Friday, 3 Feb 2023

Opinion | Ron DeSantis Is an Optical Illusion

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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.

Elon Musk is a geyser of gibberish, so it’s important not to make too much of anything he says. But a recent Twitter thread of his deserved the attention it got, if not for the specific detail on which most journalists focused.

They led with Musk’s statement that he would support a Ron DeSantis candidacy for the presidency in 2024. That obviously disses one Donald Trump, though it should come as no surprise: Magnates like Musk typically cling to the moment’s shiniest toys, and DeSantis, fresh off his re-election, is a curiously gleaming action figure.

But how Musk framed his attraction to the Florida governor was revealing — and troubling. He expressed a desire for a candidate who’s “sensible and centrist,” implying that DeSantis is both.

In what universe? He’s “sensible and centrist” only by the warped yardsticks of Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Kari Lake and the like. But those yardsticks will be used frequently as various Republicans join the 2024 fray. And therein lies real danger.

Trump’s challengers will be defined in relation to him, casting them in a deceptively flattering light. They’ll be deemed steady because he’s not, on the ball because he’s out to lunch, enlightened because they don’t sup with Holocaust deniers. They’ll be realists to his fantasist, institutionalists to his nihilist, preservationists to his arsonist.

None of those descriptions will be true. Some will be persuasive nonetheless.

That dynamic is already doing wonders for DeSantis as he flies high over a very low bar. “Look!” say Republicans eager to take back the White House. “It’s Superman!” Hardly. But his promoters are hoping that the shadow of Trump produces such an optical illusion.

“Plenty of Americans across the partisan divide would have good reason to root for him,” Jim Geraghty, the senior political correspondent for the conservative journal National Review, wrote in a recent essay in The Washington Post that praised DeSantis. Parts of it made DeSantis sound consensus-minded, conciliatory. That’s some trick.

Geraghty added: “Given the bizarre state of American politics during the Trump era, DeSantis would represent a return to normality.” The “given” in that sentence is working overtime, and “normality” fits DeSantis about as well as “sensible” and “centrist” do.

It is not normal to release a campaign ad, as DeSantis did last month, that explicitly identifies you as someone created and commanded by God to pursue the precise political agenda that you’re pursuing. Better words for that include “messianic,” “megalomaniacal” and “delusional.”

It is not sensible to open a new state office devoted to election crimes when there is scant evidence of any need for it. That is called “pandering.” It is also known as a “stunt.”

It is not centrist to have a key aide who tweeted that anyone who opposed the “Don’t Say Gay” education law in Florida was “probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.” Those were the words of Christina Pushaw, who was then DeSantis’s press secretary and “transformed the governor’s state messaging office into a hyperpartisan extension of his political efforts,” as Matt Dixon noted in Politico, adding that she “used the position to regularly pick public fights with reporters on social media, amplify right-wing media outlets and conservative personalities and attack individuals who oppose or challenge DeSantis.”

DeSantis’s response to her derisive and divisive antics? He made her the “rapid response director” for his re-election campaign. Because that’s the normal, sensible, centrist thing to do.

DeSantis used his power as governor to punish Disney for daring to dissent from his political views. He used migrants as political pawns and sent two planes full of them to Martha’s Vineyard. He pushed for an extreme gerrymander in Florida that marginalized minority voters. He’s a darling of the National Rifle Association.

And the signature line from his stump speech is that Florida is “where woke goes to die.” I’m with him on the destructiveness of peak wokeness, but base-camp wokeness has some lessons and virtues, which a sensible centrist might acknowledge and reflect on. Can’t Florida be where woke goes to decompress in the sun and surf and re-emerge in more relaxed form?

DeSantis himself might currently reject the labels that Musk gave him: It’s the right-wing-warrior side that promises to propel him most forcefully through the primaries, should he enter them. But he or any nominee not named Trump would likely segue to the general election by flashing shades of moderation.

