Happy Happy Hanukkah to my Jewish friends! Happy Christmas to my Christian friends! And to everyone in between, I hope that your holiday season is filled with love and friendship and joy.
I have to agree with Tim that 2022 was, all things considered, a hopeful year. There was plenty of tragedy in the world. But the best-fit line trended upwards. Maybe this was a market correction after the crappy run we’ve had for the last half decade. Or maybe we’re emerging from a trial having passed one of history’s tests. Either way: I’ll take it. And I’m grateful for it.
I’m also grateful for The Bulwark. I love this institution we’re building together. I love the people I work with—I respect and admire every single one of them. And I love you guys. Every single day you amaze me with your thoughtfulness. Example: In yesterday’s newsletter we talked about assisted suicide and euthanasia, a very hard subject. In the comments, you guys talked it through with kindness, seriousness, and good faith. I learned from the conversation.
I do not think there is a surplus of internet communities in which that conversation can happen.
So thank you. Truly, from the bottom of my heart. Thanks for supporting us if you’re a member of Bulwark+. And if you’re not, thanks for reading us and thinking through life with us on a daily basis.
I’m going to try to take next week off. But if big news is happening, I’ll be back. Let’s hope the world sleeps for a few days.
1. Donald Trump Is Suddenly an Old Man
For the last two years I’ve said that if Donald Trump runs for president in 2024, he will be the Republican nominee. I’ve begun to walk back this view not because I think Republican voters want a “winner” or because DeSantis is particularly strong. In my view, the dynamics still favor Trump to an overwhelming degree.
The problem—what I did not expect—is that Trump suddenly seems very old. His energy and vigor are diminished. And you cannot win a presidential nomination unless you are able to fight for it.
I kept coming back to this truth while reading Olivia Nuzzi’s new profile of Trump:
It was in that optimistic spirit, 28 days ago, that the former president, impeached and voted out of office and impeached again, amid multiple state and federal investigations, under threat of indictment and arrest, on the verge of a congressional-committee verdict that would recommend four criminal charges to the Feds over his incitement of a mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol and threatened to hang his vice-president in a failed attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results, announced his third presidential campaign. Since then, he has barely set foot outside the perimeter of Mar-a-Lago. For 28 days, in fact, he has not left the state of Florida at all.
He is sensitive about this. He does not like what it suggests. So he does not accept the premise. “Sometimes I don’t even stay at Mar-a-Lago,” he told me. What do you mean you don’t stay there, I asked. Where do you stay? “I stay here,” he said, “but I am outside of Mar-a-Lago quite a bit. I’m always largely outside of Mar-a-Lago at meetings and various other things and events. I’m down in Miami. I go to Miami, I go to different places in Florida.”
What he means when he says “Miami” is that his SUV rolls down the driveway, past the pristine lawn set for croquet and through the Secret Service checkpoint at the gate, for the two-hour trip to another piece of Trump real estate, the Trump National in Doral, about eight miles from the airport in Miami-Dade County. There, he meets regularly with an impressive, ideologically diverse range of policy wonks, diplomats, and political theorists for conversations about the global economy and military conflicts and constitutional law and I’m kidding. He goes there to play golf. “He just goes, plays golf, comes back, and fucks off. He has retreated to the golf course and to Mar-a-Lago,” one adviser said. “His world has gotten much smaller. His world is so, so small.”
We frequently talk about aging this way. As you grow old, things are taken away from you. Your world gets smaller. Wisdom comes from learning to accept these losses and reconcile yourself to the essential parts of a well-lived life.
Perhaps I am wrong, but I do not expect Donald J. Trump to age with wisdom and perspective.
Then again, I didn’t really expect him to age perceptibly, period. And here we are.
