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We read ‘Rage,’ Bob Woodward’s new Trump book, so you don’t have to

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Whisper it low: Could Rage, out in bookstores this week, be the first Bob Woodward book in an age that’s actually worth reading? 

My answer: Yes, but only 50 percent of the thing. Only after Woodward, at age 77, has an Alice in Wonderland epiphany halfway through, and that changes the way he interviews Trump. At long last, with unusual honesty, Woodward becomes a visible character in his own decades-long story — and actually checks his own privilege. 

They’re strange things, Woodward books. They invariably break news, because Mr. I-Broke-Watergate convinces every source in Washington to speak to him eventually, and they usually have something jaw-dropping to say when the tape-recorder’s on. (In the case of Rage, it’s Trump  spilling his brains on COVID-19; the president kept calling Woodward because he was mad at being left out of Woodward’s previous book, Fear.)   

So we buy them, anticipating some solid Pulitzer-worthy narrative. We proudly display them on the shelf for a week or a month or three, because who has the time? Then we crack them open one evening, long after the news storm has passed, and we realize: Holy cow, this guy cannot write

Woodward admitted in a 1989 interview that good analysis eludes him. But it’s a language problem too. If you’ve ever had to re-read his pages to understand them, you’re not alone. Each paragraph contains a lead balloon of a sentence; each chapter meanders through pointless details. (Rage is the only book that will ever reveal how many Diet Cokes Trump drank as his helicopter circled a foggy landing zone in the Korean demilitarized zone: two.)

We also rediscover this inconvenient fact: Bob Woodward is an old-school establishment Republican. His political lean should come as no surprise; it’s right there in the movie about Woodward and Bernstein bringing down Nixon, All The President’s Men. (Robert Redford as Woodward says he’s GOP and voted for Nixon in ’68; Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein stares, incredulous). And it comes out in every book he writes; no matter how much Woodward claims to be an old-school just-the-facts-man objective journalist, his choices of source and subject speak volumes. 

Fear, which I described in three words — bad, boring, bogus — was in many parts a love letter to Woodward’s favorite Trumpian sources. Lindsey Graham, Kellyanne Conway, and even Steve Bannon came out of it glowing whiter than white. Graham gets the occasional mash note in Rage too, but the bulk of Woodward’s ballpoint hearts are now etched next to former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and Trump’s former Defense secretary, retired General Jim Mattis. 

I regret to report that Woodward, who admired both Mattis and Lt. General H.R. McMaster’s “ramrod-straight” posture in Fear, is at it again: “Mattis had a stoic Marine exterior and attention-getting ramrod posture, but his bright, open and inviting smile softened his presence.” Guys, get a room. 

To read the first half of Rage is to believe that very little worthy of attention happened in this administration prior to the coronavirus outside of its erratic diplomacy with North Korea. Woodward repeatedly blanches at the thought that Mattis might have had to shoot down a North Korean nuke, maybe. It is to accept Russian election interference while eliding the very clear fact that the interference was to help Trump. It is to dismiss the Mueller report and all its open questions even as you report that Rosenstein deliberately set out to limit the investigation. 

It is, in short, to give Trump every possible chance. Woodward is not even a Never Trumper Republican; by temperament, he seems to be a Maybe Trumper. At one point, for no narrative reason, he describes Dan Coats’ Indiana Republican wife wrestling with whether to vote for candidate Trump in 2016. While the Access Hollywood tape was “lewd,” and “she knew he was, as she put it, ‘a philanderer and a womanizer, no doubt about that,'” Trump had on the other hand “promised to fund a stronger military.” More ramrod-straight generals for the win! 

Enter the Cheshire Cat

Is Trump a cat with the ability to disappear in thin air? His son-in-law thinks so.

Is Trump a cat with the ability to disappear in thin air? His son-in-law thinks so.

Image: wikimedia commons

But the fact that Woodward speaks fluent old-school GOP is what makes his second-half conversion all the more powerful. And it’s why you might consider, if not reading Rage yourself, then at least mailing it to your political history-loving Republican uncle before the election. 

