1. It’s the Authoritarianism, Stupid.
I'd like to take the other side of this Trump-Woodward story and offer two curveball views:
(1) I do not believe that Donald Trump "knew" how dangerous the coronavirus was. Allow me to explain.
Here are some of the things Trump told Woodward:
"You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. . . . And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
"This is deadly stuff."
“I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
How in the world can anyone be sure that these are the words of a man who understands the subject and not just the inflationary language of a guy who says that everything he touches is the biggest, or best, or most historic?
He won the 2016 election in a landslide! Historic margins!
There were more people at his inauguration than any inauguration, ever!
He's more successful than any president since Washington!
He's done more for black people than anyone since Lincoln!
The new NAFTA is the greatest trade deal in history!
This is simply how the man talks. About everything.
What's more, he says everything, takes the both sides of everything:
Masks are bad. But patriots wear masks.
Racism is terrible. Some white supremacists are very fine people.
Fire and fury is coming to North Korea. Kim Jong Un is great leader who wants peace.
This pandemic is the Invisible Enemy and the worst threat ever. Also, it's not even as bad as the flu and it will go away like a miracle.
Does he believe any of this, either way? Almost certainly not. The man has the brain of a goldfish: He "believes" whatever is in front of him in the moment. No matter whether or not it contradicts something he believed five minutes ago or will believe ten minutes from now.
Also, his "didn't want to cause panic" line makes no sense. Donald Trump's entire career is based around trying to create panic.
Flight 93 election.
Black people moving to the suburbs.
Law & Order!
All this guy does is try to create panic. That's his move.
Put those two together—constant exaggerating self-aggrandizement and the perpetual attempt to stoke panic—and what you have is a guy was just saying stuff to Woodward.
In a way, it would be comforting to believe that our president was intelligent enough to grasp the seriousness of the coronavirus, even if his judgment in how to deal with the outbreak was malicious or poor.
But I cannot see any reason to believe that rosy view. All of the available evidence suggests the opposite:
Donald Trump lacks the cognitive ability to understand any concepts more complicated than self-promotion or self-preservation.
Which brings us to . . .
(2) The most alarming part of the Woodward tapes is the way Trump talks about Kim Jong Un and the moment when Trump literally takes sides with Kim Jong Un against a former American president.
Let's go to the tape:
“I don’t think Obama’s smart,” Trump told Woodward. “I think he’s highly overrated. And I don’t think he’s a great speaker.” Trump added that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un thought Obama was “an asshole.”
On the other hand, here's what Trump thinks about Kim Jong Un:
Trump remarked that he was awestruck meeting Kim for the first time in 2018 in Singapore, thinking to himself, “Holy shit,” and finding Kim to be “far beyond smart.”
Well, yes: Holy shit. The current president of the United States is flattering the dictator who leads one of our most dangerous enemies and taking sides with him in denigrating his predecessor in the Oval Office.
Unpatriotic? Treacherous? Mental? I don't know that we even have a word to describe behavior like this.
It gets worse, though. Woodward has copies of the beautiful letters that Kim and Trump have sent to one another and Trump goes on about how nifty he finds it that Kim refers to him as "Your Excellency." And Trump then brags about how Kim even described to him how he had his own uncle murdered, as if this was a mark of how special their bond is.
This, right here, is the most damning revelation from the Woodward tapes (so far):
Trump reflected on his relationships with authoritarian leaders generally, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “It’s funny, the relationships I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them,” he told Woodward. “You know? Explain that to me someday, okay?”
It's not hard to explain. And it's not funny.
After the Woodward tapes, anyone still deluding themselves about the authoritarian danger Trump poses to America is, finally, all out of excuses.
2. China and WeChat
Over at Stratechery, Ben Thompson has a very useful interview with Paul Mozur, who covers China and tech for the New York Times and is currently living in Taiwain, after the Chinese expelled all foreign journalists.
Mozur's on-the-ground view is bracing:
You have this incredible rise in interest in technology and excitement about technology and the beat itself really took off while I was there. But then at the same time, you have this massive new centralization of government control over technology and the use of technology to control people and along with that rising nationalism. That was more apparent, I think, over the past five years or so after Xi Jinping really consolidated power, but the amount of cameras that went up on street corners, the degree to which you used to be able to — there’s a moment maybe seven or eight years ago — where Jack Ma talked about the Tiananmen Square crackdowns on Chinese social media and now that’s just so utterly unthinkable. The degree to which the censorship has increased now to the level where if you say certain things on WeChat, it’s very possible the police will show up at your door where you actually have a truly fully formed Internet Police. . . .
The past ten years have just been like a decade of things getting worse from a reporter perspective. I was followed a lot more by secret police, you became aware in certain ways they would make you aware that they were watching you on cameras. I think people broke into my house a few time, it got to the point where we were carrying around Faraday bags, which blocked the cell signals, so your phone isn’t connecting to the cell towers to avoid some of the surveillance they have, just to try to get interviews without tipping them off that we were going to interview somebody, but a lot of those things are very reporter-specific so it’s easy for us to get super paranoid and live in this world where we notice every camera because we know somebody could be watching and they indicated that they’re watching, whereas regular people just go about their day without really paying attention to them all that much.
