Opinion | The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Meet Donald Trump

Bret Stephens: Gail, I feel like we’re living in a sci-fi movie, on a dying planet, getting bombarded by at least one giant asteroid a day. Let’s take them one at a time: The Times’s latest scoop on President Trump’s tax returns. On one hand, I’m appalled. On the other, not shocked in the slightest. I mean, it’s not exactly news that Trump’s businesses have usually lost money hand over fist. Your thoughts?

Gail: Well for sure unshocked. But fascinated. It’s great to have this info just as we’re moving into the election. Trump likes to brag that he’s a big-time business genius. But according to the newsroom reporting, he paid $750 in taxes in 2016 and 2017, which I’ll bet is way less than the guy who cuts his lawns.

Bret: He’ll brag that it’s all part of his business genius.

Gail: And for sure I want to be talk a lot about the $70,000 deduction for hair styling.

Bret: Comb-overs can be an art, Gail!

Another asteroid: Trump’s declaration last week that there will be no peaceful transition of power. I have to say — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — that it’s getting me to rethink my call to repeal the Second Amendment.

Gail Collins: Bret, don’t go there with the gun thing. The N.R.A. loves nothing more than to argue they need guns to protect themselves from a possible uprising against what Ted Cruz called “government tyranny.” We’ve got enough trouble already.

Bret: Except, in this case, the evil anti-American force is the Republican president. Sorry, go on.

Gail: Looks to me like there are lots of people in powerful positions privately discussing how to get the government back if Trump tries to pull a takeover. Even Mitch McConnell seems horrified. Although if it happened, I’ll bet the ever-practical majority leader would … adjust.

Bret: I can already see the editorial line coming from the right-wing press. It would read roughly as follows: “When the American people elected Donald Trump in 2016, they knew they were voting for a breaker of norms. While we believe it is unfortunate that President Trump has chosen to violate the oldest and most sacred norm in American politics by declaring himself the winner of an election he appears to have lost, it is certainly of a piece with his unique and compelling style. Also, let’s not forget that the taboo against extending presidential terms beyond their traditional bounds was originally violated by a Democratic incumbent — leftist icon Franklin D. Roosevelt….”

Gail: Love it that there are still people chafing about F.D.R. …

Bret: Hey, I have a Wendell Willkie bumper sticker I mean to stick to my rear fender.

As for McConnell, I’m sure he could find a way to get on board this train of self-serving logic, just as he’s found a way to move forward with Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court in a presidential election year, after blocking Merrick Garland’s nomination in 2016. Which is another reason we need Joe Biden to win in a landslide. Speaking of which, any hope for one?

Gail: I’ve been telling folks in New York that even though their ballot isn’t really needed to get Biden the state’s electoral votes, it’s important that we have a huge, ginormous national popular vote margin to help make the point that the Democrat really got elected.

Bret: Fine, but victories in three swing states would be better.

Gail: The problem, of course, is our weird system. Biden could get caught up in an electoral vote crisis over a few votes in Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin.

And then Donald Trump … what do you think it would take to convince Trump he lost and there was no way out?

Bret: It’s either the 82nd Airborne or someone promises him another reality TV show. In the next one, he can pretend to be a competent president just like he pretended to be a competent businessman in the last one.

But this brings me to our third asteroid: the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett. From a political standpoint, I think she was a very canny pick. As a judge and former law professor who is well-versed in Constitutional jurisprudence, she knows the law and won’t present Harriet Miers or Harrold Carswell issues, and she won’t present any Brett Kavanaugh or Clarence Thomas issues either. As a rock-solid conservative who clerked for Antonin Scalia, she won’t present any Earl Warren or David Souter issues. And as a devoted Catholic, she might tempt liberals to attack her, foolishly, for her private religious convictions, which is what Dianne Feinstein did in 2017 when she told Barrett in her confirmation hearing for the Appellate seat that “the dogma lives loudly within you.”

