Why Some Silicon Valley Tech Executives Are Bunkering Down For Doomsday Journalist Evan Osnos discusses the Silicon Valley survivalists who are stockpiling food and weapons and investing in luxury underground bunkers. "They feel a sense of fragility in our politics."
NPR logo

Why Some Silicon Valley Tech Executives Are Bunkering Down For Doomsday

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/511507434/511662835" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Why Some Silicon Valley Tech Executives Are Bunkering Down For Doomsday

Why Some Silicon Valley Tech Executives Are Bunkering Down For Doomsday

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/511507434/511662835" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Fears about politics, the economy, the environment, water shortages, the weather, dirty bombs, all-out nuclear war and the final apocalypse and end of days have led some individuals and groups known as survivalists to prepare for ways to defend themselves. Survivalists are often considered pretty fringy, but now it's become a thing for some of the super-rich. My guest, Evan Osnos, has written a new article in The New Yorker called "Survival Of The Richest," about Silicon Valley executives, venture capitalists and hedge fund managers who are stockpiling food, water and ammunition and creating luxury escape havens.

Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker and previously joined us to discuss his articles about white nationalists' support for the Trump campaign and executive orders President Trump could sign undoing existing agreements on climate change, immigration and foreign policy. We'll get some of Osnos' current reflections on the president a little later. Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. How did you find out about these superwealthy survivalists? How did you know this had become a thing?

EVAN OSNOS: Well, I came upon it sort of by chance. Actually, I was sitting on an airplane and the person in the seat next to me just coincidentally was the CEO of a technology company in Silicon Valley. And this was a couple of years ago. And we got to talking. And I said, is there a story in Silicon Valley that people aren't writing about that you think is interesting? And he said, you should take a look at survivalism. And I didn't know exactly what he meant.

And he said, you should look at survivalists in Silicon Valley. And he said, you won't find much about it publicly, but you may find something there. And, you know, I thought it was a kind of an oddball subject, but it also stayed with me because it seemed interesting. The idea that this place where people talk so much about the future and talk about the idea of changing the world that there might be this other form of thinking and discussion in private about survival was interesting.

So I decided to start a project and began to start talking to people about it.

GROSS: So what are Silicon Valley executives and former executives especially worried about regarding, you know, doomsday scenarios, the kind of thing that they have to prepare for by stocking up and building secret hideaways?

OSNOS: So some of the things that they talk about are the kind of stuff of ordinary disaster movies, the idea - but, you know, there is some real element to it. The idea, for instance, that there could be a pandemic if the Ebola virus, for instance, had affected a much larger part of the population or an earthquake on the San Andreas in San Francisco - that's not a completely unreasonable fear - or the possibility of some sort of civil unrest.

They take what they've seen in some American cities and extrapolate onto a larger scale and they say, well, what would happen? But they pay less attention to what the initial event might be than what the aftermath would be, which is to say as one person put it in this story, I worry about the temporary collapse of our government and its systems. What he means is that they feel a sense of fragility in our politics. Our politics have become disorderly, they've become hard to predict.

And they look at it and they think, well, we're not entirely sure that our institutions are as sound as we've always assumed they are. And then there's another piece of it which is specific to technology. And that is a fairly prevalent fear in this community, which is that the growth and the development of artificial intelligence, which has become such a big subject of discussion, the idea that you will soon have a car that has no driver and eventually your goods will be delivered to a store by a truck that has no driver, that this kind of fundamental change in the American labor force will continue to produce tensions particularly between people who are losing their jobs and people who are responsible for the technology that is bringing about that change.

And so there is a quiet and constant conversation in Silicon Valley today about the idea that some of this extraordinary technology that's been created, like artificial intelligence, might, in fact, produce extraordinary social tension that they haven't yet figured out how to absorb.

GROSS: So you're talking about a kind of literal class warfare.

OSNOS: Yeah, that's the way that they talk about it. I mean, Max Levchin, who was a co-founder of PayPal, is the CEO of a firm, a lending startup who is opposed, actually, to this trend of survivalist thinking but is surrounded by it. He said, you know, what people worry about is, to use Max's word, the pitchforks. And by that, he means the idea that the sort of tension that we saw with the Occupy movement a few years ago would take on a wider, more virulent form.

GROSS: But it seems from your article that especially the Silicon Valley superwealthy know so much about the vulnerabilities within the electric grid and within the internet as a whole that they're worried that those systems can be hacked, that there's flaws, that the internet can kind of be disrupted, the electric grid can be disrupted, the whole society can collapse as a result. How much is that the motivation for this new superwealthy survivalism?

