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Opinion | Trump Is the Leading Man

by Marko Florentino
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Gail Collins: So, Bret — are you gonna miss Mitch McConnell?

Bret Stephens: I guess it all depends on who succeeds him. If it’s a fairly traditional Republican, like John Cornyn of Texas or John Thune of South Dakota, I don’t think it will make much of a difference. But if it’s someone like Florida’s Rick Scott or worse, then we’ll probably remember McConnell’s tenure much more fondly, like Russians who thought better of Czar Nicholas II once they had a taste of the next guys.

How about you?

Gail: Until the Trump era I always had a deeply negative attitude toward McConnell — he was, after all, the guy who sat on Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nomination to make sure Merrick Garland never got to come up for a vote. But lately, McConnell has certainly seemed more civilized than a lot of the other Republican leaders.

Bret: A low bar. One irony is that if McConnell had had the courage of his convictions in Trump’s second impeachment and had moved his caucus to convict, Trump would probably have been barred from holding office again and McConnell might now be holding on to his.

Gail: OK, wow. Changing my tune.

Bret: A first — Bret is harder on Mitch than Gail is.

Gail: Still, it’s smart of a longtime leader who’s moved into his 80s to step aside and let the younger generation take the top spot — while of course continuing to work hard at less glamorous projects that still make a difference.

Think of it as the Nancy Pelosi school of thought — and really wishing Joe Biden would sign up for class.

Bret: On that subject, I need to fulminate. You no doubt saw The New York Times/Siena College poll this weekend. Donald Trump leads Biden nationally by a five-point margin, 48 percent to 43 percent, and 47 percent of voters “strongly disapprove” of Biden’s leadership. Another 73 percent think Biden is “too old to be an effective president,” as compared with 42 percent who feel that way about Trump. Other polls have had Trump consistently ahead in nearly all the swing states, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls: 6.5 percent in Georgia; 7.7 percent in Nevada; 1 percent in Wisconsin; 3.6 percent in Michigan; 5.5 percent in Arizona; 5.7 percent in North Carolina. The only exception is Pennsylvania, where Biden’s lead is a measly 0.8 percent.

This is entirely on Biden. He hubristically insisted on running for re-election on the theory that only he could beat Trump, despite his obvious physical limitations and deepening unpopularity. Every time someone suggested he should stick to his original promise to be a one-term president — as I did back in, oh, 2021 — his aides and media enablers attacked the messenger. Now he has us facing the prospect of a Trumpocalypse because Biden somehow thinks he can’t possibly lose to “the former guy.”

But he can lose, and on current course he will. He’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg all over again but worse, because the stakes are so much higher and he’s no R.B.G. in the first place.

Gail: Fulminate away. You know, when we started conversing in 2017 I presumed we’d spend most of our time arguing left versus right, but this past year we’ve both been wrapped up in the horror of Donald Trump and the stupidity of a Biden re-election campaign.

The Biden story is sad for me because I think he’s done a good job as president, and he’s in danger of trashing his legacy by running again when there are so many good potential Democratic candidates out there.

Bret: One of life’s ironies is that the personal qualities that often get people to where they are turn out to be their undoing once they get there. To make it to the presidency takes a titanic amount of self-assurance and ambition, but what Biden needs to secure his historical legacy is an ocean of self-effacement and humility.

And speaking of humility, can we turn to Trump? The Supreme Court just agreed to hear his appeal on his immunity claims. What does this mean for the campaign?

Gail: Gee, I guess that’s up to the justices. Can’t imagine this court — which I find too conservative but not crazy — is going to issue a ruling that says a president can break any law in the land as an “official act” without consequence. I mean, you do eventually get down to the vision of him dispatching a team of federal assassins ….

Bret: Putting aside the political stakes, it’s an intriguing case. The court ruled in 1982 in Nixon v. Fitzgerald that a president was totally immune from civil suits “predicated on his official acts.” Criminal cases, like the one that Jack Smith, the special counsel, has brought for Trump’s election interference, are obviously different: If a president, say, murdered his chef, he wouldn’t be immune because that behavior wouldn’t be an “official act.” But were Trump’s efforts to overturn the election an “official act”? Disgraceful, impeachable and unconstitutional for sure — but weren’t they also performed in his capacity as president?