More from Nuzzi:
The plan in 2016 was to prove the haters wrong by running, to poll well enough to be able to say he could have won, and to return to the fifth floor of his building where he filmed The Apprentice, his NBC reality show. But NBC killed his contract over his comments about Mexico sending rapists across the border. He no longer had a vehicle for the attention he required. He had to keep going. The fifth floor became campaign headquarters. Trump was always his most Trump when he was in a bind. “That’s the Trump you want: You want him defensive, you want him belligerent,” a member of the current campaign staff told me. But that’s not how Trump sounded now. He sounded old all of a sudden. Tired. There was a heaviness to him. A hollowness, too. He will turn 77 in June.
And here’s what that looks like in practice:
Trump’s campaign schedule, described to me as “busy,” involved 11 events over the course of the month. One event was the announcement itself. Five events took place at Mar-a-Lago. Four events were not events at all but taped videos that were aired at events where Trump was not physically present.
Trump was always the Energizer Bunny: He’d bounce from city to city, get onstage, speak for 90 minutes—all of it extemporaneous. These weren’t speeches so much as performance pieces done because he was receiving energy from the experience.
It doesn’t look like he’s getting any energy from campaigning this time. Instead, the effort looks like a drain.
None of this is meant as a criticism. Age comes for all of us, every day. The Joe Biden of 2020 clearly wasn’t the Joe Biden of 2012. The Joe Biden of 2022 looks noticeably older than two years ago.
Hell, I’m not the same guy I was two years ago.
And it’s Christmas. I don’t want to insult anyone.
But it’s also real. If Trump doesn’t have the fire, then he won’t be the nominee. One of the big questions of 2023 will be whether or not he can rally himself to fight for control of his party.
I’m coming to Los Angeles!
On January 19, Sarah, Tim, and I will be doing a live show in LA. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come out and hang with us. It’s going to be a lot of fun. And also, I’d like to meet you.
2. My Christmas Gift to You
Scott Hines has done it again, this year writing a profile of Silicon Valley’s next big thing: “Meet the 28-Year-Old CEO Who's Disrupting Christmas.”
Situated on the 56th floor of a gleaming skyscraper in San Francisco’s Embarcadero district, the floor-to-ceiling windows open to a breathtaking vista of the bay, the water glittering far below and the fog-draped hills of the East Bay far beyond.
With the kind of vision on display inside, however, there’s little temptation to play sight-seer here.
A shockwave rippled through the holiday industry earlier this year when control of Christmas was wrested from the hands of its longtime head, Kris Kringle, in a surprise hostile takeover. Business analysts were stunned by the acquisition, and more than a few passionate op-eds were penned decrying the move.
New CEO Brantwell Hask is undeterred by the criticism, though. He’s possessed by a vision to reshape the beloved holiday, and determined to see it through.
Listening to him describe this vision, it’s hard not to become a believer yourself.
“Everyone loves Christmas,” Hask states matter-of-factly, pausing from a round of pull-ups to sip from the steaming yerba mate pot an assistant has just placed on his desk—a four-inch-thick slab of Calacatta marble that seems to float weightlessly above the tatami-mat flooring. Hask is dressed smartly as always, wearing a tight black Issey Miyake tee and cream-colored linen pants that flutter and flow as he strides about the space, speaking animatedly.
“It has terrific brand awareness. Tremendous mindshare. That kind of emotional equity is hard to find in a brand. Even Facebook at its peak couldn’t touch the kind of metrics that Christmas hits year-in, year-out.”
He pauses to ponder one of the many antique swords that dangle from the ceiling.
“But let’s be real. Kris Kringle—despite all his strengths—often acted like he wasn’t running a business at all.”
As soon as the ink was dry on the deal in August, Hask was quick to make changes.
The first and most visible change, of course, was the controversial relocation of Christmas’s headquarters from its longtime home in the North Pole to here in the heart of Silicon Valley. . . .
The other most visible change is the rebranding.
Hask laughs when I bring it up.
“Right, right. Christmas. The word is familiar, but it’s weighted with all sorts of things we need to be getting away from. You hear ‘Christmas’, what images does that conjure for you? Chestnuts roasting over an open fire?” He scoffs. “I can get that on any street corner in New York City. That’s not engaging me as a user. Also—this has to be said—there’s some lingering, er, religious connotations with the word that limit our ability to penetrate new markets. I mean, Christmas,” he says, emphasizing the word.
