Thomas L. Friedman: Trump, Zuckerberg & pals are breaking America

If America’s worst enemies had spent years designing a plan to erode our greatest strengths, they could not have done better than what some of our fellow citizens are doing to the country every day for short-term financial or political gain.

Prominent figures in government, politics and commerce are behaving in ways that are so destructive of the core institutions and norms that underpin our democracy, one can only assume that they take the country’s stability as a given — that they can abuse and stress it all they want and it won’t break.

They are wrong. We can break America, and right now we’re on our way there. Not in the Cold War, not during Vietnam, not during Watergate did I ever fear more for my country.

This moment “is like Wall Street before the financial crisis, when everyone just took for granted that the system was forever stable,” remarked Gautam Mukunda, research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.”

“So they kept taking bigger and bigger risks and pushing it harder and harder — until they pushed too hard and it crashed and the government had to step in and rescue everyone. If they keep acting like this, Trump and his allies will keep getting short-term wins until the system crashes. Only there won’t be any government to step in and rescue them, because they’ll have broken it — and the country along with it.”

What am I talking about? I’m talking about a president willing to sink to banana republic governing norms, including withholding aid to Ukraine to compel its leadership to investigate his political rival.

I’m talking about Republican lawmakers who know that the president’s Ukraine machinations are indefensible and impeachable, particularly after Tuesday’s disclosures by Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, that he personally heard President Donald Trump appeal to Ukraine’s president to investigate Joe Biden.

Republicans now have a clear choice: let the constitutional impeachment process proceed or attack the process, i.e., our legislative-judicial order. Alas, a majority seem to be opting for the latter.

They justify it with daily new conspiracy theories amplified by Fox News. They even stormed a secure room in the Capitol to mislead the public into thinking these hearings are totally one-sided — when in fact both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and lawyers from the relevant committees are doing the questioning.

In attacking all the diplomats, intelligence officers and civil servants who have stepped forward, at great professional risk, to bear witness against Trump, they are attacking the people who uphold the regulations — and provide the independent research and facts — that make our government legitimate and the envy of people all over the world, where many people have to bribe government workers for service.

And, finally, there are the internet barons who for too long ignored the weaponization of social media, which is turning our free press into a house of mirrors, where citizens can no longer cognitively discern fact from fiction and make informed judgments essential for democracy.

I watch it all and wonder: “Are you really doing that? Do you all go home at night to some offshore island where the long-term damage you’re doing to America doesn’t matter?”

And what’s even more frightening is that there are now so many incentives in place in media and politics — from gerrymandering to unlimited campaign contributions to data systems that can ever more perfectly define us, divide us and subdivide us — to ensure that these people will keep on hammering our system until they smash it to pieces.

Look at Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who was questioned last Wednesday at a House hearing by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. AOC was trying to grasp why Zuckerberg thinks it’s OK for politicians to run political ads that contain obvious lies, as the Trump campaign has already done in a Facebook ad about Biden viewed by some 5 million Facebook users.

This is all about money for Zuckerberg, but he disguises his motives in some half-baked theory about freedom of the press — so half-baked that he couldn’t explain it even when he knew he would be asked about it by a congressional committee. Read it and weep:

AOC: “Could I run ads targeting Republicans in primaries saying they voted for the Green New Deal?”

MZ: “Can you repeat that?”

AOC: “Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying they voted for the Green New Deal? If you’re not fact-checking political advertisements, I’m trying to understand the bounds here of what’s fair game.”

MZ: “I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head.”

AOC: “Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?”

MZ: “Congresswoman, I think lying is bad. I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie, that would be bad. That’s different from it being — in our position, the right thing to prevent your constituents or people in an election from seeing that you had lied.”

AOC: “So you won’t take down lies or you will take down lies? It’s a pretty simple yes or no.”

MZ: “Congresswoman, in most cases, in a democracy, I believe people should be able to see for themselves what politicians they may or may not vote for are saying and judge their character for themselves.”

Yeah, right, as if average citizens are able to discern the veracity of every political ad after years of being conditioned by responsible journalism to assume the claims aren’t just made up.

Just once I’d like to see Zuckerberg look into a camera and say: “I will take Facebook stock down to $1 if that is what it takes to ensure that we’re never again an engine for the perversion of democracy in any country, starting with my own. Facebook is not going to accept any more political ads until we have the resources to fact-check them all.”

I doubt he’ll do that, though, because his priorities are profits and power, and he seems quite ready to hurt American democracy to get them.

Would that he were alone. Think about the Oct. 23 statement that White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham put out, no doubt on Trump’s orders, after the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, testified before House committees.

Taylor’s testimony also indicated that Trump withheld vital military and economic aid from Ukraine to pressure its president to conduct an investigation that could sully the man he may run against in the next election — Biden.

“President Trump has done nothing wrong,” said Grisham’s Orwellian statement. “This is a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution.”

And who is Stephanie Grisham to render that judgment? She is someone, The New York Times reported, who ascended to her job after a career in which she “mixed toughness and loyalty to her bosses with professional scrapes, ethical blunders and years spent alternately wooing and pounding the press on behalf of scandal-prone Arizona Republicans.”

And who is Bill Taylor? Someone who has devoted his entire adult life to public service — someone who has served honorably in both Democratic and Republican administrations, as a West Point grad, an infantry officer in Vietnam, a diplomat at NATO, a civil servant in numerous Cabinet agencies and a U.S. ambassador. Oh, and this “radical unelected bureaucrat” was chosen for his current position by Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, who has not uttered a word in his defense.

And who is Sen. Lindsey Graham? He’s the senator who’s always willing to ask American soldiers to make the ultimate sacrifice in places like Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq — to protect our precious democracy — and he’s the senator who’s always unwilling to make even the smallest political sacrifice to protect democracy when it’s threatened at home by this president.

Graham was all for impeaching Bill Clinton for lying over sex with an intern, and he won’t lift a finger to judge Trump for using taxpayer money to coerce a foreign leader to intervene in our election on Trump’s behalf. Graham — and all the rest of them — will live in infamy.

Thomas L. Friedman is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.