Trump’s attacks on Biden’s age play into unfair stereotypes. That will cost him votes among older Pennsylvanians. | Ray E. Landis

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden would like to win Pennsylvania in 2020 (Capital-Star file)

We’re less than five months from the 2020 presidential election. With hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars available to the campaigns and the mood of the nation foul, we should brace for an exceptionally ugly period in American politics.

The ugliness has reached the airwaves in central Pennsylvania in the form of campaign commercials. We’ve come to expect political action committees (PACs) that technically are not affiliated with a specific candidate to air misleading and unfounded ads, and we are now seeing those broadcast on local television. 

Candidates often rely on these PACs to do the dirty work of trashing their opponent and use their own advertisements to promote their ideals, especially early in the campaign. Not in 2020, however, as the Trump campaign is already airing demeaning ads about Joe Biden with the legally required tagline “I am Donald J. Trump and I approve this message.”

What is the focus of the attack from the 74-year-old incumbent? Biden’s age. 

The commercial now running, questions Biden’s fitness for office. It begins by emphasizing he is 77 and calls him “diminished.” It goes on to use images clipped from various public appearances by Biden suggesting he may be suffering from dementia. Ironically, this comes at the same time Trump’s opponents have seized on his behavior at a West Point commencement speech to question Trump’s own capacity for office.

As with so many things associated with Trump, this advertisement hits a new low in political discourse. It’s also a questionable strategy, as it seems to insult the very voters who favored Trump in 2016.

But it also perpetuates an image of older Americans as doddering, forgetful people who shouldn’t be allowed out in public, let alone trusted to make important decisions about the direction of the nation. It appears Trump believes he alone is immune to a decline in fitness as he ages, or that a 74-year-old is in the prime of life but a 77-year-old is ready to be placed in a home.

This comes at a time when the older population is growing rapidly. The Independent Fiscal Office estimates the 65-79 population will grow by 2.6 percent from 2020 to 2025 while the 80-plus population will grow 2.4 percent, with the rest of the population declining. Pennsylvania is ahead of the national curve in this older population growth, but other states will see a similar pattern in coming years.

What do these numbers mean for Pennsylvania and the rest of the country?

The Trump campaign’s image of Joe Biden implies there will be millions more Americans unfit to do much more than try and remember what day it is. But the reality is older Americans are living longer, healthier, more active lives and will remain an integral part of the economic and political worlds.

Which isn’t to say younger generations must yield to their elders when it comes to deciding the priorities of state or federal governments.

The generation currently in charge has a lot to answer for when it comes to public policy. The growth in income inequality, persistent racism, environmental degradation, and a host of other poor decisions puts the United States in a precarious position when it comes to what the future will hold.

This year’s presidential campaign has seen candidates aged 70 and older dominate the contest, all of whom approach the task of governing with the same historical experiences shaping their views.

If the focus of this election is how the United States will approach the important and difficult decisions we face moving into the future, younger voices must be an integral part of the conversation. The candidates need to show us who those younger voices will be – and it would be preferable if they weren’t placed in influential positions simply because they are related to the person in charge.

Age cannot be a disqualification for political office nor is it something that automatically demonstrates a candidate has the “experience” to lead. But the grotesque use of ageism in the Trump commercial’s portrayal of Joe Biden is something that should be out of bounds and should be condemned by everyone, no matter what their age. And the fact that Donald J. Trump approved that message is another in the long list of things that should disqualify him from being president.

Capital-Star opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Follow him on Twitter @RELandis.