Opinion | America Is Being Tested in So Many Ways Right Now

Gail Collins: Bret, much serious stuff to talk about today, but I want to get my canine issues out of the way first. Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota is publishing a new memoir she presumably hoped would help her chances of being named as Donald Trump’s running mate.

Bret Stephens: An instant literary classic, albeit of the inadvertent variety.

Gail: In it she brags about having killed her dog, Cricket, for a string of bad behavior. Will it hurt her prospects? After all, Trump is not what you’d consider an animal lover.

Bret: When I first heard about this, I thought there had to be some exculpating detail that the mainstream media had missed. But it looks like Cricket’s crime was that he preferred the taste of chicken to pheasant. The larger outrage, as I gather from Seth Tupper of The South Dakota Searchlight, turns less on Noem shooting Cricket than it does on her subsequent killing of a goat in a pure fit of rage.

Gail: There has to be a goat-lovers lobby out there.

Bret: In the same memoir, Noem claims to have met Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, which never happened. Maybe she was confusing him with the governor of North Dakota, Doug Burgum? Anyway, I don’t think she’s going to be our next Republican vice-presidential nominee, because even Trump knows he needs to surround himself with more competent liars.

Gail: Well, this does give me another opportunity to say I’m sorry I devoted so many columns to making fun of Mitt Romney for driving his dog to Canada in a carrier on the roof of his car. I was mainly trying to find a little diversion in a deeply boring presidential campaign, but Noem has given Mitt the opportunity to say “I didn’t shoot my dog,” and he took it.

Bret: Gail, switching from the awfully ridiculous to the ridiculously awful: campus protests.

I know we’ve discussed this in recent weeks, but I wanted to get your take on the political implications. Hard to see how the unrest doesn’t hurt President Biden while lifting Trump, sort of in the way that the campus unrest of the 1960s devastated Hubert Humphrey’s campaign, gave us the chaotic Chicago Democratic convention and helped elect Richard Nixon.

Your take …

Gail: First let’s talk about the protests themselves. I live a couple of blocks from Columbia and on the night of the big confrontation, I listened for a long time to the wail of police sirens and the thump-thump-thump of police helicopters flying overhead. It didn’t represent any serious violence, but the atmosphere was very … 1960s.

I suspect even many of the adult voter-observers, like me, are sympathetic to the idea of students speaking out on important political issues. Don’t think the demonstrations have been fundamentally antisemitic, but of course worried it could go there, even if the bigoted protesters are a tiny minority.

And the university’s decision to bring in the police, including at least one guy who thought it’d be a good plan to draw his pistol and accidentally fire it, was something beyond bad.

What’s your take?

Bret: I’m all for free speech on campus, including speech I dislike or despise. I’m not for students flouting reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of their protests. Or for them seizing, defacing and trashing buildings. Or disrupting normal campus life and commencements, and forcing the cancellation of classes. Or blocking other students from walking through campus or clashing with counterprotesters. Or accepting dubious outsiders into their protests. Or ignoring deadlines by the university administrators that ultimately lead to the cops being forced to deal with the unrest.

Gail: I think I can see the trend of your thinking …

Bret: And I’m definitely not for them creating an atmosphere in which so many Jewish students — most of whom surely identify as Zionists at least insofar as they believe the Jewish state has the right to exist — report feeling threatened and harassed. If another minority group were made to feel this way by campus protesters, we’d be having a very different national conversation.

I think we tend to romanticize the protest movements of the 1960s while forgetting there was a lot of ugliness connected to them — including groups like the Weather Underground. I wonder if these protests will spawn something similar.

But getting back to the politics here …

Gail: OK, I will defer further argument, except for saying that the old protest movement created a generation of Americans who believed they were morally obliged to take a strong stand on political and social issues, including civil rights and women’s rights.

Bret: Very true. And I’d be more charitable toward the current protest movement if I ever saw them pause to condemn Hamas.

Gail: But moving on, I have to admit this whole scene is not gonna help Biden. Even though I appreciate his standing up for the right of free speech last week. The moderate or maybe-won’t-bother-to-vote electorate is not very likely to be rallied by it. On the other hand, I can’t see a lot of undecideds watching the protests and saying, “This has convinced me to vote for Donald Trump.”

Bret: I totally can.

Gail: Go on …

Bret: I’m worried. The president’s condemnation of the student protests was correct: “Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations — none of this is a peaceful protest.” But it felt a day late and a dollar short. He took a strong pro-Israel stand after Oct. 7 and should stick to his original convictions, like my new hero, Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania. Instead, Biden just seems muddled: more controlled by events than in control of them. Shades of Jimmy Carter, I fear.

Gail: So we disagree, while probably agreeing that there are many worse things in the current world of politics than Jimmy Carter.

Bret: Not where second terms for Democratic incumbents are concerned! But then there’s Trump, who’s more like Shades of Hades.

Have you been following his trial?

Gail: Yeah, and it’s certainly a show — the return of Stormy Daniels! Is Trump just showing off in court or trying to disguise the shaking in his boots?

Bret: From what I’ve seen, he’s mainly dozing off.

Gail: What I can’t imagine, though, is anything that’s going on there having any impact on politics. We all knew this guy was this guy. His supporters have been happy to ignore things that were far more horrific than political payoffs to stave off a sex scandal.

Bret: Totally agree. The trial so far just feels like a big rehash of everything we already knew about a cast of sordid characters whom we’d just as soon forget. The last time I thought about Michael Avenatti and Michael Cohen, for example, was when they went to prison. Meanwhile, the polls have Trump beating Biden in every swing state from Arizona to Wisconsin. Does it ever occur to my liberal friends that all these trials might be, um, helping Trump?

Gail: Well, you can’t not do them, right?

Bret: Not anymore. Doesn’t mean it was wise to do them in the first place.

Gail: I’m not as negative about Biden’s chances as you are — the country’s been doing very well, the president has been both a successful not-Trump and a good leader in his own right.

The one thing that does worry me is the age thing. Listening to Biden make a perfectly reasonable short address on the student protests, I couldn’t help focusing on how old he looks.

Bret: And sounds. And walks.

Gail: Maybe he just needs a big moment — the Biden giving the State of the Union address wasn’t an old guy, he was a major leaguer. Just hoping he has enough of those moments. I know he hasn’t always been crazy about presidential debates, but it might be an opportunity.

Bret: At this point, the only person who can save us from Trump is … Trump. He did himself a lot of harm when he debated Biden in 2020, just by sounding so rude and unhinged. Maybe he’ll do the same this year. He could also pick an awful running mate like Kari Lake, or keep loudly championing the Jan. 6 marauders. Or maybe he really will wind up in jail and alienate a critical mass of non-MAGA voters.

But I’m doubtful. So what do we do if he wins?

Gail: I’ve decided not to think about that. Let’s just focus on his sex scandals, the trials — remember, the Stormy Daniels saga is just the beginning — and the lord-knows-what stuff he’s going to pull before we get anywhere near this summer’s conventions.

Cheer up, Bret. The best and the worst are yet to come.

Bret: You’ve reminded me of an old shtetl joke. What’s the difference between a Jewish optimist and a Jewish pessimist? The pessimist says, “It can’t possibly get any worse than this.”

The optimist replies, “Oh, yes it can.”

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