The Case to be Made

It’s the forest, not the trees.

President Trump and his apologists have done a marvelous job of obfuscating the horrifying abuses of his office. Presented with a dense forest of almost daily rants, shady deals, criminal acts, and brazen attacks on the Constitution, they have quibbled over every individual tree. The media have fallen into this trap, examining each tree and sapling with commendable fervor, and the Democrats in Congress have been dragged along because impeachment depends on public perception, not legal culpability.

First it was about whether paying women to keep quiet about extramarital affairs was a crime. It was—a violation of federal election law, because the payments were made in service of the election campaign—but the President and his gang were too ignorant to know it was crooked, so by an odd legal quirk they were excused. Then Trump fired James Comey, which led to Mueller’s investigation. And although Mueller made it clear that Trump had acted in a variety of ways to encourage and exploit Russian interference in the 2016 election, he could not make a case for criminal conspiracy, nor indict the president for obstruction of justice. And besides, obstruction of justice is just a “process crime,” they said.

Now it’s the attempt to pressure the Ukrainian government into helping Trump in the 2020 election, by threatening to withhold essential military aid. The Republicans’ defense this time has been that it didn’t happen (though Trump’s own transcript clearly shows it did), that there was no quid pro quo (though his chief of staff admitted it) that the whistleblower should be outed (which would be illegal and dangerous), that Ukraine’s president didn’t complain about it (as if he were in any position to do so), that the aid was ultimately received anyway (although only because the Congress got wind of the holdup and insisted), that Trump isn’t receiving a fair trial (which hasn’t started yet), that maybe it all did happen but it’s not a big deal, that everybody does it, that all the corroborating witnesses are dishonest, that Hunter Biden is the real culprit, etc.

The hearings that begin on Wednesday will open with Adam Schiff laying out the elements of case, and this presentation may be the most critical element of the whole impeachment process—which makes it possibly the most important oration in the past half-century of American history. But it will be all too easy to fall into the trap of describing the trees in incontrovertible detail, while overlooking the dark forest of wrongdoing that is not simply “impeachable,” but demands impeachment and removal from office.

To avoid that error, Schiff should begin with a simple statement: The president cheated in the 2016 election, and has set in motion a strategy to cheat in the upcoming election. All of the specific charges—of paying off women, of misusing campaign funds, of publicly asking the Russians to dig up Hilary Clinton’s emails, of firing Comey and Sessions and replacing the latter with his “Roy Cohn,” of extorting President Zelinskyy to announce that he would investigate Hunter Biden, and of harassing and threatening violence against civil servants, the press, and private citizens—all of it has been directed at the singular goal of perverting the electoral process.

Taken individually, some of these actions are criminal. Some are immoral. Some are merely “improper” or “violations of sacred norms” or “unbecoming of the office.” Many are simply “un-American.” But to take them individually is to miss the point entirely: Trump’s principal agenda as president has been to subvert the institutions of government to his personal ambitions and render the Constitution itself moot. And the most effective way to achieve that end is to destroy the validity of the electoral process. Chairman Schiff must make this clear: Trump must be removed from office. We can’t rely on the voice of the people to remove him if that voice itself is distorted by election chicanery.

Start Seeing.

An op-ed in the Times today reports the chaotic mob scene played out every day at the Louvre, where thousands of tourists from all over the world jam themselves into a room to clap their eyes onto the Mona Lisa. The problem, art critic Jason Farago explains, is exacerbated by the museum’s decision to move the world’s most famous painting into a temporary exhibition space, in order to accommodate some renovations. But this has only magnified a problem that has existed for a long time: the Mona Lisa has become, “in this age of mass tourism and digital narcissism, a black hole of anti-art.” In the end, he calls for the removal of the painting from the Louvre to a separate building dedicated solely to it.

He makes a strong case. I saw the painting decades ago, and even then I would have agreed with a recent British poll that rated it “the world’s most disappointing attraction.” I’ll confess that I too chased it down like a treasure-hunt check-off, but even in those pre-digital days I was underwhelmed. When I finally strode breathlessly into its darkened room, I gathered my thoughts and approached its bullet-proof glass case with reverence only to see, at first, my own face in the reflection. After a bit of mental adjustment and focus, I was able for a few moments to gaze upon it. My main and lasting impression was this: it looked just like it looks in the pictures.

