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A ‘knucklehead’ and a ‘bigot’: Tom Friedman on Trump, the Middle East and more

Dan Coleman
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Published: 8 October 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

DAN COLEMAN: In a webinar with NIF Australia, the columnist was scathing about the president’s response to the pandemic, critical of the peace accords but MIA on the Palestinians

WHEN IT COMES TO the coronavirus pandemic, Donald Trump is “a knucklehead”. This was the assessment of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman last week, just hours before we learned that Trump was taken to Walter Reed Medical Centre for treatment for Covid-19.

Today, the accomplished wordsmith might be using stronger language to describe the president’s nationally, and now personally, destructive response to the pandemic. On Wednesday Trump called his infection a "blessing from God" after receiving an experimental drug treatment which saw him return to the White House after just three nights in hospital.

Friedman’s opinion was expressed during a webinar on October 1 with the Director of New Israel Fund Australia, Liam Getreu.

Their topics ranged from the presidential race to the first debate to Israel, but the pandemic was first and foremost.

For Friedman, the emergence of coronavirus is all about nature, a case of Mother Nature “throwing fastballs”, as she did a year ago with Australia’s bushfires. Nature, he contends, works through the fundamentals of biology, chemistry, and physics and any effective response must be on that basis. “Do not mess with Mother Nature,” Friedman cautions.

Sadly, Friedman told us, “we have a president who has no clue about natural systems. The only natural system he has ever encountered is a golf course and that taught him that you can dominate natural systems... Donald Trump’s whole worldview is not through Mother Nature but through markets… If the market went up, he thought he was doing well against Mother Nature.”
Trump is not a classic anti-Semite. He’s just an old bigoted white guy - Tom Friedman.

Friedman went on to describe how, early in the pandemic, Trump took a screen shot of a positive stock market graph and sent it to a Fox News host who approvingly displayed Trump’s signed graph on his program. “While those two knuckleheads were doing that, Mother Nature was silently, invisibly, inexorably, and mercilessly spreading the coronavirus through our society.”

“Our society”, we have since learned, most emphatically includes the president himself.

In the NIF event, Friedman had plenty to say about Trump who he described as “not a classic anti-Semite. He’s just an old bigoted white guy”. But Trump’s long history of dog whistles and encouragement is precisely the kind of anti-Semitism that gets synagogues defaced and Jews killed.

The Anti-Defamation League reported a record number of anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, in part blaming Trump for not doing more to condemn incidents.

Debate moderator Chris Wallace (a Fox News TV anchor) was not the first to ask Trump to condemn white supremacists. As far back as February 2016, the ADL called on Trump “to distance himself from white nationalist and former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, as well as other white supremacists, and publicly condemn their racism.” No, Friedman’s image of Trump as merely “an old bigoted white guy” does not do the president justice.

Trump, who Friedman knows personally, “is a man without shame. You don’t know anyone like him, backed by a party without spine, invertebrate human beings [in Congress], and amplified by a Murdoch network without integrity.”
Biden does not have a quick retort in him… I don’t have wildly exaggerated hopes for what he will be able to accomplish - Friedman

Friedman was not particularly kind to Joe Biden either. Commenting on Biden’s debate performance, he found the Democratic challenger to “look frail because he is frail. Biden does not have a quick retort in him… I don’t have wildly exaggerated hopes for what Biden will be able to accomplish.”

Still, Friedman believes that South Carolina’s African-American voters, who, in early March, reinvigorated Biden’s then dimming primary prospects, “intuited something deep and mature and amazing, that the country was being ripped apart and what we needed was a unifier. What we need is this old white guy who we know one thing about, that he is decent and can bring the country together.”

Although historians and social theorists have spent the past several decades decentring “old white guys” from public discourse, with Friedman we have one decent old white man proclaiming the importance of another. It is a sad barometer of progress that he is probably correct.

At the start of the interview, Getreu acknowledged that Friedman is a patron and supporter of NIF, someone he considers an ally. It is not to fault Getreu to point out that, not surprisingly, the interview was solicitous of Friedman’s views, never critical or challenging.

Thus, as the conversation turned to Israel’s recent “peace” treaties, Friedman was not pressed to look more closely at the prospects for the Palestinians. Friedman said that Jared Kushner let Netanyahu write his own peace plan, ironically a plan that Bibi himself could not accept.

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Netanyahu is “beholden to right wing settlers [who] could not recognise in principle a Palestinian state in Bantustans surrounded by the Israeli army.” Kushner left the Palestinians out of the equation, as did Netanyahu. Largely, Friedman did so as well.

Friedman’s last Times op-ed to mention the Palestinians in the headline was on August 20, 2019. Discussing the state of the peace process, the column cited a number of American and Israeli sources, but no Palestinian voice was presented.

Friedman is far from oblivious as to the Palestinian struggle but tends to view it from the Israeli perspective. Getreu quoted as prescient a column of Friedman’s from 20 years ago in which he concluded “if settlers get their way, Israel will de facto annex the West Bank… the settlement policy Israel is pursuing will lead to the demise of Israel as it is today.”

Friedman brought this argument forward, concluding that “sometimes Israel is too powerful for its own good. Israel is muffling the signal that they are occupying 2.5 million people. It will become an internal issue in Israel. The problem in Israel is that extremists go all the way and moderates go away.”

While actual Israeli moderates might push back against that characterisation, the demise of the Labor party as a political factor in Israel is a telling case in point.

Thirty years ago, the late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said wrote a scathing review of Friedman’s National Book Award-winning From Beirut to Jerusalem, charging that “Friedman belongs very clearly on one side, the side associated with classical anti-Arab and anti-Islamic Orientalism.”

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He found that Friedman and his chosen sources hold to minority views, “representing a narrow consensus associated not with desirable political change but with the equally political, basically conservative perspective of the status quo.

Today, much as supporters of Israel rail against United Nations resolutions and BDS, that once narrow consensus has become the de facto hegemonic viewpoint. Much of the world, like the Gulf states, has effectively abandoned the Palestinian cause.

Ascendant neo-liberalism brings elites together, pursuing their interests regardless of the injustice caused to the masses. The New York Times and its prominent columnists are nothing if not elite voices of mainstream perspective.

It is a shame that someone with the stature of Thomas Friedman, speaking to a large Zoom audience, remains, as so long ago charged by Said, a voice of the status quo. How refreshing had he, with his wealth of knowledge and experience, been better able to elaborate a pathway to peace, not a false peace based on trade among elite partners, but a true peace built on justice for the disenfranchised and powerless.

Meanwhile, pundits had anticipated Trump possibly rolling out another peace deal, possibly with Sudan, before Election Day. But, for now, President Knucklehead continues to gaslight America both about his own illness and the many ills besetting their nation.

Photo: President Trump taking off a face mask (Erin Scott/ Reuters)

About the author

Dan Coleman

Dan Coleman is a former member of the Carrboro, North Carolina Town Council, and a former political columnist for the Durham (NC) Morning Herald. He is the author of Ecopolitics: Building A Green Society. He lives in Melbourne.

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