Author & Journalist Thomas Friedman

The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist discusses the underlying currents that led to the stunning Trump victory.

Thomas L. Friedman is an author, reporter, and columnist—the recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes and the author of seven bestselling books, among them From Beirut to Jerusalem and his newly released Thank You for Being Late. He has been a New York Times columnist for more than 20 years. Friedman got degree in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern studies from Brandeis University and then Oxford University, on a Marshall Scholarship. His journalism career started at the London Bureau of United Press International (UPI) on Fleet Street, where he worked as a general assignment reporter and then a foreign correspondent. Friedman joined The New York Times in 1981 first as a reporter.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
It is the day after Donald J. Trump is our President-elect. That is our reality. It is his opportunity. Tonight then a conversation with The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman.
His new text just about to be released is called “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations”, pretty timely, I think, for our conversation tonight.
A conversation with Thomas Friedman coming up in just a moment.
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Tavis: Tonight I’m pleased to welcome Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Thomas Friedman, back to this program. His latest forthcoming text coming out the 22nd of this month, to be exact, is called “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations”.
I predict not so boldly that it too will be a New York Times bestselling book. Thomas Friedman, good to have you back on the program, sir.
Thomas Friedman: Tavis, thanks for having me.
Tavis: Let me jump right in, to your mind, what happened last night?
Friedman: Well, what happened was an earthquake. You can’t underestimate it, Tavis. Whenever you get as big a shift in the tectonic plates as you got last night with the election of Donald Trump as president, you know it was fed by many things.
The factors that I would identify would be the following. One is, I think, a profound sense of homelessness that a lot of Americans feel. This is something I do discuss in my book for a couple of reasons.
One is a feeling that their communities are being overwhelmed by people of a different color and a different culture, and you’re seeing a backlash to that. I got to the grocery store and somebody’s speaking Spanish or is wearing a head cover. That’s one, you know, trend that was part of this.
The second is the sense of homelessness that comes from I’m working in an office, there’s now a robot threatening my job, you know, there’s now software that’s eating away at another part of it. And a sense that two things that anchor you in the world, your community and your workplace, are somehow in play. So I think that the sort of the “best” of the Trump backlash was about that, something profound.
The worst of it, I think, was what Van Jones on CNN called a whitelash, a backlash against eight years of our first African American president, and I think that ugliness was also part of it. And I think another part of it, Tavis, honestly, is just a kind of debasement of our culture, a fascination with a TV personality, someone who lives the life of the rich and famous, that was an allure to people.
And also, I think there was an element of what the hell? What do we have to lose? Let’s shake up the game board. These guys haven’t done so well. So even though Trump has said and done all of the noxious things, let’s give it a ride. So you put all of those things together and, somewhere in there, you got a slim majority of electoral votes for Donald Trump as president.
Tavis: So there’s a lot to unpack there, so let me start where you began, Thomas. That is with the first part of your–Part A of your definition of homelessness. As I heard it, that could also be described by some as nativism or, worse yet, racism. Why call it homelessness as opposed to nativism or racism?
Friedman: Sure. And I’d be happy to and I make that point in my book. I think you’re seeing this backlash to immigrants and to people of different color and faiths being all mixed together now in this age of globalization. I think it was a big part of Brexit and I think that kind of nativist, racist, put whatever “ist” label on it you want, was at work here in this election as well.
And there are a lot of, we know, white males, less educated, who feel threatened by this influx of people who look different from them and who feel threatened by these changes in the workplace. And Donald Trump vowed to build a wall to stop all these changes, and they were more than happy to sign up, you know, for that parade no matter how noxious or indecent his personality.
And if you ask me what is so shocking to me just as a citizen, not just as a journalist, it’s that so many people were ready to overlook so much of his baggage, his personal baggage, things he’s done, his basic indecency in many ways, in order to make that vote. That was shocking to me.
