How White Nationalist Groups Found Their Candidate In Donald Trump
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When Donald Trump announced his candidacy, my guest, Evan Osnos, was reporting on extremist white rights groups. What he quickly discovered was that Trump's anti-immigration message was resonating with these groups. Osnos writes, quote, "ever since the Tea Party's peak in 2010 and its fade, citizens on the American far-right - patriot militias, border vigilantes, white supremacists - have searched for a standard-bearer, and now they'd found him. In the past, white nationalists, as they call themselves, had described Trump as a Jew lover, but the new tone of his campaign was a revelation," unquote. Osnos's article about Trump's white nationalist support was recently published in The New Yorker, where he's a staff writer covering politics and foreign affairs. Osnos was based in Beijing covering China for eight years. He returned to the U.S. two years ago. His book "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth And Faith In The New China" won the 2014 National Book Award in nonfiction. Let's start with a clip from Trump's June 16 speech announcing his candidacy. These comments about Mexicans are an example of what sparked the approval of many white nationalists.
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DONALD TRUMP: The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems.
TRUMP: It's true, and these aren't the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards, and they tell us what we're getting.
GROSS: Well, that was Donald Trump. Evan Osnos, welcome to FRESH AIR. You were covering white nationalist groups at the time that Trump announced his candidacy. So when the groups that you were talking with - the groups that you were covering - heard what we just heard Trump say, what was the reaction they had?
EVAN OSNOS: Well, this was the surprise for me, and I think it was a surprise to them, too. When they heard Donald Trump talk about, as he put it, Mexico sending criminals across the border - as he said, they were rapists, they're bringing drugs and so on - that concept, that image that he was generating mapped very closely onto their ideas. And so 12 days after Donald Trump announced his candidacy, the Daily Stormer, which is the largest neo-Nazi news site in America, endorsed him for president. And it said to its readers, we generally do not take a position in politics. We don't think politics has anything for us, but Donald Trump is saying the right things. He's talking about things in a way that we agree with, and for that reason, we're throwing our support behind him. And that, for me, was a signal that something was going on that I hadn't anticipated.
GROSS: What were other signs of that that you saw?
OSNOS: So I was going out and talking to all of these different groups. So, for instance, I was in Alabama meeting with a group called the League of the South, which intends to secede from the United States. And they, of course, support the Confederate flag, and they are also a white nationalist organization. And what surprised me was when I showed up, they were talking about Donald Trump. And they were talking about how Donald Trump had galvanized them and had given a forum - a way of expression for their ideas - that they hadn't had in a very long time.
And there was a - there was a moment that had coalesced this summer because of a variety of reasons. Because of the shooting in Charleston, there was this effort - a successful effort - to have the Confederate flag removed from the State House in South Carolina. And a number of retailers - for instance, Walmart and Amazon - dropped it from their - from their inventory. And for people on this very far-right fringe, the people in this white nationalist community - they regarded this as an assault. And they felt that this was a sign of what was to come in a future in which they would no longer have this sort of demographic influence. They just would no longer have the numbers in America that they might have had in the past. And so there was - in that moment of assault, in that sense of vulnerability, they also found purpose.
And so they were going through a period of great energy this summer. They were feeling organized and galvanized in a way that they hadn't been before. And then into that moment dropped Donald Trump, who was a national figure with an existing celebrity. People already knew who he was. And to their astonishment, frankly, he was talking about the - as they would put it, the threat posed by immigration not only to the American economy, but also to this much vaguer sense of American culture. And that, for them, was really powerful.
GROSS: I want to read a quote from your article in The New Yorker, and this is a quote from Richard Spencer who runs a white racial consciousness think tank. And he said to you, I don't think Trump is a white nationalist, but he told you that he does think that Trump reflected a, quote, "unconscious vision that white people have that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren't able to articulate it. I think it's there. I think that, to a degree, explains the Trump phenomenon. I think he is the one person who can tap into it," unquote. So he's saying here, like, Trump might not be a white nationalist. He's probably not a white nationalist. He might not endorse us, but he's tapping into this feeling that so many of us have. Do you think that he is empowering white nationalists?
