Bret Stephens: Hi Gail. Have I ever mentioned the fact that I’m a big fan of the film “Gladiator?” It has so much that’s relevant to the Trump era: a mad emperor; his terrified female companion; a cowed Senate; bread and circuses and blood sport; and an eerie resemblance between the Proximo character (the great Oliver Reed) and Steve Bannon.
Lately, I’ve been reminded of another terrific line in the movie, this one uttered by the hero, Maximus, as he’s about to fight in the Colosseum: “Marcus Aurelius had a dream that was Rome, Proximo. This is not it. This is not it!” That pretty much sums up my feelings about unidentified federal agents in military camo seizing protesters in Portland and throwing them into unmarked vans.
Gail Collins: Bret, that’s a damned good conversation-starting analogy. Did you know Oliver Reed died after a heavy bout of drinking while he was making the movie? I suspect more and more Americans are feeling like they’re ready to go the same way.
Bret: Makes a certain amount of sense.
Gail: Seriously, the idea of a president sending federal forces into a city that told him not to intervene is scary. It’d be scary under any president, but this is the one who’s about to go into an election that he seems likely to lose. So many people are envisioning him going out on the balcony the next morning, summoning his troops and announcing the vote didn’t count.
Bret: I have invincible faith that our soldiers, officers, Secret Service, D.C. police and Melania Trump herself wouldn’t allow that to happen, even if some Department of Homeland Security goon squads support him. I also think Trump doesn’t have the guts. A guy who can’t fire people to their face is too much of a coward to attempt a coup.
Gail: Thanks for reminding me of that. A guy who became famous pretending to fire people on TV very clearly doesn’t have the guts to do the real thing. It’s all up to some junior assistant intern to deliver the bad news.
Bret: That said, the way in which the feds are handling the Portland protesters is one of the uglier spectacles in recent U.S. history. And I say this as someone who, obviously, isn’t politically sympathetic to the more extreme protesters, much less to the vandalism and violence some of them have perpetrated. That said, the civil rights of some obnoxious people mean a lot more to the Constitution of liberty than whether a federal building gets spray-painted.
Gail: The whole point of the Constitution is to protect the irritating, right? If everybody thinks you’re adorable you can get away with anything.
Bret: I think that’s also the rationale for my writing for The Times.
Bret: On the plus side, it’s fair to say that this stunt in Oregon is going to go down with middle-of-the-road voters about as well as Trump’s walk to the Washington church. In other words, it’s more of a sign of political weakness than impending fascism.
Gail: I give thanks every day that when the country got stuck with a bigoted, dictatorially inclined president, he turned out to be so inept on the job.
Bret: Right. It’s like he bought a copy of “Mussolini for Dummies” but never made it past the first chapter.
Gail: By the way, I believe you’ve acquired a new family dog, right? Does it give you any more insight into the fact that Trump also can’t stand pets?
Bret: Yes! An adorable 10 week-old goldendoodle named Lucky, which was also the name of my childhood dog in Mexico City. Our whole family is besotted. I didn’t know Trump hated pets, but I’m not surprised. He generally hates people, too, most recently a certain doctor named Anthony S. Fauci. Do you think the good doctor will be fired?
Gail: Well, I certainly hope not. But Trump is clearly unhappy with both his opinions and his national celebrity. So you’d expect Fauci to go, particularly when there’s another infectious disease expert, Dr. Deborah Birx, who actually seems to support the president’s it’s-all-working-out worldview. But Trump’s perfectly capable of just continuing to bounce around randomly.
And anyway, haven’t you heard? Controlling the national epidemic is all up to the governors.
Bret: The silver lining here is that the pandemic has been Trump’s nemesis, the way by which he’s been exposed as the con artist he’s always been. I upset some readers a few weeks ago when I said that I didn’t think the course of the pandemic would have been much different if Hillary Clinton had been in charge, and I stand by that: Too many of the worst early decisions — like the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, urging people to go about their daily lives or Gov. Andrew Cuomo sending infected patients back to nursing homes — would have been outside of any president’s hands.
Gail: There’s a big difference between people who might make bad early decisions and people who are utterly incapable of evaluating an outcome and then changing course.
Bret: True enough.
Gail: If Hillary was in charge I absolutely guarantee you that mask-wearing would be a national policy.
Bret: I’m not so certain. Sarah Palin would be leading the resistance. Their motto would be Breathe Free or Die.
But where Trump failed catastrophically was in projecting any sense of leadership. First China was doing a great job. Then it was “the Chinese virus.” First he was the great decider. Then it was all up to the governors. First the travel ban was going to solve the problem. Then it wasn’t. First the virus was going to just vanish one fine day. Then it didn’t. First we had turned the corner. Then we hadn’t.
Gail: If you asked the president why we haven’t turned the corner, he’d probably say the Chinese moved the street signs.
Bret: The result is that Americans, even some people who six months ago might have been tempted to vote for Trump on account of a good economy or doubts about Joe Biden’s capacity, see the president for who he is: not just erratic and malicious, but incompetent, too.
By the way, speaking of Biden’s capacity, does this at all, um, worry you?
Gail: Do I hear a murmur of ageism here? Biden is, as the world knows, 77. If my theory of aging is right, he’s become wiser about the things he cares most about, while losing traction on the rest.
Bret: My mother just whipped me over a chessboard, so I have full respect for the wits of the elderly. But I’m not quite as confident about your aging-like-fine-wine view of Biden’s mental agility.
Gail: What you want in a president at this point in our history is an experienced, relatively calm and well-balanced politician who can bring the country together, focus on the big problems and hire smart people to run the administration. That’s Biden at his best. If you’re looking for a charismatic leader with exciting new ideas who’ll take America to a whole new level, I’m sorry to say he isn’t the guy.
Bret: There you go again, Gail, making me agree with you. I’d add that a president who doesn’t denigrate his opponents, embarrass his supporters, degrade our institutions, trash our political culture, insult our intelligence, and humiliate America in the eyes of its people and the world would be an immense step up. Even if he raises my taxes and takes a lot of naps.
My only regret in this election is that I already live in a state where Biden’s sure to win anyway. I can’t say I ever planned to live in Florida before I turn 80 but suddenly it’s looking tempting.
Gail: Well Bret, it’s been a pleasure conversing as always. Starting next week we’ll be doing it on Mondays. And looking forward to your column in its new Tuesday slot.
Bret: Thanks, Gail. I hope our readers won’t mind.
Gail: Maybe next time we can go back to the dog topic. Did you know Biden has a rescue German shepherd named Major? He posted a picture once on Twitter saying: “It’s time we put a pet back in the White House.” In 2021 when we’re fighting about the new administration’s health care legislation I can always remind you that a man who loves animals can’t be all bad.
Bret: I’m cool with any kind of slobbering, barking creature in the White House so long as it isn’t also the president.