I think a lot of Chinese people feel more secure from the cameras, there’s been a lot of propaganda out there saying the cameras are here for your safety. There is this extremely positive, almost Utopian take on technology in China, and a lot of the stuff that I think, our knee-jerk response from the United States would be to be worried about, they kind of embrace as a vision of the future. . . .
Yeah, to me WeChat is a much bigger issue than TikTok, but we can come to TikTok in a bit. The main reasons WeChat is a concern if you were the United States government is number one, it’s become a major vector of the spread of Chinese propaganda and censorship, and because it’s a social network that is anchored by a vast majority of users in China who are censored and who are receptive to all this propaganda, even if you’re overseas using WeChat and not censored in the same way, what you get is mostly content shared from people who are living in a censored environment, so it basically stays a censored environment. I call that a super filter bubble; the idea is that there are multiple filter bubbles contending in a website like Facebook, but with WeChat, because it’s so dominated by government controls, you get one really big mega pro-China filter bubble that then is spread all over the the world over the app, even if people outside of China don’t face the same censorship. So that’s one thing.
The second is the surveillance is immense and anybody who creates an account in China brings the surveillance with them overseas. And most people, frankly, using WeChat overseas probably created the accounts in China, and even when they don’t create the account in China, when national security priorities hit a certain level, I think they’re probably going to use it to monitor people anyway. I’ve run into a number of people who have had run-ins with the Chinese Internet Police either in China, but some of them outside of China, in their day-to-day life using WeChat, and then they return home and it becomes apparent that the Internet Police were watching them the whole time, and they get a visit and the police have a discussion with them about what their activities have been. So it’s also a major way that the Chinese government is able to spy on and monitor people overseas and then unsurprisingly, because of that, it’s used as a way for the Chinese intel services to harass people overseas. . . .
And you might say, well, you could use any app, any communications app to coordinate with intel groups, you can use any app to threaten people, but WeChat is particularly suited to this in part because every single person who uses WeChat within China has it linked to their real identity. And then because everybody on WeChat has linked to their real identity, you can map their relationship networks and lean on them that way. It also has a bunch of tools that the Chinese police use, for instance key words, where you can set an alarm so that if you were to say “Tiananmen”, they could set an alarm so that anytime you say that they get a warning about that, and then they go look at what you’ve written. So there’s all these tools that are uniquely created for Chinese state surveillance that are within the app that they can also use, so there’s a bunch of ways that the app is just better. It’s also one of the very few unblocked communication tools that goes between the two countries. So for all these reasons it’s a very, very big deal. For the Chinese government, it’s an important tool of social control, and it’s been a way that they’ve been able to take the social controls that exist within China and expand them to the diaspora community in some pretty unnerving ways.
Subscribe to Stratechery to read the whole thing. It's really something.
3. More Library Capers
It's a story about a man who loved books so much that he stole 15,000 of them. I mean, who among us?
Everyone in the library knew Mr. Cheshire by sight. Everyone was greeted each working day by his nod and embarrassed smile as he passed by briskly each day, recognizable to any newcomer by an immaculately starched white shirt, straightened black tie, pressed pearl-gray suit, polished black shoes, black brief-case, and a round, owl-like face. These were his insignia, along with his surname. Surname only for although every other personality on campus, popular or otherwise, was known by a given name, Mr. Cheshire was always Mr. Cheshire, and only those with access to his personal file could have guessed at any other appellations.
It was reported that he had lived with his octogenarian mother all four decades of his life, frequently charming her with his virtuosity at the piano. He had begun his tertiary studies 20 years before, and passed slowly through the degrees: an A.B. first, then graduate work in French and comparative literature, ending with a dissertation on Charles Millevoye (1782-1816), a poet unknown to all but the hardiest of Francophiles. Unlike many of his fellow students, his reading was always done in the original languages, for Mr. Cheshire was fluent in most of the major European tongues, living and dead. In short, a model student and a scholar of great promise.
But also, apparently, a perennial student. In the most extended conversation I was ever to have with him—it lasted two minutes—he blushed on admitting that his recent Ph.D., together with faculty accolades, had not procured him a job. . . .
On at least three occasions, separated from each other by many years, large segments of the library’s collection had been removed by thieves. First it was German literature; twice a set of Goethe’s collected works (the Hamburg edition) was stolen in its entirety within a few months, 14 volumes each time. That thief finally went on to other things—no doubt other libraries—but later we found a string of French books to be missing, including 26 of the 30 volumes of the new George Sand collection within a month or two of processing.
Then that criminal too left us, and a respite from theft was in store, but at a price we could not afford. The best of our painting reproductions—the culprit knew his art—now began to be removed with a skillfully handled blade. The mutilations escalated: an average of two books (several plates removed from each) were found by circulation assistants every day.