But at least I had a reasonable chance to see it. These days that’s impossible in most popular museums. The crowds, the selfies, and the desire to document everything digitally has changed the whole idea of what a museum is for. I can relate dozens of personal stories: of the clicking scrum around the paintings by J.M.W. Turner at the Victoria and Albert Museum as everyone wanted to photograph the paintings that were recently featured in the film “Mr. Turner.” Of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, a forest of upraised arms taking photos of a forest of upraised arms taking photos. Of the mad scramble from one side of the bus to the other as visitors to Denali National Park documented their every claim to seeing a grizzly bear or moose. In that case, the driver actually suggested that maybe folks could just look at the stuff rather than take “pictures that you’ll never look at.”

Sometimes you might as well just look at the patrons, since the exhibits are so obscured. I’ve noticed that many visitors never look at the painting or artifact at all. They immediately raise their camera instead, click the photo, and, if they’re really interested, they photograph the card on the wall explaining what they didn’t look at. The whole ritual implies that they’ll go home and study the photo of the painting, then read the card—which they might have done at the museum itself—but I very much doubt they do.

This is not to mention all those cases of people falling off cliffs or being attacked by wild animals as they go for the perfect selfie—or those who simply disrespect the art or landscape or their fellow visitors by striking insipid poses in them. They pretend to hold up the Leaning Tower, or eat the fruit in the still life, or kiss the lion, to everyone’s complete lack of amusement.

Farago’s suggestion for the Mona Lisa is a good one, and not new. I remember seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, from a moving walkway that traversed the great sculpture slowly enough to allow a thoughtful viewing but at a steady and inexorable pace that demanded full attention. The crown jewels in the Tower of London are viewed similarly.

I’m reminded, too, that in both of those cases cameras were prohibited, which also improved the experience for everyone—including those who would otherwise have taken pictures. So why not ban cameras entirely from museums? Why not force everyone to actually look at the art, or artifacts, or wildlife or landscapes, instead of pointlessly making crummy pictures of them with their phones? Sell a quality postcard print or CD or flashdrive of every artifact or dramatic view, for a break-even price. Have selfie stands where people can be photographed next to a reproduction or poster that documents their presence. Use moving walkways for the Mona Lisas and Screams and Starry Nights of the world’s cultural heritage.

Then people will just use their words to tell their friends about what they saw. And it’s possible that putting their experiences into words might in itself give them more meaning.

Two Short Takes

Kurds Get in Way

[With apologies to Stephanie Taylor, whose love of wit brought her SO CLOSE to running that headline when she was a newspaper editor during the first Gulf war]

Donald Trump’s astonishing ability to do the wrong thing is a bit like the student who scores zero on a true-false quiz: just random guessing should get you 50 percent. Just checking “true” for every answer will do the same, and would at least give the impression of consistency. To fail completely requires either profound stupidity or a malicious desire to make a mockery of the process.

Trump possesses both of these traits in abundance, and has applied them to the first significant foreign-policy problem he has faced. This is the event that all the pundits and former government officials have warned us was coming. “How will this president behave when a real crisis lands on his desk?” they’ve asked, the question itself implying its own dreadful answer. The exquisite irony of it all is that this one didn’t land on his desk; he created it himself—even his most cynical critics couldn’t imagine that.

The abandonment of the Kurds was part petulant middle finger to our allies everywhere, part pledge-week stunt to impress the fraternity of autocrats he so desperately wants to join, all exacerbated by a blend of messianic fantasy and militant ignorance. But it’s the sequel that amounts to the cherry atop this manure sundae—the cease-fire agreement “negotiated” with Turkish president Recep Erdogan. The agreement calls for a five-day cease fire during which Kurds will vacate the 20-mile-deep slice of Syria that Erdogan wants for himself. Trump declared it a great humanitarian gesture that will “save millions of lives,” putting it on a par with the armistice of the Great War and the smallpox vaccine.