OSNOS: Well, that's a big piece of it. If you're somebody who works in technology, then you got into that business in part because you tend to think about how systems fit together. And as one CEO of a multi-billion dollar technology company put it to me, he said, look, the truth is that our lives today are dependent on systems that are integrated, interdependent in ways that they simply weren't even 20 or 30 years ago. To give you an example, he said, the food that's on the shelves in our grocery stores depends on a supply chain that depends on GPS.

And GPS, the Global Positioning System, depends to some degree on the internet. And the internet depends to some degree on another system known as DNS. And each one of these is vulnerable in its own ways. And so what he said, and this is - you know, he's a highly rational person who lives his life in very sophisticated ways in his business all the time, and he said, look, I'm not rushing out and, you know, declaring that the end of the world is near.

But what I am saying is that it is, in his view, logically rational to talk about the fragility of these digital and electrical systems, which are really sort of second nature and largely on unexamined as we go about our daily lives.

GROSS: So are these new superwealthy survivalists kind of equally divided between liberals and conservatives between the right and the left? Those people who have, like, political fears and fear that there's going to be a political breakdown, that's going to lead to a rift in the social fabric of society.

OSNOS: One of the surprises to me was that this was not something that was occupying one political wing or another. It seems to actually draw from both sides. Traditionally, most survivalists would describe themselves as libertarians somewhere out typically on the conservative end of the spectrum. They put a high premium on self-reliance, on sort of distance from government. But there is a new element here, which is partly reflected in the success in the candidacy of Donald Trump.

And that's the idea that there are, certainly in the case of Donald Trump, somebody who defies all of the conventional expectations and descriptions of politics, the sorts of experience required, the kind of standard to which he would be held for accuracy in what he says, all of the things that we used to assume would be absolutely fundamental about politics, those no longer obtain at the moment.

And so to give you a literal example, Justin Kan, who is a technology entrepreneur in Silicon Valley who co-founded a company called Twitch, which was later sold to Amazon for a billion dollars, he told me that after the election of Donald Trump, he got a call from a friend at a hedge fund who said to him, you know, if Donald Trump turns out to be, in Justin's words, a fascist dictator, well, the expected value of having an escape hatch, meaning having a home overseas, will be very high.

So while it used to be a phenomenon that was principally associated, I think, on the far-right end of the political spectrum, now you have people on the left who feel deeply uneasy about the direction that politics have taken.

GROSS: So let's talk about some of the measures some of the superwealthy are taking to prepare for the doomsday scenarios that they fear. Tell us about one of the Silicon Valley executives that you spoke to.

OSNOS: Sure. I'll tell you about somebody named Steve Huffman who is the CEO and a co-founder of Reddit, which is a very popular discussion site. It's valued at about $600 million. Steve graduated from the University of Virginia. He and his roommate ended up founding Reddit, which went on to become this very popular destination, one of the most popular sites on the internet.

And Steve is concerned about what he describes as the sort of temporary loss of our government and institutions to the point that he got eye surgery so that he's no longer near-sighted because he believes that if you have contacts or glasses in the event of some sort of crackup of civilization, then that will make you likely to be a victim.

GROSS: Because you'll lose your glasses and your contact lenses, so you'd better be able to just see.

OSNOS: Right. His - the theory is that if you're overly dependent on something like contact lenses, which - let's say they're no longer being delivered to the store anymore, then that reduces your chances of survival. And he said - you know, he added, I also have a lot of food. He has a couple of motorcycles so that he could get out of town in a hurry. He has guns, and he has ammunition. So he said, I think I could probably sort of hole up and protect myself for a while.

GROSS: Let me ask you about another superwealthy Silicon Valley exec. And this is Antonio Garcia Martinez - what is he doing to prepare for the doomsday scenario he's envisioning?

OSNOS: Antonio Garcia Martinez, who worked at Facebook, later was an adviser to Twitter - in the midst of the presidential campaign, when it was getting really toxic between supporters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, he decided to buy five acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest. And he brought in generators and solar panels and, as he put it, thousands of rounds of ammunition because, as he says, when a society loses its founding myth - you know, the thing that holds it together - well, then it can descend into chaos. And that's his...

GROSS: What's the founding myth he was referring to? Do you know?