In DeSantis’s case, there’d be chatter galore about his 19-point re-election victory as proof of his appeal’s breadth. But another Republican, Senator Marco Rubio, won re-election in Florida by sixteen points, suggesting that forces beyond DeSantis’s dubiously pan-partisan magnetism were in play. And Florida is redder than it used to be.

The extremists and conspiracists so prevalent in today’s Republican Party have distorted the frame for everyone else, permitting the peddling of DeSantis as some paragon of reason. Be savvier than Musk. Don’t buy it.

For the Love of Sentences

When Nancy Pelosi announced that she would step down from her role in House Democratic leadership, the last edition of this newsletter had “gone to bed,” as we say in this business, so I didn’t get to comment on it. But my friend Robin Givhan, who frequently (and expertly) explores the intersection of the sartorial and the political for The Washington Post, did, and her tribute to Pelosi included this observation of how she dressed:

“Fashion was not some superficial distraction. It was testimony to her attention to detail, to her understanding of symbolism, to her awareness of just how useful aesthetics can be as a form of communication and a source of pleasure.” Also this: “She painted public service, the grinding business of government, in vivid color. She gave it personality and light. Gravitas comes in fuchsia.” (Thanks to Bob Meadow of Los Angeles for this nomination.)

As much as Donald Trump’s announcement of another presidential campaign lacked luster, writers’ takes on it packed luster. Laura Jedeed’s newsletter exemplified this: “I have no problem admitting that Trump has delivered some barnburners in his time. This was not a barnburner. This was a lighter that works if you shake it hard enough.” (Bill Flarsheim, Louisville, Ky.)

In The Globe and Mail of Toronto, Konrad Yakabuski characterized the swift turn of Rupert Murdoch away from Trump: “After standing by his man through thick and thin,” Yakabuski noted, “Murdoch seemed to go from Tammy Wynette to Henry VIII after the midterms.” (Janet Gottlieb Sailian, Fort Myers Beach, Fla.)

In The New Yorker, Jill Lepore described the return of the wild turkey: “In New England, the birds were once hunted nearly to extinction; now they’re swarming the streets like they own the place. Sometimes turnabout is fowl play.” (Marjorie Ivey, St. Louis)

Also in The New Yorker, Jesse Dorris visited a recently opened memorial to the 20 children and six adults who were fatally shot at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about a decade ago: “It is only fitting that a visitor to the Sandy Hook memorial walks in circles; we are all trapped in a loop of carnage, campaign donations, thoughts and prayers.” (Debbie Davidson, San Francisco)

In The Times, Michael Wilson reflected on the occurrence of three mass shootings just before Thanksgiving: “Yesterday’s parents, children and friends became Thursday’s empty chairs.” (James Turner, Hampton, Va.)

Daniel Lewis wrote an obituary for the composer and diarist Ned Rorem that examined the particular nature of Rorem’s tell-all tendencies: “Name-dropping is one thing. With the gossipy Mr. Rorem, it could reach the level of carpet-bombing.” (Carol Dane, Oakland, Calif., and Robert Allen, Richmond, Va.)

Jon Mooallem spent some time with the director and screenwriter Noah Baumbach, who “is 53 and speaks in long, looping stops and starts and carefully considered multipoint turns, like a man trying to parallel park his consciousness into an impossible spot.” (Bill Webb, Eminence, Ky., and Luc Leblanc, Montreal, among others)

Ruth Whippman described her long-ago piano lessons: “I can still conjure up the chemical overload of my teacher’s after-shave — synthetic floral with a base note of trickle-down economics. Overpowering, but not quite able to drown out the background scent of my mother’s expectations.” (Nan Valrance, Bluffton, S.C., and Margaret Wohler, Alexandria, Va.)

Mike Tanier mulled the Los Angeles Rams’ dismal drop-off from their championship season last year: “The Rams aren’t just enduring a Super Bowl hangover. They have woken up next to a total stranger in a Nevada honeymoon suite with an empty wallet and no sign of their car keys.” (Arthur Ostrove, White Plains, N.Y.)

