The Depp-Heard trial isn’t even the weirdest thing about America right now

Actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp watch as the jury leaves the courtroom at the end of the day at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia, Monday, May 16, 2022. Steve Helber/Pool via Reuters
Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. It looks like I won’t be vacationing in Vladivostok anytime soon. Or Omsk, Tomsk, Yakutsk or Smolensk, for that matter.

Gail Collins: Bret, this is one of the most interesting openings we’ve ever had. Is this because you cancelled a summer vacation reservation for the Trans-Siberian Railway? Or perchance the Russian reaction to your very powerful anti-Putin column?

Bret: I woke up on Saturday to the news that my name was on a list of 963 Americans barred for life by the Russian foreign ministry from visiting Mother Russia. Which is about as upsetting as waking up to a call from your doctor who says, “It isn’t cancer” or a message from an ex that reads, “I was wrong about everything.”

Gail: You know, when people visit our apartment, their favourite home decoration is almost always the letter Donald Trump wrote calling me a dog “with the face of a pig.” If only you could get Vladimir Putin to drop you a note saying “Looking forward to seeing you — Never!” it’d be the ultimate example of high-end hate mail.

Bret: I’m OK with the Russian sanction on me so long as it doesn’t involve poisoned underpants. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine rages on, abortion rights are on the line at the Supreme Court, inflation is high and the markets are tanking, and yet the most divisive issue of our time seems to be … Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard.

Are you taking a side?

Gail: Bret, I’m a big fan of Hollywood gossip as an antidote for dwelling too long on deeply depressing current events. But this one is pretty depressing itself and I kind of wish we could talk about some other celebrity story. Hey, did you know Dick Van Dyke has signed up for a fitness class at 96?

Bret: I did. Good to know we are both attentive readers of The New York Post.

Gail: I guess everyone who watches late-night talk shows now knows that Depp is suing his ex-wife for defamation over a 2018 op-ed she wrote in The Washington Post about domestic violence. Couldn’t be a more important topic, but the stories we’ve heard since — like the controversy over whether she defecated on their bed or if it was the dog — don’t really bring a desirable kind of attention to spousal abuse issues.

Your thoughts?

Bret: Heard is a lot more convincing as an actress than she is as a witness. I also think the reason the trial has captured this kind of attention — aside from the pure entertainment value of watching two deeply troubled celebrity exes go at each other as if they were reenacting a scene from “Gladiator” — is that for many people it represents a kind of corrective to the excesses of the #MeToo movement.

Gail: OK, we’re now at Disagreement Central. Men who are subject to those kinds of accusations obviously deserve to have their defences listened to. And nobody should automatically be seen as guilty until the evidence is in.

Bret: Yes and yes.

Gail: But when it comes to issues of physical abuse, a woman deserves immediate attention, partly just out of concern for her safety. And because we’re trying to turn around a long human history in which violence against a sexual partner wasn’t seen as serious as violence against anybody else.

Bret: Agree again, but while Heard has accused Depp of being violent, she also said on the stand that “It’s always been my own testimony that I hit Johnny.” I think the case serves as a reminder that the current politicised vision of relationships — in which men always hold all the power, including physical power; women are generally presumed to be the victimised party, as well as the honest one; and romantic relationships are supposed to abide by the dictates of a legal brief, not the alchemy of desire — just doesn’t conform to the way most people experience life.

Gail: If our readers want to mull this matter further, I really recommend our colleague Michelle Goldberg’s Heard-Depp column from last week.

Bret: Michelle eloquently expresses the exact opposite of my view.

Gail: Speaking of eloquent, what about the primaries that just occurred? The big one in Pennsylvania for the Republican Senate nomination, featuring Dr Oz versus Business Guy, is still unresolved. Which has got to be a plus for the Democratic nominee, John Fetterman. Any thoughts on that race?