OSNOS: Well, one of the things - yeah. What he was referring to is something that you hear across these conversations, and that's the idea that we are ultimately held together by a kind of commitment to the United States as a functioning entity. It's a sort of consensus, a belief that our politics are possible, that it's worth participating, that it's - you know, that our institutions are sound, that the president, for instance, will will abide by the Constitution, that the courts will have the say over the things which the Constitution allows them to govern.

So what they feel - the survivalists in Silicon Valley and in finance circles in New York who are expressing this view - is that they are worried that there's been this kind of creeping disrespect for fairly basic institutions in American life, the things that people used to believe were sources of authority. So for instance, today, you know, there is fake news, which is completely, you know, sort of obviously false and made up, intended to deceive people. But that term has already been misappropriated by people who are using it, including - it's worth saying - clearly including the president the United States, to describe things that he doesn't agree with.

And the idea and the concern is that if we're entering into a period in which some of the most traditional sources of authority in American life, including the intelligence community and a free press, are no longer considered sacred and trustworthy, well, then we're entering a really uncertain period in which it becomes hard to know, for instance, whether there will be, you know, talk about fake evidence or whether contracts will be honored. And so people whose livelihoods depend so much on the sanctity of these kinds of basic institutions are worried, and they're, in their words, hedging.

GROSS: Yes, but - the people who we're talking about, the superwealthy - they have enough money that they could really help support social institutions. They could help support any social change that they believe in. They could help support institutions whose funding is in jeopardy. They can do a lot to help bolster the society that they fear is going to crack up and fall apart.

OSNOS: Yeah, that is very much the argument among those who are opposed to this phenomenon. In Silicon Valley, for instance, Max Levchin, who is a prominent investor and entrepreneur says that this is - this idea, this kind of survivalist thinking is, as he puts it, one of the things that bothers him most about life in Silicon Valley today. He says, I often ask people, when they say to me what they're going to do in the, quote, unquote, "apocalypse," I say, well, how much have you donated to your local homeless shelter? How much have you actually really tried to address the underlying sources of social tension that are the cause of this anxiety?

Because, as he puts it - look, we're at a relatively benign point in the economy right now and the concern would be, instead of talking about what you're going to do if, you know, some faintly sci-fi scenario emerges, why don't you talk about what you could do right now to actually invest in the American project to try to strengthen these institutions and to help people in need?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. And we've been talking about his new piece in The New Yorker, which is called "Survival Of The Richest." And it's about how some of the wealthiest people in America, in Silicon Valley and the finance industry, are getting ready for doomsday scenarios and stocking up on, like, food and arms and are building homes in hidden enclaves. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S "GAVE PROOF")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new piece is called "Survival Of The Richest." It's about how some of the wealthiest people in America, including in the Silicon Valley and the finance industry, have become basically survivalists, stocking up on food and ammunition, weapons and also building, like, enclaves that they can retreat to in case society falls apart.

One of the most interesting enclaves that you write about in case society falls apart is this, like, superluxury condo that's actually in a former nuclear missile silo. Would you describe this?

OSNOS: Yeah. This is called the Survival Condo Project. And it is a couple of hours north of Wichita, Kan., in an old missile silo complex that was built in 1961, at the height of the Cold War. And the missile silo was decommissioned in 1965, as a lot of them were around the country. And there was sort of no obvious use for them until a few years ago. It was developed by somebody named Larry Hall, who was a developer and a survivalist himself. And what he realized was that there was a certain kind of buyer out there, a potential buyer who would be willing to spend, in this case, about $3 million for an apartment underground or a million and a half dollars for half an apartment.

And so he bought this silo and invested about $20 million into turning it into, essentially, a kind of luxury condo that's underground. And it can support 75 people on the food and the fuel that it has. And then it can, he said, operate indefinitely because you'll have hydroponic vegetables, and it will grow its own fish in farms and also be able to generate power with renewable energy because it's got wind turbines and also uses geothermal energy.

GROSS: So I was going to ask you if all of this is a big secret. But there's a website (laughter) for this Survival Condo Project. On the website, it says, this is the safety you need with a kind of comfort you'd come to expect from a luxury condo. And I thought, wow (laughter), that's - what a sales pitch. I mean, it's - I never expected there to be a website for this describing all the advantages of buying a condo in this former nuclear missile silo.

OSNOS: Yeah, I kind of scratched my head when I first heard about this. And I wasn't sure if it was real, so I went out to go see it - to go spend a night in this and sort of get a feel for it. And sure enough, it does exist. And Larry Hall has sold every unit in it except one for himself, he says.