The change comes when Woodward speaks to Jared Kushner halfway through, looking for keys to Trump’s character. Kushner takes him to Alice in Wonderland territory, literally: 

He paraphrased the [Cheshire] cat: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.” The Cheshire Cat’s strategy was one of endurance and persistence, not direction. 

Kushner was explicitly saying Alice in Wonderland was a guiding text for the Trump presidency. Did Kushner understand how negative this was? Was it possible the best roadmap for the administration was a novel about a young girl who falls through a rabbit hole, and Kushner was willing to acknowledge that Trump’s presidency was on shaky, directionless ground?

In short, yes. This seems to be Woodward’s first clue that his president has no moral center whatsoever, and will say any old shit that appears in his brain, often on a repetitious loop. In the words of the New York Times‘ Maggie Haberman, another essentially sympathetic reporter, Trump will “say whatever he needs to say to get through ten minute increments of time.” Woodward is a late convert to this notion, because he is patriotically trained to expect more of presidents. He cannot believe there’s no there there, but … he finally got there.  

Something remarkable happens with his Trump conversations from this point forward: Woodward actually starts fact-checking the president’s statements. It’s fact-checking of the most milquetoast sort, the kind that continually gives Trump the benefit of the doubt. There is plenty he doesn’t push back on, and alarmingly Woodward still seems to be more gung-ho on the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was created in a Chinese lab than Trump is. 

But that doesn’t stop Woodward boarding a fast train to Never Trump Town, where he will arrive at the end of the book. And no wonder. Trump has a limited number of verbal tricks to deploy, they all depend on distraction, and they look increasingly desperate the longer you keep him talking. Eventually he will try to end the debate by blurting out something pathetically, revealingly narcissistic, like this: “But the ideas are mine, Bob. The ideas are mine. Want to know something? Everything’s mine. You know, everything is mine.” 

The more Trump reveals himself, and the more Woodward pushes back, the more the author becomes something he never intended but should have been all along — a visible figure in his own journalistic process. Finally, he has stepped out of the shadows where he tape-records and burnishes the legacy of his beloved sources. Finally, he is self-examining. 

In the book’s most surprising moment, Woodward shares some of his own evolution with Trump: “My father was a lawyer and a judge in Illinois. And we know what your dad did. Do you have any sense that a privilege has isolated and put you in a cave, as it put me… and that we have to work our way out of it to understand the anger and the pain Black people have in this country?”

Trump scoffs and lashes out, accusing Woodward of “drinking the Kool-Aid.” Woodward persists, and finally drags Trump to a discussion about systemic racism where the president finally, briefly, reluctantly, admits it’s a thing — and has been a thing “for hundreds of years plus.” Kind of like, say, the 1619 project has been saying all along.   

It’s too little too late, as far as Woodward is concerned. Trump has committed the fundamental crime of being an unserious president, and the coronavirus damns him. Mattis comes out against Trump in June 2020, describing him as a “threat to the Constitution” after Trump’s cynical church photo-op with active duty military on the streets of Washington D.C.; Woodward’s epiphany, coincidentally or otherwise, seems to have come around the same time. Finally, he abandons obtuse neutrality. 

On the very last page of his epilogue, Woodward reaches his Never Trump destination. The establishment Republican who hoped for the best from Trump instead realizes he is a grifter who has “enshrined personal impulse as a governing principle of his presidency… Trump is the wrong man for the job.”

For those of us who reached that conclusion in 2016, Woodward’s plodding pace can be infuriating. But there are many white seventysomething Republicans in America in his situation right now, with the scales falling from their eyes in the wake of a virus that Trump clearly isn’t protecting them from, and reading Rage may help speed along their own epiphanies. 

This should be encouraged, not scoffed at. For the sake of the country, and for us never having to read another Woodward book on Trump, let us hope they vote accordingly. 

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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