Opinion | History Repeats Itself. First as Tragedy, Second as Farce, Then as God Knows What.

By Gail Collins and Bret Stephens

Sept. 18 was no Jan. 6.
Sept. 18 was no Jan. 6.Credit...Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Gail Collins: Bret, there was an old leftie saying: “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came.” I was thinking about that over the weekend when we were anticipating a big right-wing follow-up to the storming of the Capitol in January. And hardly anyone showed up.

What’s your analysis?

Bret Stephens: I can’t say I’m surprised that the rally fizzled: Donald Trump wasn’t there to light a fire, and Mike Pence wasn’t there to get burned by it. Plus, all of the arrests and guilty pleas from Jan. 6 are probably having a deterrent effect.

On the other hand, the fact that Trump is publicly supporting the Jan. 6 rioters who, he says, are “being persecuted so unfairly relating to the Jan. 6 protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election” is a bad sign. The movement may be in remission, but it isn’t going away. It’s like knowing that a deadly virus, capable of infecting millions of people and wrecking the country, is being handled by a mad scientist at an unsafe facility. You might even call it the “Mar-a-Lago virus.”

Gail: I do kind of like the idea of D.J.T. surrounded by beakers of deadly bacteria, with wild frizzy hair, laughing maniacally. But only for about 30 seconds. Let’s move on to a cheerier topic. Any further thoughts about the pandemic? Vaccine musings?

Bret: Well, leaving aside all the particular questions about the pandemic, I think the larger story is how these 18 months have exposed the shaky foundations of American civilization. Never mind the military-industrial complex. We’ve got a moronic-ineptitude complex.

I’m thinking about anti-vaxxers. About Jan. 6 deniers. About the Afghanistan exit fiasco. About conspiracy theorists on the right and the speech police on the left (and sometimes vice versa). About social media in general. About Congress’s unwillingness to get an overwhelmingly popular infrastructure bill to the president’s desk. About a border crisis in which the Biden administration can’t seem to come up with better solutions than the Trump administration did. About the Pentagon killing innocent civilians in a bungled attempt to stop another Kabul terror attack. About the French hating us yet again, this time for a perfectly valid reason.

How about you?

Gail: Not tough to make a list of dispiriting national problems, but this is one I don’t particularly pin on the military-industrial complex. It’s just the latest phase of a cosmic shift that began when regular folk acquired cellphones, computers, Twitter accounts and the like.

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It first came slamming home to us when Trump got elected president: The old social consensus was, at minimum, being … questioned. Since then, we’ve been learning to live in a new world. Not sure if the social fabric has changed all that much, deep down. But things sure look different on the surface.

Bret: Largely agree. There’s a small academic field called neurohistory, which uses neuroscience to help us better understand the distant past.

Gail: I love it when you expand my vocabulary. OK, “neurohistory” is my word for the day.

Bret: The field deserves more attention, because maybe the most important event of the past 20 years wasn’t how we changed the world, for better or worse. It’s that we created algorithms and digital platforms that scrambled our brains. The new technologies have shortened our attention spans, heightened our anxieties, made us more prone to depression and more in need of outside validation and left us less capable of patient reflection and also less interested in seeking out different points of view. It’s no accident that Trump’s favorite outlet was Twitter: The medium is perfect for people who think in spasms, speak in grunts, emote with insults and salute with hashtags.

Gail: Probably the biggest transformation since America got national mail service and people suddenly learned what folks in other parts of the country were really thinking.

Bret: Where I’m not sure I agree with you is on whether the social fabric has mostly remained the same. I didn’t live through the 1960s, but the degree of vitriol that runs through so much of our personal and political life these days feels unmatched in my lifetime. It’s almost as if we are living through the preamble to another civil war.

Let me turn the question around: What’s giving you hope?

Gail: Well, hey, no storming of the Capitol redux. Donald Trump is not president. That’s two biggies right there.

