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By Frank Bruni
Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.
Given all the attention to President Biden’s cognitive fitness for a second presidential term, it seems fair, even mandatory, to assess Donald Trump’s performance at a televised town hall in Manchester, N.H., on Wednesday night through the same lens:
How clear was his thinking? How sturdy his tether to reality? How appropriate his demeanor?
On a scale of 1 to Marjorie Taylor Greene, I’d give him an 11.
He was asked to respond to a Manhattan jury’s verdict the previous day that he had sexually abused and defamed the writer E. Jean Carroll.
He said that Carroll once had a cat named Vagina.
He was asked about his failure to deliver on his signature promise to voters in 2016 — that he’d build a wall stretching across the southwestern border of the United States.
“I did finish the wall,” he said, just a few beats before adding that Biden could have easily and quickly completed the stretch that still hasn’t been built if he’d cared to. The statements contradicted each other. They made no sense. They were his entire performance in a nutshell.
He was asked about his role in the Jan. 6 violence and whether he had regrets.
He reminisced mistily about addressing the rally before the riot — “It was the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken to,” he boasted — and about how they were there “with love in their hearts.” The problem, he said, was “Crazy Nancy,” meaning Pelosi, whose fault all of this really was.
It’s never Trump’s — not on this score, not on any other, not when a jury rules against him, not when voters pick someone else to be in the White House, not when he’s indicted, not when he’s impeached, not when he’s impeached a second time, not when he’s caught hiding classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, not when he’s caught on tape.
He was grilled about such a tape, the one after Election Day 2020 that has him ordering the Republican secretary of state in Georgia, which Biden narrowly won, to overturn that result by finding him more votes.
“I didn’t ask him to find anything,” Trump insisted, incorrectly. “I said, ‘You owe me votes.’” Whew! I’m glad that’s cleared up.
In response to question after question, on issue after issue, Trump denied incontrovertible facts, insisted on alternative ones, spoke of America as a country swirling down the toilet, spoke of himself as the only politician who could save it, framed his presidency as one that outshone all the others, projected his own flaws and mistakes on his critics and opponents, expressed contempt for them and claimed persecution.
He was, in other words, a font of lies keeping true to himself, ever the peacock, always cuckoo. The evening made utterly clear — just in case there was a scintilla of doubt — that his latest, third bid for the White House won’t be any kind of reset, just a full-on rehash. And that was inevitable, because someone like Trump doesn’t change. His self-infatuation precludes any possibility of that.
The town hall, hosted by CNN and moderated heroically by the anchor Kaitlan Collins, played like a kind of Mad Libs of hundreds of Trump’s public appearances and interviews since he jumped into the presidential fray back in 2015. Some of the proper nouns were different. Some of the dates had changed. Almost everything else was the same.
Instead of complaining about the insufficient financial contributions of NATO’s member countries, he complained about the insufficient financial contributions of European nations to Ukraine’s war effort. His descriptions of the evil, dangerous hordes poised to stream into the United States from Mexico right now sounded like a remix of his descriptions, on the day he announced his first presidential campaign nearly eight years ago, of the evil, dangerous hordes supposedly streaming in then.
In an ugly echo of the 2016 presidential debate when he called Hillary Clinton “nasty,” he called Collins “nasty.” The “very stable genius,” as he once pronounced himself, has a very static vocabulary.
And he has no acquaintance with a thesaurus, dignity or maturity. “Stupid,” “stupid,” “stupid” — he kept using that word, I guess because it’s so presidential. He applied it to anyone who doesn’t believe that the 2020 election was stolen and rigged. He applied it to everything about the Biden administration and Democrats in Washington.
“Our country is being destroyed by stupid people — by very stupid people,” he said. He never ascended to an altitude of eloquence above that.
A word about CNN: Its decision to give Trump this platform was widely attacked, but the network was correct to recognize that he is a relevant, potent political force who cannot be ignored and must be thoroughly vetted. Collins was clearly and rightly encouraged to challenge every false claim that he made, and she did precisely that, demonstrating great knowledge and preternatural poise.