OSNOS: He is. He's giving them a sign - a kind of permission - that their ideas have a broader audience than they might have imagined. And it's worth being clear - you know, I think that the ideas that somebody like Richard Spencer endorses and that other members of the self-identified white nationalist groups endorse - those ideas really are repellent to most people. And that's a generalization, but I think a fair one, and I can sort of defend that. What is going on beneath it - and one of the reasons why I think it's even worth talking about what these guys believe - is that they are, in some sense, the most acute public expression of an anxiety that exists in lesser form, you know, on a much broader basis.
And so Richard Spencer, in saying that - what he's getting at is the sense that there are people - and I encountered this in half a dozen states as I went around talking to people. And I would say, well, what is your number one issue? What's the thing that you care about most of all? And people would say over and over, I care about immigration. I'm afraid that, as they put it, illegals are coming into this country and taking our jobs and sucking our country dry. And what surprised me about it was that this was in places where the idea of immigration - the actual practical effects of it - are very remote, very abstract. I was in New Hampshire, for instance, and walked up to somebody at a diner. Immigration was what they said was the biggest thing on their minds. Immigration, of course, in New Hampshire is - it's not something that you see every day. It's not like talking about it in Texas, where people have a much more explicit sense of it.
GROSS: So do you think part of the anxiety that some white people in America are feeling are because of the demographic predictions that by 2040, white people will be in a minority in the U.S.?
OSNOS: Yeah, there is this very clear sense - and you hear this concept floating around in the white nationalist crowd - is that by the middle of this century - so demographers predict somewhere around 2042 - that non-Hispanic whites will no longer be the largest ethnic racial group in America. And that moment has taken on a symbolic power for people who feel that they're losing influence. And, you know, beneath all of this, there is a real economic phenomena going on, and that's that particularly men - low-skilled men without much of an education - have, in many ways, fallen out of step with America's economic progress. You see this reflected in the numbers very clearly that if you're a man without a college degree, that your income over the last 30 years has dropped by about 20 percent in real terms, whereas for women, it has gained about 3 percent. And so if you're somebody in that position and you look around and you see your own world as dwindling and shrinking and your opportunities are falling away, then you're looking for an explanation. And in some ways, Donald Trump has provided that explanation.
GROSS: And, Evan, let me stop here and ask you - we're using the word white nationalist, as opposed to the word white supremacist? Why are we using white nationalist? It's the word you use in your article.
OSNOS: Yeah, it's a subtle distinction. The difference is that, historically, white supremacist groups believed fundamentally in the idea that one race was superior above all, and that was essential to their ideology. This grew out of slavery and the legacy of it. White nationalist groups believe something slightly different. They believe, in fact, that whites are an endangered species these days, and they say that they're not standing up for one race over another. They're standing up for the preservation of their community.
You struggle as a writer, certainly - and we did at the magazine - about whether or not to call these groups white supremacist groups or white nationalist groups. And there are times when I go back and forth. I think we're certainly not captive to what it is that they want to be called themselves. They prefer to be called white nationalists. Some of them don't even embrace that term. They want to be called identitarians or other things. But that's - the terminology, in some ways, can be a bit of a disguise from the fact that there is - there's an enduring element of this, which is a sort of race-based division that is at the essence of their beliefs. And that hasn't changed, but there is a distinction going on that's subtle. And I think the subtle distinction is important because it captures that they don't feel strong today. In fact, they feel weak, and that's what being a white nationalist is about. It's about the sense that, as they put it, we're facing a cultural genocide. That's a term that they use over and over again.
GROSS: If you're just joining, my guest is Evan Osnos, and he's a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he covers politics and foreign affairs. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos, and he's a staff writer for the New Yorker who covers American politics and foreign affairs. And he recently wrote an article about how Donald Trump has been catching on in white nationalist groups. And I want to play another example of Donald Trump playing on the sphere of Mexicans and Mexico. And this is from the Republican debate that Fox News hosted. Chris Wallace had asked Trump what proof he has that Mexico is sending their criminals to the U.S., and here's what Trump had to say.
