I keep flashing back to Ronald Reagan’s preternaturally smiley face.
That’s not because I yearn for his presidency. It’s because his signature expression — his glow — provides such a clear counterpoint to the Republican mien of the moment, equal parts scowl and sneer. Reagan’s disposition was fundamentally hopeful. The Republicans in the foreground today are foundationally resentful. Recrimination, rage: Those are the fuels they run on. Those are the emotions they till.
The Republican primaries on Tuesday were harvest time.
Oh, sure, they offered a few consolations, at least by the debased standards of this chilling era. Kathy Barnette, an anti-gay, anti-Muslim conspiracist, came in third in the primary in Pennsylvania for a Senate seat, despite the late-breaking fervor for her. In a House primary in North Carolina, voters rejected Representative Madison Cawthorn, suggesting that there’s some limit to the party’s current appetite for bratty and kooky. Donald Trump’s preferred candidate for governor of Idaho, Janice McGeachin, bumped up against it, losing her race by more than 20 percentage points.
But don’t uncork the champagne. Republicans in North Carolina also chose Representative Ted Budd, who voted to nullify the results of the 2020 election, over Pat McCrory, the state’s former governor, to be their candidate in the pivotal Senate race there. Budd beat McCrory by more than 30 percentage points.
And as Pennsylvania Republicans rejected Barnette, they tightly embraced her kindred spirit Doug Mastriano as their nominee for governor: According to incomplete results, he won about 44 percent of the votes in a three-way race. Mastriano has made the idea that the 2020 presidential election was an act of Democratic theft — and that conservative Christians are waging a battle of good against evil — the center of his political identity. He has cozied up to QAnon adherents and called for mask-burning parties to protest Covid-related restrictions. He’s as apt a poster boy for the 2022 midterm elections as anyone.
Not all Republicans on the ballot in November will precisely mirror his positions or exactly parrot his words. But most will echo his anger. They’ll emulate his sense of grievance. That’s clear not only from the results of the primary contests thus far but also from the talking points and battle cries beyond them — from, for example, the governor’s mansion in Florida, where Ron DeSantis plots and executes his plan for emerging as the new leader of the Republican Party. The core of that strategy seems to be the naming and slaying of liberal monsters, be they outside the homes of Supreme Court justices, in the classroom or in the Magic Kingdom. His isn’t a morning-in-America approach. It’s a pledge to keep the darkness at bay.
More and more Republicans are “Stop the Steal” politicians even if they never attended or endorsed a “Stop the Steal” rally, because that scowling, sneering phrase taps into and touches on more than vote counts. It encourages a rebellion against cultural dynamics that offend some traditionalists. It blesses a revolt against the sorts of demographic trends that have given the “great replacement” theory such traction. It validates the complaint that some elite cabal is making decisions and hoarding riches at the expense of other Americans. It’s about all these things that are being taken away, all these things that must be taken back.
It indulges fictions that abet that mind-set, which explains a good deal of the popularity of Fox News. A week ago, one of the network’s pugnacious nighttime hosts, Sean Hannity, railed about photographs that he said showed “pallets and pallets of baby formula for illegal immigrants and their families” even as “hardworking American families” went without this vital resource. But as Alex Koppelman of CNN later noted in the Reliable Sources newsletter, the photos were instead of powdered milk, intended for children over a year old. “Outrage Creation” was the headline on Koppelman’s report.
The Republican politicians who don’t specialize in outrage creation do too little to counter it. That’s the case with the two Pennsylvania candidates, Mehmet Oz and Dave McCormick, who performed better than Barnette in the Senate race and are essentially locked in a tie, with a recount in the offing. Neither stood up forcefully to the “Stop the Steal” caucus because neither felt that he could afford to alienate it.
Both saw that indignation animates the Republican Party now. A candidate can choose not to stoke it, but he can’t buck it.
For the Love of Sentences
In The Wall Street Journal, Jason Gay weighed in on the quarterback Tom Brady’s already-set deal to do television commentary after he stops playing: “Did you expect him to retreat from public life, to grow a long, flowing beard and become a recluse who writes unpublished books about trains, and is occasionally photographed midday outside a decaying mansion in a silk TB12 bathrobe, eating almonds and talking to squirrels?” (Thanks to James Brockardt of Pennington, N.J., for this nomination.)
Also in The Journal, William Sertl wrote about the virtues of Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 for trans-Atlantic travel: “Her aft decks taper and are open to the sky, avoiding the bulky look of yet another condo that slid off the Jersey Palisades and floated out to sea.” (Dan DeVoe, Cleves, Ohio)
In The Financial Times, Tim Hayward reviewed the chef Theo Randall’s restaurant in the InterContinental in London right after the implementation of a new law that required the posting of calorie counts. Noting that a serving of a sort of Fontina cheese soufflé was 590 calories, he wrote, “If it had been 10 times that I’d have eaten half, paused to call for a defibrillator and gone back in with a song on my lips.”