Tavis: So I’ll come back to that shock and I’m sure other shocks you have as well. I certainly had a few last night myself. I’ll come back to the homeland, Thomas, in just a second.
But since no one at The New York Times or anyplace else, for that matter, writes about this better than you do, and since you mentioned Brexit, as you well know, this is not–what happened last night is not just happening in this country. It’s happening around the globe. Unpack for me why that is the case.
Friedman: It’s a very good question, Tavis, and it’s, again, certainly I try to explain in my book, we’re in an age of accelerated globalization because barriers have come down between countries voluntarily in some cases, in the case of the EU, in the case of NAFTA in the United States. We have simply more people mixing and meeting with more other people and on the move.
But at the same time, Tavis, because of the rising disorder in parts of the world, in the case of Europe, in the Middle East and North Africa, in the case of our hemisphere from Central and Latin America, people flowing in, and refugees from abroad, but those are more controlled immigration because they have to cross the ocean, you have just a lot more people on the move today.
We actually have more refugees today than any time since World War II. Some are climate refugees, some are war refugees. So you have just a lot more people confronting the other and this clearly is happening at a pace and a scope that is too fast for some people.
And you saw the first backlash to that in Europe and their electoral map in the UK with their dropping out of the European Union, their electoral map looked so much like ours last night. That is in all of the urban centers where young people predominate who actually like a more multicultural embrace that kind of diverse society.
They all voted to stay in the European Union. In America, they voted for Hillary Clinton. And then outside these urban areas, less cosmopolitan, more nativist-oriented, less welcoming of the other, and they voted for Trump and for Brexit.
Tavis: And less educated.
Friedman: And less educated as well.
Tavis: So you know that after the Brexit vote–I read your stuff all the time, of course–you know that after the Brexit vote, there was a huge national rethinking of that vote. As you’ll recall, everybody was googling Brexit to see what in fact they had voted for.
I’m not sure that I see the signs of that already in this country, but might it be the case in the next days and weeks that we will rethink what we did here by electing Donald Trump?
Friedman: You know, that so much depends, obviously, on what Trump does. You know, what I said in my own column last night which I wrote after he was declared the victor is that, if you’re looking for a silver lining–and, boy, at two in the morning last night, my friend Tavis, I was looking for a silver lining [laugh], there’s one silver lining with Donald Trump.
I don’t think he believes a single thing he said during this campaign. That’s not to say I think he’s really a dove and a liberal in wolf’s clothing, but you know what I’m saying. Therefore, he can change on a dime.
Tomorrow he could say about Mexico, I didn’t mean a wall, wall. I meant a virtual wall. I actually meant Wall Street and Mexico. Oh, you heard wall? I mean, this guy could just change on a dime. I think he’s also, again, if you’re looking for a silver lining, this is a guy who wants to win and he wants to succeed.
Okay, the dog caught the car. I’m not comparing him to a dog, but you know what I mean. The story of the dog chasing the car. So he caught the car and how he’s sitting on the hood and he wants to succeed. And because of that, you’d think he will want to appoint good people and he’ll want to proceed with some caution. So I think he’s gonna be very, very unpredictable.
I mean, what I’ve been telling people this morning is I just have three questions after this election. Question number one is who is Donald Trump? Is he the racist xenophobe, woman-assaulting guy we saw on some days? Or is he the guy who gave that speech last night saying we all have to come together? You know, who is Donald Trump? Who’s the Republican Party?
Is it Paul Ryan’s Republican Party of kind of Wall Street Republicans want free trade, immigration, entitlement reform? Or is it, you know, Breitbart Alt-Right Party which wants God knows what? At the same time, who are the Democrats now? They have to really decide who are they? And I think all of these questions and their answers will affect one another. So I’m just keeping my powder dry.
My position is I will not do what Republicans did the last years, which is from day one tried to make the first African American president in our history fail, and they did that for eight years, and we paid a price for it. By the way, they paid a price for it because they so left their garden untended, they got an invasive species called Donald Trump who took it over. So it wasn’t without cost to them.