That matters not only for Trump’s sake, but also for Biden’s and other future presidents. Because rest assured, if Trump wins the election, he’ll immediately bend the Justice Department to try to criminally prosecute Biden on some specious grounds for his own official acts.

Or am I totally wrong, and should we put this sucker on trial already?

Gail: Have to admit if Biden wins I’d be secretly OK with dropping prosecution of Trump for trying to overturn the election, given that there are so many other cases pending against him. But some of them, like the whole Georgia situation, have gotten so complicated. I’d be happy to see the country discussing the more easily relatable cases — like all those national documents stuffed in the bathroom at Mar-a-Lago and E. Jean Carroll’s recent $83.3 million award for defamation — which began, as I’m sure you remember, with what the court determined was sexual abuse in a department store dressing room.

Bret: I’ve always thought that Trump’s obstruction of a subpoena in the documents case is the strongest of the indictments against him. Unfortunately, a Florida courtroom is not an ideal jurisdiction for getting a guilty verdict, and it doesn’t look like the case will be tried anytime soon.

Gail: More than the idea of seeing Trump marched off to jail, I love the idea of a bankrupt Trump spending his 80s doing podcasts from a motel room in Tampa or Bridgeport. But when it comes to punishment, no bad deed is more important than trying to subvert the democratic process in such a big-time manner.

Bret: It’s horrible. But not quite as horrible as the idea that tens of millions of Americans are willing to vote him right back into office. Serious question: Why?

Gail: So much has happened … but I still suspect a lot of this is just about Trump’s history as a reality TV personality. There’s a large chunk of the country, particularly in rural areas, that feels cut off from the upwardly mobile side of the world. Trump is diverting, and no matter what his alleged wealth, he’s a guy who’s always been fun to watch who doesn’t talk down to them.

Bret: Very true.

Gail: I know that’s not deep. But hey, you’re in charge of understanding Republicans. What’s the bottom line?

Bret: He’s a raised middle finger at all the people whom his supporters see as a self-satisfied, self-dealing cultural elite. The more that elite despises him, the more they love him.

That’s why any good analysis of the Trump phenomenon has to begin with an analysis of the Us phenomenon, if you will: Where did those of us who were supposed to represent the sensible center of the country go so wrong that people were willing to turn to a charlatan like Trump in the first place? I have endless theories, but here’s another one: We tried to change the way people are instead of meeting them where they are. Neocons (like me) tried to bend distant cultures in places like Afghanistan to accept certain Western values. Didn’t work. Progressives tried to push Americans to accept new values on issues like identity, equity, pronouns and so on. That isn’t working, either.

Trump represents a complete rejection of all that. For every American he scandalizes, another one feels seen, heard, reflected and understood by him.

Gail: It’s true that the Trump folk find progressives irritating, but we’re going to have to discuss how you avoid making people feel like they’re being lectured to while simultaneously standing up for critical principles like gay rights.

In the meantime, we march forward. Sigh.

Bret: Gail, this is so depressing. Let’s switch gears. Did you get a chance to read Joseph Goldstein’s gorgeous story about the 93-year-old Ruth Gottesman in The Times last week? It will make your heart sing.

Gail: I did, and it did. Of course, most of us aren’t like Gottesman in being the heir to a mega-fortune that would allow us to donate a billion dollars to anything. But her decision to use it to eliminate tuition at a Bronx medical school was so smart and so sweeping. The videos of the thrilled students jumping up and down when they heard the news were wonderful.

Bret: In Hebrew, the word for charity, tzedakah, is also the word for righteousness. Tzedakah is not simply about giving money away. It’s also the obligation to help others learn to help themselves. Harder to think of a better illustration of it than to ease the way for the next generation of doctors.

Gail: Next week, let’s figure out how to do that for medical students everywhere ….

Bret: Sure thing. And it sure beats spending the money on $500 million yachts. Jeff Bezos, we’re looking at you.

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