Ageism, Character, and the 2024 Presidential Election

Ageism, Character, and the 2024 Presidential Election July 9, 2024

President Biden’s performance in the 2024 presidential debate was disappointing, but I would like to suggest that that is not the issue that anyone should be focusing on right now. As Rev. Jacqueline Lewis writes,

And I’m puzzled about how we got to a place in this nation’s story in which an 81- year-old president and a 78-year-old former president—a convicted felon—are on that debate stage together and we somehow did not expect what happened. I would have told Biden not to do this debate, but he did not ask me. How in the world is Trump the presumptive nominee for the GOP? Is that party embarrassed? Insurrectionist, traitor, liar, sexual predator, lover-of-foreign-dictators. How? And Biden was 78 when he was elected 46. He was going to turn 81, y’all.

The fact that Donald Trump was able to flummox Joe Biden with his Gish Gallop isn’t surprising and shouldn’t impress anyone. It’s the reason so many leading scientists refuse to debate with young-earth creationists. This is a tactic that can leave audiences who think that science or politics can be settled by debate performance declaring a liar as the winner.


Debates are NOT the way to decide matters of politics (or science or religion or…)

Not familiar with the “Gish Gallop”? Let me share Heather Cox Richardson’s explanation which she offered when she highlighted this debate tactic recently.

This was not a debate. It was Trump using a technique that actually has a formal name, the Gish gallop, although I suspect he comes by it naturally. It’s a rhetorical technique in which someone throws out a fast string of lies, non-sequiturs, and specious arguments, so many that it is impossible to fact-check or rebut them in the amount of time it took to say them. Trying to figure out how to respond makes the opponent look confused, because they don’t know where to start grappling with the flood that has just hit them.

It is a form of gaslighting, and it is especially effective on someone with a stutter, as Biden has. It is similar to what Trump did to Biden during a debate in 2020. In that case, though, the lack of muting on the mics left Biden simply saying: “Will you shut up, man?” a comment that resonated with the audience. Giving Biden the enforced space to answer by killing the mic of the person not speaking tonight actually made the technique more effective.

There are ways to combat the Gish gallop—by calling it out for what it is, among other ways—but Biden retreated to trying to give the three pieces of evidence that established his own credentials on the point at hand. His command of those points was notable, but the difference between how he sounded at the debate and how he sounded on stage at a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, just an hour afterward suggested that the technique worked on him.

That’s not ideal, but as Monique Pressley put it, “The proof of Biden’s ability to run the country is the fact that he is running it. Successfully. Not a debate performance against a pathological lying sociopath.”

As a scholar of religion who has worked on science denial among Christian fundamentalists and Evangelicals, I was aware of this tactic from its origin, named as it is after young-earth creationist Duane Gish who employed it to the delight of conservative Christian crowds who like any ideologues are prone to fall for such tactics. It is particularly interesting to note that Mehdi Hasan mentioned it last year in the context of noting that it is a favorite tactic of Donald Trump’s.

Donald Trump is probably unaware that he’s an avid practitioner of a debating method known among philosophers and rhetoricians as the Gish Gallop. Its aim is simple: to defeat one’s opponent by burying them in a torrent of incorrect, irrelevant, or idiotic arguments. Trump owes much of his political success to this tactic—and to the fact that so few people know how to beat it. Although his 2024 campaign has been fairly quiet so far, we can expect to hear a lot more Gish Galloping in the coming months.


Age, Wisdom, and Culture

As a scholar of history, I find it so interesting that our culture (in contrast with what was the norm down the ages) really wants someone youthful and vibrant rather than someone with more experience and the wisdom that comes with it. Of course, we might argue that if Biden were really wise he would not have debated Donald Trump. Yet in a real sense his hands were tied. Particularly in this internet era, not debating is seen as a sign of weakness rather than wisdom. If he had cancelled on short notice because he wasn’t feeling well, in addition to the ire of TV viewers and networks, there would again have been the perception of frailty rather than wisdom. All of us at times do not feel well and are not in top form. When you reach age 81 there is a very good chance that that will be even more the case than whatever age you happen to be now. I hope you have not only the wisdom to sit things out, but the luxury of not being surrounded by people and a culture that will pressure you to press on no matter how you feel. In the context of our culture and the 2024 presidential election, there was no choice but to press ahead. Ultimately, even if one were to conclude that Joe Biden is especially frail, physical and mental frailty are not the only things that should matter when it comes to voting.


Character Should Matter More Than Age

Let’s turn to what really matters. Roughly half the inhabitants of the United States would prefer a slightly younger fraud who talks with all the confidence of a charlatan, one whose lies are well documented, an authoritarian, over someone who is at worst merely a typical politician. There was a time when being a proven liar would cost you a lot of votes, never mind being a convicted felon. Trump has been shown to speak uncautiously and inadvisedly as he boasts and brags with people, divulging secrets, making threats, and more. Why anyone would prefer him over someone who might struggle to find their words and then utter them clearly is beyond me. Religious conservatives might say that it is about the party and not the candidate, but given that Trump (and the GOP more generally) has shown that he is not aligning with the anti-abortion extremists, electing him will not help with that issue if that is your concern. A more important consideration is that if your so-called Christian values align perfectly with Republican values (or with those of the Democrat party, for that matter), then you do not actually have distinctively Christian values. Indeed, they may not be Christian at all. When religious conservatives aligned themselves with the Republican Party back in the 1980s it was not because abortion was a concern for Evangelicals. On the contrary, abortion was turned into a “biblical issue” in order to create a voting bloc. Ultimately it was Republican Values that took over conservative Christianity, not vice versa.


Where Things Stand

Where does this leave us when it comes to the 2024 presidential election? No president is going to embody and stand for all of your values. We are a diverse society. What you should be concerned about is that our leaders (including but not limited to the president) be people of character. They should stand not for the imposition of one group’s religious values and mores on the entire society, but on protecting the rights of those diverse groups who hold such strong yet different views to hold them, speak them, and practice them for themselves.

I’ll end this with what Joe Biden said not long after the debate ended:

“Look, I know I’m not a young man anymore, to state the obvious.  I don’t walk like I used to walk.  I don’t speak like I used to speak.  I don’t debate like I used to debate.

“But I know what I do know.  I know how to tell the truth.  I now how to tell right from wrong.  And friends, I know how to do this job.  (pause) And I know what all Americans know: that when you get knocked down, you get back up.  (another pause)  Friends, the stakes are too high.  I can do this job.”


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