Opinion | There’s No Escaping Trump

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. We skipped our conversation last week because I was in Ukraine. But even from there, it was hard to miss the news about Donald Trump’s most recent pending indictment. Your thoughts?

Gail Collins: Bret, I’m in awe of your Ukraine expedition but slightly depressed to realize that Americans can’t escape Trump, even when they’re at a hospital in Irpin.

Bret: Trump returning to the White House and pulling the plug on American support for Kyiv is the second-biggest threat to Ukraine, after Vladimir Putin. And did you hear Trump call the Chinese dictator Xi Jinping both “smart” and “brilliant”?

But back to the latest potential indictment ….

Gail: Criminal-justice-wise, I think it’s very important to assure the country that nobody, including a president, can just get away with urging an angry crowd to attack the Capitol.

Bret: Especially a president.

Gail: But politically, I have a terrible suspicion that indictment will help him in the Republican primaries. So sad the law-and-order party has apparently lost interest in the law — or, for that matter, order — when it doesn’t suit their purpose.

Bret: If there were truth in advertising, Republicans would have to rename themselves the Opposite Party. They were the party of law and order. Now they want to abolish the F.B.I. They were the party that revered the symbols of the nation. Now they think the Jan. 6 riots were like a “normal tourist visit.” They were the party of moral character and virtue. Now they couldn’t care less that their standard-bearer consorted with a porn star. They were the party of staring down the Evil Empire. Now they’re Putin’s last best hope. They were the party of free trade. Now they’re protectionists. They were the party that cheered the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which argued that corporations had free speech. Now they are being sued by Disney because the company dared express an opinion they dislike. They were the party that once believed that “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande,” as George W. Bush put it. Now some of them want to invade Mexico.

Gail: Woof.

Bret: So that makes me want to ask you about your column last week. What’s not to like about No Labels?

Gail: Bret, gonna skip my normal diatribe on the evils of Joe Lieberman, the spokesman and symbolic head of No Labels, which is running around the country trying to get a presidential line on ballots in a bunch of states.

Bret: Lieberman may be our one irreconcilable difference. I love the guy.

Gail: My bottom line is that third parties — even those led by people far better than Mr. L. — are a danger to the American democratic system. You start a party that makes a big deal out of … helping hummingbirds. Tell voters who don’t love either of the two regular candidates that they can Vote Hummer and feel good. You won’t win the election, but you can throw everything into chaos. In some states, that little shift could be enough to bestow victory somewhere you’d never have wanted it to go. Say the Crow Coalition.

Bret: I’d be opposed to No Labels if I were convinced that all it will do is take votes from Joe Biden and throw the election to Trump. But that depends on who takes the No Labels slot: If it’s a former Democrat, it probably hurts Biden. If it’s a former Republican, it could hurt Trump even more.

Gail: Maybe. I’d rather just make people pick between the two real possibilities — each of them representing a broad coalition and certainly offering a stark choice. I don’t like plotting to win by cluttering up the ballot.

Bret: But the main thing, Gail, is that I need a party I can vote for. And I think the feeling is shared by a growing fraction of voters who might be center left or center right but are increasingly appalled by progressive Democrats and reactionary Republicans. So any party that represents our views is good for democracy, not a threat to it.

Gail: No, no, Bret. Even if you vote for a third party that perfectly represents your views — or at least your view on a favorite issue — if it isn’t going to win, you’re throwing away your vote. A vote for the Green Party, for instance, is a vote that Biden would probably have gotten otherwise. Which means the Green Party is helping Trump.

Bret: I agree — mostly. I used to vote exclusively for Republicans, even though I disagreed on a lot of social issues. Now I vote mostly for Democrats, even though I disagree on a lot of economic issues. But I’ve never before felt such a level of disaffection with both parties, which makes No Labels … intriguing. We’ll see if it goes anywhere.

Gail: OK, I’ve ranted enough. Let’s talk about something important that no one ever wants to talk about: Congress. The big defense budget is being bogged down by some House Republicans who want to include right-wing social issues that everyone knows the Senate will never accept. Even the normal military promotions are stalled by one Republican senator, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, who wants to eliminate travel aid to enlisted women seeking abortions.

These are all supposed to be your guys. Explain what we can do about all this.

Bret: Well, this is just another way in which I’m totally appalled by so many of today’s Republicans. They had no trouble effectively freezing and even reducing military spending for the sake of their debt-ceiling antics, despite claiming to be seriously concerned by the military threat from China (or Iran or Russia). And now they’re committing the exact sin they routinely accuse liberals of doing: injecting a partisan social agenda into questions of national security.

But Gail, Congress is too depressing. Let’s talk about the actors’ and writers’ strikes. Should we join them, at least morally speaking?

Gail: I see two big things about the strikes. One is complicated and important: How do you compensate the creative talent when movies and TV are available around the clock via streaming?

The other is more emotional and understandable: The creative talent is scrambling to get adequate pay while the top guys — the producers and company executives — are making a mountain of money from the current system.

In a word, I’m on the writer-actor side. How about you?

Bret: Don’t tell anyone this, but I am, too. I think the strike is about more than the particulars of how the so-called creative class gets paid. It’s really about whether there can be a creative class at all.

My working assumption is that within 20 years, if not much sooner, A.I. will be able to write, direct and act (via computer-generated images that are indistinguishable from real people) movies and TV shows. It will write credible novels and news stories and opinion columns and compose film scores and pop music. That may not really affect me, if only because I’ll be close to retirement. But it will mean a growing number of creative endeavors will no longer easily find meaningful vocational outlets. It will amount to a kind of material degradation of human civilization that may prove irreversible.

Gail: Grab a picket sign!

Bret: Never thought I’d be a fan of any form of organized labor, but there it is. And it’s also a good occasion to praise President Biden for trying to create some shared ethical guidelines for the development of A.I.

Gail: I’m the last one to make an informed prediction on anything relating to science and technology, but you’re right: It’s good to know we’ve got some principled leaders trying to figure things out.

Bret: Even though the depressing reality is that humanity doesn’t have a particularly good track record of controlling new technologies, particularly when they can make some people richer or other people more powerful. The historian in me says the same might have been said with every past transformative technology, from the wheel to the printing press to nuclear energy. Maybe artificial intelligence will follow the same path. But A.I. is also the first technology I can think of that doesn’t supplement human creativity but rather competes with it.

Gail: And gee, Bret, we’ve agreed about almost everything this week — including organized labor! Next week I swear we’ll talk about something that stirs up a fight.

Bret: I’m sure I’ll have strong views about the “Oppenheimer” film once I’ve seen it. Have I ever mentioned that I think Harry Truman was completely right to drop the bombs?

Gail: We can compare thoughts then. Hope you get a chance to see “Oppenheimer” soon — although I should warn you it did feel as if three hours was a long time to contemplate atomic warfare. In an old theater with squeaky seats.

I’m most certainly not an expert on World War II, but I hate the idea of killing something like 200,000 people to make a point about our nation’s breakthrough in technological firepower.

Bret: History is filled with counterfactuals. I wonder how many American fighting men, including my grandfather — and, for that matter, how many Japanese soldiers and civilians — would have been killed if we had invaded the Japanese home islands the way we had to take Iwo Jima or Okinawa. I think the aggregate number would have been far higher.

Gail: I can see that our ongoing conversation about this is going to be hard and deep, Bret. I’ll bring wine. And maybe we should also make it a point to see “Barbie” before we chat again. We can talk about global destruction and mass market capitalism at the same time.

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