Facing defections from older white voters, a crucial voting bloc that he needs in order to win a second term in the November election, President Donald Trump has unleashed a series of fear-mongering ads. The goal is to scare seniors with apocalyptic visions of what the nation could look like under a Joe Biden presidency.
One of the latest features features an older woman alone at home when an attacker breaks in. She’s unable to reach anyone at 911 in “Joe Biden’s America.”
Fact checkers have rightfully taken on the ad’s false premise of the ad, calling it “nonsense” since Biden is not proposing or supporting anything that would lead to 911 calls not being answered. He also does not support “defunding” the police.
Seniors stereotyped as frail and fearful
But the Trump ad also has another, potentially even more insidious effect. It furthers stereotypes about older Americans — stereotypes that cause real harm.
In general, the pop culture landscape, especially advertising, all too often ignores older Americans. And when they are represented, it’s much more likely to be in a negative light, AARP research has found. “Adults over age 50 are presented as dependent and disconnected,” and often alone, the research said.
Having spent a career in advertising, I’ve long seen that older people are portrayed as frail, terrified and lacking agency. This is especially true for women, since sexist images of women as weak and needing protection combines with ageism to create the kinds of images depicted in the Trump ad.
I also know that in real life, most seniors simply aren’t like that. They’re active, social, and living fruitful lives.
But the more people see negative depictions of older people, the more problems it creates. Many businesses are wary of hiring older candidates because they’re convinced that as workers these folks will be slow or soon experience dementia. So age discrimination continues, hurting the economy.
There are health repercussions as well. As a study published by Educational Gerontology explained, “The power and prevalence of cultural stereotypes of aging essentially results in a ‘double-whammy’ to seniors. First, they influence the way that seniors are treated by society. Second, cultural stereotypes affect how seniors see themselves.”
For example, health practitioners might write off solvable health challenges as simply a function of “old age.” And seniors may ignore their own symptoms for the same reason. In fact, the World Health Organization warns against ramifications of ageism, and cites research that older adults who internalize these “negative attitudes about ageing” may shorten their life spans.
Trump’s outdated view of America
But perhaps the most misguided notion in the Trump ad is that assumption seniors, particularly older women, will base their votes on fear of crime. It seems to be yet another way the president imagines we’re living in a very different time.
With COVID-19 creating special dangers for older Americans, seniors aren’t focused on imaginary future crime. They’re looking for leaders who will stop the danger they’re already facing. They want the pandemic’s inordinate toll in the United States to end. And they want healthcare to be affordable.
An AARP survey of older women voters found that health care and economic issues are their most pressing concerns — and they are intertwined, given that nearly 4 in 10 can’t afford the health care they need. Most of these voters have an unfavorable opinion of national leadership.
This ad from Trump is the latest sign that he has an outdated vision of America, from a time that stoking fear of crime could sway an election. (As The Marshall Project put it, “Republican campaigns were run like campaigns for sheriff.”)
It’s similar to his recent warning to “suburban housewives”that Biden will “destroy your neighborhood.” (“We’re called women,” retorted MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace, former communications chief for President George W. Bush.) Trump seems to envision a 1950s America with women like Julianne Moore’s housewife in the 2002 movie “Far From Heaven“or Elizabeth Montgomery’s witch trying come across as a typical housewife in the 1960s TV show “Bewitched.”
In short, the 911 ad is a slap in the face to seniors — and the latest sign that Trump simply doesn’t understand the realities of today’s American life.