Trump Doesn’t Like What He Sees in the Crystal Ball

Besides delaying the election, what else could alter his political trajectory?

Bret Stephens: Gail, some of our readers may not know that, in addition to all of your journalism at The Times, you’re also the author of several distinguished works of history. Put on your historian’s hat and tell us what you think of Donald Trump’s tweet suggesting we delay the election.

Gail Collins: Bret, I probably know more about the presidency of William Henry Harrison. But I’m pretty sure our readers aren’t having trouble figuring out how to react to a president, trailing in the polls, suddenly suggesting we put off voting.

Bret: I was impressed and pleasantly surprised by the Op-Ed we ran from Steven Calabresi, a law professor and one of the founders of the conservative Federalist Society, who called Trump’s tweet “fascistic” and “itself grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment again by the House of Representatives and his removal from office by the Senate.”

Gail: You told me once you thought Trump was too cowardly to actually try to pull off a coup. I can’t tell you how much comfort I’ve been taking from that thought.

So — just checking — is that still your opinion?

Bret: Still is. What I think this tweet tells us is that Trump knows in his heart that he is likely to lose in November. He’s laying the groundwork not for a coup but for an excuse, both for himself and for his followers. It creates a mythology to explain defeat, attack Joe Biden and keep the Trump family relevant in the Republican Party. The fact that he’d pull a stunt like this is another reason it’s so important that he lose in a landslide in November.

Gail: Get your act together, Georgia. And I’m looking at you, Arizona.

Bret: In the meantime, Gail — and on a less depressing note — I was deeply moved by the funeral service and eulogies for John Lewis. I’m sorry I never had a chance to meet him. Did you know him?

Gail: No, but my impression was like that of a lot of people I’ve met from the civil rights movement. They were ferocious about the fight but very humane about the people they were fighting against. Which is hard to do when you’re talking about folks swinging bats or refusing to let your children order ice cream at the segregated soda fountain.

Noticed there was only one president missing from the funeral …

Bret: … as he was missing from the funeral of John McCain. Grace is to Trump what garlic is to vampires.

Gail: Wow, I’d like to see that on his tombstone someday.

Bret: Speaking of grace, it’s worth watching George W. Bush’s eulogy for Lewis, which got the standing ovation it deserved. Not just because of its eloquence, but because it was such a vivid demonstration that policy differences should be no bar to admiring the character of our political opponents. One of the many reasons Lewis deserved those magnificent tributes is because he operated from convictions of radical love. He saw humanity even in those who refused to see humanity in him.

Gail: Totally agree. And seeing all the ex-presidents there, as at the McCain funeral, reminded you of a time when our national leaders, for all their faults, knew how to behave like civilized people.

Bret: All things we could stand to learn again, and maybe will in a Biden administration. Speaking of which, any thoughts about Karen Bass as a veep nominee? Lots of buzz around her.

Gail: Nothing buzzier. Her stock keeps rising because her House colleagues think so highly of her. She knows how to get things done and her colleagues like working with her. The Democratic ticket would certainly win the Likability Ribbon.

Bret: My main criterion for a running mate, other than being qualified to be president, is to bring political strength to a ticket, and possibly flip a state. If I have any objection to Bass, it’s that, as a Californian, she doesn’t do this for a Biden ticket. And she might hurt him in Florida, on account of her participation, back in the 1970s, in the pro-Castro “Venceremos Brigade.” So many key elections in the Sunshine State seem to split 50-50, with one side winning by a hair, so there’s not a lot of room for error.

Gail: Good point, but I am sorta getting tired of the Just-Make-Florida-Happy theory of politics.

Bret: I know the polls look good for Biden now, but he can’t be complacent. He has to run his campaign as if the whole thing is going to turn on just a few thousand votes in a few key states — and none more key than Florida. Trump is going to attack Biden and whoever emerges as his running mate in the nastiest way possible, while we are in the midst of the worst economic crisis in living history. If ever there was a political race that matters, it’s this one.

Gail: Well, a huge number of Americans agree with you, not to mention most of the rest of the world. Maybe we all get together some night — on Zoom, of course. We could close our eyes and envision the Donald Trump Concession Sulk. Then we will clear our minds and go back to worrying obsessively.

Bret: The moment we read the tweet, “Just ‘congratulated’ ‘president-elect’ Joe Biden (total loser). You’ll miss me VERY SOON!!!” is the moment our long national nightmare will finally be over.

A Trumpless Future Is Hard to Get Your Head Around

Can Biden — and his vice-presidential pick — take us there?