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TRUMP: Because our leaders are stupid. Our politicians are stupid, and the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning, and they send the bad ones over because they don't want to pay for them. They don't want to take care of them. Why should they when the stupid leaders of the United States will do it for them? And that's what's happening whether you like it or not.
GROSS: Evan Osnos, does that inject an element of conspiracy theory into this too? It's like, not only are the bad guys coming across the border, but the government is intentionally sending them. They're intentionally dumping them here.
OSNOS: Well, this is a version of an argument that Donald Trump has made for decades in fact. If you go back and you look to what he was saying in the late 1980s - because he started talking about running for president in 1987. And he never did it, of course, until recently. But back then he ran ads in the newspaper - full-page ads in three newspapers that said that Japan, which at that point of course was a U.S. ally - remains a U.S. ally - was taking advantage of the United States, that we were the laughing stock around the world. And it's quite striking how similar the language is from that period to what he now says about the way that other countries - whether it's Mexico or China or - he still talks about Japan, which seems a little bit of an antique reference these days. I don't think of Japan as being a source of great American economic concern.
But he uses that sense that we should be embarrassed because others are organizing effectively against us. And I hear in that language something so interesting and different about politics because often times what people say is Donald Trump reminds me a bit of Ronald Reagan. And there is something to that - the sense that he's a performer, that he has figured out what people want to hear and that he's brilliant in front of the camera and so on. But the difference between what Ronald Reagan was saying which was a fundamentally - in some level a fundamentally optimistic message about his image of the United States and what it could be is very different from what Donald Trump says. Donald Trump has a mantra of despair, of loss. He says we don't have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don't. And he says the American dream is dead. And it's that combination of being both almost audaciously confident in himself and in the image that he projects about himself while also saying things that are truly bleak about America's future. That seems to have combined into a recipe that people respond to because they feel frustrated in their own lives and they want to find somebody else who will give that form.
GROSS: You quote, in your article, a website called VDARE. This is an opinion site. And you quote an entry on that site as saying, (reading) if Trump can mobilize Republicans behind him and make a credible run for the presidency, he can create a whole new media environment for patriots to openly speak their mind without fear of losing their jobs.
So I'm assuming when he says patriots he means like the Patriot Movement, the kind of fringe of white nationalist groups and militias.
OSNOS: He's referring to people who basically agree with the views on that website. So what you hear in that message is really interesting because what they're saying is that Donald Trump may not win the presidency, but what he's doing is clearing out space in politics for ideas that were no longer possible - that were previously impossible to express. So what he's saying is that - and I encountered this over and over again as I talked to people who considered - who know that they are way out on the fringe of American politics - that they say Donald Trump is allowing our ideas to be discussed in a way that they never have been before. Many of the people that I spoke to would say to me, look, I can only talk to you if you don't use my name, for instance, because if I'm identified publicly I'll lose my job. I work for a mainstream organization. And what they're hoping is that by having somebody like Donald Trump talking about immigration in the kinds of terms - not exactly the way that they do - they obviously - he's not using at all the kind of language that neo-Nazi groups use, but he's talking about it in very harsh terms that that will create permission. It will give a validation in some sense. And that that may be the most enduring legacy.
What you've seen over the course of the last couple of months is that Donald Trump has succeeded in moving immigration into the center stage of American conservative political debate. Ann Coulter who is, of course, a conservative commentator and has drifted further and further from the center towards really the far right these days on the subject of immigration. She says - she said recently that Donald Trump has contributed to a major change which is that immigration is now the litmus test for conservative politicians. I think that's overstating it a little bit to say, well, immigration is now alongside, for instance, abortion or gun rights. But it is not that far out of step with where we are today. And it's becoming an issue on which Republican candidates and conservative candidates of one kind or another will be evaluating. Where do you stand on immigration?
GROSS: It's kind of puzzling that Mitt Romney was perceived to have made an incredible gaffe when he talked about self deportation in the 2012 campaign. And yet now Donald Trump is using very inflammatory language about immigrants, and that seems to be winning him a big following. What do you think accounts for that difference? I mean, I think Republicans felt very strongly going into the mainstream of the party - felt very strongly going into this campaign that they had to really build a larger Hispanic base because of changing demographics in the country. And that seemed to be giving, you know, Mark Rubio and Jeb Bush a possible edge, and it hasn't worked out that way at all.
