In light of the U.S. presidential election today, Tom Friedman ’75, H’88, a New York Times columnist and author, joined the Brandeis community on Thursday, Oct. 29 for a virtual discussion with University President Ron Liebowitz. During the event, which was titled “Thinking Ahead to the Presidential Election,” Friedman discussed a wide array of concerns pertaining to the election and voiced his predictions for the outcome.

Friedman began by reflecting on a trip he took to Beirut in 1979, during which he witnessed the Lebanese Civil War. “I saw community breakdown,” he said. “I saw what happens when … people assume that they can just go all the way and push systems to their limits and they won't break, but actually, they will break.” He expressed concern that the same situation could unfold in the United States because both leaders are “violating norms.” For example, the Trump administration was able to nominate a Supreme Court justice during an election cycle, but the Obama administration was denied a similar opportunity in 2016, Friedman explained.

The way that the Trump administration has handled COVID-19 pandemic is also concerning for Friedman and represents another example of this breakdown in the system. Friedman connected the current situation to what he discusses in his 2008 book, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded,” which is about natural systems and the environment. He explained that we have to adapt and respond to the pandemic by looking at it as a danger within the natural system. “This is the first time for our generation of plants and animals that we have all experienced one of Mother Nature's fastballs all at the same time,” he said.

Nature asks three questions about a species’ adaptation strategy when a danger, such as a virus, affects it, Friedman went on to explain. The first question is, “Do you respect my fastball? Do you respect my body?” The second question is, “Are you coordinated in your response to my virus?” The third question is, “Have you built your adaptation strategy on chemistry, biology and physics?” If a species cannot adapt to a virus in a coordinated manner with respect to the environment and with a scientific approach, it is unlikely to survive. This is the situation that is taking place in the United States as the Trump administration responds to the pandemic, Friedman explained. “The problem with Trump is that [he] has no familiarity with natural systems. He looks at the world through markets,” he said.

Friedman said that the Trump administration’s strategy for responding to the pandemic is ineffective. In China, the government has effectively locked down the country as needed and used surveillance technology to assume control over the COVID-19 situation. Due to this, China has had significantly less COVID-related deaths than the United States, he explained. In Sweden, on the other hand, the government did not lock down the country, claiming that exposure to the virus would help citizens to develop immunity. This approach, however, has had disastrous effects. President Trump has claimed that the U.S. response would be as effective as China’s but avoid a full lockdown, more similar to Sweden’s response. However, it is not the case that this strategy is as effective as China's, and the virus is continuing to spread. “Prepare for neither and boast that you're superior to both. That was our strategy,” Friedman said. “So we locked down recklessly and inconsistently, and then we opened up recklessly and inconsistently, and now Mother Nature is just doing her thing.”

Friedman also emphasized that wearing a face mask, social distancing and washing hands are important and easy ways to protect oneself and others from the virus, but that the Trump administration has framed these things negatively. “This has nothing to do with personal freedom. … I wear a mask to protect my neighbor. … It’s the most patriotic thing you can do,” he said.

Pivoting to discuss international relations, Friedman said that if Biden is elected, the United States will return to “a more standard American foreign policy.” However, foreign relations still won’t be easy. In terms of the United States’ relationship with Israel, “Netanyahu went full force for Trump,” Friedman said, which could make things more complicated for Biden to continue this diplomatic relationship. That being said, Friedman also believes that with “creative diplomacy,” Biden would have a lot of “leverage” with countries such as China, Russia and Iran.

Liebowitz asked about what Friedman sees as the future of the Middle East. He praised the United Arab Emirates as “the most successful Arab state” and highlighted the government’s diplomatic relationship with Israel. He explained that diplomacy between the UAE and Israel, as well as throughout the rest of the Middle East, is “healthy,” particularly for fostering better Jewish and Muslim relations. He also noted that, in his view, Palestinians have not been compromising, but noted that this new diplomacy could have a “positive effect” toward resolving that conflict. Friedman added that he was in support of the 2020 Abraham Accords Peace Agreement reached between the UAE and Israel, as well as the United States. 

Turning back to the question of the current political moment, Liebowitz asked Friedman to reflect on the Brandeis motto — “Truth even unto its innermost parts” — and how democracy can be preserved in the United States. 

“That [motto is] a really appropriate model because basically democracies are built on two pillars: truth and trust,” Friedman said. “Unless we have basic shared truth, we have no idea what path to go down, and unless we trust each other, we have no ability to go down that path very far because you can only do big hard things together.” 

Friedman said he believes the country’s democracy can recover from Trump’s presidency up until this point, but not if he is reelected for a second term. “We can get by with four years of these attacks on truth and trust, I would say. It hasn't reached the bone and lymph nodes of our society … but four more years, and something here will be really broken.”

He expressed hope that Texas will vote for Biden because this would “force [the Republican Party] to come to terms with the fact that this whole Trump adventure they went down was a complete party-destroying adventure.” If Biden is elected, he should work toward national unity, Friedman explained, suggesting that Biden work with both Democrats and moderate Republicans. 

Friedman predicted that Biden has a 40% chance of winning the presidential election “by a landslide” and a 30% chance of just barely beating Trump, and Trump has a 30% of winning.

Looking forward, Liebowitz asked Friedman what he sees as the top foreign policy priorities of the future. Friedman responded with the climate crisis and U.S. relations with China. In regards to climate change, Friedman said, “I think that the space race of the 21st century is the Earth race. I don't want to put a man on the moon. I want to lead the world in designing the cleanest, greenest energy efficient technologies.” He explained that the United States is a valuable world leader, and in doing this, it would be setting an important example.

As for the United States’ relationship with China, Friedman said, “We have to find a way to work together with China without sacrificing our values, let alone our interests," describing it as "building bridges where possible [and] drawing red lines where necessary.” With another term of Trump in office, he explained that China could get ahead of the United States, which would pose a challenge in diplomacy and trade, particularly when it comes to technology. He said that, up until recently, China and the United States had a system of trade that worked well together, but that China is changing. In particular, Friedman mentioned that China is now producing and exporting “deep goods,” or products like technology that can significantly affect a country. Without engaging in this type of trade, however, economic relations with China will be altered. “We're gonna have to build some kind of pathways, otherwise we're heading for a digital Berlin wall,” he said.