Gail Collins: Bret, welcome to our new conversing day. Let’s celebrate by disagreeing. This week Congress is trying to work out a second-stage coronavirus relief program. But the president has been stalling in an attempt to get them to cut payroll taxes.

If I remember correctly, you’re a big champion of cutting the tax, which is used to help fund Social Security. Does that put you on the Trump side?

Bret Stephens: Gail, my feelings about tax cuts are basically the same as my feelings about ice cream. It’s not that I dislike any particular flavor, but I like some more than others.

In the case of a temporary payroll tax cut, the good thing about it is that it’s money in people’s pockets when they may need it the most. Just think of all the parents who’ll need child care because their kids can’t go to school in the fall. The bad thing about it is that because it’s temporary it doesn’t give people or businesses a motive to hire and invest. Most of the Republican caucus in Congress doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic.

Gail: We don’t need to be losing sleep over it. No rational politician is going to mess with Social Security. Even the Senate Republicans aren’t keen about Trump’s idea.

Bret: The best thing Trump could do to improve the economy is eliminate all the tariffs he’s imposed, which are a direct tax on the consumer and a huge burden on any importer. But of course he won’t.

Gail: Can I confess that I’m not really into tariffs? But a hike clearly isn’t in the interest of the average consumer.

Bret: Think of tariffs as what happens nine months after an ardent xenophobe and a failing businessman get hitched.

Gail: Let me ask you about something I’ve been obsessing about recently: the polls. I see all the polls showing that the public is never, ever, going to re-elect Trump. But then I remember how the polls seemed to show the same thing last time around. Hillary was a shoo-in! Until election night. Are you as insecure about this as I am?

Bret: The same fear spins around in my head like a scene in a horror movie — the one in which the evil ax murderer has a knife in his back and seems to be dead, but you know he’s coming back for one last terrifying chop.

Gail: I hate when that happens.

Bret: I can think of all kinds of things that could derail a Biden bid.

  • He stumbles really badly in an interview.
  • Police officers get massacred at a protest, as they were in Dallas in 2016.
  • His veep pick is too far to the left.
  • China shoots down an American surveillance plane.
  • Fed-up parents start a movement to send their kids back to school, and Biden opposes them to take sides with the teachers’ unions.
  • Covid-19 fatality rates reach a plateau and then fall,
  • unemployment comes down,
  • crime shoots up.

In other words, a lot can happen. On the flip side of this is the likelihood, or at least the prayer, that most Americans have really soured on Trump, and they’re just waiting for Biden and his V.P. pick to give them a sense of reassurance that they’ll be the right mix of harmless and hopeful.

Gail: Well, things look so good for Biden now there are only two possible worries. Yours is the classic Joe Screws Up, and I am not going to try to convince you that’s impossible.

Mine is a suspicion of polls. I’ve always suspected that when people get called by a poll taker, they want to say something they think will make them look good. There was a period in which some Black candidates did better in the polls than they did in the actual votes on Election Day, and one thought was that respondents just wanted to seem tolerant.

Bret: I think you’re referring to the Bradley effect, after the African-American L.A. mayor Tom Bradley, who lost a governor’s race in California to a white opponent even though pre-election polls had him ahead.

Gail: I’ve wondered if the polls showing Hillary way ahead four years ago were the product of people not wanting a stranger on the telephone to know they were a Trump kind of voter. And now we’re back again, except supporting Trump is even more embarrassing. Could we be seeing the same thing?

Bret: It’s a good question. My guess is, probably not. I think the main reason the polls failed to predict the outcome in 2016 wasn’t so much that people lied to pollsters. It’s that swing voters who hated both candidates decided late in the day that they hated Hillary more. The release of James Comey’s letter saying he had reopened the investigation into Clinton’s emails was a big deciding factor. And Trump was, unquestionably, the “change” candidate, whereas Hillary ran as the candidate of the status quo.

Gail: And I must admit a friend who knows a lot about such things told me the embarrassed-by-Trump voters I was describing wouldn’t say they were voting for Biden. They’d just claim “undecided.”

Bret: My main doubt about the current polling is that Trump is basically running against a candidate named “Not Trump.” Remember how “Doonesbury” used to depict George H.W. Bush as an invisible figure? That’s Biden today. But eventually he’s going to have to become more visible, and that’s when the polls will really start to count.

Can I switch the subject? I know we’ve often discussed this before, but this is probably our last conversation before Biden names his running mate. How about we place a small bet — a glass of wine — on whom he chooses?

Gail: Hey, I’ll bet you a bottle of good zinfandel it’s Kamala Harris.

Bret: OK, and I’ll bet you a reasonably priced Sancerre that it’s Val Demings. Give me your thinking on Harris.

