Perspective and Context

Everything seems new and startling to those with no experience – which explains how tiresome teenagers can be. They cannot put things in perspective. They have none yet. And they cannot see things in some sort of larger context. There is no larger context. They’re still building their knowledge of the world as it is, and as for how the world has been in the past – history of all sorts – that’s boring. The here-and-now is everything. Has something like this happened in the past? Who cares? That’s ancient history now. And that makes their reaction to most everything a bit absurd. That’s amazing! No one has ever seen anything like that ever before! And course, when things go wrong, no one has ever felt as bad as they do at that moment, not ever, so no one can understand them, because no one has ever gone through the “pain” that they are going through at that moment.

Parents and teachers shrug, and wait. These kids will grow up. They will experience the actual world, not just their own world, and history will sneak up on them whether they like it or not. That cannot be avoided. This and that actually did happen and may happen again, or probably will happen again – another land war on the other side of the world, another assassination here, or elsewhere, another stock market crash or mass shooting, for reasons that will suddenly seem inevitable.

These things happen and not one of them is all that unique. Presidents have been impeached before, and others will be impeached in the future. There is, however, no reason to be jaded about any of this. Simply try to understand what’s happening in context. Get some perspective on what’s happening even if, in the heat of the moment, what is happening seems so utterly unique and entirely new. It might be utterly unique and entirely new. But it probably isn’t. Calm down. You’re not a teenager any longer.

Old people know more anyway. Elizabeth Drew in eighty-four now but was the Washington correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly (1967–1973) and The New Yorker (1973–1992) and saw it all, and in 1975 wrote a book about some of it – Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall – recently revised, because these things keep happening. And maybe Trump is not unique.

Or maybe he is unique:

When the process of impeachment drove President Richard Nixon from office in 1974, there was widespread celebration that “the system worked.” But the 1974 impeachment process may turn out to have been unique, a model for how it should work that has yet to be replicated – and perhaps never will be.

The current proceedings have demonstrated how fragile the Constitution’s impeachment clause is. The idea of the clause was to hold a president accountable for misdeeds between elections; but it’s now clearer than ever that it doesn’t work very well in the context of a very partisan political atmosphere.

The founders didn’t anticipate our now-rigid party politics. They only warned about “factions” getting out of hand. And, for them, impeachment was the answer to that, but Donald Trump may have made that impossible:

James Madison pointed out in Federalist No. 51 that men aren’t angels, and so there needed to be a check on a president’s power – in addition to the voters’ decision every four years. In 1974, the constitutional system held while a president tried to assert, unsuccessfully, that he wasn’t accountable to Congress or the courts. But now the impeachment process is barely functioning, and it’s not difficult to envision it breaking down completely.

Today, there’s a president who feels free to completely stonewall an impeachment inquiry. Even Nixon did not deem the entire process illegitimate. Yes, he tried to hold back damning recordings of Oval Office conversations, but when he was overruled by the Supreme Court he turned the tapes over to Congress. He also held back some documents from the House Judiciary Committee – an act that formed the basis of an article of impeachment against him. But he allowed his aides to appear before the Senate Watergate Committee, helping to seal his own doom.

Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has forbidden his aides from appearing before the House investigative committees (some lower-level aides appeared of their own volition). Mr. Trump also went well beyond Nixon – who was no sweetheart – in lashing out personally at the major figures working toward his impeachment. Mr. Trump’s closest allies in the Senate, in particular the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, have also brought pressure, at least of the verbal kind, on Senate Republicans to vote against conviction which would drive the president from office.

In context, then, impeachment has met its match. Trump and the current version of Republicans have rendered impeachment moot. Donald Trump will be impeached. And it is certain that the Senate, controlled by Trump’s Republicans, will not convict him of these charges. And then he will sneer even more. His base will love that and liberals will get more and more depressed. If he wins the election he can do anything he wants. If he loses the election he can claim it was rigged and refuse to leave office. And this Senate would back him on that. And in all of that, impeachment means little if anything:

What, then, are we learning about Congress’s ability to check a wayward president? One can conclude that in our highly polarized world, a strong-willed president like Mr. Trump can limit impeachment – and possibly wreck it.

Had a whistle-blower not raised concerns, and had those brave State Department witnesses not testified before Congress despite the president’s admonitions not to, the House Democrats would have had too little validation for their effort to bring charges. And then, because Mr. Trump’s hold over Senate Republicans seems almost cult like, he is all but certain to be acquitted at the trial early next year.

What checks, then, remain? The unwieldy 25th Amendment, which essentially relies on the vice president to initiate the process of removal, is no real alternative, unless a president is near comatose.

That means that unless our political system undergoes a radical change, we could be on the brink of having no check on the president, no matter how radically he defies the Constitution.

Drew knows the context here, and she’s sorry, and she’s worried, but so is the New York Times’ Charles Blow:

The impending impeachment of Donald Trump will be a rebuke, but it will not be a restraint.

Indeed, if the Senate votes to acquit Trump, as it is expected to do, the precedent will be set, and the die will be cast: A president can do almost anything to win re-election. And he can do anything at all to avoid accountability.