“You’re taking out half your potential user base right there.”
In September, Hask announced the parent company’s new name—PolarX.
“PolarX embodies the values we’re living by moving forward. Lithe. Agile. Imperative. Web3. Architecting dynamic realities. Blockchain.”
An assistant floats wordlessly into the office, placing a small wooden crate on the desk before quickly backing out of the room, careful not to make eye contact. If there were any doubts about Hasks’s ability to engender loyalty in his staff, it’s not evident here. Hask glances at the crate. His daily lunch has quickly become the talk of Silicon Valley—a simple salad of raw thistles, reeds, sedge and cattails, topped with a glistening red filet of raw goose meat.
Read the whole damn thing. It’s genius from stem to stern.
3. Tennis Nerds
Jeff Sackmann has taken on a really interesting project: He has ranked the 128 best tennis players, all-in. His list commingles men and women of all eras and it’s largely driven by statistics—not just wins and losses, but the deep data that’s been lurking under the surface of tennis for the last 15 years.
His ranking is full of surprises and there’s lots to argue with. For instance, here’s one sequence from the ranking:
40. Stefan Edberg
39. Kim Clijsters
38. Andre Agassi
Wut? Edberg and Agassi separated by one spot? Clijsters sandwiched between them? He puts Lendl over Sampras and Chris Evert over Venus! He has Rafa at #8 and puts both Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova over Serena.
But as controversial as this might sound, he’s making big, data-based arguments for every entry in his list. Here, for instance, is Sackmann’s attempt to grapple with Federer’s reputation for wilting in the clutch:
My best attempt at an all-encompassing clutch stat is something I call Balanced Leverage Ratio, or BLR. It’s possible to quantify the leverage–the importance–of every point, from love-all in the first game to 6-all in the deciding set tiebreak. It’s possible to win a match despite losing more than half of the points, as long as you win enough of the higher-leverage ones.
To calculate BLR, we find the average leverage value of the points a player won, then do the same with the points he lost. BLR is the ratio between the two, adjusted slightly to balance serve and return performance. If a player performs equally well regardless of the impact of the moment, BLR is 1.0. If he excels when the pressure ramps ups–essentially the definition of clutch–BLR is greater than 1. If he crumbles when the points matter more, BLR is less than 1.
It’s possible to calculate BLR only when we have the point-by-point sequence of an entire match. We’re lacking that for much of Federer’s early career, and even when the data is “out there”–as it is for most professional matches of the last several years–it isn’t yet wrangled into a form for easy data analysis. Still, I have a collection of this data for tens of thousands of matches, including over 400 of Roger’s, mostly from the 2010s.
If you want more Big Data goodness, Sackmann talks about “Dominance Ratio” in his entry for one of my all-time favorites, Andy Roddick. It perfectly illustrates the fact that Roddick’s game kept improving in the mid-2000s even as he was getting blown off the court by Federer.
Sackmann’s list is basically the size of a short book. So if you’re a tennis nerd, you can dip in and out of it. It’s fantastic stuff.
Let’s all argue about this in the comments.
The key moment in the 2020 Democratic primary was the first debate when Joe Biden counter-attacked Kamala Harris aggressively, which demonstrated that he wasn’t expecting a coronation. He was eager to fight for the nomination.
Hand to God: Last night I injured myself by kneeling on a popcorn kernel.
I first discovered Hines last year when he wrote a profile of Rudolph.
Wait 'till you're a grandfather and hit a Lego piece kneeling down to keep the tree watered. At least popcorn kernels don't have sharp edges.
I'm sorry Donald Trump isn't still having fun - not.
JVL, I hope you and your family had a lovely Christmas. My household is sad about Hanukkah ending. I just wanted to let you know that the essay by Clare Coffey on “It’s a Wonderful Life” cut right to the heart, and brought tears to my eyes. Thanks so very much for publishing it. I expressed my thanks to her via Twitter.