Gail: Well, he’s promised to nominate a woman and there’s a growing expectation it’ll be a woman of color. There’s quite a talent pool for him to choose from, but Harris has some of the strongest national political experience. She can point to her work in the Senate, and she’s usually good on TV. Her own presidential campaign wasn’t very well-run, but that shouldn’t be a problem if she’s on Team Joe.

Plus, she’s got a lot of experience in criminal justice, which will be a big topic this fall. Now you.

Bret: My thinking about Harris is that she comes from a state, California, that Biden doesn’t need to win. Demings comes from Florida, which Biden really would like to win. Harris is a senator, and Biden an ex-senator, so there isn’t a good mix of legislative and executive experience. Demings was a police chief, meaning she’s inhabited the sphere most Americans think of as the real world. Harris attacked Biden pretty viciously in the early debates, and those attacks will be used against them both. Demings has, as far as I know, stayed out of the intramural Democratic squabbles. I suspect that many white voters feel that Harris projects establishmentarian entitlement while making them feel uncomfortable on subjects like busing. Demings’s life story is a classic tale of pulling herself up every step of the way, from deep poverty to the floor of Congress. Harris’s background as a tough-on-crime prosecutor may haunt her. But Demings’s background as a police officer will refute the G.O.P. attack line that the Democratic Party hates the cops.

Gail: You’ve made a good argument about why Demings should get the nomination. But when it comes to who will I just feel Democrats may be more comfortable with Harris, who they’ve known a lot longer.

Bret: Then again, our colleague Frank Bruni made a compelling case for Illinois’s heroic Tammy Duckworth. And I know Susan Rice would make the case that she knows her way around the White House and would be ready for the job, though some of her poor judgments, her notoriously brusque manners and her lack of normal political experience will be big strikes against her.

Anyway, that’s my bid for the Sancerre. If we’re both wrong we can just trade bottles.

Gail: I can think of a lot worse ways to spend an evening. Cheers!

God’s Plan for Mike Pence

Will the vice president—and the religious right—be rewarded for their embrace of Donald Trump?

Casting himself as the heir to the popular outgoing governor, Mitch Daniels, he avoided social issues and ran on a pragmatic, business-friendly platform. He used Ronald Reagan as a political style guru and told his ad makers that he wanted his campaign commercials to have “that ‘Morning in America’ feel.” He meticulously fine-tuned early cuts of the ads, asking his consultants to edit this or reframe that or zoom in here instead of there.

.. set about cutting taxes and taking on local unions—burnishing a résumé that would impress Republican donors and Iowa caucus-goers. The governor’s stock began to rise in Washington

..  In recent years, the religious right had been abruptly forced to pivot from offense to defense in the culture wars—abandoning the “family values” crusades and talk of “remoralizing America,” and focusing its energies on self-preservation.

..“Many evangelicals were experiencing the sense of an almost existential threat,” Russell Moore, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, told me.

It was only a matter of time, he said, before cultural elites’ scornful attitudes would help drive Christians into the arms of a strongman like Trump. “I think there needs to be a deep reflection on the left about how they helped make this happen.”

.. Coming into the game, Trump had formed an opinion of the Indiana governor as prudish, stiff, and embarrassingly poor, according to one longtime associate.

.. Pence asked what his job description would be if they wound up in the White House together. Trump gave him the same answer he’d been dangling in front of other prospective running mates for weeks: He wanted “the most consequential vice president ever.” Pence was sold.

.. “I knew they would enjoy each other’s company,” Conway told me, adding, “Mike Pence is someone whose faith allows him to subvert his ego to the greater good.”

.. Pence spent much of their time on the course kissing Trump’s ring. You’re going to be the next president of the United States, he said. It would be the honor of a lifetime to serve you.

Afterward, he made a point of gushing to the press about Trump’s golf game. “He beat me like a drum,” Pence confessed, to Trump’s delight.

.. Trump released a list of potential Supreme Court nominees with unimpeachably pro-life records and assembled an evangelical advisory board composed of high-profile faith leaders.

.. One of the men asked to join the board was Richard Land, of the Southern Evangelical Seminary. When the campaign approached him with the offer, Land says, he was perplexed. “You do know that Trump was my last choice, right?” he said. But he ultimately accepted, and when a campaign aide asked what his first piece of advice was, he didn’t hesitate: “Pick Mike Pence.”

.. Then, on July 12, a miracle: During a short campaign swing through Indiana, Trump got word that his plane had broken down on the runway, and that he would need to spend the night in Indianapolis. With nowhere else to go, Trump accepted an invitation to dine with the Pences.

