On Christmas morning, I woke up early and flipped on CNN, where I found the newscaster toggling among three news stories — two really depressing ones and an amazingly uplifting one.
The first depressing story was the rapid spread of the omicron variant. The other was the looming anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Both the threat from the virus and the distorted beliefs about the attack on the Capitol were being fueled by crackpot conspiracy theories circulated by Facebook, Fox News and Republican politicians.
But then there it was, sandwiched between these two disturbing tales, a remarkable story of U.S. and global collaboration to reach a new scientific frontier: It was the launch at 7:20 a.m. Christmas Day of the James Webb Space Telescope. According to NASA, “thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians” — from 306 universities, national labs and companies, primarily in the U.S., Canada and Europe — contributed “to design, build, test, integrate, launch and operate Webb.”
Thank you, Santa! What a gift to remind us that a level of trust to do big, hard things together is still alive on planet Earth. By operating from deep in space, Smithsonian magazine noted, “Webb will help scientists understand how early galaxies formed and grew, detect possible signatures of life on other planets, watch the birth of stars, study black holes from a different angle and likely discover unexpected truths.”
I love that phrase — unexpected truths. We have launched a space telescope that can peer far into the universe to discover, with joy, unexpected truths.
Alas, though, my joy is tempered by those two other stories, by the fact that here on Earth, in America, one of our two national parties and its media allies have chosen instead to celebrate and propagate alternative facts.
This struggle between those seeking unexpected truths (which is what made us great as a nation) and those worshipping alternative facts (which will destroy us as a nation) is THE story on the anniversary week of the Jan. 6 insurgency and for the coming year. Many people, particularly in the American business community, are vastly underestimating the danger to our constitutional order if this struggle ends badly.
If the majority of GOP lawmakers continue to bow to the most politically pernicious “alternative fact” — that the 2020 election was a fraud that justifies empowering Republican legislatures to override the will of voters and remove Republican and Democratic election supervisors who helped save our democracy last time by calling the election fairly — then America isn’t just in trouble; it is headed for what scientists call “an extinction-level event.”
Only it won’t be a comet hurtling past the Webb telescope from deep space that destroys our democracy, as in the new movie “Don’t Look Up.”
No, no — it will be an unraveling from the ground up, as our country, for the first time, is unable to carry out a peaceful transfer of power to a legitimately elected president. Because if Donald Trump and his flock are able in 2024 to execute a procedural coup like they attempted on Jan. 6, 2021, Democrats will not just say, “Ah, shucks, we’ll try harder next time.” They will take to the streets.
Right now, though, too many Republicans are telling themselves and the rest of us, “Don’t look up! Don’t pay attention to what is unfolding in plain sight with Trump & Company. Mr. Trump won’t be the GOP’s candidate in 2024.”
Who will save us?
God bless Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, the two Republican House members participating on the Jan. 6 investigation committee. But they are not enough. Mr. Kinzinger is retiring, and the GOP leadership, on Mr. Trump’s orders, is trying to launch Ms. Cheney into deep space.
I think our last best hope is the leadership of the U.S. business community, specifically the Business Roundtable, led by General Motors CEO Mary Barra, and the Business Council, led by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Together those two groups represent the roughly 200 most powerful companies in America, with 20 million employees. Although formally nonpartisan, they lean center-right — but the old center-right, the one that believed in the rule of law, free markets, majority rule, science, and the sanctity of our elections and constitutional processes.
Collectively, they are the only responsible force left with real leverage on Mr. Trump and the Republican lawmakers doing his bidding. They need to persuade their members — now — not to donate a penny more to any local, state or national candidate who has voted to dismantle the police or dismantle the Constitution.
Yes, that's false equivalency. Nothing is as big as the Trump cult's threat to our constitutional order. But it's still relevant. For a lot of Americans, watching a smash-and-grab gang ransack their local mall and violent crime jump — and then seeing the far-left trying to delegitimize, defund or dismantle their police — is just as frightening as those trying to dismantle their Constitution on the Capitol mall.
I believe there are many Americans in the center-left and center-right who vigorously oppose both, and they think it’s a disgrace when progressives tell them not to worry about the first or when Trumpers tell them not to worry about the second.
When you take both seriously, many more people will listen to you on both. Individually, in their hometowns — like mine, Minneapolis — business leaders have effectively pushed back on dismantling the police. Now it is time for America’s business leaders to just as forcefully push back on the Trump Republicans trying to dismantle the Constitution.
Why should they risk alienating pro-Trump lawmakers who soon may control both the House and the Senate? Besides love of country?
Let me put it crassly: Civil wars are not good for business. I lived inside one in Lebanon for four years. Corporate America shouldn’t be lulled by 2021’s profits, because once a country’s institutions, laws, norms and unstated redlines are breached — and there is no more truth, only versions, and no more trust, only polarization — getting them back is almost impossible.
Can’t happen here? It sure can.
Rick Wilson, a longtime GOP strategist opposed to Mr. Trump, recently described to The Washington Post what will happen if the campaign by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and other Trump cultists succeeds to get more Big Lie promoters elected in 2022 — and the GOP takes the House or Senate or both: “We’re looking at a nihilistic Mad Max hellscape. It will be all about the show of 2024 to bring Donald Trump back into power.” He added, “They will impeach Biden. They will impeach Harris. They will kill everything.”
So what will big business do? I wish I were more optimistic.
CNBC reported Monday that data compiled by the watchdog group Accountable.US “shows that political action committees of top corporations and trade groups — including the American Bankers Association, Boeing, Raytheon Technologies, Lockheed Martin and General Motors — continued to give to the Republican election objectors.”
Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, said in a statement, “Major corporations were quick to condemn the insurrection and tout their support for democracy — and almost as quickly, many ditched those purported values by cutting big checks to the very politicians that helped instigate the failed coup attempt. The increasing volume of corporate donations to lawmakers who tried to overthrow the will of the people makes clear that these companies were never committed to standing up for democracy in the first place.”
The leaders of these companies are totally underestimating the chances that our democratic institutions will unravel. And if American democracy unravels, the whole world becomes unstable. That will not exactly be good for business, either.
Neutrality is not an option anymore. As Liz Cheney put it on Sunday, “We can either be loyal to Donald Trump, or we can be loyal to the Constitution, but we cannot be both.”
So my New Year’s wish is that item one on the agenda for the next meetings of both the Business Roundtable and the Business Council will be: Which side are we on?
Thomas L. Friedman (Twitter: @tomfriedman) is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.