But all the deal really does is give Erdogan the territory he was already fighting the Kurds for, thus sparing him the trouble. It’s a bit like tipping the waiter who just spat on your dinner partner’s entree. How an art-of-the-deal negotiator like Donald Trump ever made a nickel in business remains a mystery. I guess it was the cheating of contractors and hiring of undocumented immigrants.

Romney 2020!

Mitt Romney has been conspicuous in criticizing Trump lately, which suggests another history-busting scenario to consider: Trump is impeached and removed from office, Romney challenges Pence for the nomination in 2020 and wins. Republicans breathe a sigh of relief so intense it’s labeled a “bomb cyclone” by NOAA, and resume their drumbeat of demonization of the Democratic party. Who do you suppose would be our next elected president?

We’ve seen worse.

Insanity Defense

The President is mad. Let’s hope it isn’t diagnosed.

A FEW DAYS AGO I began writing a piece titled “Republican Off-Ramps,” which described ways in which Republicans in Congress might save their political necks from the anarchist riot that is the Trump administration (saving their souls is pretty much out of the question at this point).

They could talk him into resigning Nixon-style, for example, and just tell the voters that he was a fine president until he went too far when he did (pick whatever offense one likes). This would be the most reasonable and least harmful option, and so I ruled it out.

They could hold firm and vote to acquit him, but this would be just a tactical win in a losing war in which they’re forced to defend an increasingly crazy and abusive president.

They could stumble into propriety and vote to remove him from office, but it’s too late for Mike Pence to mount an effective presidential bid himself, even if he isn’t also removed or at least soiled by the same diaper as his boss. And besides, the Republican base would turn on them.

But there’s one strategy that hasn’t been mentioned, at least not lately: plead insanity. The Republicans could invoke the 25th Amendment, removing the president from office by declaring him mentally ill. All they’d have to do is get the vice president and cabinet officers to “provide their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” to the Senate, and voila! the marshals come and take him away.

It wouldn’t be hard to do: Trump has certainly shown enough pathological behavior to warrant a diagnosis. In fact, his recent tweet claiming “great and unmatched wisdom” is as obvious a symptom of messianic fantasies as “do us a favor though” is evidence of corruption. Republicans could solemnly peek their red eyes out over their hankies as they lament the great leader’s decline, hoping all citizens show understanding for those unfortunates stricken with mental illness. Then they’d be cleansed of the Trump stain while promising to do all the wonderful things he would have done had he not been a gibbering lunatic.

Of course promises would have to be made to the cabinet members that they’d keep their jobs, though such guarantees could easily be recanted after the election should Pence win. If he doesn’t, Republicans in the House and Senate might still be able to hang on to their seats, having shown both sympathy and tough love to the man they so slavishly praised, until he was struck down by illness. No hypocrisy here—the impeachment was still an ill-intentioned conspiracy of the Democrats, who preyed upon a sick man.

Meanwhile, the abuses of the past two and a half years go unacknowledged and unpunished. Trump is pardoned, and Pence pays no political price because the offender was nuts.

One more unprecedented possibility to worry about. Enjoy!

Don’t Let the People Decide

Of ships and ships of state.

In a time-honored tradition, Prince William recently christened a new maritime research ship, dubbing it the Sir David Attenborough. In his remarks, he expressed relief that he wasn’t christening it the “Boaty McBoatface,” which was the name chosen when, in a misguided public-relations stunt, the ship-naming task was given over to a public vote. Apparently the government intervened in the time since the 2016 vote, relegating the comical name to the ship’s submersible robot, where it could be read only by the fishes of the sea.

Which makes one wonder why the government hasn’t intervened in a similar referendum undertaken in the same year: the vote to separate Britain from the European Union, commonly called Brexit.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson gleefully wrapped this albatross around his neck when he took up residence in 10 Downing Street, having helped evict its previous occupant, the hapless Theresa May. Since then, he’s had nothing but trouble, causing him to exclaim in response to one criticism, “Donnez-moi un break!” Last week he even had to leave the UN General Assembly early to reopen Parliament. Apparently the Supreme Court found out he had told a bit of a fib to Her Majesty in getting her to close it. “Quelle dommage,” he was heard to say as he stomped out of the gathering, “J’ai besoin de flight home, so I can face une crise nouvelle. Merde!