.. In fact, according to two former Trump aides, there was no problem with the plane. Paul Manafort, who was then serving as the campaign’s chairman, had made up the story to keep the candidate in town an extra day and allow him to be wooed by Pence.

.. Pence spoke of Trump in a tone that bordered on worshipful. One of his rhetorical tics was to praise the breadth of his running mate’s shoulders. Trump was, Pence proclaimed, a “broad-shouldered leader,” in possession of “broad shoulders and a big heart,” who had “the kind of broad shoulders” that enabled him to endure criticism while he worked to return “broad-shouldered American strength to the world stage.”

.. Campaign operatives discovered that anytime Trump did something outrageous or embarrassing, they could count on Pence to clean it up. “He was our top surrogate by far,”

.. “He was this mild-mannered, uber-Christian guy with a Midwestern accent telling voters, ‘Trump is a good man; I know what’s in his heart.’ It was very convincing—you wanted to trust him.

.. Even some of Trump’s most devoted loyalists marveled at what Pence was willing to say. There was no talking point too preposterous, no fixed reality too plain to deny

.. When, during the vice-presidential debate, in early October, he was confronted with a barrage of damning quotes and questionable positions held by his running mate, Pence responded with unnerving message discipline, dismissing documented facts as “nonsense” and smears.

.. It was the kind of performance—a blur of half-truths and “whatabout”s and lies—that could make a good Christian queasy.

.. Marc Short, a longtime adviser to Pence and a fellow Christian, told me that the vice president believes strongly in a scriptural concept evangelicals call “servant leadership.” The idea is rooted in the Gospels, where Jesus models humility by washing his disciples’ feet and teaches, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”

..  when he accepted the vice-presidential nomination, he believed he was committing to humbly submit to the will of Donald Trump. “Servant leadership is biblical,” Short told me. “That’s at the heart of it for Mike, and it comes across in his relationship with the president.”

.. “His faith teaches that you’re under authority at all times.

  • Christ is under God’s authority,
  • man is under Christ’s authority,
  • children are under the parents’ authority,
  • employees are under the employer’s authority.”

.. “Mike,” he added, “always knows who’s in charge.”

.. On friday, october 7, 2016, The Washington Post published the Access Hollywood tape

.. Most alarming to the aides and operatives inside Trump Tower, Mike Pence suddenly seemed at risk of going rogue.

.. Republican donors and party leaders began buzzing about making Pence the nominee and drafting Condoleezza Rice as his running mate.

.. The furtive plotting, several sources told me, was not just an act of political opportunism for Pence. He was genuinely shocked by the Access Hollywood tape. In the short time they’d known each other, Trump had made an effort to convince Pence that—beneath all the made-for-TV bluster and bravado—he was a good-hearted man with faith in God. On the night of the vice-presidential debate, for example, Trump had left a voicemail letting Pence know that he’d just said a prayer for him. The couple was appalled by the video, however. Karen in particular was “disgusted,” says a former campaign aide. “She finds him reprehensible—just totally vile.

.. Pence turns to a favorite passage in Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

.. “They thought they were going to be able to get him to drop out before the second debate,” said a former campaign aide. “Little did they know, he has no shame.”

.. Trump showed up in St. Louis for the debate with a group of Bill Clinton accusers in tow, ranting about how Hillary’s husband had done things to women that were far worse than his own “locker-room talk.”

.. In political circles, there had been a widespread, bipartisan recognition that Pence was a decent man with a genuine devotion to his faith. But after watching him in 2016, many told me, they believed Pence had sold out.

.. watching Pence vouch for Trump made him sad. “Ah, Mike,” he sighed. “Ambition got the best of him.” It’s an impression that even some of Pence’s oldest friends and allies privately share.

.. “The number of compromises he made to get this job, when you think about it, is pretty staggering.”

.. Pastor Ralph Drollinger, for example, caught Trump’s attention in December 2015, when he said in a radio interview, “America’s in such desperate straits—especially economically—that if we don’t have almost a benevolent dictator to turn things around, I just don’t think it’s gonna happen through our governance system.” Now Drollinger runs a weekly Bible study in the West Wing.

.. On one side, there are those who argue that good Christians are obligated to support any leader, no matter how personally wicked he may be, who stands up for religious freedom and fights sinful practices such as abortion. Richard Land told me that those who withhold their support from Trump because they’re uncomfortable with his moral failings will “become morally accountable for letting the greater evil prevail.”

.. On the other side of the debate is a smaller group that believes the Christians allying themselves with Trump are putting the entire evangelical movement at risk. Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention, has made this case forcefully.

