In the endless discussion about Joe Biden’s age, we’ve lost sight of a far more dangerous decrepitude: the early-onset decline of the nation.  

This tragic process is hitting us too young. As the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world for decades, we haven’t even hit our prime, yet we’re struggling mightily with reasoning, compassion and, most importantly, recognizing ourselves in the mirror. We have friends around the world who are much older and much poorer, yet sounder in body and mind than we may hope to ever be again. 

From its beginnings, the United States has fancied itself an avatar of democracy, diversity and opportunity. While to an extent these have always been myths, our democratic ideals and ethos have also fueled the social justice movements that have been essential to our growth and maturity as a nation. But such positive growth appears to have its limits. Just 250 years into our history, we are stalled on the verge of collapse under the weight of an ossified fear of others that is also part of our beginnings. We are a young country acting old, like the people at my 10-year high school reunion who at 28 already looked and behaved like their parents. 

The problem shadowing the presidency at this point isn’t age; it’s competence and compassion.

Trump and Trumpism, for all its alleged vigor, is a movement of self-defeat. It says, openly and proudly: The country will not change. It is done. Not only is it done, we’re going to take it backward. That’s more than just acting old — it’s inviting the same kind of memory loss and disorientation that makes Alzheimer’s and dementia so devastating in individuals. Without knowledge of all that we’ve done, we don’t know who we are. Even the social-justice minded among us dodder and become vulnerable to MAGA’s insistence that we exist and exercise power only as the most vulgar version of ourselves. People say Trumpism promotes revisionist history, but it’s worse than that. It promotes no history at all. It creates a vacuum of facts and context that allows whatever unhinged things the forgetter-in-chief says to become an official narrative.

This is the real candidate crisis of 2024. The crisis that started in 2016 and has only deepened and spread, corrupting elected office at all levels. The problem shadowing the presidency at this point isn’t age; it’s competence and compassion. These two things go together. Trump lacks both not because he’s old, but because he’s Trump. Temperamentally, philosophically, he’s been old and ruthless since he was (at least) 28. Biden may be physically old, but whatever one thinks of his politics — and he is making some horrific policy decisions lately — he remains capable of compassion, of empathy, of decency. People fret about his word stumbles and his lack of energy in public appearance, but this president won’t sic his supporters on his critics, threaten judges, embrace dictators or insult Black people and women and immigrants and disabled people to their faces. That’s an absurdly low bar for the president of the United States, but that’s where we are — or at least, where roughly 40% of the country is. 

In our fear-induced dotage, we are repeatedly failing to understand the real threat to our well-being. America is like a retired person whose considerable, but not unlimited, assets become the target of a thousand scammers. As we fall for the most dangerous scam in history — Making America Great Again — we rapidly deplete ourselves in many more ways than one. In 2024, we appear ready to give away what’s left of our soul. If there is hope to be found in this, it is that we are giving it away consciously, diminishing ourselves by choice, not because our decline is inevitable. Every day we can still choose to be more compassionate, intellectually vigorous and inclusive. If we did choose as a nation to act our age, the physical age of our presidential candidates wouldn’t matter as much. We’d be more concerned with their moral fitness, and by this standard it would be abundantly clear that Trump and Trumpism are the ones long past their prime, if they ever had one.

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