Trump’s Pride Goeth Before Our Fall

We can rant about the Senate and rail against Fox News. The ranting is warranted and the railing just. We can survey all the Republican efforts to subvert the will of voters, size up the hatred that so many Americans feel for one another and see the makings of a civil war.

Or we can wonder how urgently all those forces would matter — whether they would have moved us this fast toward this brink — without the impossibly fragile ego of one insatiably needy man.

Does a great nation’s future hinge on a rejected president’s pride?

I thought about that on Wednesday morning as I listened to Donald Trump’s interview with Steve Inskeep on NPR. All these months later, Trump was still fixated on the inferior size of the crowds that turned out for Biden in 2020, still prattling on about it, still insistent: I’m bigger! I’m better! That was before he hung up on Inskeep, who had the temerity not to surrender readily to Trump’s delusion that the election was stolen.

I thought about Trump’s delicate psyche and our delicate state when my Monday and Tuesday news feeds filled with his attack on Senator Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican. “Is he crazy or just stupid?” Trump said in a written statement. “I will never endorse this jerk again.” Such elevated language, and the prompt for it? Rounds had merely acknowledged that Biden won the 2020 election.

I think about Trump’s narcissism every time we get a closer glimpse into what he was doing and how he was feeling during the Jan. 6 riot, when those ghastly images filled our screens. What churned our stomachs salved his vanity. As my colleague Maureen Dowd wrote last weekend, “Rather than admit that he lost re-election, Trump was willing to egg on a seditious cult to overturn the election. You can just picture him sitting there in the White House, surrounded by McDonald’s wrappers, thrilled at the TV scenes of MAGA hooligans attacking the police.”

His insistence on an inverted version of history — one that doesn’t merely flatter him but that turns him into a noble martyr — is one of the driving forces behind many Republicans’ anti-democratic maneuvers and their indulgence or outright promotion of conspiratorial thinking. There’s no Big Lie without the Big Liar. And while, yes, this big liar is the product of dynamics in the electorate that he didn’t create, he turbocharges the ugliness with a relentlessness and perverse skill all his own.

He must always reassure himself that he’s the king of the jungle. He must forever fluff his mane and amplify his roar.

There has long been a (verbally sexist) “Great Man” theory of history, but with Trump we have a subset of that, or an annex to it: the great psychosis theory of history. One man’s pathological insecurity is — or can be — an entire country’s fate. That has been the case elsewhere before. Is it the case here now?

Post-Ivy Ignominy

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, left, and Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, on Capitol Hill in 2019.Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Oodles of acquaintances brought my attention to a recent article in The Atlantic, “How Ivy League Elites Turned Against Democracy,” by Stephen Marche, because of this withering claim within it: “What the Ivy League produces, in spades, on both the left and the right, is unwarranted confidence. Its institutions are hubris factories.” My acquaintances wanted my thoughts because I once wrote a book questioning the magical power that so many students and their parents attribute to such schools and because I now teach at an Ivy-esque institution, Duke.

My thoughts are that Marche’s assessment applies accurately to some students at elite colleges but by no means to most of them. It’s a big overgeneralization.

But his article — an excellent one, worth your time — has stuck with me for a different reason. It pointedly and perfectly captures a truism that we sometimes speed too quickly past and that has special relevance to events in American politics, and to the Republican Party in particular, over these past few years: People will sell out anyone and anything, including themselves, if it gets them to, or keeps them at, the top of the heap.

How and why, Marche wonders, do the likes of Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who went to Stanford as an undergraduate and got his law degree at Yale, and Senator Ted Cruz, whose three years at Harvard Law were preceded by four at Princeton, incite anti-elite fury? And how and why do Hawley, Cruz and other lawmakers who make their careers in government fan the flames that would burn down the very institutions they inhabit?

Marche describes the contradiction especially well in writing about the second of President Trump’s two secretaries of state: “Mike Pompeo graduated first in his class from West Point and served as editor of the Harvard Law Review. When a man of those advantages oversees the hollowing out of the State Department, allows the president to fire inspectors general who displease him by their inspection, uses his position to cultivate donors for his party, and consistently bends the norms and destroys the traditions that have lifted him to power, what hope can there be for his country? If he cannot manage to keep faith with the system, who can?”

Ouch and amen. But there’s a simple solution to the seemingly complicated riddle of Hawley, Cruz and Pompeo. And Marche provides it: Right now their surest path to power, or firmest grip on it, involves the theatrical trashing of their own trappings, the reinvention of themselves as characters in a story other than their own. They haven’t had some post-Ivy moral or philosophical epiphany. Their makeovers are fundamentally commercial: They sized up the current marketplace and manufactured what sells best.

And for them — as for too many people in this age of runaway vanity — brand dictates belief.

For the Love of Sentences

Hanya YanagiharaCredit…David Levenson/Getty Images

“To Paradise,” by Hanya Yanagihara, has attracted extensive analysis, none more deft than a review in The Atlantic by Jordan Kisner: “Reading the novel delivers the thrilling, uncanny feeling of standing before an infinity mirror, numberless selves and rooms turning uncertainly before you, just out of reach.” (Thanks to Barbara Rothschild of Columbia, Mo., for nominating this.)

In The New Yorker, Richard Brody has been on a tear. Here’s his appraisal of “Don’t Look Up,” which he calls “a clever film that’s short on wit. The difference is that wit is multifaceted, like a gem that, however small, offers different glimmers at different angles. Cleverness exhausts itself in a single glint and then repeats itself to infinity.” (Zino Vogiatzis, Timonium, Md.)

