Boring but Very Nasty

Writing a column to prove the president’s tweet correct turns out to be more difficult than expected.

Donald Trump
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

About the author: Benjamin Wittes is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, the editor in chief of Lawfare, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

On Tuesday evening, President Trump tweeted this:

Writing a column to prove the president’s tweet correct—boring but very nasty—turns out to be tricky, so tricky that I failed at it utterly. The first difficulty is syntactical. The president didn’t say boring and very nasty. He said boring but very nasty. That means it is insufficient for the column to be merely both boring and very nasty. It has to be boring, and despite being boring, nevertheless very nasty. I’m not sure I know how to write a column like that. I’m not sure I even know what that means.

What is boring and, notwithstanding the boredom it induces, also very nasty? The moray eel comes to mind. It lives in crevices and basically stays put. It lives a very boring life. Yet it will bite nastily when bothered. It can be poisonous to eat. It’s a counterpuncher, as Trump would say.

How do you write a moray eel of a column?

This brings me to the second difficulty: It’s not that easy to be boring on purpose. I’ve bored a lot of people over the years, I’m sure. I can’t recall the last time I set out to bore people. And I’m almost certain that the nature of the effort undermines the possibility of its own success. That is, the effort to bore people is a pretty interesting one.

The truth is that most people who are boring have no idea they are boring. They think that they are being wise or clever or that they are making very important points. Take Trump, for example. He seems to think that his gazillionth tweet decrying media that report on him as “Fake News” and whining about how reporting on him is “nasty” is positively scintillating. He seems to think that what the public is yearning for right now from its president is yet another self-serving attack on his critics, a few more conspiracy theories, and a whole lot of superlatives in all caps.

I just don’t think I can outdo that for boring. I don’t even read the president’s tweets with horror anymore. I read them only when forced to by circumstances, and then with a kind of resigned Oh, yes, he did that again sort of air. After which I turn back to whatever it was I’d been thinking about. I may be able to bore you a little, dear reader, but I can’t write a column that can hold a candle to this guy.

Which brings me, finally, to “very nasty.” I’m not the nicest guy in the world. I won’t pretend to be above the occasional gratuitous swipe or even petty insult. I was positively gleeful when I got so far under Mike Pompeo’s skin that he wrote to me on CIA letterhead scolding me (and giving me his mother’s fudge recipe). But in a hundred years, it would never dawn on me to do anything as nasty as—amid an economic catastrophe caused by a pandemic I had grossly mismanaged—gloating over laid-off employees. That’s next-level nastiness, nastiness not just to The Atlantic as an institution, but to real people who have lost their jobs. I can’t compete with that.

And weirdly, it’s not even close to the nastiest recent presidential tweet. It didn’t, after all, insinuate that Jeffrey Goldberg had murdered anyone at the magazine. It didn’t lie about the integrity of elections, or pandemic disease, or political spying. It was, at once, next-level nastiness and totally boring.

So, yeah, I tried to write an entire column both as boring and as nasty as the president’s tweet. And I failed. I just couldn’t do in a few hundred words what the president can pull off in a single tweet.

Color me defeated—a LOSER.