Folks, we just survived something really crazy awful: four years of a president without shame, backed by a party without spine, amplified by a network without integrity, each pumping out conspiracy theories without truth, brought directly to our brains by social networks without ethics — all heated up by a pandemic without mercy.
It’s amazing that our whole system didn’t blow, because the country really had become like a giant overheated steam engine. What we saw in the Capitol last week were the bolts and hinges starting to come loose. The departure of Donald Trump from the White House and the depletion of his enablers’ power in the Senate aren’t happening a second too soon.
Nor is Joe Biden’s inauguration, but he has his work cut out for him. Because we haven’t even begun to fully comprehend how much damage Trump, armed with Twitter and Facebook and leveraging the bully pulpit of the presidency and the cowardice of so many who knew better, has done to our nation’s public life, institutions and cognitive immunity.
This was a terrible, terrible experiment.
It’s not that Trump never did anything good. It’s that it was nowhere near worth the price of leaving our nation more divided, more sick — and with more people marinated in conspiracy theories — than at any time in modern history. We need to be simultaneously reunited, deprogrammed, refocused and reassured. The whole country needs to go on a weekend retreat to rediscover who we are and the bonds that unite us — or at least once did.
I honestly think we can again be our best selves, but it’s on all of us to make it happen. How so?
To me, the most striking feature of Trump’s presidency was that year after year he kept surprising us on the downside. Year after year he plumbed new depths of norm-busting, lying and soiling the reputations of everyone who entered his orbit. But he never once — not once — surprised us on the upside with an act of kindness, self-criticism or reaching out to opponents.
His character was his destiny, and it became ours, too. Well, I’ve got good news. We can recover, provided that we all — politicians, media, activists — focus on doing what Trump never could: surprising each other on the upside.
Upside surprises are a hugely underrated force in politics and diplomacy. They are what break bonds of pessimism and push out the boundaries of what we think possible. They remind us that the future is not our fate, but a choice — to let the past bury the future or the future bury the past.
I still remember where I was when Anwar Sadat arrived in Israel, surprising the world with his willingness to make peace. It filled me with joy and a whole new sense of possibilities for the Middle East.
I actually surprised Trump once. I have never been reluctant to agree with him when he did something that I thought was right. So, after he and Jared Kushner forged a deal normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, I wrote a column praising the accord. A few days later my cellphone rang. It was President Trump. His first words were: “I couldn’t believe The New York Times let you write something so nice.”
Of course, this newspaper doesn’t tell me what to write, so he was shocked that I would do it out of my own free will. It made him rethink, if only for a moment, who I was and what my newspaper was. Surprise does that. Had Trump once stepped out of character on something big and hard that challenged his base and surprised us on the upside, like on climate or immigration, I’d have praised that, too. He just wouldn’t.
Too bad, because as journalists and as citizens, we live for surprises on the upside from our leaders.
I have been watching Sen. Mitt Romney repeatedly put his oath to defend the Constitution ahead of his party and personal political interests. Along the way, we’ve gotten to know each other. We don’t agree on everything, but there’s mutual respect. Romney recently introduced me for a speech I gave virtually to a bipartisan climate action coalition in Utah. That surprised some people, and maybe made them look at the whole issue differently. It’s surprising what can happen when we surprise for the better.
Rep. Liz Cheney just totally surprised me on the upside last week by putting country and Constitution before party and personal ambition and voting to impeach Trump. I knew her when she worked on Middle East democracy issues. Makes me want to reconnect.
Last May, after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, rapper Killer Mike was enlisted by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to help quell the violence in Black neighborhoods. He surprised me when he scolded violent Atlanta protesters:
“It is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy. It is your duty to fortify your own house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization. And now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize. It is time to beat up prosecutors you don’t like at the voting booth. It is time to hold mayoral offices accountable, chiefs and deputy chiefs. ...
“I’d like to appreciate our mayor for talking to us like a Black mama and telling us to take our ass home, and I’d like to thank my friends for convincing me to come here.”
So, I have two asks of every American: Give Joe Biden a chance to surprise you on the upside and challenge yourself to surprise him.
American businesses need to surprise us by telling Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch that their network fueled the Big Lie that led to the ransacking of the Capitol and they are no longer going to advertise on any show that spreads conspiracy theories. The best news I heard this week is that My Pillow chief executive Mike Lindell — an avid Trump backer and advertiser on Fox, who has pressed debunked claims that the 2020 election was rigged — said Kohl’s, Bed Bath & Beyond, Wayfair and other retailers were dropping his products. Good for them.
Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg have to surprise us by once and for all stopping the elevation — for profit — of news that divides and enrages over more authoritative, evenhanded news sources.
There is no equivalent on the left to the right-wing white supremacists and other extremists who just ransacked the Capitol. Not even remotely. But liberals would surprise a lot of people on the right, and maybe even get a few to support Biden, if they forcefully rejected political correctness when it stifles dissent and called out not only violence by the police — a huge priority — but also the sources of violence in minority neighborhoods that are terrorizing Black, brown and white residents alike. I see it in my hometown, Minneapolis, every day.
And now that the threat of Trump is gone, all of us in the news business need to get back to separating news from opinions. We need more places where Americans of all political stripes can feel that they’re getting their news straight — without being enraged, divided or woke; leave that for the opinion sections.
Finally, as I said, before we tear Biden apart, how about everybody give him a few months to surprise us on the upside? Give him a chance to put country before party and fulfill his oath of office.
In fact, when he is up there on the Capitol steps at noon Wednesday, taking the presidential oath to do just that, why don’t we all — you, me, your kids, your parents — take the oath with him at home:
“I do solemnly swear that I will ... to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Maybe if we all do that, maybe if we all give Joe a chance to surprise each of us on the upside, we can break the terrible political fever that has gripped our land alongside COVID-19.
Now wouldn’t that be a pleasant surprise?
Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.