Bret: My guess is that Fetterman will have a tough time winning in November. He’s on the leftward side of a Democratic Party that is struggling to overcome the perception that it leaned too far left in Joe Biden’s first year. Of course, Mehmet Oz and David McCormick, his closest opponent, could still tear the Pennsylvania GOP to pieces fighting for the 1,000 or so votes that separated them in last week’s primary. The older I get, the more I realize that winning in politics is mostly a game of being slightly less stupid than your opponent.

Gail: Embarrassing to look all around the country and see previously sane Republicans who now feel compelled to deny Biden won the election.

Bret: Those Republicans aren’t sane, but I take your point.

Gail: Fetterman is overly colorful for my taste, constantly showing up in shorts for public events and bragging about his tattoos. But his policies are perfectly reasonable, and I think he has a real shot.

Bret: The other primary race that fascinates me, Gail, is the one for governor in Georgia. Trump-favorite David Perdue is making a run for incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp’s job, and it looks like Perdue will lose in a rout. That’s all the more notable because Kemp stood by Biden’s victory in the state’s 2020 presidential election. It may be a good indication that Trump’s power in the party is finally beginning to wane.

Or is that just wishful thinking?

Gail: Maybe the rule on Republican primaries is that party voters will back the Trump candidate if they know virtually nothing about the people who are running. If the endorsee is, say, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, the newly rejected 26-year-old congressional juvenile delinquent, they’ve got plenty of information to make a choice on their own.

Bret: On a related note, it will be interesting to see if Marjorie Taylor Greene wins her GOP primary in Georgia. If she loses, maybe she can blame those Jewish space lasers again.

Gail: One primary that’s going to tell us a lot about Trump’s ability to impose his will on an election where the voters are well-informed should be in Wyoming. Will Liz Cheney get renominated? That’d certainly leave our former president gnawing on a Mar-a-Lago porch railing.

Bret: Whatever happens to Cheney — and things don’t look great for her right now — she’s earned her own chapter in some future sequel to John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage.” After the recent shooting in Buffalo, New York, she tweeted that the “House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and antisemitism.” There’s a word for that kind of magnificent honesty, often associated with bowling, tennis or golf.

Gail: Of course the Wyoming primary isn’t until August. Plenty of stuff to look forward to before then. As well as watching the actual government in operation. How do you think Biden’s doing these days?

Bret: Well, he’s done a much better job standing up for Ukraine than I had expected he might, and I’ll give him and his national security team full marks for that.

On the other hand, homicide rates in major American cities were 44% higher in 2021 than they were in 2019, and there’s a palpable sense of lawlessness and urban decay in one downtown after another, including a random killing Sunday morning on the subway in New York. That isn’t Biden’s fault, but it adds to a perception of Democratic misgovernance.

Gail: Conservative refusal to control gun sales is my nominee for the Misgovernment Medal.

Bret: Inflation hasn’t been this high in 40 years and it can cost more than $100 to fill a tank of gas. We may have been spared a migration crisis this summer, but only because a Trump-appointed judge blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s effort to end Title 42. We also seem to be teetering on the verge of a recession, which would be … bad. Despite all this, the White House seems to think that Biden is a plausible candidate for reelection in 2024, which at this point looks about as likely as that vacation I was supposed to take in Vladivostok.

My question for you is, when do Democrats start panicking?

Gail: Well, the first panic-possible moment is this fall, when we see how the midterm elections go. Can’t actually say I’m feeling optimistic right now, but I do believe there’s a huge difference between Democrats Can’t Govern — the big issue this fall — and Who Wants Trump Back?, which will be the big issue in two years.

Totally confident right now that most Americans don’t want Trump back. In fact that’s possibly the only question in which Biden definitely comes out the winner.

Bret: A decent strategy unless Ron DeSantis is the nominee.

Gail: Not a fan of Biden acknowledging now that he won’t run again, as I’ve mentioned before, but I do admit one plus would be bringing the race for 2024 up front right away and giving the new talent a chance to show itself.

Bret: Glad to have possibly won you over on that point. Last thing, Gail, our readers shouldn’t miss Dwight Garner’s obituary for Roger Angell, The New Yorker’s great baseball writer, who died last week at 101. Always good to see one magnificent writer do justice to another.

Gail: Amen.

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