But where CNN went wrong was in the audience it assembled, a generally adoring crowd who laughed heartily at Trump’s jokes, clapped lustily at his insults and thrilled to his every puerile flourish. When several of them had their turns at the microphone, their questions were air kisses, which is why Collins had to keep stepping in to slap Trump around with her own. The contrast — her righteous firmness, their star-struck flaccidity — was disorienting and repellent. Between now and November 2024, we’re in for a stranger and scarier ride than in any other presidential election in my lifetime, and there’s no telling how it will end.
That was the moral of the much-discussed poll by The Washington Post and ABC News that was released last weekend. It not only gave Trump a six-point lead over Biden in a hypothetical matchup but also showed that voters deem Trump, 76, more physically and mentally fit for the presidency than Biden, 80.
I’ll grant Trump his vigor. During the town hall, he spoke emphatically and energetically.
But vigor isn’t competence, and that brings me back to the start. I myself have observed that Biden often doesn’t seem as clear and focused as he did in the past, but next to a man who insouciantly brags that he could end the war between Ukraine and Russia in 24 hours, as Trump did on Wednesday night?
Next to a man who also reprised his claims of some godlike power to declassify documents by simply staring at them and thinking unclassified thoughts?
Next to a man who sires his own reality, comes to believe in that fantasy while it’s still in diapers, considers himself omnipotent, fancies himself omniscient and replaces genuine reflection with disingenuous navel gazing?
That was Trump at the town hall. That was Trump for his four years in office. That would be Trump if he gets back to the White House. And it’s no display of superior cognition. Just a reminder of the madness that this country can’t seem to put behind it.
For the Love of Sentences
In the prelude to last weekend’s coronation of King Charles III, Helen Lewis visited and considered royals less fussed over. “One peculiarity of European aristocrats is that their names pile up, like snowdrifts,” she observed. “It’s lunchtime in Tirana, the capital of Albania, and I am about to meet Leka Anwar Zog Reza Baudouin Msiziwe Zogu, crown prince of the Albanians.” She has to pass through a gate “guarded by an elderly manservant for whom the term ‘faithful retainer’ might have been invented. Because I am British, his thinly disguised irritation at my presence makes me feel right at home.” (Thanks to Lizzy Menges of Garden City, N.Y., for drawing my attention to Lewis’s excellent article.)
Rachel Tashjian in The Washington Post weighed in on the ostentation of Charles’s coronation: “The red velvet robes trimmed in ermine, the five-pound crown, the gold robes on top of gold robes dragging over gold carpets — the regalia often made it feel like a Versace fashion show staged in an assisted-living facility.” (Ann Kolasa Zastrow, Evanston, Ill., and Merrio Morton, Lancaster, S.C., among many others)
And from Tom Holland in The Guardian: “Watching a coronation is the constitutional equivalent of visiting a zoo, and finding a Triceratops in one of the enclosures.” (Dot McFalls, Charlottesville, Va.)
In The New Yorker, J.R. Moehringer, the ghostwriter of Prince Harry’s memoir, “Spare,” reflected on the impossibility of walking entirely in this particular man’s shoes: “I’d worked hard to understand the ordeals of Harry Windsor, and now I saw that I understood nothing. Empathy is thin gruel compared with the marrow of experience.” (Sara Klemmer, Charlotte, N.C., and Susan Kochan, Brooklyn, among others)
In The Times, Ligaya Mishan celebrated the infinite textures of food: “What of the coy half-surrender that the Italians venerate in pasta as ‘al dente’ and the Taiwanese in noodles and boba as ‘Q’ (or ‘QQ,’ if the food in question is exceptionally springy); the restive yolk threatening to slither off a six-minute egg; the seraphic weight of a chiffon cake; the heavy melt of fat off a slab of pork belly, slowly liquefying itself? What of goo, foam, dust, air? What of the worlds that lie between slime and velvet, collapse and refusal, succulence and desiccation?” (Judy Cress, El Cerrito, Calif.)
