Donald Trump won’t be defeated with sound bites. He won’t be bested with wordplay. Ron DeSantis carped repeatedly that Trump was “missing in action” at the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night, while Chris Christie called Trump a coward and christened him “Donald duck.” How very clever.
And how totally futile. They were throwing darts at the absent front-runner when missiles are in order.
Trump has a mammoth lead over all of them, and there’s no sign that it’s shrinking. He’s skating to the party’s presidential nomination. Along the way, he’s doing quadruple axels of madness, triple toe loops of provocation. He’s fantasizing about executing a respected general and he’s fetishizing firearms, his words coming close to incitements of violence. He’s not sorry for the Jan. 6 riots. To my ears, he’d like more where that came from.
But did any of the seven candidates onstage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., talk about that? Nope. Mike Pence criticized Trump for wanting to consolidate too much power in Washington, D.C. DeSantis argued that Trump, if elected president again, could serve only one term, while DeSantis, a newcomer to the White House, could serve two.
Christie, the bravest of a timid bunch, gave eloquent voice to how profoundly Trump had divided the country, pitting friend against friend and relative against relative, and while that’s sadly true, that’s also beside the point.
The point is that Trump has zero respect for democracy and aspirations for autocracy. The point is that he keeps scaling new pinnacles of unhinged. The point is that he needs to win the presidency so that he doesn’t have to worry about living out his days where he belongs — behind bars.
And perhaps the only shot that any of those seven candidates has to stop him and prevent the irreversible damage he’d do to the United States with four more years is to call a tyrant a tyrant, a liar a liar, an arsonist an arsonist. None of them did.
They’re too frightened of his and his followers’ wrath. So forgive me if I chortled every time they talked about leadership, which they talked about often on Wednesday night. They’re not leaders. They’re opportunists who are letting an opportunity slip away from them.
The hopelessness of their quest for the presidency and their deepening awareness of that were reflected in all the shouting and cross talk. Dear Lord, what a din — overlapping voices, operatic voices. It was like some misbegotten a cappella competition or the trailer for a movie I hope never to see: “Pitch Imperfect.” My ears will be ringing until the next Republican debate, scheduled for early November in Miami. Those poor Floridians. With DeSantis as their governor, haven’t they suffered enough?
Instead of taking Trump sufficiently to task, instead of explaining in full why just about any one of them would be preferable to the madman of Mar-a-Loco, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott quarreled about drapes. Yes, drapes. He said she squandered $50,000 of federal money on them when she was the United Nations ambassador, she said she didn’t and they both grew very exercised about it. Where was that passion on the subject of Trump?
Instead of savaging him, the seven candidates tore into one another, seemingly vying not to catch up to Trump but to be declared the No. 1 alternative, like a beauty pageant runner-up poised to fulfill the winner’s duties and wear the winner’s tiara should the need arise.
DeSantis was more aggressive than ever, a contender of faded promise making a last stand. He crammed in his entire biography: working-class upbringing, Ivy-League-but-held-his-nose, volitional military service, father of three.
Haley tussled with him, with Scott and especially with Vivek Ramaswamy, who was yet again the political equivalent of a jack-in-the-box, popping up every time you hoped that he’d finally been squished down. Haley called nonsense on his nonsense, telling him: “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber.” It wasn’t very kind, but it was wholly relatable.
Ramaswamy tried humility on for size (“I’m here to tell you, no, I don’t know it all”), but it didn’t really fit. He’s too frenetic and too splenetic, and he had the wrong hair for it, a kind of cartoon pompadour that puzzled me.
But not as much as Pence’s demeanor did. He kept trying for jokes in a voice that wasn’t remotely jokey, and he reached for conviction in a manner that lacked any trace of it. It’s not more support from voters that he most needs. It’s a transfusion.
“You hear the fire in all of our voices,” he said at one point, but I couldn’t detect so much as a flickering Bic disposable lighter in his. I suspect that he won’t be in the hunt for much longer. Try hard not to miss him.
From the others there was plenty of heat, and there were even important exchanges that delineated significant fault lines in the Republican Party. DeSantis and Ramaswamy objected to the continued flow of enormous aid to Ukraine; Haley deemed that reckless. DeSantis defended the extremeness of his efforts to restrict abortion; Christie advocated something a tad closer to moderation.
But what will that matter if none of them chips away at Trump’s lead? There have now been two Republican presidential debates. Trump has proudly skipped and obnoxiously counterprogrammed both of them. And his punishment from his supposed rivals has been a dainty slap on the wrist.
The moderators on Wednesday night were just as gentle on him, never posing a question as pointed as one during the first debate, when the candidates were asked whether they’d support Trump as the party’s nominee even if he became a convicted felon.
Instead, one of the moderators, Dana Perino, wondered which of the seven people onstage “should be voted off the island” to winnow the field of Trump alternatives. That was hugely revealing: She was suggesting that one of them had to go, when the candidate who needs exiling is the one who didn’t bother to take the stage.
At least Christie recognized and remedied that, saying: “I vote Donald Trump off the island.” It was the right choice, rendered in the wrong words and wrong tone. This isn’t a reality show. It’s no episode of “Survivor.” It’s a matter of our country’s survival. But from the way seven candidates danced around the danger of Trump, you’d never know it.