My advice to Senate Democrats is to treat her respectfully, question her very closely about the constitutionality of Obamacare, and remember that the Kavanaugh hearings only helped Republicans expand their Senate majority in 2018. What do you think?

Gail: My rational self totally agrees. Barrett is certainly a way, way more sympathetic character than Kavanaugh was. At this point it’s hard to imagine her being blocked.

However, my extremely ticked-off and cranky side just wants to drive home to the public that with this new, 6-3 conservative majority they can wave goodbye not only to abortion rights, but also a ton of other things including protection against gender discrimination and any aggressive federal attempt to beat back climate change.

To be honest, I’m pretty much resigned to the fact that the Senate will vote to confirm Barrett soon. All hope requires believing Mitt Romney will announce he’s voting against her as a matter of principle because we’re so very, very close to a presidential election. What would you say the odds are on that?

Bret: Well, zero, despite my best efforts to convince him otherwise. And with only Susan Collins and maybe Lisa Murkowski opposing the nomination, the G.O.P. appears to have 51 votes to confirm. Even if Mark Kelly wins his special election in Arizona against Martha McSally and is seated in November, Barrett would still win on a 50-50 vote with Mike Pence as the tiebreaker.

All of which is to say, barring something very unexpected, Barrett is going to be confirmed and provide a sixth conservative vote — even if, over time, she winds up shifting John Roberts and Neil Gorsuch a bit further to the left. (They both seem to be moving that way already.) That just means Biden has to win so he might have a chance to appoint Clarence Thomas’s eventual successor and bring the Court back to a 5-4 balance.

Speaking of winning, we have our first presidential debate coming up soon. What’s your advice to Joe?

Gail: Well I do like your theory that Trump has spent so much time painting his opponent as a senile idiot, the bar for beating expectations is pretty low.

Bret: Right. All Biden has to say is, I’m Joe, two plus two is four and 10 times 10 is one hundred, I love my wife, I’m not going to declare war on anyone’s suburb, my economic plan is to cut taxes on the middle class, build a faster Acela and declare the Trump hotel in Washington a toxic-waste dump, I won’t blow up the world and I’m definitely not Donald Trump. Argument over.

Gail: Can I say I’m simultaneously hoping he projects a cheerful, warm personality while beating his opponent to a pulp on issues like health care and the environment?

Bret: It’s very important for Biden to play the Happy Warrior. A few jokes would be great (assuming he doesn’t fumble the punch lines). Above all, he shouldn’t scare away wavering voters, either with a memory lapse or by advocating a far-left position, like free health care for illegal immigrants. He won the Democratic nomination as a moderate and that’s the brand he needs to win the White House.

Gail: What about you? On matters of pure policy — like health care or unions — you may actually agree with Trump more often than Biden, right?

Bret: Well, it isn’t so much that I agree more with Trump — I’m a much more libertarian conservative than this administration when it comes to trade, abortion, legal immigration and international alliances, to mention a few issues. But my disagreements with Biden, as broad as they are, seem fairly trivial given what’s at stake in the election. I’d rather have a president who might sometimes get a bit confused than one who deliberately sows confusion. I’d rather lose more of my paycheck in taxes under Biden than lose more of my democracy in demagogic deceit under Trump. And I’d rather have a president who willingly pays lots of taxes on a relatively low income than one who pays almost no taxes on a high one.

Gail: Ah. That’s why you’re such a great sparring partner. Always with underlying principles.

Bret: Principles is a little too generous, Gail. I just like democracy.

Gail: Good slogan!

Bret: What about you? Do you have any serious policy differences with Biden?

Gail: Back in the day I wanted to see a way more ambitious health care plan, but truly, I’m past the point of caring. I’ll take Biden’s Medicare expansion over Trump’s repeal of protection for people with pre-existing conditions. But I admit that I am looking forward to complaining constantly if Biden is elected.

And you know, Bret, we got into the conversation idea with the expectation it’d be liberal v. conservative. But Trump’s candidacy sort of made us the Gang of Two.

Bret: I just hope we can be part of the Gang of 271 (or more) come November.

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