But I’m not going to sit here and plot to make Trump fail, but I know what I believe. I know what I believe is good for the country and I’m going to stand for those values. If they overlap with the direction he takes us, I’ll support him. If they don’t, I will remain a critic and a skeptic.
Tavis: Before I get to HRC, Donald Trump sees himself as a winner. He wants to win in business. He wants to win in life. He sees himself as a winner. I don’t know that he wanted to be president initially, but when he got wind that he could win, the guy dug in his heels because he wanted to win. He is a winner.
The question I have now is, once he won the nomination, now he’s won the presidency, what does winning look like for him as president? If the guy is a winner and wants to win, which is to say, he wants to be a successful president, how do we know what winning means for Donald Trump in the governing and not the campaigning? Does that make sense?
Friedman: It makes perfect sense. I took this up a little bit last night because Trump comes out of a real estate tradition, Tavis. So in real estate, everything is zero sum. I win, that means you lose, okay? In fact, the more you lose, the more I win. That does not apply to America and the world, okay?
In real estate, it’s win-lose. With us in the world and in an interdependent world, most of the time it has to be win-win. Yes, in the Cold War, we wanted to win, they wanted to lose. But, you know, after World War II, we did the Marshall Plan.
We actually gave Europe money to build them up into a healthy, democratic, free market economy that became an incredible trading partner for us, trading partner and democracy promoting partner, that made us both stronger, more stable and wealthy. So a lot of what we do in the world is win-win and Trump comes along and he’s basically, you know, saying to the Koreans like it’s a real estate deal.
Hey, Korea, your dim sum restaurant’s not paying its fair share of rent. You know, you’re gonna have to pony up, pal. Well, you know what happens when you say that to the Koreans. Then he says to the Japanese, yeah, your sushi place in my Tower is–no, this is not a real estate deal.
Because when you tell the Japanese and the Koreans if you don’t pay a little bit more, we’re going to drop you, you know what they say? Oh, very interesting. Then we’re gonna go get our own nuclear weapon because we got China next door. And suddenly, you have massive nuclear proliferation. So he has not thought these things out at all.
The second point I would say is this, Tavis. You know, the premise of my book is that what’s shaping the world today is that we’re in the middle of three giant exponential accelerations in what I call the market, Mother Nature, and Moore’s Law.
Moore’s Law is a proxy for technology that the speed in power microchips will double every 24 months. If you put it on a graph, it looks like a hockey stick. Mother Nature, that’s climate change biodiversity laws population. If you put it on a graph, it looks like a hockey stick. And the market for me is digital globalization. Put it on a graph, it looks like a hockey stick.
We’re in the middle, Tavis, not of one. We’re in the middle of three climate changes at once, and they are not just changing the world. They are reshaping it. I tell a story. I quote a Congressman from Minnesota where I grew up as saying, you know, if you grow up in Minnesota in the 60s and 70s, in the 60s and 70s in Minnesota, you needed a plan to fail. You needed a plan to fail.
That is, there was so much wind at our back then that, if you just had an average education and average skills, the system, the updraft, was so powerful it would take you forward to the American dream.
Today, Tavis, in this age of acceleration, you need a plan to succeed. You need a plan to succeed as a country. You need a plan to succeed as a company. And most of all, every individual worker needs a plan to succeed.
Therefore, leadership, it always mattered, Tavis. It matters more than ever today at the national level and at the personal level. And that’s what going to be, I think, a big challenge for Trump. This is not your grandfather’s world.
Tavis: In case you’re just tuning in, we’re talking to Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. His new book is called “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations”. That’s the text to which he just referenced.
Speaking of the book, and of your point about needing a plan to succeed, how worried are you about the fact that, if Trump does have a plan, he was able to get away with winning the nomination and winning the election without really detailing much of whatever it might be?