OSNOS: Yeah, it's quite striking how different Donald Trump's candidacy is from what the Republican establishment believe they absolutely had to do in order to succeed. After the loss in 2012, the GOP Commissioner reported which had said what we have to do is re-frame our entire image around immigration and make us much more appealing to new segments of America. They said that if we continue down this path we will rely almost entirely on white voters, as Mitt Romney did - 90 percent of his votes came from white voters, and we will continue to lose. Mitt Romney lost nonwhite voters by more than 60 percent. And as long as that's the case - this was the Republican Party analysis - then we really stand no chance to win in the future because demographics are moving so squarely in the opposite direction. And sure enough, in 2016, white voters will represent 2 percent less than they did even in 2012. That trend continues.
But what Donald Trump figured out is that when you have a Republican field that is as large and as fractured as it is today - 17 major candidates spread across a whole range of - from different states, from different parts of the electorate - that if you can appeal to what he would consider to be traditional Republicans, and that tends to be working-class, white voters, that you can generate huge enthusiasm. And that's what he has done. So he has focused overwhelmingly on generating excitement from that portion of the electorate. And the question that I think a lot of us have to ask is whether or not that formula can actually succeed in a general election because it's a very different thing to get as he has so far. He has essentially succeeded in attracting the support of about a quarter of the Republican electorate. But when you no longer have 17 candidates in the race - in fact, if he gets to a general election in which it is Donald Trump and one opponent from the Democratic side, well, then he faces a very different challenge, and that's that he has to reach out rather than just reach into his own community. And that may prove to be a much harder proposition.
GROSS: My guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for the New Yorker. His latest article is about Donald Trump's support among extremist white rights groups. After we take a short break, we'll talk about another issue Trump is emphasizing on the campaign trail - the U.S. relationship with China. Osnos covered China for eight years. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Evan Osnos, a staff writer at The New Yorker. His latest article, "The Fearful And The Frustrated," is about Donald Trump's support among anti-immigration, white nationalist groups. Trump's comments about Mexicans have alienated many of the Latino voters that the Republican Party leadership was hoping to reach out to. Things came to a head last month at a Trump press conference in Iowa when Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos began asking a question before Trump had called on anyone.
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JORGE RAMOS: (Unintelligible).
TRUMP: Excuse me. Sit down. You weren't called. Sit down.
TRUMP: Sit down. Sit down.
TRUMP: Sit down.
TRUMP: Go ahead.
TRUMP: No, you don't. You haven't been called.
TRUMP: Go back to Univision.
GROSS: After that, Ramos was escorted out of the press conference. Here's what Evan Osnos had to say about that clash.
OSNOS: You know, the Jorge Ramos moment - it was not a surprise to people if you've been covering the campaign closely and listening to the way that he talks about Univision and about Hispanics, generally. But it was - it was such a pugnacious moment in the campaign that for people who may not have been paying all that much attention beforehand - for a lot of people, that really was their first introduction to Donald Trump's relationship to Spanish language media.
And, you know, Jorge Ramos is an enormously influential figure. He's, by a large margin, the most influential Latino news anchor in America. And he has now put himself explicitly in opposition to Donald Trump's candidacy, and that's going to have an impact. It simply will.
What was interesting to me was that when Donald - after Donald Trump ejected Jorge Ramos from his press conference and Ramos is out in the hallway, kind of pacing back and forth, and somebody approaches him and says, this is not about you. Get out of my country. And Ramos, of course, points out that he's a U.S. citizen. And for him, I think, and for those people who are trying to understand what Donald Trump means to politics - you heard in that man's voice - and that guy had a Trump sticker on his lapel. You heard the distillation of Donald Trump's message into its most concise form, which was that you are not one of us, even though you're a U.S. citizen, and get out of my country. And that was, in its own way, an immensely startling and powerful expression of the politics of Donald Trump.
