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Opinion | Some Concrete Reasons Not to Be Totally Panicked

Gail Collins: Bret, I have a feeling we’re going to be spending a good amount of time talking about the adventures of Donald Trump.

Bret: By “adventures,” you mean “affairs.”

Gail: But just to start with something we’re in disagreement about, Joe Biden has, in my opinion, been doing a great job building his re-election campaign. He’s been strong on the environment, on creating jobs — long a gray spot in his record — and trying to support the rights of working men and women to get decent pay and benefits.

Go Joe!

And — take it away, Bret!

Bret: Well, to quote the commander in chief: “Four more years — pause.”

I take it you heard about this Ron Burgundy-style gaffe in his speech last Wednesday in Washington, where he seemed to read a little too fully from the teleprompter. It wouldn’t be a big deal except that it’s a reminder that the things that worried us about the president at the beginning of the year will continue to worry us. Like his mental acuity. Or an inflation rate that remains stubbornly high, even as the economy seems to be slowing. Or younger voters who seem to be moving toward Trump or losing interest in politics altogether. Or a border crisis that’s shifted from Texas to California and New York but hasn’t gone away. Or the fact that he keeps telling tall tales about his past. Or his repeated refusal to sit down for formal interviews with serious journalists — other, that is, than Howard Stern.

All of which is to ask you to give me some concrete reasons not to be totally panicked.

Gail: Let’s see. Americans have better access to affordable health care, with the number of uninsured at an all-time low this year. The number of jobs increased by nearly 15 million during his first three years in office. And while he most certainly has not solved the border issue, the overall crime rate is lower — there’s been a nearly 12 percent drop in homicide rates from 2022 to 2023.

Bret: Well, I hope it’s enough. It feels a little bit like the Polish cavalry going up against the German blitzkrieg. The cause is righteous, the fight is brave, but the means are … wanting.

Gail: Biden’s got a lot of good things to talk about. Although I will admit the talking aspect has not always been his long suit.

So — Trump time. He’s been having a reasonably good run in his multitudinous court cases. Looks like the Stormy Daniels saga in New York may be the only one decided before the election.

Bret: I’m going to go out on a limb and predict a hung jury. Of all the cases against him, this one is the weakest. Paying hush money, also known as a nondisclosure agreement, is not a crime. Falsifying business records is almost always a misdemeanor, not a felony. And, as my former colleagues at The Wall Street Journal have pointed out, wasn’t it Democrats who used to say, when they were defending Bill Clinton in his impeachment, that everyone lies about sex?

Gail: No matter what happens, it’s important for the country to see this picture of the president’s much-bragged-about business career. Which, in the real world, has always been a sloppy, leaning-on-rich-friends mess.

Bret: What really worries me about this case is that if Trump isn’t convicted, it is going to turbocharge his campaign. Trump will be able to say, with some credibility, that the Deep State really was out to get him.

Gail: OK, Bret, you’ve depressed me for the day. Let’s move on to — Congress! Can’t believe I’m saying this, but Congress has been doing pretty well. For the pathetic body it’s been lately, that is. Do you agree?

Bret: The government didn’t shut down, and Mike Johnson worked up the nerve, plus the votes, to get those crucial foreign aid bills for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan passed. Anything else I missed?

Gail: Did the basics, gave up on trying to impeach Biden, had some fairly bipartisan votes.

Bret: Dismissed the charges against Alejandro Mayorkas in the Senate after his sham of an impeachment in the House.

Gail: I’d say by current standards that’s pretty good. I am hoping it’s because the pols are starting to realize that being functional is the sort of thing a majority of their constituents like.

But hey, I forgive you for not wanting to dwell for a long time on Mike Johnson’s performance. Let’s go someplace I know you’re interested in. That happens to be just a few blocks from where I live — Columbia.

Bret: I recently debated a Columbia professor who was politically sympathetic to the protests and suggested that the antisemitic rhetoric getting attention in the news media was coming from outside agitators rather than Columbia students themselves. The next day, I learned that one of the student leaders had commented, “Zionists don’t deserve to live” and “Be grateful that I’m not just going out and murdering Zionists.”

My question for Columbia is how it became a university that accepts and educates the kind of student who will say something like that — and becomes a campus leader in the bargain. Too much Edward Said and not enough Jacques Barzun, I’d say.

Gail: I’ve had sympathy with the protesters as a symbol of students standing up for a committed point of view on a serious national and international issue. Nonviolent demonstrations like sit-ins are particular favorites of mine because they’re frankly so boring, and kudos to kids willing to devote days and even weeks of their lives to supporting protest movements by just not going anywhere.

But as the media moves in and starts publicizing individual students’ comments rather than a general political position, things can get nasty. The antisemitic tilt of some of the verbiage at Columbia is a good example of what can happen.

Bret: I wouldn’t really object to the protests if at their heart they were simply objecting to the policies of the Israeli government in Gaza. People can have strong and honest differences of views on that subject. My objection is that many of those protesters are objecting to the existence of an entire country and of anyone who is in some way a part of it — including the many Israeli students on campus. The protesters’ idealism has curdled into hatred, and their hatred is finding a target in many people who, like me, are Jews.

Gail: Your point is definitely important — and makes the protests worrisome. But the open debate those protests spark also helps the public appreciate the dangers of some of the dark commentary involving the Israel crisis.

But let’s talk spring — it’s so definitely sprung! Any favorite new books, TV shows, tulip bulbs?

Bret: Good change of subject!

I’ve been meaning to watch “Shogun,” because I loved the original James Clavell novel when I read it as a kid. I’ve also been reading “New Cold Wars,” by our colleague David Sanger, about the Biden administration’s efforts to contain and confront Russian and Chinese aggression. David’s probably my favorite Times reporter — except for the obit writers, of course — partly because he covers the stories that interest me most, partly because he covers them so well. The book reads like a brilliant thriller about a dystopian near-future that happens to be our recent past. It will also make you feel marginally better about the American government.

How about you?

Gail: You are definitely our book whisperer. And kudos to David Sanger, of course — just the author’s name on the cover is enough to assure you there’s something fine there.

Bret: David didn’t even pay us to say that. Swear to God.

Gail: My job is to go to the opposite end of the cultural continuum, TV, so I recommend “The Sympathizer,” a new HBO mini-series. It’s based on a novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen about a double agent for the Viet Cong who winds up in America.

It’s neat to have an engrossing piece of entertainment about the war in Vietnam, which nobody talks about anymore.

Bret: The Vietnam War is as about as distant from us now as the First World War was distant to the Vietnam generation.

Gail: Yeah, I must admit, if you’d asked me a World War I question in college, I’d have been totally lost. Knew some of the songs, of course.

Anything you’re expecting people will remember about our time? I’m presuming that unless there’s an even bigger national or international disaster we have to rise up to, there’s not gonna be much talk about the Biden Era. Trump, on the other hand, is someone you hope we’re going to be able to forget. But the chances aren’t great.

Bret: For me, it will be the erosion of democratic norms in the era of Trump. For my kids, it will probably be the pandemic: the way it interrupted their childhoods and left permanent psychic scars on many of their friends. But maybe my grandchildren will remember these years the way we now remember the 1930s or 1850s: as angry, polarized, depressing years that preceded our finest and most redemptive hours. This time, I pray, without the bloody ordeals that followed.

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