Opinion | Live by the Trump, Die by the Trump

Republicans’ amoral alliance with the former president may well be a midterms curse.

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By Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.

Democrats were doomed. We prediction-mad pundits felt predictable certainty about that. The recent history of midterm elections augured disaster for the party in power. Inflation would make the damage that much worse.

So why are Republicans sweating?

Their overreach on abortion and the subsequent mobilization of women voters explain a great deal but not everything. There’s another prominent plotline. Its protagonist is Donald Trump. And its possible moral is a sweet and overdue pileup of clichés — about reaping what you sow, paying the piper, lying in the bed you’ve made.

Republicans chose to kneel before him. Will he now bring them to their knees?

Thanks in large part to Trump, they’re stuck with Senate candidates — Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia, Blake Masters in Arizona — whose ineptness, inanity, immoderation or all three significantly diminish their chances in purple states at a propitious juncture.

Thanks in even larger part to Trump, voters ranked threats to democracy as the most pressing problem facing the country in a recent NBC News poll. That intensifying concern is among the reasons that President Biden went so big and bold last week in his intensely debated speech about extremism in America. He was eyeing the midterms, and he was wagering that Republican leaders’ indulgence of Trump’s foul play and fairy tales might finally cost them.

Trump is also a factor in Republicans’ vulnerability regarding abortion rights. For his own selfish political purposes, he made grand anti-abortion promises. He appointed decidedly anti-abortion judges, including three of the Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. He as much as anyone fired up the anti-abortion movement to the point where Republicans may now get burned.

With two months until Election Day, Republicans want to focus voters’ attention on unaffordable housing, exorbitant grocery bills and the generally high cost of living. They want to instill deeper and broader fear about immigration and crime. They want to portray Democrats as the enemies of the American way.

But that’s more than a little tricky when Trump had America’s secrets strewn throughout the bowels of Mar-a-Loco. When his excuses for mishandling those classified documents change at a dizzying clip, contradict previous ones and often boil down to his typical infantile formula of I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I. When he uses Truth Social, the media penal colony to which Twitter and Facebook sentenced him, for all the old falsehoods plus new ones. When criminal charges against him aren’t out of the question.

The progressive excesses of some Democrats pale beside the madness of this would-be monarch.

Democrats could still have a bad, even brutal, November. That is indeed how the pendulum historically swings, and two months is plenty of time for political dynamics to change yet again. Biden could overplay his hand, a possibility suggested by that speech.

But for the moment, Republicans are spooked. Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, has decided to try to recapture the party’s long-ago Contract-With-America magic by detailing a “Commitment to America” that will no doubt omit what should be the most important commitment of all — to the truth. It also won’t erase the fact that 196 of the 529 Republican nominees running for the House, the Senate, governor, attorney general or secretary had “fully denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election,” according to a chilling FiveThirtyEight analysis of the party’s nominees as of Wednesday.

That morally corrupt position was probably a political asset in their primaries, just as having Trump’s endorsement usually was. But in the general election? As Republican nominees pivot toward that, at least a few of them are realizing that it’s a different ballgame — and that Trump is trouble. They’re taking baby steps away from the world’s biggest baby.

Good luck with that. He’ll never let them go, never muffle himself long enough or behave well enough for there to be a Republican narrative that doesn’t revolve around him. That was clear to Republicans from the start. To hang with him is to hang with him.

Words Worth Sidelining

The debut of “Words Worth Sidelining” last month prompted a tsunami of emails, which I’m sure I told friends was “amazing.”

Gabriela Kegalj of Toronto would have my head for that.

Her email was one of the many droplets of water in that great wave, and its purpose was the classification of “amazing” as “a linguistic sickness,” used so promiscuously that it means nothing anymore.

“Human birth is amazing,” she wrote. “The images captured by the James Webb telescope are amazing. Toast is not amazing — neither is hair, your shoes or your new enamel-coated cast-iron made-in-France skillet.”

She’s right, of course. To be “amazing” something should genuinely “amaze” you or a saner analogue of you, and that’s a high bar, suggesting that the thing in question almost defies belief, leaves you dumbfounded, perhaps casts a sort of spell on you, maybe even flabbergasts you. (No, I did not just take out a thesaurus, though that litany probably would have been better if I had consulted one.) In its purest form, “amaze” has an aura of magic, a touch of grandeur. It’s squandered on a skillet. (On a top-notch air fryer, however …)

“Amazing” as a ubiquitous catchall encomium seems to be most popular among young adults. It’s another thing for which we can thank Generation Y or Z. (I lose my bearings at the end of the generational alphabet.) It’s to 20-somethings today what “awesome” was to 20-somethings of my time, and both words belong to an ignoble tradition of overstatement that’s fetchingly playful and theatrical at first but then just reflexive and banal.

That tradition includes “brilliant,” which is the British version of “amazing.” It includes “perfect,” an adjectival crime of which I’m guilty. The brunch plans that a friend just floated? “Perfect,” I say, though they’re not. They’re convenient. They’re sensible. Maybe they’re even mildly exciting. But “perfect” would be Thomas Keller waltzing into my bedroom with his finest Gruyere omelet and a pitcher of mimosas on a brushed nickel tray that enables me to eat and drink while still under the covers, deep in a gripping mystery novel. That’s a brunch you can’t improve on. And that’s what “perfect” means.

Of course, “perfect” is polite. “Brilliant” and “amazing,” too. “Awesome” at this late date just sounds like the sub-articulate raving of a stoner — but that could be because I’ll always associate it with Jeff Spicoli, the dazed and bemused character brought to unforgettable life by Sean Penn in the 1982 movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” I loved his performance.