GROSS: So here's the moment that you've been describing after Donald Trump ejected Jorge Ramos from the press conference. He's standing in the hallway, and this guy comes out who's a spectator at the conference and talks to Jorge Ramos.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You were very rude. It's not about you.
RAMOS: It's not about...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Get out of my country. Get out. It's not about you.
RAMOS: I'm a U.S. citizen, too.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, whatever. Univision - no, it's not about you.
GROSS: So that was Jorge Ramos in the hallway at a Donald Trump press conference. Evan Osnos, I had asked you earlier if you thought that Donald Trump's message was empowering white nationalists. Do you think it is empowering people who don't consider themselves white nationalists who still express overt racism?
OSNOS: Yeah, I think he has given people an opportunity to say things that they might never have said a few years ago. They would have considered it to be politically incorrect, and he is validly opposed to political correctness. He said - at one point, he said it was the biggest problem that we have in America. And so he has - he has already - whether or not Donald Trump ends up becoming the Republican nominee, Donald Trump has already change the terrain of American politics by making things that were impossible possible, by making ideas that were once relegated to the fringe now things that you can say in political polite company. And that is a big change.
GROSS: Is it easier to get away with insulting immigrants than it is to get away with insulting African-Americans if you're a white nationalist? I mean, they're not shy about expressing their hatred, but I'm wondering why it is that this anti-immigration feeling and an anti - an anti-Mexican feeling and just a kind of xenophobic feeling is what's really igniting the Donald Trump campaign. And what kind of other racisms do you think might be buried underneath the surface, but aren't being spoken?
OSNOS: You learn very quickly when you spend time with the white nationalists that they've discovered that talking about race in the kind of blatantly bigoted terms that's the Ku Klux Klan used to use, for instance - that really doesn't attract very much in the way of a following these days on the web. It's so poisonous that unless you grew up in a really specific kind of household in which that was OK, it's going to be hard to draw you in. And so they've changed their language, their terminology a bit to talk about things in more general terms, and that begins to encompass immigration. And so they might say, for instance, that we are facing a grave, physical threat by - from illegal immigrants who - as they put it, from illegals who come into the United States, commit crimes, and we are the victims of that. Of course, I should point out statistics are very clear, which is that first-generation immigrants to the United States commit crimes in a lower rate than American citizens.
But what happens is that that language can be very crude, and they begin to talk about people coming into this country as animals, for instance. They say that they'd find it narratives. They'd find stories of crimes in which a white woman will have been the victim of an attack by somebody who is not from the United States. And they'll hold up that story as an iconic example of a phenomenon that's going on, regardless of the fact that it's a statistical outlier. And what you find then is that some of the same kinds of things that people used to say about African-Americans in clearly racist terms - that some of that language and that anxiety has just been relocated onto the immigration debate.
GROSS: So we've been talking about how Trump's message is resonating among white nationalists. You happened to be covering white nationalists at the time the Trump announces candidacy, so you were there to see the reaction. But you're not saying that Trump's base is white nationalist - that people who support Trump are necessarily white nationalists.
OSNOS: We're not saying, by any means, that every Trump supporter is a white nationalist. In fact, what you see - Trump has this vast range of different kinds of supporters. You know, he's leading in all of the categories of Republican voters. So he leads on - he leads among men. He leads among women. He leads among moderate Republicans, and he leads among conservative Republicans. But what you see when you drill down on the numbers is that the broad majority of his support comes from two pools. And one pool are Americans without a college degree, and the other pool are Americans who feel that immigration threatens the future of the country.
And so it's worth saying very clearly that there are people who support Donald Trump for a whole variety of very powerful and legitimate reasons because he is a rebuke to politics, because he is entertaining - he's fun to watch - because they recognize him from television. And then there is this other segment, and that segment is out on the far right. It includes white nationalists and others. And that's - that's a group that has responding to him in ways that it hasn't responded to any politician in a very long time.
GROSS: You spent some time looking into Donald Trump's past. Did you find anything there that helps you understand the things that he's saying now?
