for the possibility of mistakes. The word elderly suggests fragility. To be old is a numerical designation. Harrison Ford is 81 years old. Ralph Lauren is 84 years old. How old are you? To be elderly is to be broken.

The health of any presidential candidate is a matter of deep concern. There are legitimate worries about whether a candidate has both the mental and physical stamina to endure the stresses of the presidency. But we also remain wedded to the idea that a vigorous man is defined by his swagger, his quick patter, his bravado and the volume of his voice. That’s how we insist on taking the measure of a man as he ages, even if they’re not the most important ways.

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post
Age and masculinity are inextricably linked in conversations about President Joe Biden and his chief rival.