I write about Britain’s political crisis because it’s less scary than our own and writing about it won’t keep me up at night. Boris is still at the comically disruptive stage of his leadership, unlike our guy who has progressed through “surprisingly self-destructive” to “flagrantly totalitarian” and all the way to “global security threat.”

But the root of Johnson’s problem isn’t just political or legal or constitutional. His problem is that Britain’s parliament has stumbled into a paradox, a riddle that no government policy or initiative can solve. The paradox is this: The country must leave the European Union by October 31, but Parliament has decreed that it must not leave without a “deal,” an agreement with the EU on the terms of exit. The catch is that Parliament can’t make a deal happen by itself: by definition, the agreement they seek must also be acceptable to the European Union. And the aforementioned Theresa May had already delivered a deal—hard-bargained and agreed to by the E.U.—which the House of Commons roundly rejected.

So the only solution is for Johnson to somehow renegotiate with the E.U. and get a different deal that is acceptable to the Commons, but there’s another catch: different factions within the House want different things, and worse, these factions don’t even follow strict party lines. This is not to mention the various interests of the polyglot sovereign nations that make up the E.U.

All this to fulfill the mandate of a referendum that was decided by just a four percent margin, and in which a large proportion of voters had no idea what was at stake. Which sounds a lot like the American election of 2016.

Well, it would be an appropriate parallel, except that Trump won by a minus two percent margin. Maybe the people’s voice isn’t so misguided after all.

In Praise of Small Words

What does “though” mean?

I’ve taken a hiatus lately from posting on this site, not entirely out of sloth but mainly because there’s been so little to add to the conversation about the president, the Republican members of the House and Senate, the not-so-creeping upwelling of totalitarianism in our government, the climate disaster, and all that. I could rant along with everybody else, but everything is so bloody obvious now that there are no fresh insights to be had. I could also just whine about everything and claim all is lost (which is my more natural inclination), but why bother?

But the events of the past few days have opened an opportunity to shed a little bit of light. The “transcript” (actually a memo prepared by the White House) of Trump’s chat with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine has raised an interesting question: What does the word “though” mean? It appears in the phone conversation seemingly innocuously, tucked into the middle of a sentence, in this context:

Zelenskyy: I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps, specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.

Trump: I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike…

I didn’t even know what part of speech “though” is, nor could I define it, until I looked it up in the dictionary.* Turns out, it’s a conjunction, and my dictionary offers several definitions, one of them being “however.” But whatever the precise definition, the most important thing it does is to connect the president’s request with Zelenskyy’s prior assertion: you would like more weapons from us, however, I would like you to do us a favor.

I’ve mentioned before that some of Trump’s difficulties arise from his abysmal grasp of the English language, and this may be one example. Were he more skilled at using his mother tongue, he might have left “though” out of that sentence, thereby breaking the link to the previous one. He could then at least preserve the possibility that his request did not imply a quid pro quo. Linked together in this way, the two sentences make the threat of cutting off aid pretty obvious, though.

Switching gears a bit, the events of the past couple of weeks have turned the tide of the Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in favor of aggressively pursuing impeachment. While I thought Pelosi was right to resist as long as she did, it’s clear that her change of direction is the correct one. It would be so even if motivated only by a moral imperative, no matter the political risk. But more than that, I think the political calculus has changed. The current revelations will be enough, when thoroughly investigated and linked with other of Trump’s misdeeds, to guarantee passage of a bill of impeachment. Moreover, they will very possibly be enough to bring about removal from office in a Senate trial.

Today there are just a couple of Republicans in Congress who have publicly declared the revelations “troubling.” If that number reaches a half-dozen or so, others will begin to feel less afraid to speak out. And when that happens, Trump will really blow a gasket, using even nuttier fantasies and more vicious slander of opponents, including some members of his own party. And when that happens, the end is nigh.