For the Love of Sentences
In a sublime reflection in The Bitter Southerner about what Lucinda Wiliams’s music means to him, Wyatt Williams (no relation) wrote: “The songs we hear as children end up being a lot like our fathers; we go on hearing them in our heads even when they’re not around.” (Thanks to Eileen Van Schaik of Shoreline, Wash., for flagging this.)
In The New Yorker, Rachel Syme pondered the sartorial oddity of a leading fashion designer: “The Thom Browne look has often been compared to Pee-wee Herman’s archly nerdy costume or to Don Draper’s office wear after a few rounds through the dryer, but it calls to my mind, too, some mischievous scamp out of a Roald Dahl book who is always conspiring to put a dead hamster in the headmistress’s bed.” (Joanne Strongin, Port Washington, N.Y.)
Also in The New Yorker, Judith Thurman distilled the conflict from which the plot of “The Iliad” proceeds: “And with that puerile quarrel between stubborn warlords over the right to own and to rape a girl, Western literature begins.” (Joyce Erickson, Seattle)
And Anthony Lane reflected on the liberties that the director Kenneth Branagh and the screenwriter Michael Green took in adapting Agatha Christie’s “Hallowe’en Party,” set outside London, into the new movie “A Haunting in Venice,” set amid canals. “I’m already looking forward to their next reworking of Christie: ‘The Body in the Library,’ perhaps, relocated to the freezer aisle of a Walmart,” Lane wrote. (Abigail Smith, Downingtown, Pa.)
In The Washington Post, Petula Dvorak characterized the brief window in which pawpaws are available and ripe enough to eat: “They are like some of D.C.’s other ephemeral delights — cherry blossoms or the optimism and innocence of freshman members of Congress.” (Joan Tindell, Tucson, Ariz.)
In Esquire, Charles P. Pierce explained Attorney General Merrick Garland’s bind during his recent clash with Republicans at a House Judiciary Committee hearing: “Garland rope-a-doped as best he could, but there were too many dopes for him to rope.” (Peter Braverman, Bethesda, Md.)
In Vanity Fair, Carl Hiaasen put Trump and DeSantis side by side: “Some claim Trump has a better sense of humor, but it was DeSantis who appointed a Jan. 6 rioter to the state board that oversees massage parlors.” (Sue Jares, Los Angeles)
In The Times, Pamela Paul examined the embattled House speaker: “As Kevin McCarthy announced the impeachment inquiry, you could almost see his wispy soul sucked out Dementor-style, joining whatever ghostly remains of Paul Ryan’s abandoned integrity still wander the halls of Congress.” (Jeff Merkel, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Michael Berk, San Diego, among many others)
Also in The Times, Bret Stephens previewed the Republican debate in Seussian style: “I expect Ramaswamy to irritate, DeSantis to infuriate, Christie to needle, Pence to remind me of a beetle, Scott to smile and Haley to win by a mile. But I doubt it will move the dial.” (Nancy Breeding, Raleigh, N.C., and Andrew Robinson, Syracuse, N.Y., among others) Bret also noted: “Politics used to be debating ideas. Now it’s about diagnosing psychosis.” (Pierre Mullie, Orléans, Ontario, and Margaret Velarde, Denver, among others)
David French analyzed Trump’s recent shadings of his position on abortion, saying: “He is not convictionally pro-life. He is conveniently pro-life.” (Paul Dobbs, Relanges, France)
And Tim Kreider, in a lovely essay about aging and vulnerability, inventoried the infirmities (“arthritic hips, ovarian cysts, herniated discs, breast cancer”) that set in as we move from middle to old age: “It’s as if we were all devices made by some big tech company, designed to start falling apart the instant the warranty expires and to be ingeniously difficult to repair, with zero support for older models.” (Mike Rogers, Wilmington, N.C., and Maureen Burke, Sausalito, Calif., among others)
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On a Personal Note
Our lives are accidents of a sort. We have only so much control over them. We get no say in the genes that we inherit, and while they’re not the whole of our destinies, they’re big parts of them — seeds that are certain to flower, bombs that are sure to detonate. We’re born into circumstances that liberate or limit us. We’re the beneficiaries of good timing, or we’re the victims of the opposite.
John Turturro knows that well. The actor, director and writer had a mentally ill brother, Ralph, who spent many of his 70 years at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens. John visited him there frequently, got to know the place well and shared those memories in a moving 2015 presentation for the storytelling forum the Moth that you can find here. It’s funny, it’s soulful, and it builds to a poignant metaphor whose elegance takes you by surprise.
I had students in a class of mine at Duke watch it in advance of a recent Zoom visit from John, who’d agreed to talk with them about a book they were reading, “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” by Susan Sheehan. It’s a classic of meticulous journalism, chronicling the odyssey of a woman with schizophrenia and her parents as they struggle, often in vain, to calm her turmoil — to bring nothing more and nothing less than a steady peace and baseline contentment to her days. For several years, John has been working to adapt it into a mini-series.
He wants people to understand that mental illness doesn’t have the tidy arc that movies tend to give it. That it’s not a problem reliably solved by extra heaps of love. That it’s sometimes an endless road.
And the patients and families traveling it? They could be us. They’re just like us: They’re pushing through hardships that, yes, may be more daunting than other people’s, but they’re pushing nonetheless, with merciful instances of levity and cherished moments of grace. Such instances and moments flicker throughout “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?,” and John’s Moth presentation brims with them.
The book and the talk are lessons in the randomness of our lives. They’re also exhortations to meet it with whatever dignity and tenacity we can muster.