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On Zoom with the U’s Larry Jacobs, Tom Friedman talks about Trump and democratic decay

Friedman, who said he is really worried right now, suggested that American governance needs a dose of “radical centrism.”

photo of president trump
REUTERS/Leah Millis
President Donald Trump
Local Boy Who Made Good Tom Friedman sat down over Zoom for an hour yesterday with Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota for an exchange of views, half about the meaning of Donald Trump, half about the larger world.

I’ll post a link when the whole thing becomes available, but for now I’ll focus mainly on the Trump aspect.

Friedman, who grew up in St. Louis Park and whose New York Times column covers the world more than the nation, said at first that in the era of Trump “we’re seeing things that we’ve never seen before,” then caught himself, and said that he has seen some of these things before — when he covered the 15-year-long civil war in Lebanon, and saw a country “actually fall apart,” illustrating what can happen when internal divisions reach a point where “major political actors don’t stop at the red lights” and the population “decides to go all the way” to tear the country apart rather than seek compromises that allow them to live with others who have different views.

He recalled, one day in Beirut during that civil war, seeing a car go in reverse down a crowded street at 50 miles an hour killing or injuring many without any rational purpose. He used it as an illustration of the kinds of things that happen as more and more people believe that differences can’t be compromised, and that the norms that hold a country together are less important than their side winning, in religious terms in Lebanon or in partisan terms in the United States.

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Perhaps, he said, an incontrovertible Joe Biden landslide will be accepted, but short of that, if Trump thinks he can win by never conceding and attempting to discredit all mail-in ballots — “If that happens we’re off to the races,” Friedman predicted, apparently meaning a race to the end of democracy as we know it in America.

Jacobs pressed him to clarify whether he believed the United States was really that far down the path to democratic decay leading to civil war. Friedman said he often gets in trouble for making comparisons between the U.S. and China, but he did it anyway, replying:

“There’s only one thing worse, in my view, than one-party autocracy, which China has. And that’s one-party democracy.

“One-party democracy is when you have a party in power, and the other party is completely dedicated to obstructing and undermining the decision-making of that party in power. When you have a one-party autocracy, like in China, and the leaders of that party are trained in engineering, and in science and at least believe in Newtonian physics, you can order, from the top down, what to do on infrastructure, education, etc., even as it’s crushing the hopes and dreams of Uighurs and others hoping for a more open society. But it can bring order to a lot of things, from the top down, that can advance that society.

“But when you have a one-party democracy, where, basically, one party is ruling and the other party is obstructing, in a system that is constitutionally designed to divide power, but assumes that the parties will compromise and come together in the end to do big hard things together, when you have that [kind of one-party-democracy], you’re really stymied. You’re just spinning your wheels.”

That’s close to where America is now, Friedman said.

“We’re just spinning our wheels. I mean where is a bridge out there that could be named after Trump? We haven’t built an ounce of infrastructure. We’re trying to destroy the little national health care that we have now, ‘we’ meaning the Republican Party under Trump.”

“So I’m really worried. How long can we go on, with a system of government which is built around dividing power so that no one is a king — then unable to produce the compromises that were also embedded in the logic of that system?

“And we still keep drifting, year after year.… It’s one of the reasons we have done so poorly in this pandemic. And the other main [reason] is that progress really depends, in a democracy, on truth and trust. That we all share the same basic truth, and share enough trust that even if we disagree we can come together for a solution.

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“And we have an administration that has been destroying truth and trust, almost as a matter of policy.”

Friedman said that Trump’s whole approach to policy is to divide us. He describes as “fake news” anything that he doesn’t like or is critical of him. And, Friedman said:

“We have social networks now, especially Facebook and Twitter, whose business model – whose business model – is to arouse you by putting in front of you the most either appealing or enraging material, whether true or false, to keep you on the site so they can sell you more ads.

“And the two of them together, Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump, are doing a dandy job of undermining truth and trust and destroying our cognitive immunity – our ability to sort out fact from fiction – and our social immunity – our ability to come together to do big hard things.”

He suggested that American governance needs a dose of “radical centrism” in which certain things can be done and should be done without either side of the political spectrum claiming it as a gain at the expense of the other side. Which led to this crazy-but-perhaps-brilliant formulation:

“Politics has to be about something other than itself.”

What the heck does that mean?

Friedman recalled the surprising moment in late February, when Joe Biden was all but eliminated from the race after underperforming in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the mostly Black Democratic primary voters of South Carolina seemingly decided, rather than uniting behind one of the several Black candidates still in the race, to rescue Joe Biden’s chances.

“I think there was some real reason wisdom there. They intuited that our country was getting ripped apart. And what it needed was someone who could begin to repair it from the center. Someone who actually could work with Republicans and pull it back together. …

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“So my fervent hope is that, I hope Biden wins in a landslide. I hope this version of the Republican Party is crushed, because it deserves to be crushed. And that a fracture occurs between the Trump cult and moderate Republicans, of whom there are still many, I believe.

“I’ve done a couple of columns urging Biden to basically form a national unity government. Appoint two or three Republicans to his Cabinet. And really try to rebuild the center.

“We only have big, hard things left to do. And big, hard things can only be done together. … What the Republican coalition has become is a president without shame, backed by a party without spine, amplified by a network without integrity.”

I’ll wrap up, knowing I’ve done little but quote excerpts from Friedman.

The above was all in the first half of the Friedman-Jacobs exchange. Most of the rest was less Trump-obsessed and full of interesting facts and arguments. When it’s available, I’ll try to add a link to the full event and you can watch it yourself.