Andrew Das described a Brazil player’s winning goal against Switzerland: “It was off his foot so fast, and was so well-placed, that the Swiss goalkeeper could only watch it pass like a man admiring a bullet train from the platform.” (Ann Lowman Yang, Carrboro, N.C.)

And Caity Weaver pondered an ostensible oddity of human perception in a place of profound quiet: “Hearing the movement of blood through the body is supposedly something like an absolute taboo, akin to witnessing the fabrication of Chicken McNuggets — an ordeal after which placid existence is irreparably shattered.” (Simeon Stolzberg, Adams, Mass., and Sally Hinson, Greer, S.C., among many 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, write “Sentences” in the subject line and include your name and place of residence.

What I’m Watching

Many friends and acquaintances, remembering my years as the restaurant critic of The Times, have asked me what I thought about “The Menu,” starring Ralph Fiennes as a godly chef who detests and punishes the coddled diners who make a pilgrimage to his impossibly exclusive island restaurant. I found it a heavy-handed, obvious caricature of a world that’s too easy a target for that. It shot at halibut in a barrel; it reached for low-hanging kumquats. But the cast is superb, and I appreciated the movie’s exploration of the ambiguous balance of power between restaurant and diner, something I explored in this Critic’s Notebook during my stint reviewing restaurants.

There’s more pleasure to be had from “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” starring Daniel Craig — again — as the detective Benoit Blanc. While the final 10 minutes are a bit much and the discovery of whodunit isn’t wholly satisfying, the portraits of the eccentric suspects are great fun, thanks in part to terrific performances from Janelle Monáe, Kate Hudson and Edward Norton.

A few months ago I stumbled across, enjoyed and then forgot to recommend “Rogue Agent,” a British thriller that’s available on various streaming services. In under two fleet hours, it tells the kind of story too often stretched into six hourlong episodes these days. And it has a plum role for James Norton, who was such an effective (read: odious) villain in the series “Happy Valley,” a huge favorite of mine.

On a Personal Note (Holiday Giving Edition)

This section of the newsletter is part of Times Opinion’s 2022 Giving Guide. Read more about the guide in a note from Opinion’s editor, Kathleen Kingsbury.

Whenever people ask me how to become better writers, I tell them to become better readers.

Yes, they should write and revise and then revise and write some more. They should practice. That’s crucial.

But the way they’ll know, on a gut level, if they’re choosing the right words, fashioning the right phrases and finding the right rhythm is by having ingested and internalized countless examples of writing done right. It’s the wellspring of vocabulary, judgment, confidence. Reading fuels writing no less than carbohydrates do running.

But that’s only some of what it does. It jump-starts thoughts. It puts the brain into gear. It fires the imagination. All told, the diverse and profound benefits of reading make it a cornerstone of opportunity. So if we want to give more people the best shot possible at secure, healthy and happy futures and attaining their dreams, we need to get books into more children’s hands and homes.

Fortunately, there are many local and national groups devoted to doing just that.

One of them, near me, is Book Harvest, in Durham, N.C. According to its website, it has given more than 1.8 million books to children and families. The importance of that? I’ll defer to words on that website: “Eighty percent of brain development happens in the first three years of life. Imagine the possibilities for all children when they grow up surrounded by books and stories, words and ideas — starting at birth.”

First Book defines its mission as “building a path out of poverty through educational equity.” That path is paved with books, which the organization collects and distributes through its Book Bank.

Other organizations that promote reading among unprivileged children include Reach Out and Read, Raising a Reader and Kids Need to Read. But there are many groups in addition to these, some of which may specifically serve your community or area, and simple internet searches will lead you to them.

Also, such groups often accept used books as donations, giving you a way to be generous beyond what you can afford in dollars and cents, to declutter the house and better the world all at once. Who knows? By surrendering an old novel, you may be setting a new novelist in motion.

This newsletter is part of Times Opinion’s Giving Guide 2022. The author has no direct connection to the organizations mentioned. If you are interested in any organization mentioned in Times Opinion’s Giving Guide 2022, please go directly to its website. Neither the authors nor The Times will be able to address queries about the groups or facilitate donations.

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