Thomas L. Friedman: Trump, impeachment and catching Frisbees

(Mark Lennihan | AP file photo) A dog named Jelly leaps for a Frisbee while playing in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, March 4, 2019, in New York.

As the country embarks on only the third impeachment trial of a president in its history, there are many unique features about this moment, but one stands out for me: Never before have we had to confront a president who lies as he breathes and is backed by a political party and an entire cable TV-led ecosystem able and enthusiastic to create an alternative cognitive universe that propagates those lies on an unlimited scale.

It is disheartening, disorienting and debilitating.

How can the truth — that Donald Trump used taxpayer funds to try to force the president of Ukraine to sully the reputation of Joe Biden, a political rival — possibly break through this unique trifecta of a president without shame, backed by a party without spine, reinforced by a network without integrity?

There is only one way: Keep it simple.

Democrats need to just keep repeating over and over one question: “Why would an innocent man, and a jury interested in the truth, not want all the evidence out and all the witnesses to testify? Wouldn’t you if you were innocent?”

Indeed, at moments like these I always fall back on what I consider to be one of the most useful essays in political science. It was a 2012 speech by Andrew Haldane, a top economist at the Bank of England, at an economic symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was titled “The Dog and the Frisbee” and was all about how central bankers and regulators should think about regulation after the 2008 financial crisis.

Haldane began by asking a profound philosophical question that we should all ponder occasionally: Why are dogs better than humans at catching a Frisbee?

“Catching a Frisbee is difficult,” Haldane began. “Doing so successfully requires the catcher to weigh a complex array of physical and atmospheric factors, among them wind speed and Frisbee rotation. Were a physicist to write down Frisbee-catching as an optimal control problem, they would need to understand and apply Newton’s Law of Gravity. Yet despite this complexity, catching a Frisbee is remarkably common. ... It is a task that an average dog can master. Indeed some, such as Border collies, are better at Frisbee-catching than humans.

“So, what is the secret of the dog’s success? The answer, as in many other areas of complex decision-making, is simple,” he said. “Or rather, it is to keep it simple. For studies have shown that the Frisbee-catching dog follows the simplest of rules of thumb: Run at a speed so that the angle of gaze to the Frisbee remains roughly constant.”

Haldane then went on to explain that catching a financial crisis required the same approach: Keep it simple, don’t choke markets with too many complex regulations, understand that oftentimes “less may be more.”

So it is with this impeachment, too. Democrats need to keep it simple. The goal in this trial is not a conviction by the Senate. That is simply impossible with this Republican Party intimidated by this president using this Fox News-led noise machine.

The most that can be achieved, and it’s a lot, actually, is to convey to the swing voters — the independents, suburban women and moderate Republicans who delivered the House to the Democrats in the 2018 midterms — just how much this president is ready to put himself above the law. And, therefore, four more years of his presidency, when he would no longer be “restrained” by the need for re-election, would be catastrophic for our country’s unity and for the institutions and norms that have sustained it since 1776.

I am convinced that more Americans are worried about the country’s cohesion and its institutions being ripped apart by Trump than Trump realizes. It’s a key reason his approval rankings remain largely flat while our stock markets soar. I also believe that the Trump team has overestimated how easy it will be for it to just keep hiding the most important evidence and witnesses now that the impeachment trial has begun and many Americans are tuning in to this issue for the first time.

And when they do, variations of that simple question — “Why would an innocent man, and a jury interested in the truth, not want all the evidence out and all the witnesses to testify? Wouldn’t you if you were innocent?” — will take on even more power.

Republican senators have been able to dodge that question for months while the matter was in the House but not any longer. And you can already see how uncomfortable it makes them by the way Sen. Martha McSally literally ran away from and denounced a CNN reporter when he asked her if the Senate should consider new evidence as part of the impeachment trial. There is a reason McSally fled.

A CNN poll released Monday night found that 69% of Americans want the Senate to call new witnesses, while 26% do not.

Democrats still need to come up with a compelling candidate against Trump. But the midterms told us that there is an important coalition of independents, moderate Republicans and suburban women no longer so sold on Trump.

In 2016 they disliked Hillary Clinton and were willing to give Trump a chance, telling themselves, “How bad could it be — and hey, anyway, we have the Constitution to protect us.” Then they witnessed just how bad it could be and that the Constitution in Trump’s hands could not protect us. Democrats running in swing districts in 2018 also kept it simple, focusing on Trump’s attempts to destroy Obamacare and coverage of pre-existing medical conditions.

This impeachment trial is another opportunity to show those swing voters just how bad it could be, by constantly asking why an innocent president would be frantically preventing the likes of his former national security adviser, John Bolton; his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney; and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, from testifying.

That’s banana republic stuff. That’s end-of-separation-of-powers stuff. That’s I-am-above-the-law stuff.

I repeat, it may not change the outcome of this trial. But it will strike some average, fair-minded Americans as just not right and give them another justification — for themselves, for their friends and for their families — to swing away from Trump in the presidential election. If the next election is about Trump, not the Democrat, a lot of experts believe, he will have a real uphill climb.

In order to prevent that, you are about to see the Trump-Fox-GOP noise machine go nuclear, pull out all the stops and fill the airwaves and the internet with distractions and misinformation.

So keep cutting through it with that simple question: “Why would an innocent man not want all the evidence out and all the witnesses to testify? Wouldn’t you if you were innocent?” Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. Don’t make it complicated. Just catch the Frisbee.

Thomas L. Friedman

Thomas L. Friedman is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.