Opinion | Mike Pence Rues the Day


Gail Collins: Bret, I feel obligated to start out by asking you — TikTok? Potential foreign agent?

Bret Stephens: I think of TikTok in two ways. First, as a gigantic vacuum cleaner of personal data — possibly including your location — that goes directly from the unsuspecting eyes, thumbs and minds of its 170 million users in America to a company based in Beijing and beholden to the Chinese Communist Party. Second, as a potential conduit of disinformation, steering users toward content that could be used for mischief in, say, a critical forthcoming presidential election.

That’s why it has been banned in India and curtailed in France, Canada and other countries. That’s why I’m glad the House voted overwhelmingly to require TikTok’s Chinese parent company to sell the company or else face a ban in the United States. And that’s why the Senate should do likewise, despite Donald Trump’s opposition. When TikTok’s most notable supporters in Congress are Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, you know it’s a true threat. Your thoughts?

Gail: Gonna immediately acknowledge you as our new-tech online-culture expert.

Bret: I’m no expert. I merely have screenager kids.

Gail: But I’m one of those First Amendment-concerns people. You start by saying no tech/media companies headquartered in China — what next? Can you imagine all the information providers Trump would like to scrap? Of course, TikTok currently isn’t one of them — perhaps it has something to do with a serious financial contributor of his who’s in TikTok’s corner.

Bret: There are plenty of vehicles for expression that don’t rely on proprietary algorithms ultimately controlled by authoritarians who have perfected the surveillance state on their home turf and are attempting to do likewise on ours. This is George Orwell’s Big Brother, disguised in the form of 15-second silly-face videos.

Gail: Speaking of our friend Donald, what did you think of Mike Pence’s announcement that he won’t support Trump for president? On one hand, pretty obvious given the murderous anti-Pence uprising Trump helped stoke after he lost the election. On the other hand, there are so many other people you’d think would be opposed to Trump’s return to power who are throwing in the towel. Like Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, who Trump attempted to bully into lying about the presidential vote tally in his state.

Bret: Or Mitch McConnell, who recently endorsed Trump even though the former president called the senator’s wife, Elaine Chao, “crazy” and “China-loving,” after she quit as Trump’s transportation secretary in disgust over Jan. 6.

Gail: Bret, how do you feel about generally reasonable Republican officeholders who are backing a candidate they know would be a national disaster?

Bret: Hmm. Remember Marshal Pétain?

OK, maybe the Vichy comparison goes too far. But the abdication of “reasonable” Republicans in the face of Trump is, in fact, how awful regimes manage to enlist normal and reasonable people to work for them. Those people rationalize their choices, and maximize their opportunities, by telling themselves they are making the best of a bad situation. They prioritize secondary virtues, like loyalty, over primary virtues, like moral integrity. They accept the absurd, and the immoral, as the price that their historical circumstances have imposed on them. All of this is pretty well explained in Czeslaw Milosz’s great book “The Captive Mind,” which was written with Stalinist-era Poland in mind but is worth rereading today.

Gail: Marvel at your reading list.

Bret: That said, I do wish Democrats would be smarter about the way they’ve gone about opposing Trump. Listening to President Biden fall over himself apologizing for using the word “illegal” in reference to someone accused of murder didn’t inspire confidence.

Gail: It’s not a great word to use for the general category of people who cross the border without the right papers — just because it plays into the frequently racist demonizers who are turning immigration into a cosmic rallying cry.

Bret: “Illegal” is shorthand for “illegal immigrant,” which The Times used as recently as 2013 and never banned — presumably without playing to racist sentiments. It simply recognizes that people who enter the country without some sort of visa are violating the law, and it’s the violation of law that offends many Americans who otherwise welcome immigrants. Biden just sounded like he was more interested in trying to placate the left-wing language police than face the border crisis that he helped create and long ignored — a really dumb political move that Trump is sure to exploit.