And it is true that if you go down and you go to these apartments, they look more or less like apartments that you would find at any sort of high-end apartment building. They just happen to be underground. And they don't have windows, and so what they've done is install video screens as windows so that you don't get claustrophobic. And the video screens show a scene that is a live feed of the sky and the surface above, or you can have it play whatever you want.

At one point, they had a prospective customer who wanted to see the view from her window in New York City. And so the idea was to take footage of Central Park that she could see out her window and then have it projected from these kind of video windows underground.

GROSS: It's a screensaver basically.

(LAUGHTER)

OSNOS: It's essentially a screensaver - an apocalyptic screensaver.

GROSS: Exactly (laughter).

So how did it feel to spend the night there?

OSNOS: I mean, perhaps surprisingly, it was not as odd as you might expect. Once you're in there, you kind of forget at certain moments that you're underground. He relied on some of the interior decorating tricks that they use for cruise ships so that you can use a compact space very efficiently. There were a lot of lights, for instance, to keep it very bright so that it didn't feel gloomy. And, you know - and it has a library. And it has a movie theater, and it has a classroom and so on.

But you know, you have to kind of remind yourself every once in a while that the only reason why a person would be in this facility is that something really dreadful has happened to the world above. And so you sort of remember every few minutes - well, let's hope that nobody is ever, ever required to be inside this thing.

GROSS: So I don't know much about flying, but it seems to me, you know, if something's happened to, like, the internet system and GPSs aren't operating, which is one of the fears in the Silicon Valley, how are you going to be able to navigate your private plane to get to this place?

OSNOS: Well, one of the scenarios that is, I think, pretty common - that I heard about over and over again from, sort of, ultra-wealthy survivalists is that they think that this doesn't generally happen overnight. You know, that sure, there are scenarios like an internet blackout, some sort of major technical collapse. But the real risk, the thing that they worry about is more fundamental. And that's basically the erosion of social stability.

They really do feel - on some level, they sense that there is - because of income inequality and the unaddressed feeling of haves and have-nots in this country, that there really is a source of tension that were something to happen, it wouldn't happen overnight. And it would happen gradually. And it would become - you know, there would come a point at which they would no longer feel safe being in the cities and being in the homes where they live. And that's the point at which they would go into these compounds, either in the U.S. or they would fly abroad.

GROSS: My guest is Evan Osnos. His new article about superwealthy Silicon Valley survivalists is called "Survival Of The Richest." He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. After a break, we'll talk more about survivalists, and we'll talk about fake news in America, including fake facts coming from the Trump administration. And we'll discuss the direction the president is heading in with China and why it could lead to a shooting war. Osnos reported from China for eight years. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZUBATTO SYNDICATE'S "SATURN 9")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article, "Survival Of The Richest," is about super-rich Silicon Valley executives, venture capitalists and hedge fund managers who have become survivalists. They're preparing for doomsday scenarios, including dirty bombs, environmental disasters, the hacking of our digital infrastructure, political extremism and the social collapse of America. They're stockpiling food and weapons or hiring security, and they're creating luxury escape havens.

One of the things you write about that has led a lot of people to seriously worry about the total social collapse of America and then that there'll be no one to help us was Hurricane Katrina, which you say people have told you have totally, like, decreased their faith in government's ability to handle catastrophe. And FEMA, which stands for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is sometimes referred to now as FEMA, foolishly expecting meaningful aid (laughter). So a vote of no confidence in the government.

OSNOS: Right, yeah, this is an element of survivalist thinking that has both early roots and then a contemporary phenomenon. The early roots of this is that, you know, when did survivalism begin? It basically began in the 1970s during the oil shock, during this fear of inflation that there were writers out there who figured out that there was a market for this kind of idea. And they managed to sell some bestsellers that were called things like "How To Prosper During The Bad Times."

And, you know, what they did is they celebrated frontier thinking and these kinds of, you know, forgotten arts of how to make your own house or grow your own food. And then that sort of took on a new life, a larger life during Ronald Reagan's presidency because what Ronald Reagan said, as Richard Mitchell, who's a great sociologist of the survivalist phenomenon, described to me, Ronald Reagan was the first president who said to people actively, your government is the problem.