He also observed that in an age of overextended celebrity chefs, Randall was actually working in the kitchen: “It’s like booking months in advance to get into a David Hockney exhibition and finding the guy sitting on a stool in the corner of the gallery, cheerfully knocking out paintings for the crowd.” (Steve DeCherney, Chapel Hill, N.C.)
In his newsletter for The Atlantic, Tom Nichols used a movie allusion to take various officials who served under President Trump to task: “Esper, Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and many, many other people who crawled through the Shawshank sewer pipe that was the four years of the Trump administration needed to speak up the minute they were out. Instead, they teased their book bombshells or played coy games of slap and tickle on cable outlets.” (Brian Harral, Crofton, Md.)
Also in The Atlantic, David Graham pondered the different “vibes” projected by Representative Conor Lamb, who lost the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania, and John Fetterman, who won: “Lamb seems like a candidate created in a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee lab: He’s young, Kennedy-handsome, a Marine and former federal prosecutor who looks born to wear suits. By contrast, Fetterman looks like he was hacked together from spare parts in an oil-streaked Pittsburgh chopper garage.” (Jeannie MacDonald, Portsmouth, N.H.)
In his Esquire newsletter, Charles Pierce responded to the revelation that hundreds of Native American children had died in government-sponsored schools by writing: “Sooner or later the angry angel of history was coming to our door.” (Louise Machen, Cody, Wyo.)
In The Times, Ross Douthat assessed Elon Musk’s messy and unresolved ascent toward ownership of Twitter by alluding to Icarus: “Sometimes you leap and have a bird’s wings to bear you upward. Sometimes, though, all you have is its disintegrating feathers — or, still worse, not its plumage but its tweets.” (Pete Andrews, Chapel Hill, N.C.)
Bret Stephens wrote: “The problem the G.O.P. has had for some time now is that in many states and districts, not to mention the presidential contest, the candidate most likely to win a primary is least likely to win a general election. Republican primaries are like holding a heavy metal air guitar contest in order to compete for a place in a jazz ensemble.” (Jeff Merkel, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Paul Spitz, Cincinnati, among others)
And Véronique Hyland rhapsodized about a fashion “dump” of discarded garments and accessories that were there for the taking: “When I walked into curated, antiseptic boutiques, I felt starved for novelty. Surveying the Swap Shop’s jumble, I saw infinite possibilities. Even the most dated clothes seemed ready to spring to life, like actors of a certain age waiting to be rediscovered by Quentin Tarantino.” (Jeannie Naujeck, Durham, N.C., and Pam DeAngelus, Cedar Grove, N.J.)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here, and please include your name and place of residence.
What I’m Reading
I’d very much like to believe that the prospect of abortion being outlawed in dozens of states will redound to the Democratic Party’s favor in the midterms, but it’s complicated, as this report by Reuters, this one in Politico and this one in The Times all indicate. They will, in aggregate, bring you up to speed.
There’s keenly observed cultural history and a bonanza of terrific sentences in this critic’s notebook about the fading of the magazine industry by Alexandra Jacobs in The Times. She used the occasion of two new books that look, respectively, at Vogue and Vanity Fair to chronicle what was, what will no longer be, and why.
As a onetime food writer and forever glutton who relocated less than a year ago to the Tar Heel State, I’m the perfect audience for “Edible North Carolina: A Journey Across a State of Flavor,” edited by Marcie Cohen Ferris, an authority on food culture in the American South. But the book’s appeal transcends any one state. It’s a gorgeous collection of articles, photographs and recipes that capture and celebrate the distinctiveness of regional culinary traditions, and it’s an epicurean voyeur’s delight.
On a Personal Note
Chip Scanlan, a veteran journalist and writing coach, interviews other writers for his newsletter, asking them to respond to an established set of questions. I went through those paces recently, and he gave me permission to share what he published.
Chip: What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
Me: That your first draft is often precisely that, and it can be terrible without being a signal that you should jump ship. Keep sailing. Or rowing. And bailing water. Just don’t overwork a metaphor the way I just did.
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
The unpredictability of how much time something will take me and how easy or hard it will be. I’ll zip through two pieces of writing that turn out really well and take minimal effort, and I’ll think: “I’ve cracked the code! I’ve turned the corner!” And then the next piece will be the most sluggishly produced horror show of my career. You just never know. And should never assume.
If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
I’m a pasta machine. I can pump out nothing edible unless I’ve put in lots of flour, eggs and water, by which I mean reporting, reading, thinking. I make only noodles — no rice — and only so many kinds of those. I can’t do David Remnick’s erudite agnolotti or David Sedaris’s inimitable farfalle. But my orecchiette aren’t bad.
What is the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
When you hit a wall, when you’re feeling blocked, step away from the computer. Take a run. Rub the dog’s belly. Read 50 pages of a novel. Watch a stupid situation comedy. Let your brain relax. Let it reboot. No one ever got anywhere by banging on the backspace key for hours on end.
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