I might even call it amazing.

“Words Worth Sidelining” will appear every month or so, at least for a while. To suggest a term or phrase, please email me here, please put “Words Worth Sidelining” in the subject line and please include your name and place of residence.

For the Love of Sentences

When we met here three weeks ago, many of you were aptly besotted with Dwight Garner’s review of Jared Kushner’s White House memoir, “Breaking History,” in The Times. Although I showcased one sentence from it, I could have showcased half a dozen. That review yielded more nominations for this feature than any article ever had.

So it feels right to begin today with a favorite line of yours from Elizabeth Spiers’s subsequent review of Kushner’s MAGA opus in The Washington Post. She called the book “a portrait of a man whose moral compass has been demagnetized.” (Thanks to Barry Bergen of Lisbon, Portugal, and Lois DiTommaso of Rutherford, N.J., among many others, for nominating this.)

Also in The Post, Michael Gerson contrasted Christianity at its best with what Trump’s evangelical supporters have not only accepted but also embraced: “It is difficult for me to understand why so many believers have turned down a wedding feast to graze in political dumpsters.” (Carol Mack, Minneapolis, and Peggy Somermeyer, Richmond, Texas, among others)

And Dan Zak wondered why, during a water crisis, we cling to a certain sponge. “Lawns: burned out, blond and dead, in the air fryer of August,” he wrote. “Lawns: emerald green — no, alien green — and kept that way by maniacal vigilance and an elaborate system of pipes and potions, organic and otherwise, in defiance of ecology. And for what? To have, in this chaos, dominion over something?” (Judy Morice, Lansdale, Pa.)

In The Guardian, Andrew Rawnsley fashioned a deft start to a recent plaint about Britain’s political woes: “I have an issue with the phrase ‘zombie government.’ Say what you like about the walking dead, they occasionally get their teeth into things.” (Marianne Valentine, Johannesburg, South Africa)

In The Tampa Bay Times, John Romano reflected on the predominance of passing over rushing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by the phenomenal quarterback Tom Brady: “When you have Eric Clapton in your band, you don’t schedule a lot of drum solos.” (Tom Akins, Trinity, Fla.)

As for the abundance of standout sentences from my colleagues at this fine news organization, here’s Jason Horowitz on Norwegian officials’ killing of the female walrus Freya: “On Friday, they decided that she would no longer swim with the fishes.” (Anne Melanson, Manhattan, and Jeff Hiday, Vienna, Va., among others)

Libby Watson on Amazon versus a challenge famously resistant to efficiency and ingenuity: “Put it up against the problems of the American health care system, and it looks like David with a slingshot made of wet spaghetti.” (Marianne Lambelet, Farmington, Conn.)

Bret Stephens on Trump’s evolving excuses for absconding with classified documents: “With Trump, the line between the shambolic and the sinister is often blurred. His entire being is like Inspector Clouseau doing an impression of Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining,’ or maybe vice versa.” (Mark Fenske, Moraga, Calif., and Marci Imbrogno, Charlotte, N.C., among others)

Maggie Haberman, Glenn Thrush and Alan Feuer on that dark bumbler’s deathless tantrums: “Even as he fuels outrage in sympathetic media outlets and tries to turn attention to Mr. Biden and the so-called deep state, Mr. Trump is to some extent walking on the phantom limbs of his expired presidency.” (Margaret Akin, San Diego, and Donae Ceja, Akron, Ohio, among others)

And Charles Blow on what Mike Pence, the former vice president, is selling to voters who thrilled to Trump but might prefer a saner alternative: “someone who has touched the hem of the garment but has not put on the straitjacket.” (Helen Mooty, Seabrook, Texas, and Linda McCray, Dayton, Ohio, among others)

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.

On a Personal Note

A new semester just began, my third at Duke University, and last week I met the dozen students in my writing seminar. Three of them I was really reconnecting with — I’ve had them in classes of mine before, and I apparently didn’t screw up too badly.

I’m still a novice at this professor gig, still wondering how it’s done best, still hitting up colleagues for their wisdom and, above all, still asking the question: What do we owe students — in general and, specifically, at this moment in time?

We owe them candor. We always have. But one of the greatest challenges of teaching is calibrating the optimal mix of candor and kindness, because we owe them the latter, too. Even college-age students are relatively raw, with undiscovered or unrealized talents whose development depends on encouragement, so “The Paper Chase” model of supposedly constructive effacement seems wrong to me. It might toughen some of them. It might break others.

Unearned or exaggerated praise, though, isn’t the answer. It can make students believe that they’ve aced something they haven’t and found a calling when they didn’t. That’s not kindness. That’s cowardice. It’s also deception.

We owe students something else, too — or at least I think, in my novicehood, that we do. We owe them doubt.

In our world now, there’s a tug toward premature and excessive certainty, even stridency. (Or, worse yet, snark.) Social media rewards that.

It fuels our politics, too. Many leaders and voters alike rush toward judgments and then won’t back off them, and those judgments are often just the borrowed opinions of their chosen clique. They’re the fruits of identity, not inquiry.

In that context, shouldn’t we professors be wary of modeling anything akin to voice-of-God omniscience? Yes, there are things we know — facts and insights that we must share with students, skills that we’re there to show them how to acquire. We mustn’t be shy about those.

But there are also things that we don’t know, things that no one can fully know, subjects that aren’t quickly reducible to tidy talking points. “It’s complicated,” I say constantly to students. “It’s debatable.” “Maybe.” “Possibly.” “Probably.”

“Definitely” is more alluring. But that’s precisely the reason to resist it.

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