Why bother with an open mind?

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY BAR­TON SWAIM Bar­ton Swaim is au­thor of “The Speech­writer: A Brief Ed­u­ca­tion in Politics” and a con­tribut­ing colum­nist for The Post.

The Bri­tish have a ter­rific ex­pres­sion of which there’s no equiv­a­lent I’m aware of in Amer­i­can English: “He’s lost the plot.” To “lose the plot” is to be­come con­fused and lose the abil­ity to com­plete a task. I’m fond of the ex­pres­sion be­cause it as­sumes a cor­re­spon­dence be­tween do­ing one’s job and read­ing a book. To lose one’s place in a story is the essence of fail­ure.

At the present mo­ment, with some real or imag­ined de­ba­cle com­ing out of the White House ev­ery day, we’ve for­got­ten where we are. Or, more likely, we’re as­sum­ing we un­der­stand the na­ture of the story we’re in — it’s a tragedy, right? — when in fact we do not. There is no cir­cum­spec­tion, no de­sire to with­hold judg­ment, no ret­i­cence. We took a peek at the last page, we’re sure we know how the story ends, and now we im­pa­tiently skim the pages as we turn past them to get to the end. And so we’ve lost the plot.

Like many of those now ready to rid the na­tion of its cur­rent pres­i­dent by means of im­peach­ment or the 25th Amend­ment, I did not sup­port Don­ald Trump in the pri­mary or gen­eral elec­tion. But there is no point in re­hears­ing the rea­sons for my ap­pre­hen­sions be­cause, on Nov. 8, they ceased to mat­ter. The Amer­i­can elec­torate, via the Con­sti­tu­tion, ex­pressed its be­lief that our politics had be­come suf­fi­ciently stale to risk put­ting a high-en­ergy ful­mi­na­tor in the White House. When that hap­pened, we set out on a dif­fer­ent kind of story, not one we had ever read be­fore. That called for some elas­tic­ity of mind, some will­ing­ness to view this new cir­cum­stance with a mea­sure of char­ity and re­cep­tiv­ity — a de­ter­mi­na­tion to watch and lis­ten rather than pro­nounce and prog­nos­ti­cate.

I thought the shake-up of our tra­di­tional af­fil­i­a­tions and ide­olo­gies might ben­e­fit us more than we an­tic­i­pated. Maybe, I thought, if we could take him for what he was rather than for what he never pre­tended to be, he could ac­com­plish a few good things and do only min­i­mal dam­age.

It’s not turn­ing out that way — but not, for the most part, be­cause Trump is any bet­ter or worse than we thought. It’s not turn­ing out that way be­cause ev­ery­one al­ready knew how it would turn out.

Ev­ery pres­i­dent is the vic­tim of con­fir­ma­tion bias — he is guilty of what we sus­pected he would be guilty of, even be­fore he does it — but this ten­dency has al­ready swal­lowed the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. That’s to be ex­pected, in some ways: Trump won the pres­i­dency by rail­ing against the news me­dia and the Wash­ing­ton bu­reau­cracy at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity; that the news me­dia would hit back, hard and con­stantly, was no great sur­prise. Even so, the sheer vis­ceral an­i­mos­ity from the me­dia, to­gether with the ag­gres­sively in­sur­gent op­po­si­tion by holdovers from within the gov­ern­ment, has shocked me as much as the elec­tion it­self.

Take the sup­po­si­tion, first re­ported in The Post, that the pres­i­dent blabbed top-se­cret in­for­ma­tion to the Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter and am­bas­sador. Within two hours of the story post­ing on­line, scores of jour­nal­ists and com­men­ta­tors had al­ready of­fered their self-as­sured in­ter­pre­ta­tions of what hap­pened. I sus­pect the vast ma­jor­ity them had never been in such a high­level meet­ing and had only the fog­gi­est clue of what the in­tel­li­gence in ques­tion might have been about. No one, as far as I could tell, won­dered how of­ten sim­i­lar sce­nar­ios had oc­curred with other pres­i­dents. Had an­other pres­i­dent ever said, as a means of es­tab­lish­ing bona fides with for­eign plenipo­ten­tiaries, some­thing his na­tional se­cu­rity staff rather wished he hadn’t said? Prob­a­bly so, but it didn’t mat­ter. The story’s anony­mous sources — “cur­rent and former” of­fi­cials — said Trump blabbed stupidly. So he must have done that. Be­cause, as we all know, that’s what he does.

Only a day later, the New York Times pub­lished a story in which Trump, ac­cord­ing to a memo writ­ten by former FBI head James B. Comey, asked Comey to drop the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of former na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn. Now con­gres­sional Democrats and even some Repub­li­cans are openly dis­cussing im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings for ob­struc­tion of jus­tice, throw­ing around ref­er­ences to Water­gate — a his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence that it­self demon­strates a poverty of imag­i­na­tion, as if we’re ca­pa­ble of an­tic­i­pat­ing only two or three out­comes, each drawn from re­cent his­tory. All this de­spite the fact that, as­sum­ing ev­ery­thing Comey’s memo al­leges is true, the nec­es­sary com­po­nent of an ob­struc­tion charge — ev­i­dence of an in­tent to threaten — sim­ply isn’t there.

This, I guess, will keep hap­pen­ing un­til he’s gone. Some of it’s his fault, for sure, the ef­fect of undis­ci­plined hy­per­ac­tiv­ity. But much of it will hap­pen what­ever he does.

It’s al­most hope­less at this point. Pro­gres­sive com­men­ta­tors sound con­stantly like Glouces­ter in “Richard III” — “Tellest thou me of ‘ifs’? Thou art a traitor: Off with his head!” — and their con­ser­va­tive coun­ter­parts sim­ply hope the whole thing will be over soon and we can all go back to our tra­di­tional ide­o­log­i­cal quar­rels.

Maybe in the end, that’s what will hap­pen. But if so, we will have thumbed hap­haz­ardly through this strange story and learned noth­ing.


Pres­i­dent Trump and first lady Me­la­nia Trump at An­drews Air Force Base on Fri­day.

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