Tom Friedman talks Trump, China and ‘crazy radical’ Republican Party | Rosemary O’Hara
The day Tom Friedman came to town, his Code Red column on President Trump sat atop The New York Times’ most-emailed articles list for a third straight day and the Parkland school shooting was fresh on everyone’s minds.
I got to introduce him — and ask the audience’s questions — at the Broward College Speakers Series that evening. But by the time Friedman had finished opening our eyes to what was on his mind — the dizzying pace of computing advances and the revolutionary changes in store for jobs, government and the world — the time for questions had almost run out.
I was afraid people might be disappointed that Friedman didn’t talk more about the president, the school shooting and the Middle East, given his Pulitzer Prize-winning ability to help readers see and think about current events. But as they were exiting, people were abuzz. He’d opened their eyes to something they hadn’t realized.
It was a big lesson for me. That is, by focusing only on the urgent, it’s easy to miss the seismic shifts happening on the periphery. Friedman lays out the unsettling march of technology in his new book: “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.”
But since I still held all those question cards and had had the chance to interview him before the event, let me share some of his answers (edited for length) here.
Between the urgent and the important, how do you decide what to write about?
Trump is a real challenge, because he says and does really outrageous things almost every day, from my point of view. To not write about them is to seem to normalize them. Today he called on his attorney general to investigate why Obama didn’t do more about Russia meddling, yet he himself has done nothing about Russia meddling. … If you rise every time he throws something up, you would end up writing about him every week or twice a week. But if you don’t, it feels like it normalizes him. But if you do, you’re actually not learning.
Why did you call a Code Red on the president?
I think we have a deeply disturbed person in the White House. Up to now, his behavior has been violating the norms of a president. But when the directors of the FBI, CIA and NSA testify before Congress that Russia intervened in our elections, is still intervening and plans to intervene in our next election — and when the Special Counsel indicts 13 Russians for intervening in our election, as well as three Russian organizations — and our president has no response to that other than to blame any number of people, he’s no longer violating the norms of his office, he’s actually violating the oath of his office. Because the oath of his office was to protect and defend the Constitution, which is under assault. An essential core feature of our Constitution is that we have free and fair elections. So I wrote a column saying this was a Code Red moment. The biggest threat facing our democracy today is sitting in the Oval Office.
Some things are true even if Donald Trump believes them.
Why do you think Trump’s base sticks with him, no matter what?
There’s something deeply cultural going on in the country. One thing I always say to Democrat friends is that some things are true even if Donald Trump believes them.
One of those things is, we have a real trade problem with China that needs to be fixed and to pretend we don’t is really to miss what’s going on in the world. We thought China was going to reform and open and it reformed and closed, so we have a structural trade problem with China. Second, we can’t take every immigrant because we’re in a different world now. The world is divided between a world of order and a world of disorder, and the world of disorder wants to get into the world of order. So we have to think seriously about how we deal with that.
Third, political correctness on college campuses is out of control. Fourth, I would say people want an economic policy that’s going to grow the pie, not just redivide the pie. And fifth, people want to feel comfortable expressing love and patriotism for their country. They want to feel they belong to a place in an age of globalization where national identities are getting washed out.
So to me, a Democrat could take all five of those things and take them in a really positive direction. Trump takes them in a destruction direction often. But those are things people are feeling and I think to ignore that is really dangerous.
I was working on this book the whole time of this campaign and … I thought he could win from the beginning because I was in the plumbing. I could see how people’s lives were being disrupted, roiled and what not. I didn’t predict he was going to win, but my last column on the eve of the election was addressed to his voters. It was called: “Dear fellow Americans, Please don’t do this. I know what you’re feeling, but this is not going to work for you.”
Is our cultural divide a matter of small towns versus cities?
That’s part of it, but even that’s not true. The cliche is that America is a country divided between two coasts. The two coasts are liberalizing, pluralizing, globalizing and modernizing. And then there’s flyover America, where everyone is high on opioids, voted for Trump and waiting for 1950. That’s sort of the cliche out there.
Well, I’m from Minnesota and all you have to do is be from flyover America to know that’s not true. It’s not geographic. … The main challenge we face is a giant adaptation challenge. Which organisms survive when the climate changes? Complex adaptive organisms. It’s, “Can you build a coalition between business, educators, philanthropists and local government to create a complex adaptive coalition?” Communities that are rising to it are actually thriving and communities that are not are being left behind faster than ever.
A lot of those Trump voters came from communities that are falling, not rising. Sure, there’s a huge urban-rural split because we now live in an urbanized world. More than half the planet now lives in cities. … But I go back to my five things that are true even if Trump believes them. People don’t listen through their ears, they listen through their stomachs. If you can connect with them on a gut level, you can take them anywhere. And if you don’t connect on a gut level, you can’t show them enough details.
If you can connect with (people) on a gut level, you can take them anywhere. And if you don’t connect on a gut level, you can’t show them enough details.
Trump was all about connecting with people on a gut level on those five things. Hillary was all about, “Let me show you the details. Go to my website.” But she could never show people enough details because at the gut level, she wasn’t connecting with enough people in key places.
Then you have the quirks of our electoral system and what not. So I think it’s very dangerous for Democrats to say, “We’re winning all these state races.” … If you don’t have a candidate who can connect with people on a gut level on those five things and take them in a constructive direction … you’re going to be in for another shellacking.