And here he is on one of the less hallowed movies directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who died last week: “Before Michael Cimino’s ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ before Elaine May’s ‘Ishtar,’ there was the scandal of ‘At Long Last Love,’ which the critics of the time heaven’s-gated, leaving Bogdanovich ishtarred and feathered.” (Allan Tarlow, West Hollywood, Calif.)

Examining the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot in The Washington Post, Kate Woodsome wrote: “As the psychotherapist Resmaa Menakem teaches, over time, a person’s trauma can look like personality. Growing angry with the banal. Insomnia. Drinking. Scanning everywhere for threats. Maybe this is simply how you are. Or maybe you’re tying your shoes with broken fingers.” (Tricia Chatary, Middlebury, Vt. )

And Rex Huppke was having none of it when he fired off this column for The Chicago Tribune, which observed: “A portion of the populace has slid from ‘it’s good to be smart’ to ‘being smart is elitist, so I’m going to follow the medical advice of this podcaster,’ a painfully common epitaph throughout the pandemic.” He added that Jan. 6 “will live in idiocy. It was the charge of the not-bright brigade.” (Helen Mooty, Seabrook, Texas)

Now to The Times. Reviewing Carl Bernstein’s new memoir, “Chasing History,” about his beginnings as a reporter, the Times book critic Dwight Garner wrote: “At 77, he is entering his anecdotage.” (Nancy Mansbach, Waban, Mass., and Gordon Brown, Boulder, Colo.) Garner also described Bernstein’s youthful enthusiasm this way: “If he’d been a dog, his head would have always been outside the car window.” (Helaine Fendelman, Manhattan)

Weighing in on the final weekend of regular-season N.F.L. games, Mike Tanier explained: “The New England Patriots (10-6) can improve their chances to win the A.F.C. East by beating the Miami Dolphins (8-8), who were eliminated from postseason contention last week, while the Buffalo Bills (10-6) can clinch the division by defeating the Jets, who were eliminated in 1972.” (Mark Cameron, Suquamish, Wash.) And here’s a bonus from Mike, on the quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who ended up making it into the playoffs: “Ben Roethlisberger, who is expected to retire at season’s end, now throws and runs like a great-uncle playing a pickup game at a backyard cookout after three I.P.A.s and two helpings of potato salad.” (Conrad Macina, Landing, N.J., and Christopher Bailey, Richmond, Va.)

Reflecting on New York City’s new mayor, Ginia Bellafante observed: “Saturday marks the end of Eric Adams’s first week as the mayor of New York, a time he has used to successfully distinguish himself from his predecessor — taking the J train; holding meetings at 9 a.m., an hour that found Bill de Blasio still in sweatpants; riding a Citi Bike in a suit, horse-bit loafers and a rose-colored helmet coordinated to the hue of his tie. Whatever might come, this would not be a tenure of earth tones and lethargy and saturnine expressions.” (Debbie Deitcher, Manhattan)

Taking the measure of Mehmet Oz, Annaliese Griffin wrote: “He’s rightly understood as a kind of quasi-religious leader, one who has set up his revival tent between a yoga studio and an urgent-care clinic, with the television cameras rolling.” (Scott Williams, Salt Lake City)

Finally, here’s Charles Blow on his dinner with Sidney Poitier: “His enchantment settled on you, like a soft sweater. Cashmere, of course.” (Tom Wild, Killington, Vt., and Vipan Chandra, Attleboro, Mass.)

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.

Bonus Regan Picture!

Credit…Frank Bruni

Dogs are Rorschachs, and someone less sentimental about them than I am might consider the positions of Regan (right) and Marlin (left, who belongs to my sister and is recovering from toe surgery) accidental. In this view, Marlin happened to place his cone, which he’s wearing so that he doesn’t lick and aggravate his wound, atop Regan’s paws; she was too zonked out to care. I choose a different interpretation. Marlin craved connection. Regan wanted to provide it, even if that meant coarse plastic against her soft fur. Mere inches from me on a conveniently king-size bed, these dog cousins (of a sort) comfort each other. I just look on — and beam.

On a Personal Note

It has been exactly six months since I left New York for North Carolina, and not one of them has gone by without several New Yorkers asking me how much I miss it. It’s an assumptive question: how much, not if. But I get it. In Manhattan I had more friends. In Manhattan I had more restaurants. In Manhattan I had more history, a memory on every street corner, and I had those early evenings when, without even planning it, I found myself walking along the Hudson exactly as the sun set over the Palisades. Don’t I pine just a bit for that?

Oddly, no, and I somehow knew I wouldn’t. I could sense within me a growing impatience, a gnawing unsettledness, a twitchy finger wanting to turn the page. And the long list of reasons to ignore that feeling couldn’t compete with the emotional logic of paying it heed. In this life you can make lists of pros and cons and prudently yield to the arithmetic of it all. Or you can respond to the weather inside you, and just as wisely ride those currents.

They carried me to Chapel Hill, where I smile almost every time I turn into my driveway because, for someone who’d become so firmly rooted in the concrete jungle, suburbia is the adventure. A garage door that opens automatically and a mailbox with a little red flag on its side are what’s exotic.

Hardly a day goes by when Regan, in a patch of forest safely distant from streets and cars, doesn’t give futile chase to a posse of white-tailed deer, either sprinting toward them at a velocity that stuns me or hopping, like a kangaroo, so she doesn’t lose sight of her quarry in the tall grass. That‘s my theater.

A few of the neighborhood deer seem to have figured out what I already knew: Regan’s all bound, no bite. On those occasions when she catches up to them, she freezes. So they sometimes don’t bother to flee.

In pursuing them, she’s just stretching her legs. By leaving Manhattan, I was doing something similar. There’s comfort and safety in staying put, but it can also leave you cramped, cinched. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to stray, why not head into the woods?

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