Friedman: Well, you know, that’s what terrifies me, that I have no idea how much of this world he really understands. He’s shown no interest in doing his homework. But let me just sort of address, you know, the challenges of these three accelerations.
You know, I say globalization and technology and in the climate. I think there’s only one way to go forward and that is we need to get–and this is my own personal politics, but I frame this in the book–that is, my personal politics, Tavis, is I’m actually on some issues to the left of Bernie Sanders.
I believe we should have a single-payer healthcare system. I believe that, as the world gets this fast, we need to strengthen all of our safety nets and we need to enable and empower and inspire every American to do lifelong learning.
Because the new social contract is that you can have a lifelong job, but only if you are a lifelong learner. So on some issues, I’m to the left of Bernie. But on other issues, quite frankly, I’m to the right of the Wall Street Journal editorial page [laugh]. I would…
Tavis: That’s hard to do, Thomas [laugh].
Friedman: Exactly, because there isn’t a lot of room there, but I found a little sliver [laugh]. That is, I’m for eliminating all corporate taxes and replacing them with a carbon tax, a tax on sugar, a tax on bullets, and a small financial transaction tax. I want to get radically entrepreneurial over here to unleash everyone’s economic potential.
To pay for the safety nets, I think we’re going to need over here as the world becomes too fast for some people, and I don’t want to leave them behind. We saw already in this election just the potential of what can happen when we do that.
So my own politics is very hybrid. The one–if I have, again, a glimmer, it needs a microscope for me to find the glimmer of hope in Trump–it’s that, again, he’s so unmoored politically that he could stumble his way toward that kind of combination. Because once he has said is he’s not for cutting social security.
So I think that’s where politics is going to have to go ultimately, and that brings together, I think, ultimately both the center left and the center right. Whether Trump gets there, again, I have no idea, but that’s where I want to go and that’s what I’m trying to promote in this book.
Tavis: To my mind–and I’m curious to get your take on this, Thomas–to my mind, the Democrats put up an elitist candidate in a populist election. It really is that simple to me. Now there are a number of tentacles that come off of that and you’ve talked about some of these issues tonight.
But I think fundamentally Hillary had bad timing in 2008 coming off of Bush. She’d voted for the Iraq War and Obama beat her over the head with that. Bad timing in 2008, bad timing this time because, again, the Democrats put up an elitist candidate in a populist election, and I think that explains what happened last night.
Friedman: Yeah. I mean, I think there was so much stuff going on. Whenever you talk about the Clintons, there’s just so much other baggage, you know. You know, when I decided yesterday–as I said, you know, from the beginning of this election, Tavis, I totally took Trump seriously. I was never one of those people who said he’ll be gone by June or July or August.
I took him seriously and to the very last day and, though I was highly critical of him, I tried to speak to Trump voters with respect even if I totally disagreed with them. I knew Clinton was going to lose or I had a bad feeling she was going to lose when I cast my vote yesterday, and I did it with so little enthusiasm.
Tavis: And what brought you such misery, such…
Friedman: Because I just never felt she had that combination that I think of center left, far left and center right ideas that I think we’re going to need as we go forward.
I think maybe in her heart she had them, but she never really excited people with I have a plan that can both take care of the people who are gonna be left behind here, and at the same, unleash the economy in ways we’re gonna need in order to afford this. And I think you have to have the balance. That’s where my politics is.
Tavis: I’m not one that believes that an election hangs on a particular word or a particular incident per se, but I do believe, Thomas, that that comment of her referring to his supporters as deplorables, they’re gonna be unpacking that one word for years to come. You agree?
Friedman: You know, Tavis, I learned I’m a little Jewish guy from Minnesota who’s covered the Arab world for, you know 40 years. You know, people read my stuff. Now how did that happen, you know? What did I learn coming from that background and covering the Arab Muslim world for so long and not doing it in a way by saying you’re all wonderful, you’re all great, it’s all the Jews’ fault.