Do you see a strong Democratic candidate emerging?
Not right now. It’s too early, almost. It’s clearly happening at the local and state level. If you look at the Alabama election, that was really telling. Virginia, as well. I think there are people emerging, but there isn’t an Obama out there right now, someone who’s so far and away superior to the crowd. But we just finished Year One of this guy.
Yeah, that’s how I feel, too. I’m not sure we can go on like this.
What about our place in the world? The world wonders, “What’s America thinking?”
I just got an email from my son-in-law who works for a Chinese solar company in San Francisco. He was reacting to my column. He said, “Russia is stealing the president and China is stealing the future.” In the present, we’re all focused on Russia. If you want to see the future, you’ve got to go to China. It used to be if you wanted to see the future, you came to America. That’s less and less true every year.
What do you see when you go to China?
What you see is mass transit that is of a Disney World quality. My colleagues who work in China think nothing of taking a trip — the equivalent of New York to Chicago — on high-speed rail to interview someone for the day and come back. They’ve connected all their major cities, now they’re going to secondary and tertiary cities. China has a cashless economy. All my Chinese women friends, none of them carry purses anymore. They just carry their phones. They really are cashless. You can now actually give money to a beggar on the street. He has a QR code in his beggar bowl and you just wave your phone over it.
How can China afford so many high-speed rail lines?
Because they’re not wasting money in other ways. They’re not building a wall on the border, they’re not fighting a million foreign wars and they’re generating enormous savings. … And they can just force things through. They don’t have to worry about 10 city councils voting on whether the train can come through. They just do it. … They’ve got huge other problems they face. We’d still rather be us, than them. But there’s no question. They’re really focused on the future and we’re not.
What’s the biggest challenge China faces?
Hundreds of millions in the countryside living on two dollars a day that have to be absorbed and elevated. … A lot of people say China is overrated, and it could be. But what if they’re just getting started? What if we’re just about to see the payoff of 30 years of investing in education and 30 years of investing in infrastructure? When you look at things like quantum computing, which is the next frontier in computing, China is right there. It’s made massive investments in that.
In quantum computing, are you afraid artificial intelligence might one day outsmart humans?
Personally, I’m not. But I read about the people who are. … Obviously, there are issues that have to be watched. … I spent a lot of time with the IBM Watson team. They will tell you, “We can teach Watson how to be an oncologist.” He read every article ever written on oncology … Watson is an amazing oncologist. But he can’t decide tomorrow to be a dentist. … But we’re in an age of acceleration. The pace of change is really fast.
My company keeps changing the computer systems for how we publish content, manage performance and pay the bills. I consider myself adaptive, but it’s frustrating.
That’s part of what created Trump, because along came a guy who said, “I will stop the wind.” The wall is a metaphor for so many things other than immigration. It’s a wall to stop the wind. That really appealed to a lot of people. Rather than say, “Look, Rosemary, You’re going to have to adapt. You’re going to have to be a lifelong learner.” Who wants to hear that? I just want to hear that you’re going to stop the wind.
Basically, people went to the grocery store sometime over the last 10 years and either the cashier didn’t speak a language they recognized or was wearing a head covering that wasn’t a baseball cap. Then they went to the men’s room and there was someone of the other sex in the stall next to them. Then they went to their office and their boss just rolled up a computer next to their desk and it seemed to be studying their job. So all these things happened at once. The things that anchor us — our sense of place, our sense of identity, our sense of work — they all got disrupted really quickly at once. And that’s a big part of what’s going on, too. Again, some things are true even if Trump believes them.
They’re a party that’s ready to say, in the face of all the science of climate change, `What the hell.’
Tom Friedman, on today’s Republican Party
Why do evangelical Christians stick with Trump, given his behavior?
So much of this becomes Sunnis and Shiites. It’s no longer like a political philosophy. It’s, “I’m in this tribe. We call ourselves Republicans. And I’m in this tribe. We call ourselves Democrats.” But I don’t think they’re equal, frankly. I think the Republican Party has completely lost its way. It’s a party that stood for fiscal discipline under Obama and now has become the most undisciplined fiscal party in our modern history. It’s a party that stood for family values and it’s now embracing the most indecent man to ever occupy the White House. It’s a party that said, “We oppose abortion even in the case of rape, incest and the life of the mother,” yet is indifferent to gun control laws that would protect fully developed human beings. So they have a real problem in my view explaining all of this.
I think they’ve lost their way as a party, and one of the things ailing the country is, we no longer have a conservative party. They’re a party that’s ready to say, in the face of all the science of climate change, what the hell. In the face of all the budgetary projections of what these deficits will do, what the hell. In the face of the most indecent human being to ever occupy the White House, what the hell. That’s not conservative. That’s crazy Trotskyite radical.
Why are Republicans so cohesive? They stay together like a pack of dogs when the Democrats act like cats.
Again, it’s become tribal. We’ve become Sunnis and Shiites. So now it’s about my identity. Why that happened is beyond my skillset, but it happened in the last decade or so. … And Shiites don’t become Sunnis just because they have a bad leader, anymore than Mets fans become Yankees fans because they have a bad season.
Reach Sun Sentinel Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RosemaryOhara14.