Your government is not here to solve your problems. Your government is your problem. And as Mitchell documented over the course of a number of years, this contributed to a new kind of energy for their survivalist movement what reached beyond the old - the sort of smallest community and began to grow into a larger phenomenon. And then you had a new incarnation in the last few years, which was expressed to me by several people who've adopted this survivalist lifestyle is that watching how the George W. Bush administration mishandled the response to Hurricane Katrina told them that a government today, even if it knows everything, it has full awareness that there's a hurricane bearing down on an American city, that it was incapable of protecting its citizens.

Well, they took that experience and they turned that into a general theory. And the general theory was the government is no longer able to protect me, therefore I need to protect myself.

GROSS: So, you know, when the web started and even when, like, the internet started in terms of being accessible to regular people and not just people in government, it seemed to be or at least have the potential of becoming a utopian community where things are free and accessible and people, like, chat online and form affinity groups and it's just, like, you know, a lovely, wonderful utopian idea.

Stewart Brand, who created the Whole Earth Catalog, co-founded something called The WELL, which was one of the first, like, online communities. And it was amazing. And now there's this, like, totally dark (laughter) underside to the internet. You've got Silicon Valley executives preparing for, you know, the social apocalypse. So what happened to that utopian vision? Like, the last people to have it now seem to be some of the people in Silicon Valley.

OSNOS: Yeah, it's - that is the most interesting question at the center of this. I mean, in some ways, Stewart Brand, who was this sage of Silicon Valley, really - I mean, he was one of Steve Jobs' great heroes. And the reason he was an icon was that he published a magazine called the Whole Earth Catalog, which was this kind of combination of techie thinking and hippie thinking. And his motto was we are as gods and we better get good at it. What did he mean?

He meant that the tools that we've created for ourselves, both as technologists and also the literal tools on the farm, these are powerful things. And they can make tremendous difference in our lives, but it's not altogether clear if it's going to be good or bad. And what we've discovered, I think, over the last several years and certainly over the course of the last several months where we've discovered that the internet became a kind of high-speed conveyor belt, in some cases, for absolutely fraudulent information, which, you know, what's now known as fake news zipped around the country in ways that it never could have a generation ago.

And people believed it. We now know that. The survey data's quite clear. And as a result, they believed things about political candidates that were not true. I had a fascinating conversation with Stewart Brand for this story about survivalism in Silicon Valley. And I called him up and I said, what do you make of this? He's been in that community for 40 years. And I said, what do you make of this? And he said, you know, I dabbled in survivalism, he said, in the '70s.

He tried it for a little while. But he decided it was kind of strange, the idea that walking around believing that the world was about to end. And what he said is that over the years, he's become much more impressed by examples of resilience rather than examples of frailty. For example, in the last 10 years, the United States has weathered a recession, the largest recession since the Great Depression. It now has unemployment at low, manageable levels. There was an Ebola crisis, which was predicted to be much worse in the end than it ultimately was.

It was certainly costly, but it was nowhere near what it could have been. And that was because people took it upon themselves to do something about it. And then another example would be Japan that suffered this tsunami and a cascade of nuclear meltdowns. And from that, yet, it has soldiered on. And so what Stewart Brand said is that the hardest problem that we face today is not the idea that the world is about to end, this idea which we circulate among ourselves, let's say, online in these communities.

But it actually is the much more mundane but more likely scenario, which is that we chug on, that we continue and we are faced with these practical problems, social problems about how do we help the neediest members of our society and how do we make sure that people are taken care of who need it?

GROSS: My guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is called "Survival Of The Richest." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HIDDEN, IN DISREPAIR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article, "Survival Of The Richest," is about superwealthy Silicon Valley executives who've become survivalists. Osnos has also written about candidate and now President Donald Trump. After Trump announced his candidacy, Osnos wrote about why he was championed by white nationalists and far-right groups who rebranded as the alt-right.

So Steve Bannon, who is President Trump's chief strategist and the former head of Breitbart News, just hired Julia Hahn as his aide. And she was a Breitbart staff writer. She wrote an article about Paul Ryan last October, October 21, 2016, that was headlined, "He's With Her: Inside Paul Ryan's Months-Long Campaign To Elect Hillary Clinton President." I really don't think Paul Ryan wanted to elect...

OSNOS: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Hillary Clinton president. I really doubt that he had a campaign to elect her. And, you know, he's, you know, the leader of the Republican Party in many ways.

OSNOS: Right.

GROSS: I mean - so, like, of course, I'm really wondering what is going through his mind. I can't ask you to tell me that (laughter).