OSNOS: Well, there's a - there's a natural temptation, I think, to want to understand the psychology of Donald Trump. Why does he do what he does? I, at one point, decided early on, in fact, in the research that that was really not a very fruitful way to go because I think Donald Trump himself - he's not - he's a sort of - he lives an unexamined life. And for me to try to impose some complicated psychological explanation for it probably wouldn't get me very far. It was more interesting - perhaps more useful - to talk about the effect that he produces.
That being said, there are some very clear things. When you go back, and you look at his life, one of the things that comes through very clearly is that Donald Trump was born to great privilege. This is - by now, we all know that he's the son of a very successful New York real estate developer, Fred Trump. And - but in Donald Trump's story - in the details of his story, there's a distinction, which is that Donald Trump was - grew up, of course, in Queens. His father was an enormously successful businessman who built all over the city. And when Trump was growing up, he really regarded his father as a great developer in Brooklyn and Queens, but Manhattan - that was the promise land. That was off-limits. That's - his father never went into Manhattan. He never built there. He never succeeded there.
And in the earliest interviews, when you read about what Donald Trump thought about himself and his own future, he sensed that he was going to be the one to bring - to bring the Trump name not only to Manhattan, but to everything that that would imply to him, which is a kind of success - inclusion. And so was a young man, he went out. He moved to Manhattan. He joined social clubs in New York, for instance, that an earlier generation would have excluded him from. And so he made - and you see that today - that in his representation of himself, he is a - almost a cartoonish representation of what it means to be a New York real estate tycoon.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, where he covers politics and foreign affairs. And he's been writing about how Trump's immigration - anti-immigration message has been resonating among white nationalists. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk about China. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for the New Yorker, where he covers politics and foreign affairs. And he's recently been writing about how Donald Trump's anti-immigration message has been resonating among white nationalists.
You've also written about China for years. You were based in Beijing for several years. You've written books about China, many articles about China. So I want to play one of Donald Trump's messages about China, and this comes from his announcement that he was running for president. And he was talking about how the U.S. doesn't know how to work with China.
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TRUMP: Our country is in serious trouble. We don't have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don't have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let's say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time - all the time.
GROSS: OK, Evan Osnos, you covered China for a long time. Do you know anything about what kind of business deals Donald Trump made with China? Like, what does he mean when he says he beat China all the time?
OSNOS: Yeah, he hasn't really specified. And I have to tell you, I don't think Donald Trump is regarded in China as a frequent visitor or somebody who really has a lot of business over there. He's talked about the fact that he has sold apartments in New York City - very, very high-end apartments - to Chinese buyers. But I think he's getting at something which is - in its own way, it's not even very specific to his business. What he's talking about is this sense that America is losing in the world today. And he says the world is a place of winners and losers. Losers is, of course, one of his favorite insults. And he sometimes applies it to us, and he says we are losing in the world today. And he recognized - I think quite rightly - that when people look overseas and they try to understand who it is that's potentially going to rival the United States as a power in the world that China is first on the list.
GROSS: So China's president, Xi Jinping, is making his first state visit here later this month. He's been moving China in new directions economically. And I'd like to talk with you about those directions because the Chinese economy is having such a direct impact on our economy right now. Their stock market has been unstable and falling, and that's been contributing to the instability of the American stock market. You write, (reading) for 30 years, China succeeded on a certain recipe - exports, sending things to us and building things at home, like infrastructure, but that stopped working.
How did that stop working?