The biggest lesson I’ve ever learned in journalism and life is that the secret to journalism is being a good listener, not only and not even most importantly, because of what you learn when you listen, but actually more importantly because listening is a sign of respect.
And if I go into a classroom of young Arab Muslim students, sometimes they’ve got columns of mine printed out and they’re ready to carve me up, and you just spend an hour listening to them. I mean, deep listening, not just waiting for them to stop talking. It’s amazing what they will let you say back.
If people sense that you’re listening to them, that you basically want them to succeed, you can actually tell them anything. But if they sense you’re not listening, that you really couldn’t care less if they succeed or not, you’re there to deliver your speech and then get out, you can’t tell them that the sun is shining.
And listening is a sign of respect and when people sense that you respect them at that kind of heart level, there’s a famous Talmudic phrase, “What comes from the heart enters the heart.”
Tavis: That’s right.
Friedman: “What doesn’t come from the heart doesn’t enter the heart.” And when people sense that, wow. You can take them places. They will listen to you. But if you sit down and say, look, half of you are okay in distress. The other half of you, you’re deplorable. But I can’t tell you who’s in which half. You all figure it out.
That is just so stupid and it’s just so counter-productive because, if you want your message to be received in the heart, it’s got to come from the heart and it’s got to start with giving people a sense of dignity.
Tavis: What say you to all those persons watching tonight who are licking their wounds and can’t believe that this America is their country?
Friedman: Well, first of all, I want to affirm their feelings. I know how they feel. I share so many of them. And my daughter, you know, last night called me really distressed because of this. You know, I tried to tell her, look, Sunny, I have to tell you honestly when Reagan was elected, I had some of those feelings.
When George W. Bush was elected and then re-elected, I had some of those feelings. But this country is incredibly strong and we’ve been through hard patches before.
You know, I really believe that this is an amazing time. That’s why my book is called “An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations” because I do believe if you want to make something today, it’s an amazing time, but it’s also an incredibly challenging time.
My book, Tavis, has a theme song. It’s actually by Brandi Carlile. It’s called “The Eye”. And the main refrain is, “I wrapped your love around me like a chain, but I never was afraid that it would die. You can dance in a hurricane as long as you’re standing in the eye.”
And it seems to me that Donald Trump ran on I can stop the hurricane. I don’t think you can do that. I think you need to build an eye that moves with these forces of change, draws energy from them, but at the same time, provides a platform of dynamic stability within them.
And where I see optimism in the country, those platforms of dynamic stability, they are healthy communities. If you want to be an optimist about America, Tavis, stand on your head because this country looks so much better from the bottom up than the top down. And I see healthy communities or I see communities applying hope, okay?
I have a friend, Amory Lovins, who likes to say, “Are you an optimist or a pessimist?” He always says, “I’m neither because they’re just two forms of fatalism. Everything’s gonna be great. Everything’s gonna be awful.”
And Amory says, “I believe in applied hope.” Well, I’ve seen a lot of applied hope at the community level all over this country, all right? And people just coming together, Black, white, all kinds of colors, all kinds of faiths, all kind of genders, and they’re solving problems together.
And this is not just blowing smoke. This is happening. In fact, it’s one of the reasons we’re going forward. There’s a lot of people applying hope to building the eye in the hurricane, and that’s what you should do. Don’t get focused on Washington. Don’t get depressed by that. Find that eye in your community. Build it, contribute to it. That is what will and continue to make America great.
Tavis: And there you have it from Thomas Friedman, must reading in The New York Times every week. And his new text is a must reading. It’s called “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations”.
You can preorder it online now, available at bookstores everywhere, as they say, on November 22. Thomas Friedman, always good to have you on. Thanks for your insights, my friend.
Friedman: I really appreciate it, Tavis.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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Last modified: November 10, 2016 at 2:13 pm