OSNOS: Right.

GROSS: But I can't help but wonder, like, why would he not say something about this? Why would he not object to this?

OSNOS: Do you mean Paul Ryan, or do you mean...

GROSS: Paul Ryan.

OSNOS: ...Donald Trump?

Paul Ryan's initial reaction to the appointment of Julia Hahn was basically - he adopted the posture that it doesn't matter. And his office put out a statement saying, we don't care about this in the slightest. The reality is, of course, that they do care. She has been out here in this relatively small media organization - but an influential one in Paul Ryan's world, has been his most fierce critic and has been sort of promoting a version of events that would qualify as a kind of odd-ball thinking. And it's certainly not conventional political analysis. Nobody else was saying that Paul Ryan was trying to promote Hillary Clinton's candidacy for president.

So the question, I think, becomes - well, why is this entering the White House? What is Donald Trump actually doing by bringing this into the White House? And the answer is that, in some ways, he is now caught between these two impulses and these two necessities. On one side, Donald Trump was elected by this populist, nationalist phenomenon that was articulated by Breitbart Media. It sort of took the form of Steve Bannon as a person and as an adviser.

But at the same time, there's this other side, which is the very practical side of being, now, the head of the Republican Party in America and also the president of the United States. And Donald Trump is faced, in a sense, with a difficult problem, which is that in his inauguration, you remember he said that the time for empty talk is over and the hour of action has arrived.

What he meant was politics. But actually, it could be used to describe his own predicament because Donald Trump has campaigned, in a sense, brilliantly. I mean, whether we like him or not, he succeeded in becoming the president of the United States. But now all of the things which he said, which in many cases - and it's not an exaggeration to say many cases - were not based on fact, were not based on reliable statistics, were not based on reasonable expectations of policy prescriptions.

He now faces the problem of - how do you actually achieve these? And if he can't achieve them, then he's going to have to rely on that other pillar of his support. So he's not going to be able to rely on competence and achievement and success. Well, if that won't work, he's going to have to rely on this populist, nationalist surge of sentimental energy which got him into the White House in the first place.

GROSS: Are you concerned that with Steve Bannon as President Trump's strategist and with Steve Bannon's aide as a former writer for Breitbart News, that they're going to be encouraging fake news, which is something Breitbart News is famous for?

OSNOS: Absolutely. I think, you know, this is the kind of concern that it's easy for journalists to talk about but, in fact, is of immense importance to people in finance, in medicine, you know, if you are a schoolteacher.

And all of these worlds that I just described, which depend fundamentally on the sanctity and the precision of numbers, you know, on whether or not we are being honest with ourselves about the country we inhabit - for the presidential spokesman, Sean Spicer, to get up as he did on the very first day after the inauguration and to provide false information, to falsely claim that the inauguration was larger than any crowd in history for an inauguration or to say that the ridership on the local subways, for instance, was higher that day than the ridership for Barack Obama's inauguration, those were numbers which were just patently false and easy to verify that they were false.

And for him to do that represents such a break with political culture that it really becomes hard to know how a White House that is willing to adopt and promote ideas, which even a sort of rudimentary check would know to be false - how it is that they are going to govern successfully because you can only rely on faulty information for so long before it begins to produce, basically, failure.

GROSS: So what is your position - as a journalist and just as a citizen, you're very skeptical that Donald Trump will be able to fulfill his promises. You're very concerned about fake news that has come and might continue to come from the Trump administration. You're concerned about Trump's relationship with white nationalists. He is the president of the United States, and he was elected. So what kind of dissonance, if any, are you facing between respecting that he is the president of the United States and fearing some of his ambitions and methods and alliances?

OSNOS: In some ways, you know, I have so much respect for the institution, for the presidency, that it is, as a journalist, energizing right now to say this is an amazing thing we created in the country. You know, the U.S. presidency is a powerful office and an honorable office and a dignified office. And it's one that has been conducted brilliantly over the course of our history. But it is also one that is - ultimately, it works for us, you know. It is subject to public approval and support.

And one of the things that you saw on the day after Donald Trump's inauguration was that people voiced their sort of most elementary commitment as citizens to stand up and say, I care. I care enough to march. I care enough to come out and express myself. And you saw it in vast numbers.

And I think - strangely enough, you know, this is a time when journalism, obviously, is much maligned at the moment. People say that they don't trust much of what they read in the media and they really don't have much respect for journalism. And yet, at the same time, journalism has been, historically, one of the ways that presidents have been brought to account. Were it not for journalism, Richard Nixon and the break-in at the Watergate would never have been discovered.

