Let us begin with the abundantly obvious, since apparently we need to do that these days: It was a bad joke and an incredibly boneheaded strategy.

For some reason, Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan thought it was clever to tell the House Judiciary Committee during her Wednesday testimony that “While the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron.” There are more direct ways to say that even if President Trump doesn’t recognize them, there are limits on his power. There are definitely jokes to make about the president’s taste for the imperial that don’t require contorting the spelling of his youngest child’s name.

But if her aim was to hand her critics ammunition, Karlan’s decision to invoke Trump’s kid was the equivalent of backing up a dump truck’s worth of fully loaded magazines right onto the White House lawn. Her halfhearted apology — “It was wrong of me to do that. I wish the president would apologize, obviously, for the things that he’s done that are wrong. But I do regret having said that.” — didn’t much help.

And because we live in an era when everything has to be as stupid and mendacious as possible, the Trump administration jumped all over the opportunity that Karlan gave it. This episode is simultaneously so ephemeral as to be barely worth comment and a perfect example of how political combatants collude to turn minor slights into muddy, bloody battlefields.

It might have been one thing if Melania Trump, and Melania Trump alone, spoke up in defense of her son’s right not to be invoked in an investigation of his father. The first lady’s efforts to keep her son out of the public eye have been consistent and correct. If she got a little defensive about a swipe at her child’s name, so what?

But what was really toxic and deliberately misleading was the way Republican political operatives rushed en masse to recast Karlan’s comment as an attack on a child rather than his father, and in the process committed the very offense they condemned: They made a young boy the story.

Kayleigh McEnany, a spokeswoman for Trump’s reelection campaign, declared in outrage that “Only in the minds of crazed liberals is it funny to drag a 13-year-old child into the impeachment nonsense."

McEnany would have been kindergarten-age at the time, so let us assume she simply doesn’t remember Rush Limbaugh’s infamous declaration that 13-year-old Chelsea Clinton was “the White House dog.” Perhaps she has also forgotten Sen. John McCain’s notorious joke: "Do you know why Chelsea Clinton is so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father.”

Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, who recently defended the president’s decision to call his opponents “human scum,” clucked that “Prof Karlan uses a teenage boy who has nothing to do with this joke of a hearing (and deserves privacy) as a punchline."

Vice President Pence went even further, suggesting that Karlan and House Democrats had somehow used Barron Trump “to justify their partisan impeachment,” because apparently no words mean anything anymore.

And because nothing can ever be let well enough alone in this godforsaken age, the actress and activist Mia Farrow waded into the debate to demand that Melania Trump get angry about her husband’s swipe at climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Incidents such as these are reminders that the idiocy of the present moment isn’t some terrible curse that’s befallen all of us. It’s a choice.

Inflating a single irrelevant line of testimony until it’s the size of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float is a conscious decision to obscure the rest of the impeachment proceedings rather than mount an actual defense against the charges at issue. The people who fall for this flagrant obfuscation and who ignore the flabbergasting hypocrisy and ignorance of history it takes to advance this mock outrage are choosing not to think.

And I’m to blame, too, for choosing to write this column, because I can’t quite resist the temptation to point out how ridiculous this is, and therefore to walk into the trap that the Grishams, McEnanys and Pences of the world have set.

“What is being done to this country is no laughing matter,” Grisham tweeted. She’s wrong. The joke is that we could be different, better, more consistent and fair, less susceptible to the bait. But we’ve all decided to behave like this instead.

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