Gail: Biden set a good example by acknowledging that this isn’t a great time to be referring to folks without proper papers as “illegals.” He didn’t go overboard and beat his chest in guilt. I’ve spent years now acknowledging that I went overboard in targeting Mitt Romney as the candidate who drove to Canada with a dog in a roof crate. But I never pretended that the remorse kept me awake at night.

Bret: It didn’t?

Gail: Hehehe. On a totally different subject — Republican vice-presidential candidates. We were theorizing recently that the governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, might be a contender. Then she went off to Texas for some cosmetic dental work and paid for it with a promotional video boasting that she got “a smile that I can be proud of.”

Bret: And now she’s being sued for starring in an ill-disguised ad for her dentist. Maybe someone can also do cosmetic surgery on Noem’s judgment.

Gail: I really did imagine Trump picking a woman for his running mate, but the Republican Party seems to be losing all its female stars to … bad stuff. Any thoughts?

Bret: The G.O.P. might have just found another star in Nancy Mace, the South Carolina congresswoman who is also a rape survivor. If you haven’t seen it, watch George Stephanopoulos’s interview with Mace last week, which blew up over the question of her endorsement of Trump despite the sexual abuse findings against him in the case of E. Jean Carroll.

Gail: Yeah, that was a wowser of an introduction.

Bret: The exchange strikes me as a Rorschach test for the election, in which some viewers will see a typical MAGA Republican who will bend every moral principle to support Trump, while others will see a media elitist mansplaining the charges against Trump to a survivor who knows the difference between rape and sexual abuse, and between criminal and civil allegations. Very curious to get your thoughts.

Gail: Trumpian skeptics will perhaps join me in finding it unnerving to hear Mace argue that a rape victim could endorse a sexual abuser for president by repeatedly pointing out that, so far, Trump has only been found liable in a civil case. And then telling Stephanopoulos that by bringing the matter up, “you’re trying to shame me.”

But I’m sure Trump would enjoy watching her march around the country making that case and also assuring voters they have “moved beyond” the Jan. 6 riots.

Point made. Plenty more Republican women ready to overlook all the … Trump stuff … and be available for the ticket.

Bret: This is one of those rare instances in which I’m going to volunteer to listen, shut up and have no opinion. But it’s going to be fascinating to watch it play out.

Gail: Bret, let me offer you a change of pace: What do you think of the proposal from Senator Bernie Sanders to change the standard workweek from 40 to 32 hours?

Bret: Terrible. You?

Gail: Well, not even Bernie thinks it’s gonna happen anytime soon, but I like the idea of talking about it. Productivity keeps rising. If industry can get the same amount of work done in less time, the workers should be rewarded. And a shorter workweek would be a huge help for parents who are trying to balance their kids’ needs with their employers’ needs.

Certainly not a … terrible idea.

Bret: I covered the subject 25 years ago when I was working in Brussels for The Wall Street Journal and France’s Socialist government decided to cut the workweek from 39 hours to 35. The idea was that a shorter workweek was supposed to create more employment. But employers have all kinds of fixed costs, and firing people in France is famously difficult and expensive. The result was that employers hired less and tried to squeeze more work out of the employees they had during the shortened hours. The labor market adjusted by turning away from regular salaried jobs in favor of short-term contract work. As a result, France’s unemployment rate today remains roughly twice as high as it is in the United States.

Amazing to me that Bernie never got the memo that socialism was and remains a dumb idea. But at least he’s consistent.

Gail: Um, don’t think socialism and an adjusted workweek are exactly the same. Clearly this is a topic we will be able to return to during the slow summer months.

Bret: I miss the days when a liberal and a conservative could argue about something as relatively benign as economics.

Gail: But in the meantime, Tuesday is the first day of spring! Wishing you happy good weather, Bret. May all our global warming be minimal.

Bret: And to quote a few lines from one of our great spring poets, Emily Dickinson:

Dear March — Come in —

How glad I am —

I hoped for you before —

Put down your Hat —

You must have walked —

How out of Breath you are —

Dear March, how are you, and the Rest —

Did you leave Nature well —

Oh March, Come right upstairs with me —

I have so much to tell —


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