Defined scientifically, a catalyst is a substance—an addition to a chemical process from which it alone emerges unscathed—by which a chemical reaction is hastened toward its final result. In a word, it speeds things up, without itself being consumed. Important to note here is that, while the catalyst is a participant in the reaction of which we speak, and often a very integral one at that, it doesn’t work so hard as to sacrifice itself nor to alter its end; that much is foreordained. The outcome is quite inevitable, so far as chemical reactions go. Indeed, it’s a finality over which the alternatively feeble and powerful catalyst has no control. In or outside of its presence, the chemical yield will be constant and the result unchanged.
The difference, however, is the time necessary for its completion. This is where the catalyst steps in. Its effect, therefore, is less material than temporal; it influences things much less than it does time. A reaction in which the catalyst doesn’t play a part might take twice as long to complete, a torpid effect that would make enzymes too slow, chemistry too leisurely, and biology too bogged down for its own good.
Applied journalistically, the term catalyst is often misused. Those writers to whom the journalist’s epithet applies, those scribblers from whose busy fingertips fundamental scientific concepts have a propensity to slip, will often use the word “catalyst” where that of “stimulus” or perhaps “impetus” would be more apt. A second-string quarterback, they might write, to whom the gates of the field are unexpectedly opened as a consequence of another’s broken leg and who, having assumed his new role, then proceeds to lead his team down field to score the winning point was less a catalyst than he was a stimulus. The fact that he’d be responsible for his team’s victory, of course, wasn’t in the least inevitable. If his presence were merely catalytic, as is the sportswriter’s claim, his appearance on the field would simply expedite the outcome, not change it. He was, if I’m not mistaken, a stimulant by whose insertion the whole scene changed. The catalyst simply makes that which was inevitable more prompt.
Though any occasion, in my mind, is one conducive to pedantry, I’ve felt especially drawn toward an examination of the word “catalyst” in the wake of its recent uptick in use. Not surprisingly, it’s recently seen itself evoked in the context of President Trump. He is, after all, the man to whom all of our words ultimately aim. He’s the solar fixture in our clouded world of talk, the saturnine man atop our universe of opinion and text around which all words and commentary spin. Indeed, at times he’s the black hole into which everything legible and audible descends. All astrological departures aside, the word “catalyst” has been used in reference to the precipitating event of his impeachment inquiry—his telephone conversation with the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.
The content of that conversation, seemingly as nefarious as it is ambiguous, has been determined the “catalyst” of this nascent impeachment event. I think, at least in this singular example of its journalistic use, it’s actually correctly applied. A point, here, goes to the writer as the scientist looks on with smiling pride. For what it’s worth, a broken clock, we’re often assured, is twice correct throughout the course of the day—why should not our writers be as infrequently lucky as those hands by which they’re pulled?
This impeachment inquiry, and likely the impeachment trial to which it’ll soon give birth, has been inevitable for quite a while. In fact, the first congressman earnestly to announce his intention to pursue this path was Texas’ Al Green, and he did so a mere four months into Donald Trump’s presidency. The fever with which Green sought to pursue and, if successful in his pursuit, to remove President Trump was hot, admittedly, but premature. It had all of the youthful energy but none of the sober gravity with which the possible removal of a sitting president is to be approached. That said, there persisted in every Democrats’ core a spark. That flame never did burn out and the hastening implosion before our eyes is its long-awaited result.
But the result itself is, like the chemical reaction to which I earlier referred, preordained. The impeachment of President Trump, from the day of his inauguration until now, has been inevitable. Should it not happen now, it would be effectuated at a later time. If he were to secure for himself a second term reaching all the way out to that inconceivable year of 2024, he’d surely be impeached at some point between now and then. And, ceteris paribus, assuming the House would be Democratic and the Senate Republican led, he’d simply be accused by the former and exonerated by the latter on a different day.
This phone call, this conversation-turned-cause célèbre, is in every way a catalyst. It’s a catalyst, however, in the scientific rather than the literary sense. It’s an event, an explosive chemical occurrence in the history of this land, that will hasten a result but probably change nothing. It’s a reaction to an apparent misdeed out which Trump, likely, will emerge with a burn but mostly unscathed. All of the necessary ingredients are stewing in this political cauldron: we encounter from it plumes of enmity, whiffs of impropriety, glimpses of concealment, and large doses of malice. The catalyst, in the form of the conversation, has now been dropped in. The end will soon arrive, but little will change.