So I think - you know, I can't speak for my colleagues more broadly, but I do find that among people in Washington who write about politics and think about it, we feel like this is exactly the kind of work that we were trained to do. This is exactly the kind of thing we all set out to do, which is to say we work for the public. Our job here is to hold people in power accountable. And we're going to do the best we can to do it.

GROSS: So after Trump was elected, you wrote a piece that was titled "When Tyranny Takes Hold." The piece was about China. You wrote (reading) what is the precise moment in the life of a country when tyranny takes hold? It rarely happens in an instant. It arrives like twilight and at first, the eyes adjust. Tyranny does not begin with the violence. It begins with the first gesture of collaboration. Its most enduring crime is drawing decent men and women into its siege of the truth.

Since you were making a comparison, in some ways, a silent comparison between what happened in China and what you fear could happen in the U.S., what's the analogy to the U.S. that you fear in that line?

OSNOS: What worries me is that we sometimes take for granted how unbelievably important simple truth and facts really are. If you've ever lived in a country, an authoritarian country, for instance, like where I've lived in China, I lived in Egypt and I worked in Iraq, one of the things that unifies these countries is that they all have basically no reliable source of authority. There is no fact that people believe. You know, if you wake up in the morning in Cairo and you pick up a newspaper, you don't believe what the newspaper's really telling you.

What you believe is that this is some set of, you know, that there's some group behind that newspaper and that they're, you know, projecting one set of ideas and that there's another newspaper with another set of ideas and that there is no such thing as fact. And I think we make a mistake by kind of drifting in America almost into a mode of thinking that facts are obsolete, that they are just opinions dressed up as something more reliable. No, that's not true. I mean, one of the things that's knowable is that there are such things as facts.

It's just a fact that the number of people who rode the subway on the day of Barack Obama's inauguration was larger than the number of people who rode the subway on Donald Trump's inauguration. Why does it matter? I mean, it could not be a more, you know, it feels like it's the smallest statistic in the world except that it's absolutely essential that we remind the people who serve in our name that they cannot lie to us, that if they lie to us and if we allow it to happen, then we're giving up this basic sort of cellular building block of our political society because if you can't rely on the information by which public servants are making decisions, you know, if they have de-legitimized the sources of those information, then all of the other institutions that we depend on, the courts, contracts, good schools, all of those things begin to unravel.

And so it all begins, in the end, with making sure that politicians are as much as possible held to account for the facts that they dispense.

GROSS: What are some of the things that you're really looking at right now in terms of the Trump administration, Trump's decisions so far and what clues they might give about the future?

OSNOS: Well, one of the things that I'm very focused on is that, you know, we have to know very, very clearly and transparently what Donald Trump's business obligations are. And I use that word advisedly. Obligations includes, for instance, who holds his debt, who has given the Trump Organization money over the years. And I know it has by now been said a thousand times, but the idea that Donald Trump is now president and has not released his tax returns puts us into a constant state of uncertainty about his political decision-making.

And it cannot be allowed to be ignored. I mean, this is the kind of thing that - his adviser Kellyanne Conway indicated last weekend that he may never release his tax returns. He had promised that he would when there was an audit completed. But now she has indicated that, well, he may never do that because, as she put it, the public doesn't care. Actually, surveys are very clear, that's an untrue statement. You know, the surveys are quite clear that the public does care.

The majority of Americans want Donald Trump to release his tax returns. The majority of Republicans, in fact, want Donald Trump to release his tax returns. And until he does, it's not just that we want to know if he paid any taxes. That's actually sort of one of the smallest issues at this point. All indications are that he paid very little in tax. The bigger issue is who is he in business with? Who was he in business with in the past? And who is his family in business with today?

And until we know the answers to those questions, we can't honestly evaluate his presidency without concern about conflicts of interest.

GROSS: My guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is called "Survival Of The Richest." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO SONG, "WEATHER SHY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article, "Survival Of The Richest," is about superwealthy Silicon Valley executives who've become survivalists. Osnos has also written about candidate and now President Donald Trump.

You lived in and reported from China for eight years. What are you looking at now and trying to understand what Trump's policy toward China is likely to be?

