Did we learn nothing from 2016?
That, you may recall, was when Donald Trump’s emergence as the Republican presidential nominee seemed like some cosmic joke. Some cosmic gift. Oh, how Democrats exulted and chortled.
Hillary Clinton could start working on her inauguration remarks early.
Or so many of us thought. We got “American carnage,” two impeachments and a deadly breach of the U.S. Capitol instead.
And yet some Democrats are again rejoicing at the prospect of Trump as his party’s pick. They reason that he was an unproven entity before but is a proven catastrophe now and that his troubles with the law, troubles with reality, egomania and megalomania make him an easier opponent for President Biden, who beat him once already, than Gov. Ron DeSantis, Senator Tim Scott or another Republican aspirant would be. Perhaps they’re right.
But if they’re wrong? The stakes of a second Trump term are much, much too high to wager on his weakness and hope for his nomination. The way I size up the situation, any Republican nominee has a decent shot at the presidency: There are enough Americans who faithfully vote Republican, lean Republican or are open to a Republican that under sufficiently favorable circumstances, the party’s candidate wins. And the circumstances in November 2024 are neither predictable nor controllable — just as they weren’t in November 2016. If Trump is in the running, Trump is in the running.
So I flinch at thoughts and remarks like those of Senator Debbie Stabenow, the Michigan Democrat, who told Politico in late April: “Trump’s obviously an extremely dangerous person who would be very dangerous for the country. But I’m confident that President Biden could beat him.” She added that “politically, for us, it’s helpful if former President Trump is front and center.” The headline on that article, by Burgess Everett and Sarah Ferris, was “Dems Relish Trump-Biden Rematch.”
The headlines on other reports that month: “Why a Trump-Biden Rematch Is What Many Democrats Want in 2024” (The Wall Street Journal) and “Trump or DeSantis? Democrats Aren’t Sure Who They’d Rather See Biden Face in 2024” (NBC News).
Granted, those three articles appeared before the Washington Post/ABC News poll that shook the world. Published on May 7, the survey gave Trump a six-point lead over Biden in a hypothetical matchup and showed that voters regard Trump, 76, as more physically fit and mentally sharp than Biden, 80.
Over the weeks since, I’ve noticed a muting of Democrats’ confidence that Biden can roll over Trump. But I still hear some of Biden’s supporters say that they’d prefer Trump to, say, DeSantis, who can define himself afresh to many voters, or to Scott, whose optimism might be a tonic in toxic times.
And I worry that many Democrats still haven’t fully accepted and seriously grappled with what the past seven years taught us:
There is profound discontent in this country, and for all Trump’s lawlessness and ludicrousness, he has a real and enduring knack for articulating, channeling and exploiting it. “I am your retribution,” he told Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year. Those words were chilling not only for their bluntness but also for their keenness. Trump understands that in the MAGA milieu, a fist raised for him is a middle finger flipped at his critics. DeSantis, Scott, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley — none of them offer their supporters the same magnitude of wicked rebellion, the same amplitude of vengeful payback, the same red-hot fury.
Trump’s basic political orientation and the broad strokes of his priorities and policies may lump him together with his Republican competitors, but those rivals aren’t equally unappealing or equally scary because they’re not equally depraved.
He’s the one who speaks of Jan. 6, 2021, as a “beautiful day.” He’s the one who ordered Georgia’s secretary of state to find him more votes. He’s the one who commanded Pence, then his vice president, to subvert the electoral process and then vilified him for refusing to do so and was reportedly pleased or at least untroubled when a mob called for Pence’s execution. He’s the one who expends hour upon hour and rant after rant on the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him — a fiction that’s a wrecking ball aimed at the very foundations of our democracy. His challengers tiptoe around all of that with shameful timidity. He’s the one who wallows happily and flamboyantly in this civic muck.
There are grave differences between the kind of threat that Trump poses and the kind that his Republican rivals do, and to theorize a strategic advantage to his nomination is to minimize those distinctions, misremember recent history and misunderstand what the American electorate might do on a given day, in a given frame of mind.
I suspect I’d be distraught during a DeSantis presidency and depressed during a Pence one. But at least I might recognize the America on the far side of it.
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The Ears Have It
I was never much of a listener. It just wasn’t how I took in information. I read. And read. I seemed to register and retain facts and ideas better if they came through my eyes, and I organized my consumption of news and words around that inclination — until a freak stroke about five and half years ago and a marked deterioration of my eyesight forced me to test myself, to stretch, to change.
Now I’m all about my ears. I consume perhaps twice as many audiobooks as I do printed ones. I get a fair share of my morning news via podcasts. So I’m not merely grateful for the iOS app for audio journalism that The Times recently introduced; I’m more like ecstatic.
It combines, in one terrifically user-friendly place, Times podcasts and narrated articles from all the fields that this news organization so ambitiously and enterprisingly covers — politics, culture, food and more. It’s a sonic storehouse of journalists, including Opinion columnists, whose literary voices you may be well familiar with but whose actual voices you’ve yet to discover. It includes the archive of “This American Life.” And it has audio versions of stories from top magazines beyond the ones that The Times puts out.
It’s a convenience, and a mercy, for those of us whose daily rituals or physical quirks make listening an important alternative to reading. It’s available for Times news subscribers, and you can start exploring it by downloading the New York Times Audio app here.
For the Love of Sentences
In The Guardian, Emma Beddington served notice to friends about just how much she enjoys their visits to her and her husband’s home: “We don’t have many guests, because I get funny when people use my mugs, and offer a welcome along the lines of the peregrine falcon nest boxes I watch on webcams: a few strewn pebbles, dismembered pigeon corpses, me hunched and glaring in a corner, covered in viscera.” (Thanks to Steve Verhey of Ellensburg, Wash., for his, um, eagle-eyed notice of this.)