Also in The Times, Robert Draper profiled William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director: “His ascent is an unlikely turn for a tall, discreet figure with wary eyes, ashen hair and a trim mustache, a sort you could easily imagine in a John le Carré novel whispering into a dignitary’s ear at an embassy party that the city is falling to the rebels and a boat will be waiting in the harbor at midnight.” (Jefferson M. Gray, Baltimore, and Ed Lyon, Cincinnati)
And Michael Levenson reported on the odd dumping of hundreds of pounds of pasta alongside a creek in Old Bridge, N.J. “When photos of the discarded pasta were shared on a Reddit discussion about all things New Jersey, it became fertile ground for puns and dad jokes,” he wrote. “Someone commented: ‘We should send the perpetrators to the state penne tentiary.’” Town workers cleaned up and disposed of the pasta in under an hour. “It was not clear if a large fork had been used.” (Pat Reneman, Kettle Falls, Wash., and Margaret Koziel, Cambridge, Mass., 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 include your name and place of residence.
What I’m Reading
I was a few months late to The New Yorker article “Is Artificial Light Poisoning the Planet?” by Adam Gopnik, but I’m glad I didn’t miss it altogether. It springboards off the book “The Darkness Manifesto” by the Swedish ecologist Johan Eklof, and it’s a fascinating glance at one of the less discussed ways in which human activity and advancement have badly harmed the fauna around us. It’s also a mini-tutorial on the evolution of animal vision, and it’s rich with artful prose. (Harry Gerecke, Vashon, Wash.)
If you, like me, are a dog lover, but you, unlike me, missed Sarah Lyall’s delightful profile in The Times of the fluffy canine cloud that is Striker, you should remedy that right away.
There’s a reason the world seems so much scarier now than at many points in the recent past: It is! Or at least the perils come in newly diverse forms. That’s one of the takeaways from a new book, “Age of Danger: Keeping America Safe in an Era of New Superpowers, New Weapons and New Threats,” co-written by my former Times colleague Thom Shanker, who now runs the Project for Media and National Security at George Washington University, and Andrew Hoehn of the RAND Corporation. It was published Tuesday, and it’s a sobering, intelligent analysis from two experts who know whereof they write.
On a Personal Note
Many of my friends were abuzz last weekend about Amy Chozick’s profile in The Times of Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced and convicted founder of the fraudulent biotech start-up Theranos. The incarnation of herself that Holmes presented to Chozick — loving spouse, nurturing mother, known to her husband and friends as Liz — was a far cry from the Silicon Valley sorceress who spoke so affectedly, rose so astronomically and fell so spectacularly, and my friends puzzled over the same question Chozick did: How much of Liz was real?
I’m betting quite a bit, and that’s not because I’m credulously accepting that she has traveled some profound moral arc, from a thicket of want to a clearing of altruism and authenticity. I don’t believe in personality transplants any more than I do in head transplants, and life isn’t tidy that way. But just as I suspect that Elizabeth lives on in Liz, I suspect that Liz was always lurking in Elizabeth. Life is messy that way.
We love to assign people types, fold them into taxonomies, put them in discrete categories. You’re an introvert, but your partner is an extrovert. He’s codependent, but she has commitment issues. Many of us are all of the above. Most of us indeed contain multitudes, even if — for a short period or forever — we manage to wear and show the world just one face, which reflects the circumstances in which we find ourselves as much as it does some unalloyed and immutable truth.
Elizabeth or Liz? It’s not a binary, and the more relevant and answerable question is whether Elizabeth-cum-Liz acted badly, hurt people needlessly and should pay a price. I believe so, as did a jury and a judge: She has been sentenced to more than 11 years in prison for her reckless and ruinous fictions, be they consistent with her priorities now or not.
On the far side of her incarceration, she won’t be a different person. But she’ll surely be a reassembled, reapportioned one, with parts more or less prominent than in phases of her life when they got less tending or when they had less use.
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