A kind of Rip Van Winkle effect helps explains Evan Osnos’ unique insight into American politics.
The staff writer for the New Yorker, who speaks to the Idaho Humanities Council in Boise next week, was out of the U.S. for 10 years, reporting as a correspondent from Egypt, Iran and China. His book, “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China,” won the 2014 National Book Award.
Osnos returned to report from Washington, D.C., in 2014.
“I was kind of baffled by the country I was coming back in to,” he told me. “Because even before we had this incredibly divisive presidential election, it was pretty clear the country had begun to fray in some pretty fundamental ways. Our ability to see each other clearly and describe each other clearly and to understand each others’ motives and incentives had deteriorated in a pretty dramatic way. That was visible to a lot of us, but it was especially stark if you are coming back to the United states after living far away for 10 years.”
“Some of us are like frogs in boiling water, and it has become almost a normal part of daily commerce to flip on the TV and see people shouting at each other in the shrillest and most morally dismissive way. And that wasn’t always the case. So part of my project, in a broad sense, is to try to understand what’s going on and how did we get into this situation.”
I guess I’m one of the boiled frogs. While I sense chaos, Osnos finds clarity.
“I feel like I’ve stepped outside after an incredibly heavy downpour and the light is clear and the air is clear ... and you can actually see things as they are, and I’m trying to take notes as fast as I possibly can so that I can record the world that we’re living in.”
His latest work may be his most challenging: Trying to figure out how North Korea reads President Trump, and vice versa. And what that calculus means for the rest of us.
Osnos recently returned from a trip to the North Korean capital Pyongyang, culminating a months-long reporting project for the new edition of New Yorker. He met the North Korean official whose job it is to watch Trump’s actions, words and tweets to predict what the president will do. Not unlike Osnos’ own job at the magazine.
A tough job, whether you work for the New Yorker or Kim Jong-un.
“It matters a tremendous amount whether North Korea believes that Trump is saying what he means,” said Osnos. “That is a psychological principle straight out of the Cold War.”
Osnos is interested in how the world views the U.S., and its new president. He notes the mixed signals that President Trump often sends, such as this week’s contradictory actions and tweets on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“That’s a level of profound ambiguity and confusion in American politics,” he said. “This gets to the basic questions I’ll be talking about in Boise, which is ‘What is America in the age of Trump?’ It is partly about us projecting an image to the world that it doesn’t entirely recognize.”
When I talked to Osnos Wednesday, I asked what he learned in North Korea. Part of our conversation, lightly edited, follows.
“I came away with a sense that we are in extremely dangerous territory, because nuclear brinkmanship is fundamentally about reading your adversary’s intentions and resolve and capability. And neither the U.S. nor the North Korean side is doing a very good job of expressing those elements clearly.
“That said, I think that this will probably end with negotiations and the kind of nuclear deterrence that worked well against the Soviets and the Chinese. And that’s where we are probably headed and that’s probably good enough.”
Were you concerned about personal safety? It seems like going to North Korea right now is a pretty dicey thing for any American to do.
Yeah, we thought long and hard about it at the New Yorker and I thought long and hard about it personally. It was not the kind of thing that I’m going to do casually, partly because God forbid that I end up in a situation where my presence complicated things for the United States. That was my biggest fear, frankly. And we decided, partly in consultation with the people in the National Security Council and the intelligence community, this was a trip that I could take.
The North Koreans knew exactly who I was. They had made a decision to let a journalist in to talk to members of their government, with the intention of getting some kind of message out. We didn’t know what that message was, but that’s a slightly different situation than going in with the question mark of whether or not they are luring you there as a bargaining chip for future negotiations.
So what was the message they wanted to get out?
The message they wanted to get out was ‘Do not underestimate our capacity and our willingness to use nuclear weapons.’ And to which I will add a judgment of my own, which is, after hearing that message stated clearly and repeatedly, I came to the conclusion that actually they’re not crazy and that their view of nuclear weapons is not that different from the view that prevailed during the Cold War. ... To put it a better way, I would say they wanted me to come away with the message that they’re prepared to use nuclear weapons. I came away with that message, but also with the view that they can be deterred from doing so.
Being aware of what a red state Idaho is, do you think about that? Will you deliver different thoughts knowing the audience is not going to be uniformly left?
When I talk about where we are right now, politically, I try not to deliver a message that would satisfy only one side of our obviously very divided moment. Partly because I figure: What is the point of that, honestly? You can flip on the TV at any moment and be reminded that you are right, if you want to be, and that applies across the spectrum. So if anything, I find it most interesting for me as a writer and for listeners if we try to step outside of that divide, which can sound like a cliché, but which is in fact perhaps possible if we just try to describe where we are rather than whose fault it is. Because perhaps the only thing on which we all agree is that we don’t really want to be where we are today.
You’re a pretty harsh critic of Donald Trump. You don’t see yourself as one of those places where people go for confirmation of their own bias?
They might. I divide my work into the commentary side and the reporting side, and it’s not a completely hard boundary. It tends to be on the reporting side where we try to set out a question and then try to answer the question. On the commentary side, where we can be a little more opinionated, then I am happy to say what I think as a citizen and as a reporter.
Most Americans have their minds made up about Trump. So are you preaching to the choir, or are you’re trying to persuade folks to your way of thinking?
