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Frank Bruni

Eric Greitens’s Plug for Political Violence Is No Joke

Credit...Ben Wiseman

Contributing Opinion Writer

If you missed the previous newsletter, you can read it here.

Eric Greitens is surely pleased with himself. He’s laughing all the way to the polls. With a campaign ad that a semiliterate adolescent on crystal meth might consider clever, the Missouri Republican this week inflamed Democrats, appalled journalists and for all of 12 hours — an eternity these days — dominated political discussion. That would have been the end of Greitens in a normal country in normal times. In ours at this juncture, he probably just had the biggest spurt of fund-raising for his Senate bid yet. Give decency the finger and count your winnings.

That’s what Donald Trump taught him. It’s what Trump taught much of the Republican Party, which now confuses outrageousness with intrepidness, offensiveness with independence, provocation with cunning and puerility with defiance. If you’re flying in the face of tradition, you’re your own Top Gun, even if the tradition is, say, democracy. If you’re coloring outside the lines, you’re your own political Picasso, even if the line is truth itself.

Greitens, who lasted all of 17 months as governor of Missouri before resigning in shame four years ago, is the apparent front-runner for the Republican nomination for an open Senate seat. In the new ad, he declares hunting season on RINOs (an acronym for Republicans in Name Only, a designation currently bestowed on any member of the G.O.P. who doesn’t endorse Trump’s bogus claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen). Greitens proudly racks a shotgun and then joins a platoon of gunmen as they storm a home and open fire. Neat, huh? He’s a former Navy SEAL, and I guess this is what the moral beaching of such a mammal looks like.

It’s no coincidence that the ad was released just days after Texas Republicans, at their party’s state convention, decreed the 2020 election illegitimate, flirted with secession from the United States and, all in all, formalized crazy as an ideology. The two developments together demonstrate how taking things farther than anyone thought you would has become perhaps the greatest badge of honor in Republican circles. I believe in bipartisanship, and I think that compromise is generally an honorable word, not a dirty one, but how in the world do Democrats work with this?

Greitens’s ad isn’t just an example of bad judgment. It’s the epitome of it. It comes fast on the heels of the massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde, during a terrifying chapter of intensifying political violence. Early this month, a retired Wisconsin judge was murdered in his home, allegedly by a man in possession of what appeared to be a hit list of both Republican and Democratic political targets, including Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, and the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell. Days later, Maryland police arrested an armed California man believed to be on his way to the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Threats of violent retribution against perceived political adversaries are no longer remarkable, andof courseTrump stirred the bedlam on Jan. 6, 2021, by all accounts thrillingto rioters’ “Hang Mike Pence” chants. As witness testimony during the Jan. 6 committee’s hearing on Tuesday showed, elected Republican officials and election workers who dared to speak truth to Trump or were falsely accused of thwarting him came to fear for their physical safety, went into hiding or had their lives upended in other ways.

In this chilling climate, in this loaded context, Greitens’s ad is no joke — though he tried on Tuesday to dismiss it as one. It’s an act of recklessness so extreme that it’s morally perverse. And yet it may do more to help than to hurt his hunt for a Senate seat. That’s how lost his party is.

Americans on the political right have found all sorts of ways to mock and dismiss the Jan. 6 committee’s hearings. One is to point to them as proof that Democrats are terminally out of touch with pressing, important issues. Gas rose above $5 a gallon in some places and recession looms, but sure, prattle on about Trump’s tantrums in the final days of his presidency! Knock yourself out! That sentiment is rendered with an almost audible chortle of glee over the drubbing that Democrats may well endure in the midterms.

And it’s bananas. While those Republicans are probably right that inflation in the months leading up to November 2022 will have a significantly bigger impact at the polls than insurrection two years earlier, they’re dead wrong about what has greater moral weight, matters more in the long term and endangers the very future of this country as a stable democracy. Democrats aren’t engaged in some partisan indulgence — that’s why Liz Cheney, who is Republican royalty, has made temporary cause with them. And despite their painstaking staging of the hearings, they’re not merely performing political theater.

There’s no minimizing or merrily moving past the fact that a former American president who remains his party’s likeliest nominee in 2024 incited violence, threatened fellow party members, imperiled his own vice president and spread incendiary lies in an attempt to overturn the will of voters and stay in office. And it’s no piddling, negligible detail that most Republicans on the ballot this coming November probably won’t publicly condemn or contradict him. They’ve essentially told voters that they’d be fine with autocracy if the autocrat smiled on them.

That’s the most crucial issue in the midterms, and shame on lawmakers like Senator Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, who said on (where else?) Fox News on Tuesday: “I have not taken the time to watch the hearings. I feel like the best use of my time is fighting the inflationary effects.” Senator, I’m betting you can do both at once, and why not pair that good fight against ghastly prices with a broader battle to preserve the country’s very integrity?

Credit...Paramount Pictures

Several of you have suggested that I’m showing too strong a preference in this feature for flamboyantly showy sentences that attempt the equivalent of quadruple axels when perfectly executed camel spins would do. Maybe so, but one person’s pretension is another’s perfection. In any case, I’ll try to adjust a tad, at least sometimes, but I need your help. You send me more axels than anything else.