This is the new America, one in which all the old rules have been wiped away, one in which corruption is tolerated, one in which truth is denigrated, one in which tyrants are venerated.

That sounds a bit over the top, but maybe it isn’t:

It is tempting to think of this moment, this presidency, as a blip or an anomaly, as a horrible mistake the country made and will soon redress. But, I think that take is ill considered and overly optimistic.

He agrees with Drew on that and goes a step further:

What has happened in America under Trump is a tectonic shift that is generating an unthinkable realignment. Trump has poked and prodded the limits of acceptability, and he has found them to be not fixed, but flexible. He has continuously stretched the range of acceptable behavior. In fact, a post-impeachment Trump – punished but still in power – is likely to be even more emboldened and unbound.

At the same time, the American people have had their own sense of what is acceptable stretched and reset. The unthinkable seems to be happening daily. Television news is an unending string of “breaking news” banners. Investigations and exposés by the press may dazzle and awe, but the moments they produce are mere blips. Keeping track of all the corruption and grift is exhausting, and maybe that’s the point.

Trump and his administration have so overwhelmed the country with successive outrages that it all begins to flatten out, to smooth out, to become a kind of toxic new normal.

In short, everyone has lost all perspective, although Blow concedes that not everyone sees what Trump is doing as outrageous:

The country now exists in two worlds on the issue of truth and facts. One acknowledges some basic truths; the other is untethered from them. Part of this is driven by Trump himself, his incessant lying, his propagating of conspiracy theories and his leveling of false charges. But it is also driven by conservative media, much of which exists in a symbiotic interrelationship with Trump.

And that creates a new perspective on things:

There is absolutely no guarantee that this episode in the country’s history will end or fade in 2020.

There is a good deal of hand-wringing in liberal circles over whether Trump will be defeated or re-elected in November. I am wise enough not to venture a prediction, but I will say that with the information Robert Mueller uncovered, an impeachment acquittal in the Senate and Trump’s clear desire to exploit every opportunity and advantage, foreign interference in our election will essentially be ordained.

And that says nothing of voter suppression and the role social media plays in forming people’s opinions.

Our elections have never truly been a reflection of the will of the people; they have been, rather, a reflection of the will of the states. That is why we can have presidents who lose the popular vote but win the presidency.

This situation gets worse when some of these states disenfranchise voters, in particular, those who would vote for the opponents of the politicians in power.

But wait, there’s more:

It also gets worse when the very notion of one’s “will” is being influenced and manipulated without the person’s full awareness of it. Is your position on an issue your own? Or were you purposefully led to the conclusion you drew after being targeted and influenced by shady operators?

And there’s this:

In many ways, our current acrimony has been engineered. The people honoring and defending the truth have been recast by Trump and his cronies as bitter rage-aholics who will stop at nothing to damage Trump because they loathe both him and the people who support him. And the sense that Trump opponents despise Trump supporters helps breed an equal and opposite Trump devotion.

And all of this adds up to a new fresh perspective:

Trump is leaving an indelible mark on this country, regardless of what happens in November. He has shattered convention and protocol, and they can’t be repaired. Trump will leave in his wake a weaker country – with his sensibilities seared into it.

And he does that by changing perspectives:

On Saturday night, President Donald Trump accused Fox News of being “politically correct” by having House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) and former FBI Director James Comey appear on its Sunday morning program.

“Hard to believe that @FoxNews will be interviewing sleazebag & totally discredited former FBI Director James Comey, & also corrupt politician Adam ‘Shifty’ Schiff,” Trump tweeted. “Fox is trying sooo hard to be politically correct, and yet they were totally shut out from the failed Dem debates!”

And then he was at it again a few minutes later:

“Both Commiecast MSNBC & Fake News CNN are watching their Ratings TANK. Fredo on CNN is dying,” Trump tweeted, referring to CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. “Don’t know why @FoxNews wants to be more like them? They’ll all die together as other outlets take their place.”

The President then claimed that “only pro Trump Fox shows do well” and the others “are nothing.”

This is now a bit awkward for Fox News, as Margaret Sullivan explains here:

In the new movie “Bombshell,” Chris Wallace’s character has a bit part, striding for a moment alongside Megyn Kelly on their way to a momentous presidential debate in 2015. In real life, though, the veteran Fox News journalist has a more central role in the Washington drama of this historic moment.

Wallace’s Sunday morning interview show is often riveting, creating newsworthy moments – whether he is grilling former FBI director James B. Comey as he did this week or holding White House adviser Stephen Miller’s feet to the fire as he did in late September.

“According to POTUS, Chris Wallace is a partisan hack. In reality, he’s consistently the gold standard for American political interviewers,” Jonathan Swan of Axios noted on Twitter shortly after the Comey interview aired.

Tough, well-prepared and knowledgeable, Wallace is willing to interrupt, ask follow-up questions and assert facts when his subjects are insistently spewing talking points. That President Trump bashes him as “nasty and obnoxious” or calls his interviews “dumb and unfair” doesn’t detract from that reality.

