OPINION

Thomas Friedman: Trump is ‘a terrible navigator’

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In an interview with Kathimerini, influential New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman offers scathing criticism of US President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Nonetheless, he points out that the crisis will make things more difficult for Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic rival ahead of November’s presidential election, as the incumbent has the advantage of being able to monopolize the conversation with society.

The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner is critical of China’s lack of transparency in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak while expressing concern about the cohesion of the European Union. He believes that the crisis will change life by accelerating pre-existing trends, both positive and negative, and catapulting sensitive issues ranging from justice and protection of private data to the preservation of political and social freedoms to center stage.
 

What are your personal thoughts on these last weeks? On a human level, what does this extraordinary situation feel like?

It feels like I am somewhere I have never been before. None of us have lived through a global pandemic, where everyone in the world is basically facing the same challenge. People are trying to balance the need to stay home and be safe, and at the same time worrying about how they will have enough income, worrying about their savings, their future.

How do you assess President Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis?

He was described during the campaign as a chaos candidate and he’s been a chaos president. Such a president is terrible in a pandemic where you want someone who is focused entirely on the science, who is listening to his health advisers, not relying in his gut feeling about different cures. And you want someone who is arming people with a clear plan about how we will act in the short term and the medium term, and what to hope for in the long term.

He has not done that. He has been all over the place and he is so obsessed with himself and his own political standing and daily polls that he’s been a terrible navigator for the country and the world.

You know, historically America played three roles in a crisis. We would be the coalition builder in the fight against the crisis. We would be a source of truth and science. And, then we would be a source of comfort. We have been none of those in this crisis.

What about his decision to halt funding for the World Health Organization?

The WHO decision is classic Trump. Deflection. Look at someone else to blame. The World Health Organization has not performed all that well at the start of the crisis, and it is not above reproach. A lot of people made mistakes early on and went easy on China in terms of getting all the facts. But pulling out of the WHO right now, I think Bill Gates got that exactly right. It’s as disturbing as it sounds.

Could he go so far as to dismiss the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr Anthony Fauci?

I don’t think he will dismiss Dr Fauci. There would be a huge backlash against that.

Does the new situation change Joe Biden’s prospects against Donald Trump in the upcoming presidential elections?

It’s very hard to be a candidate in a crisis like this against an incumbent. Because the incumbent every day gets the chance to prove or disprove his leadership. He gets the chance to make big decisions. To comfort people or not. And not everything that Trump has done is wrong.

Biden doesn’t get the chance to prove himself. His age puts him in the most vulnerable group with respect to Covid-19 and therefore he has to be particularly careful, isolated. So, it becomes very difficult for him to show leadership in a crisis which defines who is a leader and who isn’t. We have seen governors and mayors who stood up and have been amazing. And others who have been faulty. I think the election is Trump’s to win or lose.

Any possibility of seeing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo run for president?

It is the process that does not allow this to happen. If you read people’s minds, Cuomo has built a lot of trust and has shown leadership. But we just do not have a process. I personally have called on Biden to name a kind of national unity cabinet to distinguish himself from Trump. We will need a lot on national unity as a huge number of equity issues, privacy issues, civil liberties issues, emerge, as we try to come out of this. Like after 9/11, you wanted to know that the person sitting next to you was not carrying a bomb, you will need to know that the person next to you is not carrying Covid-19. And that will get us into a lot of deep civil liberties questions. You can see that in Hong Kong, China, South Korea and Singapore, as they pivoted from sheltering places to trying to get their economies started.

What are your thoughts on the role of China and Europe, the other two major global powers?

China has tried to assert more leadership. China can only really become a global leader not by sending us more masks but by unmasking how this virus really started. We do not really know China. I am not into calling this the China virus, to pick on China. That said, the virus did emerge from Wuhan, and China still has been very non-transparent about how this virus emerged. Was it somehow accidentally from a biochemical facility? Did it come out of the wet market? If it did, what steps are they taking to make sure it does not happen again?

Early on China was very non-transparent about this and even cracked down on one of the first doctors who called for stronger measures. That doctor tragically died from Covid-19. I am not a China basher. So, if China wants to lead, I think it’s very important that China and the US collaborate. The world will be stronger if they do. But Beijing owes us some explanations.

What about Europe? This came after the economic crisis, which had a huge impact on Greece. Now, again, there is criticism of Germany.

I worry for Europe. I wrote early on, quoting Michele Gelfand of the University of Maryland, that you have two types of cultures in the world. Tight cultures and loose cultures. The former are very authority-bound, top-down, order-taking, collectivist. Loose cultures are individualistic, less top-down, less order-taking, less collectivist. In pandemics tight cultures appear to do better in many ways than loose cultures. China, Singapore, Hong Kong Korea, Germany, are tight cultures. Italy, Spain, to some extent Greece, are loose cultures. And loose cultures in a pandemic seem to be really challenged.

I fear that the disparity in the economic impact of this crisis between Italy and Germany may become so great, and that the bailout required by Italy could become so large, that the country will have no other option but to leave the European Union and devalue its currency as the only way of basically going forward. I do not predict that, but I worry about it.

Finally, what are your thoughts on the sudden – almost total – digitization of business, education, daily life?

The coronavirus will accelerate any pre-existing trend and will expose and exacerbate any pre-existing weakness. One of the trends that was already there was more distant working or online retail. The crisis will accelerate these trends. It will exacerbate weaknesses like companies living with a high amount of credit, not having a strong balance sheet. A similar situation will arise with unhealthy populations – with health issues like being overweight to having diabetes etc. There will be lack of social trust. Those kinds of weaknesses. It’s like the mother of all stress tests. I really see both.

You mentioned education. I do see online education accelerated. The discussion we are having today, the two of us, I had a similar one during this last week with colleagues from Dubai, Santiago, Istanbul and Sao Paolo. And you know what I am discovering? That this is actually pretty good. As a journalist I always believed in the motto “if you don’t go, you don’t know,” but now this is changing to “if you don’t Zoom, you don’t know.” Our exchange of ideas is 90 percent of what I would get from coming to Athens. This will change the way I act and work. It does not mean I will not come to Greece, but I will take more advantage of technology.