Also in The Guardian, Jay Rayner appraised the more-is-more culinary sensibility of a dish at Jacuzzi, which was opened recently in London by the Big Mamma group: “I would have been happy with simple ribbons of that pasta with that ragu, but going to a Big Mamma restaurant in search of simplicity is like going to a brothel hoping to find someone to hold your hand.” (Robert Tilleard, Salisbury, England)
In The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., Josh Shaffer marked Memorial Day by recalling a 22-year-old soldier from Raleigh who died in battle in 1918: “Harry Watson got all the honors a young lieutenant could expect on the Western Front — a hasty burial under a fruit tree, laid shoulder to shoulder with three other men.” Shaffer concluded his excellent article by noting that Watson “is recognized as Raleigh’s first casualty in ‘the world war.’ But more would follow — casualties and wars alike.” (Barry Nakell, Chapel Hill, N.C.)
In The Washington Post, Matt Bai challenged the idea that candidates for vice president never affect the outcomes of presidential races: “I’d argue that Sarah Palin mattered in 2008, although she was less of a running mate than a running gag.” (Anne Pratt, Millbrook, N.Y.)
Also in The Post, Ron Charles noted the publication of “Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs,” by Senator Josh Hawley: “The book’s final cover contains just text, including the title so oversized that the word ‘Manhood’ can’t even fit on one line — like a dude whose shoulders are so broad that he has to turn sideways to flee through the doors of the Capitol.” (Sue Borg, Menlo Park, Calif.)
In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane reflected: “As career moves go, the path from neo-Nazism to horticulture has not, perhaps, received the attention it deserves. That strange omission is rectified by ‘Master Gardener,’ the new movie from Paul Schrader.” (Trudy McMahon, Danville, Calif., and Liz Nichols, Oakland, Calif.)
In The Times, A.O. Scott eulogized the writer Martin Amis: “He tapped at the clay feet of his idols with the chisel of his irreverent wit, even as he clambered onto their shoulders to see farther, and more clearly, than they ever could.” (Gerrit Westervelt, Denver)
Also in The Times, Michelle Cottle characterized Ron DeSantis as having “the people skills of a Roomba.” (Stephen Burrow, Teaneck, N.J., and Tim McFadden, Encinitas, Calif., among others)
And David Mack explained the endurance of sweatpants beyond their pandemic-lockdown, Zoom-meeting ubiquity: “We are now demanding from our pants attributes we are also seeking in others and in ourselves. We want them to be forgiving and reassuring. We want them to nurture us. We want them to say: ‘I was there, too. I experienced it. I came out on the other side more carefree and less rigid. And I learned about the importance of ventilation in the process.’” (Laurie McMahon, Hinsdale, Ill.)
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 include your name and place of residence.
What I’m Writing and Reading
On the day when DeSantis formally entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination, The Times published this essay of mine about the puzzling ways in which his own actions contradict and undercut the initial case for his candidacy, which has “the Trump negativity minus the Trump electricity.”
There were many excellent tributes to Tina Turner after her death last week but none with more soul, rhythm, blues, jazz and pop than Wesley Morris’s in The Times. It could have filled the entire For the Love of Sentences section, but I’m giving it its own special spotlight here.
Ditto for Maureen Dowd’s column last weekend: a mother lode of vibrant prose, deserving of its own special shout-out for that reason, for its wisdom about the necessity of literature and the humanities and because reading or rereading it is your way of honoring Maureen for her just-acquired master’s degree in English literature from Columbia. Congratulations, my brilliant friend.
On a Personal (by Which I Mean Regan) Note
It’s customary for Regan to slow down in the late spring and summer, her interest in movement falling with the mercury’s rise, but there has been a steeper drop this year, and it’s not a function of her health, which is good. It seems to be a function of her age. She’s almost 9½ now, and her mix of breeds (Australian shepherd, Siberian husky) suggests a life span of 12 to 15. So she’s getting up there.
I see that in her sleep, deeper and more frequent. I see that in her face, where the black fur is newly stippled with gray. But I see it mostly in her stillness. We’ll get a mile into her 8 a.m. walk, and she’ll sit down or turn around, ready to go back home. We’ll get 20 steps into her 5 p.m. walk, and she’ll do the same, her appetite for exercise having been sated by her morning constitutional. This doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens somewhat frequently, and why shouldn’t it? The squirrel chasing aside, she’s not the sprightly girl she once was.
Occasionally I push her, because I want to keep her stimulated, fit and limber, and I’ve observed that she enjoys most outings once she surrenders to them: Her initial reluctance is as much idle reflex — she psyches herself out — as it is a considered assessment of her ability and vigor. Other times I heed her, because her body may well be telling her something and she’s passing that message along to me.
Always I wonder at the line between her reality and my projection of my own situation. At 58, I may be in a place on the human life spectrum similar to hers on the canine one. I find myself wanting to slow down; I exhort myself to speed up, because deceleration can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, an irreversible lull, and because I want to maximize the years and energy that remain. When I coax Regan to put in five or six miles on a given day rather than two or three, am I in part coaxing myself, and does the effort have to do with a whole lot more than the physical distance that the two us cover?
Just as I don’t know exactly what’s going on in her head, I don’t know exactly what’s going on in mine. We walk together through this fog, grayer each month, our gaits less swift, our mileage less ambitious, our devotion to each other a consolation beyond the ravages of time.