* a large book in which the definition, pronunciation, and usage of words is explained.

Calling John Snow

ONE OF THE MOST INFURIATING THINGS about the wave of mass shootings we’ve had (other than the death and maiming and grief), is the tendency, encouraged by the NRA and its minions, to focus on the perpetrators and their particular motives and methods. Law enforcement officials try to establish a legalistic criminal motive. Counter-terrorism people at the FBI look for psychological profiles of the shooters—was there a manifesto? Previous criminality? Lack of parents or social connections?

Consequently, proposals to deal with the problem tend to focus on the attacks themselves. The simplest—and the most simplistic—emphasize greater security at events (metal detectors at the ballgame or cops in the schools). Even worse are the actual point-of-attack fixes, often aimed at school shootings. Some of these are high-tech (“lock boxes” for school classrooms that send out an emergency signal to police and dispense tools like pepper spray and a club to whack the guy with), some decidedly low-tech (a box of rocks for kids to throw at him).

Slightly more sophisticated are proposals to identify potential perpetrators ahead of time, either to ban them from gun ownership or to target them for counseling, surveillance, or even detention. These are little better than the box o’ rocks approach, though: dealing with perpetrators before they commit a crime sounds an awful lot like Tom Cruise’s job in the dystopian “Minority Report;” and keeping guns away from particular individuals is a pipe dream given the density of guns in the population.

What we’re hearing from the best thinkers on the topic is that these attacks should be viewed as a “public health problem.” This changes the focus of the debate, from taking things away from people to making people healthier, and that’s a good thing. But applying the public health model has a deeper impact on how we think about gun violence and what to do about it. And this is where John Snow comes in.

In 1854 London was suffering under a cholera epidemic, the worst of a series that had befallen the city during its explosive growth. As the germ theory of disease was not widely accepted at the time, there were no vaccinations or antibiotics with which to protect individuals. So physician John Snow set out to quell the epidemic by addressing its cause. Long story very short: he plotted the incidence of the disease on a map of the city and found a pattern based on where people got their water. One strong cluster of cases was located around a particular public water pump located on Broad Street. He removed the pump’s handle (among other remedies) and the epidemic abated, proving that the disease was water-borne and transmitted by germs—in particular, by what’s unnervingly labelled the fecal-oral route. Snow’s findings ultimately led to improvements in the public water system, isolating it from the sewer system.

The Broad Street pump.

Snow’s methods also proved the effectiveness of curing a disease by addressing the environment rather than the individual sufferer. This perspective can help us think outside the box that the gun lobby continuously puts us in. It’s true, as they assert, that banning assault rifles, or bump-stocks, or large magazines, won’t prevent some crank from shooting up a school or concert or mall. And it’s true that closing loopholes in background checks or license requirements won’t stop him either.

But we can’t trap ourselves into focusing on individual incidents. To do so will always lead us to conclude that nothing will help, which is exactly what the gun lobby wants. Public-health thinking frees us from that trap. Taking the handle off the pump didn’t cure anyone, nor did it entirely prevent people from getting cholera. What it did was to sharply reduce the incidence of the disease, to a level low enough that it couldn’t spread so widely and quickly.

We need to take a wider view, looking beyond individual cases of gun violence. We need to “look upstream,” in the epidemiologist’s language, for ways to simply reduce its incidence. None of the remedies mentioned so far will prevent a particular mass shooting or suicide or gang war. But any and all of them will reduce their frequency in the population. And as that frequency is reduced to a low enough level, the culture will change such that a gun will seem less like the answer to every slight or grievance or bout of depression.

Despite Snow’s success, his findings became a hot political issue since the solution to the cholera problem would be tremendously expensive. Opponents made sure the phrase “fecal-oral route” was at the top of everyone’s mind, knowing that it was just too repulsive for Victorian sensibilities to contemplate. It’s the same today: we’re told that any solution to the gun problem is too odious—a breach of sacred freedoms and rights, excessive nanny-state intrusion, and so forth—all too abhorrent to contemplate. Tens of thousands of gun deaths per year, not so much.