Sullivan sees this as actually a war of competing perspectives and context:

There are plenty of solid Fox reporters and other contributors. But their work is often obscured by relentless disinformation and failures to enforce basic journalistic standards.

The network eventually had to retract its false reporting in 2017 on Seth Rich, which had fueled the baseless claim that Hillary Clinton had the former Democratic National Committee staffer killed because he was a source of campaign leaks. For years, Fox promoted the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. And, as my colleague Paul Farhi reported, the network won’t even keep Fox contributors or staffers from appearing at pro-Trump rallies and fundraisers – despite a public rebuke of Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro for doing so last year.

Conservatives love to defend Fox News by equating it with MSNBC or CNN. But while those cable networks do offer plenty of left-leaning commentary and do make their share of mistakes, they also hew to reality and standards in a way that Fox too often does not.

But there is Wallace:

Wallace closed out his Sunday show with a pointed comment on the media coverage of a speech he made last week at the Newseum’s First Amendment celebration. He had made headlines by saying that Trump “is engaged in the most direct, sustained assault on freedom of the press in our history.”

Wallace didn’t back off, but he wanted to underline another point that got less attention: that reporters should be “umpires,” not participants.

“We shouldn’t be drawn into the fight,” he said.

It may be far too late for that, and for everything. Fareed Zakaria had asked this question:

Listen to the language of the president. “Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice and rage,” he thundered at a June rally to kick off his reelection campaign. “They want to destroy you, and they want to destroy our country as we know it.” Words such as “treason” and “coup” are now casually tossed around in political discourse. Some had imagined that the impeachment inquiry might provide evidence and facts that would cut through the spin and fantasies, but in fact the opposite has happened. It’s clear now that the intensity of polarization is so great that everything is viewed through a partisan prism. Can America survive through such poisonous times?

And now he wonders whether the world can survive all of this:

At first glance, the impeachment proceedings against President Trump might seem to be a specifically and narrowly American matter. But if you look around the world, you see this is taking place amid a deeply worrying global trend. In country after country, we are witnessing an unprecedented wave of attacks on the constitutions, institutions, norms and values that have given democracy strength and meaning.

That is what Zakaria sees:

In India, the world’s largest democracy, the ruling party passed an unprecedented citizenship bill that privileges certain religions over others, namely Islam, a move that has been widely criticized by human rights groups and described by one Indian intellectual as “a giant step to officially convert a constitutional democracy into a[n] unconstitutional ethnocracy.”

This follows on the heels of an initiative by the same Hindu nationalist movement in one Indian state, seemingly aimed at Muslims that stripped 2 million residents of citizenship on the grounds that they didn’t have sufficient documentary proof – in a country where most people have few written records. The government has begun building prisons in which to incarcerate these dispossessed people.

And there’s this:

Israel, which boasts of being a stable democracy in a sea of dictatorships, appears paralyzed and polarized as it heads into its third election in a year. More disturbing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his party have launched an extraordinarily vicious attack on the Israeli justice system, which they claim has been plotting against him. In fact, Netanyahu faces indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust because the attorney general, who is from Netanyahu’s party and was chosen by Netanyahu, was following existing laws and procedures. Yet the prime minister and his followers accuse prosecutors and police of engineering an “attempted coup” against him.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has spoken openly about building an “illiberal democracy,” has pushed for laws to make it harder for opposition lawmakers to band together and to protest legislation. He has also moved to curtail the power of local governments after his party suffered a severe setback in municipal elections.

So here’s the new perspective on all this:

If you broaden the lens, we are living through what Stanford University’s Larry Diamond has called a “democratic recession.” Except it might be turning into a depression. For 13 consecutive years, the international human rights watchdog group Freedom House has registered a decline in global freedom – fair elections, free press, individual and minority rights, etc. Freedom House has long monitored democracy in far-flung places, so one of its key findings last year was unusual: “The United States retreated from its traditional role as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy amid an accelerating decline in American political rights and civil liberties.”

This is the context in which to consider the United States’ impeachment crisis.

The facts of the case are blindingly clear. Trump pressured the new Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens, as described in sworn testimony by 17 witnesses, many of them sitting senior government officials, with each person’s account confirming the others’ – and emails, texts and the call rough transcript further documenting it all. The Republicans’ defense is that this elaborate campaign to help Trump’s reelection was actually a big misunderstanding. Trump had never asked for it; these officials, working feverishly for months across continents, were all simultaneously deluded. Call it the Walter Mitty defense.

In fact, the real defense is offense. This week the president called members of the FBI “scum,” and Attorney General William P. Barr dismissed the conclusions of the Justice Department’s own inspector general. The president and his followers now routinely attack the Foreign Service, intelligence agencies and the Justice Department. The White House has refused to honor congressional subpoenas or document requests to an extent unprecedented in U.S. history.

But it’s not just Trump:

Across the democratic world, the institutions of liberty and law are under attack. If they give way, the fraying democratic fabric of our societies will ultimately tear apart.

That’s the new perspective. That’s the context now. And it’s okay to worry now – in context.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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