Trump’s Geriatric Race War

Trump’s Geriatric Race War

In an aging America, the central question becomes what do retirees fear most: racial diversity or the pandemic?


If the Trumpist political movement has a heartland, it is surely The Villages, a retirement community in Florida just an hour’s drive away from Disney World. Like the famous theme park, The Villages is a sumptuous capitalist utopia, a meticulous tribute to the ability of big business to create an immersive artificial reality. Writing in Politico in 2018, Michael Grunwald described it as a “groomed dreamscape of gated subdivisions, wall-to-wall golf courses, adult-only pools and old-fashioned town squares.”

Grunwald credited it as the key to Trump’s victory in Florida in 2016 and indeed the robustness of the Republican Party in the Sunshine State. The blue wave of 2018 came up short in Florida, with Democrats losing a Senate seat and the gubernatorial race. Republicans squeezed through victory in these close races thanks to The Villages and other retirement communities, which provide an eager and growing voting bloc for the GOP.

The Trump campaign seems to agree with Grunwald’s analysis and has been eager to lock down the support of The Villages. Trump held a rally in the retirement community last October, where he touted his support for Medicare. On Sunday, Trump tweeted out, “Thank you to the great people of The Villages. The Radical Left Do Nothing Democrats will Fall in the Fall. Corrupt Joe is shot. See you soon!!!” Accompanying this tweet was a link to a video showing rival protesters in The Villages. Anti-Trump Villagers were yelling “racists,” while a pro-Trump Villager driving a golf cart shook his fist and yelled “white power.”

The tweet was taken down after three hours, with White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere saying, “President Trump is a big fan of the Villages. He did not hear the one statement made on the video. What he did see was tremendous enthusiasm from his many supporters.”

Trump has so often used his Twitter account to foment racism that we owe him no benefit of the doubt. There’s no reason to credit the White House denial of any knowledge of the “white power” slogan. It is just as likely that the video was deliberately put up as a signal to the president’s racist supporters that he’s on their side. In this scenario, the tweet’s deletion and the staffer’s insistence that Trump didn’t hear the “white power” slogan was a minimal form of plausible deniability to help moderate Republicans ease their conscience. One such Republican, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, called for the tweet’s deletion.

Deliberately tweeted or not, the video of an elderly Trump supporter in a golf cart yelling “white power” is a potent distillation of our moment. Age and race are two major sources of political division, and they are intertwined. A 2019 study from the Pew Research Center noted that the most common age for white Americans was 58. By contrast, “the most common age was 11 for Hispanics, 27 for blacks and 29 for Asians.” If we look at median age, the divide is not as sharp, but it is still substantial. The median age for white Americans is 44, compared to 31 for people of color.

White Americans are much more likely to be senior citizens than are people of color. The political success of the Republican party and of Trump has come from exploiting the fears of older white Americans in segregated retirement communities when faced with cultural and demographic change.

What attracts the Villagers to Trump, Grunwald observed,

were issues that had little to do with their pocketbooks or their daily lives—like his opposition to sanctuary cities, or his insistent rhetoric about strength, or his attacks on Muslims, MS-13 and protests by black athletes. They feel like Trump is on their side in a cultural war against cop-haters, their perception of scheming foreigners, global warming alarmists, and other politically correct avatars of disorder and decline; they thought President Barack Obama was on the other side, standing with transgender activists, welfare freeloaders and Islamic terrorists.

In some ways, the fact that the social base of Trumpism skews towards older voters is reassuring. Fascism has traditionally been a youth movement, successful in channeling the aggression of the young into paramilitary organizations. There have been scattered examples of this in the Trump era, such as the alt-right marchers in Charlottesville in 2017. But on the whole, the Trump fans excited by his race war rhetoric are safely ensconced in retirement communities, which blunts the possibility that they will join militias or terrorist groups.

Also, Covid-19 seems to be spoiling Trump’s chance to repeat his success of 2016 among white senior citizens. Joe Biden’s recent surge in polling has owed much to the fact that he’s doing unusually well among the over-65 cohort.

As The New York Times reports, Trump and Biden “are tied among seniors, according to a poll of registered voters conducted by The New York Times and Siena College. And in the six most important battleground states, Mr. Biden has established a clear upper hand, leading Mr. Trump by six percentage points among the oldest voters and nearly matching the president’s support among whites in that age group.” The same poll shows that 52 percent of seniors disapprove of Trump’s handling of Covid-19, as against 45 percent who approve.

The fact that senior citizens are the major swing voters in the election is further evidence that America has become a gerontocracy. Joe Biden is 77, Trump is 74, Nancy Pelosi is 80, Mitch McConnell is 78. Two Supreme Court justices (Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito) are septuagenarians. Two other justices (Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer) are octogenarians.

Biden’s political victory in the primaries shows that older voters have a stranglehold on both political parties. Biden won overwhelmingly among voters over 45; his closest rival, Bernie Sanders (himself no spring chicken at 78), led by a commanding margin among voters under 45. Because older voters turn out more regularly, Biden won.

America sometimes feels like the Soviet Union in the early 1980s: a decrepit empire whose aging leaders are locked into antiquarian ideological positions and lack the capacity to understand the dynamic forces that are changing the world. Both the USSR in the 1980s and the USA in the 2020s found themselves trapped in a quagmire in Afghanistan.

Matt Christman, a cohost of the satirical podcast Chapo Trap House, recently voiced dismay at this situation. “The electorate is old,” he noted:

The electorate is dying. The country is dying. The contest is between two different ways to be a dying old person. There is the Trump method of raging against the dying of the light and refusing to admit your diminished capacities. Or there is the Biden way of slowly assimilating the understanding that you don’t have it anymore, which is exemplified by his tendency in the middle of sentences when he gets lost to give up and apologize to the person he is talking to, a thing Donald Trump would never do in a million years.

Biden, Christman predicted, would govern as a “eulogizer in chief.”

There is something to Christman’s anxieties, despite their being expressed half in jest. But no gerontocracy can last forever, even with the expanding life expectancy enjoyed by well-to-do Americans. There are already signs of renewal among the cohort of young Democrats elected in 2018, most famously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The politics of the coming years will hinge on whether there can be an orderly shift from the older generation to the young.

If Biden does win the presidency, he’ll have done a service in helping push offstage Trump’s geriatric racism. That will help create the preconditions for the next needed development, the move away from Biden’s generation to a new cohort of political leaders who share the politics—and in many cases the demographics—of young America.

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