I’m not sure we as a public are ready for the persuasion stage yet. We’re so dug in to our respective positions that I think right now what we need to do is exposition and investigation. We need to begin to challenge some of these assumptions by digging up the facts. ...
That’s the work that I do. It sounds old-fashioned to say it, but very little of what we do at the New Yorker is writing, it’s mostly reporting, truly. We spend months gathering material. … It’s rooted in the patient accumulation of facts, which sounds like something that is practically out of the 19th century, considering how much of the information we traffic in these days is actually opinion.
I get up every morning and say to myself I am the luckiest guy in journalism, and with that comes a somewhat solemn sense of responsibility.
During the campaign there was a lot of soul-searching and hand-wringing over whether old-fashioned, “objective” journalism is dead, and whether we need a more activist, more opinionated, more truth-telling journalism. Do we need a new journalism to deal with the times we’re in?
I really don’t believe that journalism has lost the ability or the ambition to be gatherers of fact first, and dispensers of opinion second. The fact is that the New Yorker, since the election of Donald Trump, has like lot a lot of news organizations seen an uptick in interest and subscriptions. Some of that is because of the commentary and some of that is because we are engaged in a fairly rare form of orthodox fact-checking. ... There is just an honest dedication to inquiry.
… In the miasma of opinion and the ferocity of point of view, people are actually retreating to areas of ascertainable fact, places where you can say, “Yes I trust that. I believe that that is a fact.” ... One of the things that journalists have to do now is recommit ourselves to the idea that there are facts that can be gained and checked and agreed upon.
The best journalists can get people to talk to them even when they’ve written critically about those sources. You have sources in the White House who have to know you are not a fan, yet they continue talking to you. Why is that?
There are many voices within the White House, not all of which read from the same script by any means. Even though they may feel that I have a lot of objections to the way the president has gone about his business, I think they may also have policies or approaches that they are trying to promote. ...
From afar, I think it feels more as if Trumpland has really defined the political culture in Washington. Up close, actually, there’s a lot of variation. It’s very easy to talk to people who work in the administration but consider themselves employees of the American public rather than of the president.
Why do sources leak? What’s your view of the White House crackdown on leakers and, possibly, on journalists who use them as sources?
Leaking has been around forever. I think Caesar probably complained about leaks. Whatever we think about the current moment, I think a fair number of Americans would agree that Mark Felt’s role in exposing the crimes that had been committed in the Nixon administration was an act of patriotism and was an act of dedication to the values he thought were more important than his commitment to the president personally. …
One of the things that is distinctive about the American style of government is that a free press is enshrined in the Constitution. It’s not just bolted on to the republic, it was baked in to the essence of what the country was going to be. The fact that you have the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech built into the Bill of Rights is a sign that this was understood to be at the most basic level one of the features, not one of the bugs, of a free republic. I’m adamantly of the view that there are times when loyal servants of government have a responsibility to get information to the public, so they take steps to do it. And sometimes they are taking on extraordinary risks. I can attest to that personally. No reader should assume they are doing it lightly or casually or out of petty grievance.
... Whatever you think of him, personally or politically, we’ve never had a president in office who is facing the same range of legal challenges because of the investigations surrounding his administration. So there are a tremendous number of pressure points through which you end up getting these leaks. On top of that, his management is, by his own description, that he likes to set people against each other to see who is the higher performer. That creates a dynamic almost inadvertently where people are using the press as an instrument in these intra-palace disputes.
Is General Kelly going to be able to “manage” Trump, as the new chief of staff?
General Kelly is as well qualified as anybody to wrangle the White House into a more functional form, but I think fundamentally it’s an undoable task. The president is oriented in such a way that he has succeeded over the course of his career by defying efforts to regularize and contain his operation. And I know very few cases of people reaching this stage of their career, particularly after the validation of a presidential election victory, where they begin to question their underlying management instincts.
You’ve written a series of pieces on Donald Trump’s psychological status. Didn’t we know what we were getting when we elected him?
What I still am trying to understand is how the psychological equipment he brought into office is going to interact with politics and what the effects are. In order to write the story, you don’t have to assume he’s deteriorating. You just have to assume he’s coming into office at a different stage than previous presidents, partly because he’s the oldest president we’ve had and partly because by his own description his behavior is utterly differently than previous presidents.
It would be malpractice for me to have heard the concerns of Republican lawmakers and Republican strategists as often as I have over the last six months and not put that into print, because they are some of the most eloquent sources of skepticism and concern about the president’s thinking. And I quote them. … It’s the Republicans who say this is dangerous for the party and perhaps dangerous for the country. They’re the ones who really caught my attention and got me trying to understand this more.
I spent a long time studying the history of health and the presidency in the course of that project, and one of the powerful lessons that comes through is the frailty of the flesh. When you have a single individual on whom tremendous pressure rests, it’s literally impossible to anticipate how their body will react to that. But we need to be unusually vigilant with this president, because he is older and because he’s already exhibited qualities his fellow Republicans believe are a source of concern.
Hear Evan Osnos on ‘The Age of Trump’
The New Yorker staff writer will deliver the Idaho Humanities Council’s 21st Annual Distinguished Humanities Lecture Friday, Sept. 15, at 7 p.m., at the Boise Centre. His topic: “America in the Age of Trump: Who Are We? Who Will We Become?” Tickets are $60 and available by visiting Idahohumanities.org or by calling 208-345-5346.