.. only 30 percent of white evangelicals believed “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.”

.. One pastor compared Pence to Mordechai, who ascended to the right hand of a Persian king known for throwing lavish parties and discarding his wife after she refused to appear naked in front of his friends.

.. Pastor Mark Burns—a South Carolina televangelist who was among the first to sign on as a faith adviser to Trump—told me Pence’s role in the administration is like that of Jesus, who once miraculously calmed a storm that was threatening to sink the boat

.. Of the 15 Cabinet secretaries Trump picked at the start of his presidency, eight were evangelicals. It was, gushed Ted Cruz, “the most conservative Cabinet in decades.”

.. Pence understood the price of his influence. To keep Trump’s ear required frequent public performances of loyalty and submission—and Pence made certain his inner circle knew that enduring such indignities was part of the job.

.. “Look, I’m in a difficult position here,” Pence said, according to someone familiar with the meeting. “I’m going to have to 100 percent defend everything the president says. Is that something you’re going to be able to do if you’re on my staff?”

.. Trump does not always reciprocate this respect. Around the White House, he has been known to make fun of Pence for his religiosity.

.. During a conversation with a legal scholar about gay rights, Trump gestured toward his vice president and joked, “Don’t ask that guy—he wants to hang them all!”

..  “They have moved to an ends-justifies-the means style of politics that would have been unimaginable before this last campaign.”

.. he thought it was so low class,” says the adviser. “He thinks the Pences are yokels.”

.. Social conservatives had been lobbying the president to issue a sweeping executive order aimed at carving out protections for religious organizations and individuals opposed to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and transgender rights. The proposed order was fairly radical, but proponents argued that it would strike a crucial blow against the militant secularists trying to drive the faithful out of the public square.

.. “Bannon wanted to fight for it,” says the Trump associate, “and he was really unimpressed that Pence wouldn’t do anything.”

.. But perhaps Pence was playing the long game—weighing the risks of taking on Trump’s kids, and deciding to stand down in the interest of preserving his relationship with the president.

.. What would a Pence presidency look like? To a conservative evangelical, it could mean a glorious return to the Christian values upon which America was founded. To a secular liberal, it might look more like a descent into the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale.

.. What critics should worry about is not that Pence believes in God, but that he seems so certain God believes in him. What happens when manifest destiny replaces humility, and the line between faith and hubris blurs? What unseemly compromises get made? What means become tolerable in pursuit of an end?

.. Trump’s order merely made it easier for pastors to voice political opinions from the pulpit—a conspicuously self-serving take on religious freedom.

.. The faith leaders pulled out their smartphones and snapped selfies, intoxicated by the VIP treatment. “Mr. President,” Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, said at one point, “we’re going to be your most loyal friends. We’re going to be your enthusiastic supporters. And we thank God every day that you’re the president of the United States.”

.. “I’ve been with [Trump] alone in the room when the decisions are made. He and I have prayed together,” Pence said. “This is somebody who shares our views, shares our values, shares our beliefs.” Pence didn’t waste time touting his own credentials. With this crowd, he didn’t need to. Instead, as always, he lavished praise on the president.

At Private Dinners, Pence Quietly Courts Big Donors and Corporate Executives

Mr. Pence’s activities have fueled speculation among Republican insiders that he is laying the foundation for his own political future, independent from Mr. Trump.

If nothing else, the assiduous donor maintenance by Mr. Pence and his team reflects his acceptance of a Washington reality that Mr. Trump sharply criticized during the campaign, when he assailed some of his party’s most generous donors as puppet masters who manipulated the political process to further their own interests at the expense of working people. Mr. Trump frequently said that because of his own real estate fortune, he didn’t need or want support from wealthy donors or the political groups known as “super PACs,” to which donors can give seven-figure donations and which Mr. Trump blasted as “very corrupt.”

.. Mr. Pence’s office declined to release the lists of guests invited to the dinners, which have not appeared on schedules released by the vice president’s office to the news media. Marc Lotter, Mr. Pence’s press secretary, called the dinners “private” and said that the vice president had not held any political fund-raisers at his residence

.. Mr. Pence, who came to Mr. Trump’s ticket with a reputation as an enthusiastic cultivator of wealthy patrons, has worked to win over donors who clashed with Mr. Trump during the campaign, among them the billionaire industrialist Charles G. Koch.

.. In May, Mr. Obst and Mr. Ayers founded Great America Committee, a political action committee to fund Mr. Pence’s political operation — an unusual step for a sitting vice president. Typically, vice presidents rely on their respective party committees for such functions.