So, to start, a camel spin. Writing in The Atlantic about such former allies of Donald Trump’s as Jeffrey Clark and John Eastman, Tom Nichols noted that they “were among the brigade of mediocrities who saw in Trump a kind of patron saint of the Third String.” (Thanks to Marty Diamond of Fircrest, Wash., and Pat Marriott of Wilmington, N.C., for the nomination.)

Another camel spin, courtesy of Joanne Kaufman in The Times: “A 50,000-square-foot, brick-and-stone manor built in a quadrangle around a timber-framed hall, Hopwood Hall had seen better centuries.” (Marvin Lange, Manhattan)

To stick with The Times, Sarah Lyall profiled Wasabi, the Pekingese who was awarded best in show by the Westminster Kennel Club last year. “Even when he was a baby himself, just a tiny scrap of sentient fluff, Wasabi seemed destined for great things,” she wrote, adding that Wasabi’s triumph reflected “how closely he adhered to the Pekingese standards, approaching peak Peke.” (Sarah Hurst, St. Louis)

Bret Stephens remembered how high Rudy Giuliani once flew. “His fall from grace has been like a bungee jump minus the bungee,” Bret wrote. (Roderick McDonald, Ann Arbor, Mich., and Susan Gregory, Bala Cynwyd, Penn., among others.) Bret also noted that Trump’s vice president discovered an ability to stand up to him rather late in the game: “Pence was a worm who, for a few hours on Jan. 6, turned into a glowworm.” (Zoë Molver, Durban, South Africa, and Adam Fix, Minneapolis, among many others)

And in a letter to the editor about a possible bipartisan gun safety deal, Michael Curry of Austin, Tex., wrote: “In the moral desert that is the Republican Senate on gun issues, we celebrate a teaspoon of water.” (Norman Ramsey, Malden, Mass., and Jalna Jaeger, Norwalk, Conn.)

To go back to The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan had the following aside, in her withering appraisal of Sheryl Sandberg, about Sandberg’s, um, interventionist approach to negative media coverage: “Look, I fully understand that as the result of this article, I’m going to wake up next to a horse’s head, and all I ask is that it not be one of the weeks when I’m using the paisley sheets.” (I lost the email from the reader who wisely nominated this — my sincere apologies!)

In The Washington Post, Dana Milbank responded to Texas Republicans’ expressed interest in possibly being rid of the rest of the nation, a desire Texans have acted on before: “If at first you don’t secede, try, try again. The Texas G.O.P. now wants the state to vote on declaring independence. And the United States should let Texas go! Better yet, let’s offer Texas a severance package that includes Oklahoma to sweeten secession — the Sooner the better.” (Vicki Shaw, Spring Grove, Penn., and Jayce Pankey, Pecos, N.M., among others)

Finally, does Barney Ronay’s take on present-day England in The Guardian verge on purple prose? It mentions purple, and I for one smiled and chuckled at its nod to Willy Wonka in calling the country as “an unhappy, graceless place, the Violet Beauregarde of post-imperial lands, stuffed purple with entitlement, wailing for its golden ticket.” (Steve Udicious, Rosemont, Penn.)

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.

Credit...Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

I think Shakespeare is magic. I think his sonnets are marvels and his plays are even better. I think “King Lear” contains as much wisdom, and as much pathos, as any piece of literature. It decimated me — in a good way — when I first read it. The class in which I was introduced to it and the professor who made that introduction were my favorites in college. So it’s possible that I gasped at what Geraldine Brooks revealed in a recent interview with The Times for that reason.

Brooks, a distinguished journalist and historical novelist, spoke of teaching at Harvard last year and getting a surprise: “Half my students had never read a Shakespeare play.” That deeply unsettled her, though she didn’t elaborate — or at least wasn’t quoted — about why.

But I’ll tell you why it unsettles me.

The reason isn’t what those students are missing in and of itself. While “Lear” has no peer and “Macbeth,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest” are none too shabby, there’s plenty of sublime drama and divine comedy out there. There’s great literature galore. That’s why I find people who cling too tightly to “the canon” a bit ridiculous. A person can live a literate and wonderful life without reading much or any of “A Tale of Two Cities,” “War and Peace” and “Paradise Lost,” and if the exit of those masterworks makes way for more recent jewels by a more diverse set of authors, that’s for the best. Not all great wisdom, all great verse and all great metaphors belong only to certain kinds of writers from the distant past.

But cling too loosely and we lose something. We forfeit a common frame of reference, which is a crucial tool for communication. We say goodbye to allusions that are quickly understood, to wordplay that is readily appreciated. “To be or not to be” — you can’t grasp the context or savor the majesty of those six syllables without some familiarity with “Hamlet.” You can’t understand the felicitous shorthand of referring to Steve Bannon as Trump’s Iago without exposure to “Othello,” any more than you can appreciate the reference to Bannon as the “American Rasputin” without a dab of awareness of Russian history.

It’s often said that there are no longer any water-cooler shows, like “All in the Family,” “Seinfeld” or “The Cosby Show” were in their days, no longer narratives and characters that a critical mass of us, gathered around a refreshment station at work, recognize, refer to and riff on. With so many more options than before, we curate individualized and idiosyncratic experiences. And a point of connection goes missing. A glue dissolves.

That applies not only to our watching but also to our reading. We’re on different pages. And while there’s freedom in that, as well as sound arguments for it, there’s also a trade-off. There’s a cost.