OSNOS: Well, every economic model has a certain set of conditions in which it needs to succeed. So in China's case - you remember, in the 1970s, China was coming out of the Cultural Revolution, which had been this hugely destructive - almost a civil war, in a sense. You know, its per capita income was, at that point, lower than North Korea, and it was lower than sub-Saharan Africa. And what it had was this huge pool of people, and that was a great asset. And China embarked on this manufacturing and export boom, and it began, as we all know, to be, really, the factory to the world, as how it became described. And so they had all these young people who were willing to go and work on assembly lines, day after day. And at the same time, the country needed to be built up. It was really in a very primitive state at that point. It didn't have enough roads. It didn't have enough railway. It didn't have enough airports. And so those two things - exports, shipping things around the world, and then building things at home - those became the drivers of the Chinese economy. But if you go to China today, many people - certainly when Americans go - they're often surprised to discover that, wow, the airports are bigger and newer and nicer than many of ours are in the United States. And also, you find that these young people who used to be so happy to just get a job on an assembly line because it was better than being in a village, they now have much higher expectations for themselves. And so that model is no longer as effective as it once was. China has - China has really built many of the things that it needed to build. And you've seen, in some cases, often now, in fact, it's building things that it doesn't need. That's how get these - what are known as ghost cities, which are places that are built in areas where the market really can't support. There just aren't enough people. There aren't enough - there isn't enough demand for it. But what you're finding is that - so, as that old model is winding down, China is trying to move into a new economic phase in which its growth will be driven by consumption, by domestic demand, by going to the movies instead of, you know, building an assembly line. And that is a very, very hard thing to do, and it's not done without a lot of turmoil. And we're now seeing that turmoil in real time.
GROSS: Well, the government had tried to encourage people to invest in the stock market. Why and how?
OSNOS: It's turned out to be a big mistake to have encouraged people to invest in the stock market. What happened was that the state media began to publish stories, for instance, that said very clearly that the stock market is in the midst of a bull run. It's going to continue. It's going to grow. And if you get on board, you can be the beneficiary of that. And to people who've grown up in a culture in which the state media is essentially the mouthpiece of the government and it says what the government's going to do, that was not - that was not a subtle message. That said, look, we're going to support market growth. If you get on - if you get involved in the stock market, you may make money. And one of the reasons they were doing this was that the - that for 30 years, China had this very, very high rate of growth, often above 10 percent. And because of the structural change that's going on, because you no longer build bridges as fast and as many as they were a few years ago and because you're not generating as much money through exports, the economy is slowing down. You're now getting growths closer to 7 percent, for instance, and it's continuing to decline. That they were trying to figure - the government had to figure out a way - how do you get money into people's pockets? And one of the ways that you might be able to get money into people's pockets was by encouraging the new middle class to invest in stocks. But by doing so and by signaling, in effect, that the market was going to continue going up, that they were going to adopt policies that would assure that, they also created almost the perfect conditions for a bubble. And that's a bubble that grew and grew and then, this summer, began to burst.
GROSS: I want to turn to another Donald Trump clip. And this was him at a press conference recently in Las Vegas before giving a speech there. And he was talking about negotiating with China.
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TRUMP: When these people walk in the room, they don't say, oh, hello. How's the weather? It's so beautiful outside. Isn't it lovely? How are the Yankees doing? Oh, they're doing wonderful, great. They say, we want deal.
GROSS: Well, that's Donald Trump. So, Evan Osnos, do you have any idea how the Chinese leadership is reacting to the things that Trump is saying about China?
OSNOS: Well, initially, they really weren't taking it all that seriously because they've learned over the years that American political seasons tend to produce an uptick in this sort of nationalist rhetoric, and they don't really worry all that much, historically. I have to say, though, that, recently, they've gotten more concerned, partly because of the things that Donald Trump is saying. For instance, he said that when the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, comes to the United States in September that the U.S. shouldn't give him a state visit. In fact, they should just take him to McDonald's and give him a Big Mac. But it's not just Donald Trump's comments. They've also heard Scott Walker, for instance, who is, of course, another candidate for the Republican nomination. He has been talking about taking a much harsher line on China, so has Marco Rubio that they're beginning to see that Donald Trump, even though he may or may not be the nominee, that he has already pulled the Republican field in a direction of a much more confrontational stance towards China. And so for that reason, Chinese leaders are definitely taking notice.
GROSS: Evan Osnos, thank you so much for talking with us.
OSNOS: Oh, thanks very much, Terry, for having me.
GROSS: Evan Osnos is a staff writer for the New Yorker and covers politics and foreign affairs. His latest article is about Donald Trump's support among extremist white rights groups. Coming up, our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, considers the attack on the word, so, by indignant critics who insist that word is being overused. That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.