OSNOS: Well, the China relationship, I suspect, is going to end up being a big subject of discussion. We don't talk about it very much today because we're focused, for instance, on his early appointments and perhaps his relationship with Russia, since he talks so much about Vladimir Putin. But when you talk to his advisers, as I've done over the last few months, they believe that a confrontation with China, some sort of confrontation over trade, perhaps over territory in the South China Sea, which China believes is its own, all of those issues are likely to grow.

And I - you've begun to hear this. Rex Tillerson, who will probably be the secretary of state, said in his confirmation hearings that the United States would seek to prevent - and that's an important word - that it would seek to prevent China from getting access to these manmade islands in the South China Sea. Why does this matter? Because if that's in fact the case, if the Trump administration is interested in trying to draw a much harder line on China, well, then that will become the biggest foreign policy question that they face.

When it comes to China, Donald Trump's administration has said something very surprising and I think something that will have long-term consequences we'll be hearing more about. And that's that they do not believe fundamentally in what's known as the one-China policy. That's the idea that China and Taiwan are ultimately part of one country. And that's been a principle that has been the foundation of peace in East Asia for about 40 years. What the Trump administration has said is that they would consider abandoning that policy, which would be a source of enormous concern in Beijing, if they don't get what they want on trade.

Beijing has responded to that by saying this is a non-negotiable issue. This caused a huge amount of attention and concern among China specialists over the last sort of early days of the Trump administration because that if he believes that the one-China policy is a bargaining chip, well, then he's operating in a completely different reality from what the leaders of China are operating in. And that's the recipe for a confrontation down the road.

GROSS: By confrontation, do you mean trade war, diplomatic dispute, war - what do you mean?

OSNOS: It's too early to know. But it's - anybody who studies China seriously will agree that the one-China policy, meaning Taiwan, is the one issue on which China would be willing, at this moment, to go into a shooting war. There's just no question. They regard that as an existential matter of their survival. If they lose Taiwan, they worry about the future of the country. And so for them, this is not a small issue.

GROSS: You mean like a shooting war with us?

OSNOS: Yes. China is not willing to give up Taiwan. It's probably the one issue on which they would, at the moment, be willing to get into a conflict with the United States, which is not something they want. You know, they really don't. They don't regard themselves as militarily our equal. They know they're not. You know, the United States has about a dozen aircraft carriers. China has one.

But if there was a case in which China was confronted by a U.S. president who had made it his stated position to try to allow or permit or encourage Taiwan to seek independence from China, I think you would find that the Chinese government would be willing to do much more than we've ever really imagined in order to try to defend what it regards as its territory.

GROSS: So if this is kind of like a path to some kind of war - trade war, shooting war - why would the Trump administration want to do it?

OSNOS: I don't think that they intend to get into a conflict, certainly an armed conflict, with China. When you talk to the administration's China specialists, people like Peter Navarro, who is now the head of the National Trade Council, what he tells you is that we regard this as a negotiation.

And Donald Trump, if you look over the course of his candidacy and certainly over his business career, when he goes into a negotiation, he will sometimes stake out a position that is wildly out of bounds. Just, you know - he knows he's not going to get it. But it begins the conversation, and the other party is on the defensive. And then he sort of begins to, you know, march forward until eventually he reaches an accommodation that he thinks is to his advantage.

The difference here is, this is not a real estate negotiation. And if you come out with a position at the outset that the other party regards as an existential threat, national threat, well, then that's a totally different process. That's not a, you know, a negotiation where you end up with a kind of, you know, mutually acceptable conclusion. That's one in which the other party believes at the outset that you are truly not inclined to defend their national security but that you're pursuing a position that might imperil them.

That's why it's worrisome - because it implies that if you take the toolbox that Donald Trump used as a business person and then as a candidate and you just apply it wholesale to what he will be called upon to do as president, it's a real mismatch. And it's not the same set of tools that would allow him to succeed in national security and other issues.

GROSS: Well, Evan Osnos, thank you so much for talking with us.

OSNOS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Evan Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article, "Survival Of The Richest," is about Silicon Valley executives, venture capitalists and hedge fund managers who have become survivalists.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Luke Harding who reported on Russia for four years for The Guardian before being expelled. We'll talk about the Russian dossier alleging connections between the Donald Trump campaign and Russia. We'll hear how Luke Harding was spied on when he was in Russia, and we'll talk about his current reporting on Russia's connections to the European far-right and what the Trump presidency means for England. He's now The Guardian's senior international correspondent. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK FRIEDLANDER'S "OSCALYPSO")

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.