Bret: Donald Trump isn’t currently president. Might be again. Sorry, go on.

Gail: And maybe our different views do have a lot to do with age — I started out in an America where the racial divisions were so stark that many white people had virtually no contact with minority Americans. Where it seemed you almost never saw Black or Hispanic people in the media except for the occasional bad-news story. Where interracial marriage was illegal in many places. Where future presidential candidate George Wallace was inaugurated governor of Alabama declaring, “Segregation forever.”

Bret: All true.

Gail: Then I moved on into a world where, for all our deep, deep imperfections, the national culture celebrates the idea of racial equality. Certainly not going to argue that we marched right on to a world of justice and harmony when leaders of the cause — like Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. — kept being murdered. But really, when I look back at the downside of America in my adolescence, the sense of social disconnect I see as a result of the internet doesn’t compare.

Bret: Social progress seems to advance or retreat according to some mysterious immutable force. Maybe it’s Hegelian or generational or something else. All of the racial progress made since the 1960s crested with Barack Obama’s election in 2008. But it feels like we’ve been moving in the wrong direction ever since, in terms of not just the xenophobia that defined the Trump presidency but also new forms of illiberalism on the left that march under the Orwellian banner of “antiracism.”

Something tells me this is a process that isn’t going to stop for a while — at least until we reach some big historical inflection point, whatever that might be.

Gail: On a more mundane front, meant to ask what you thought of Mitch McConnell’s refusal to support the raising of the debt ceiling. Seems sort of cynical for a party whose Trump tax cuts helped dig us into the financial hole we’re in.

Bret: You know, I try to think of McConnell as little as possible, but it seems unfair to blame the Senate minority leader for not doing something Democrats have the votes to do on their own. Nancy Pelosi hasn’t explicitly said how she’d raise the ceiling, except to say she won’t add it to the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that has all of that additional social spending.

Gail: Sometime soon we have to talk about Pelosi’s legislative strategy, but I think we’ll need a bit more … space.

Bret: Among the 45,000 things I hate about Trump was how he turned the G.O.P. into America’s second party of unabashed fiscal recklessness. But amid all of these complaints about the prospect of default, wouldn’t it also behoove Democrats to consider their own role in saddling the country with government programs we probably can’t afford?

Gail: Just want to point out that George W. Bush pulled the same tax-cut-deficit-hike trick in 2001 and again in 2003. The pattern was there before Trump.

Bret: True. It’s why some of us were a little leery of the whole “compassionate conservative” slogan during the 2000 presidential campaign. It just seemed like an excuse for Republicans to overspend on their own domestic priorities.

Gail: Well, that’s still better than uncompassionate conservatism.

Bret: Touché.

Gail: It’s true that Democratic spending has sometimes increased the deficit. But my bottom line is that if we’re going to dig a hole, I’d rather the benefits go to schools, working parents, health care and public works rather than Wall Street barons and the heirs to billion-dollar estates.

Bret: We’re back to the classic liberal-conservative divide. I’m usually of the view that “that government is best which governs least,” to borrow a phrase. Of course, I also think we need to spend an extra $300 billion or so per year to increase the size of the Navy and Air Force as a counterweight to China, so I can’t exactly claim to be consistent in my principles.

Gail: Hey, wait! No additional spending except on things I like.

Bret: Subject switch: Any thoughts on Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s choice of couture at the Met Gala? I was much taken by a line in Maureen Dowd’s Sunday column: “If A.O.C. wanted to get glammed up and pal around with the ruling class at an event that’s the antithesis of all she believes in, a gala that makes every thoughtful American feel like Robespierre, she should have just gone for it.”

Gail: Maureen always has the perfect line. I had a different take, partly because I have no sense of fashion whatsoever. I just watch the Met Gala to see what looks silliest and who will be the coolest to talk about the next day.

A.O.C.’s “Tax the Rich” dress was great for that purpose, and I did enjoy seeing a serious congresswoman who looks like a model in a leftie ad.