February 19, 2024 - 4:30pm

A little over a week after President Joe Biden turned down the opportunity to sit for a Super Bowl interview, his predecessor Donald Trump strolled on stage at Philadelphia’s Sneaker Con to try to excite a young, diverse crowd. Even as he faces a $354 million civil fraud judgment recently handed down in New York, the unrepentant pitchman stayed positive, hawking new products including a “Victory47” cologne ($99) and gold-coloured “Never Surrender” trainers ($399, and already sold out, per Trump’s site).  

Trump was targeting what marketers and pollsters refer to as the “key demographic”, 18-to-34-year-olds, just as he has when attending UFC events and cultivating support among hip hop artists. While polls usually have him trailing Biden in this age group, he has been aided by a surge in young American men increasingly identifying as Right-wing. At Sneaker Con, Trump’s presence was reportedly met with boos and jeers — but that doesn’t matter. He’s still, at present, doing more to take up space in press coverage than his Democratic rival.

In a race that’s bound to be decided by fine margins in several states — one of them being Pennsylvania, the site of Sneaker Con — Trump’s continued media presence might make a difference. Longtime GOP pollster Frank Luntz, no friend of the former president’s, has claimed that continuing to appear at these events “could trim Trump’s margin with young voters”, thus putting him “over the top in a state that he lost by barely 1% in 2020”.

This puts the contrast between Trump and Biden in even sharper relief. At a time when even reliable Left-leaning organs like the New York Times are raising concerns about Biden’s cognitive decline, Trump’s enduring ability to insinuate himself into various aspects of popular culture will only present more of a problem for the incumbent. 

In the wake of special counsel Robert Hur’s damaging report about Biden’s faulty memory, only committed partisans seem willing to defend the President on that front. One thing is clear, though. Given the opportunity to make himself part of a Super Bowl event that swelled in visibility due to the presence of Taylor Swift, Biden punted. Instead, he joined TikTok — a China-based social media platform which had previously raised security concerns for his administration, and which is banned on all federal devices.  

Having released a 30-second video of quick answers entitled “lol hey guys”, Biden’s team said in a statement which defies parody that this was “proof positive of both our commitment and success in finding new, innovative ways to reach voters in an evolving, fragmented and increasingly personalized media environment”. 

Meanwhile, Trump continues to use his trusty methods of reaching voters, grasping photo opportunities with martial artists and delivering amusing rants. Last week he deliberately conflated Democratic ex-speaker Nancy Pelosi with his current primary opponent Nikki Haley; a few months prior he redubbed Hillary Clinton from  “crooked” to “beautiful”. This rhetoric, for all its weirdness, cuts through — and only those committed partisans would risk embarrassment in order to compare it with 81-year-old Biden’s constant gaffes on the stump. 

In a two-way race between two very old men sporting formaldehyde tans, only one of them appears capable of so much as power walking while holding a stack of pizza boxes. And Trump is doing it with a degree of style, albeit not in those shiny $399 shoes his website assures us aren’t available anywhere else. If the Biden team can’t find a way to address this gap, their candidate could end up stumbling off the stage for good.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work