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 high-level 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.