I'll never forget the scene in the book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden. In it, Harden tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person ever to have escaped from one of North Korea's forced labour concentration camps. As a teenager, Dong-hyuk and his fellow slaves were constantly famished and wardens preyed on their hunger to get them to accuse each other of crimes. The betrayed were tortured and executed, the betrayers rewarded. It was the only way to procure an extra scrap of food. All were encouraged to turn in friends, family, and parents. It was every person for themselves in this North Korean hell. Shin Dong-hyuk accused his mother of a crime and was required to witness her execution. She caught his eye right as the evildoers put a noose around her neck and strung her up. At the time he felt nothing, having never experienced the bonds of affection with another human being. Only in California, years later, did he comprehend the enormity of his betrayal. The camps have existed twelve times as long as the Nazi concentration camps did. Generations have been born and died in these horrific places that enslave 120,000 prisoners of the state. The book was published in 2013.
In 2016, CNN reported that North Korea was expanding its gulag.
That night in Singapore
That night in Singapore, Trump signed an historic agreement with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader who presides over these camps. In brief initial comments in front of the press before the signing, Trump predicted a "terrific relationship" with Kim, the Associated Press reports. This came after a weekend in which Trump insulted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canada, basically telling us we are too weak to respect. That's scary coming from the leader of the country Canada has depended upon historically for security.
A man disturbed by his computer
When I was a reporter in my first job, working for The Tennessean, one of my colleagues was troubled by his computer. People called him paranoid and I suppose he was. Tall, pale, well-dressed, with bushy black hair, he worked as a copy editor and came to believe that the CIA wanted to control him through his computer. From time to time, he'd lose it and run through the newsroom aisles, shouting at the other reporters, "They're in my head!"
This would go on until security guards came and led him out of the office. He'd not be seen for a few weeks in the newsroom after these outbursts but after some time he would return to the office, quiet, thoughtful. Then, out of the blue, a few months later, the copy editor would leap from his chair and run through the room, as if chased by a ghost, "They are colonizing my mind! Trying to tell me what to do. Get them out of my head!"
Today, when so many of our thoughts are controlled by what speaks to us through our computers, it seems as if that copy editor actually conveyed a vision and a warning. That he unwittingly spoke of things that we couldn't imagine in our wildest dreams back in the early eighties when Walter Cronkite still delivered the nightly television news.
Back before social media, truth might have been twisted by corrupt politicians into crimes and lies, but we had investigative journalists to pry it loose and expose it to the public. On a national level, we had our Seymour Hersches and Woodward and Bernsteins sleuthing around.
The end of a shared reality didn't begin with Trump, but ever since The Donald cruised down that escalator in his gilded Manhattan tower to announce his bid for the presidency, I've had that same feeling my old copy editor did. "They're in my head." Trump's Twitterstorm blares at full volume, ubiquitous as tinnitus. It saturates the news. It gets into your phone, your bedroom, your head. You could it turn off but you don't. Maybe you can't take your eyes off civilization devolving. Maybe you sense you're witnessing the end of democracy, a Russian takeover of America, and then again, you aren't so sure. Are you?
And now you learn that the NRA met with Russians, too, even as the Democratic National Committee's emails were being hacked. I never thought I'd see the day when an American president was more complimentary to the president of Russia than his own attorney general but now that day has dawned.
It's like living in a blinding dust storm, all the time. It's impossible to see past it. Even here in Canada, what dinner party conversation doesn't eventually lurch away from work and kids and veer towards Trump? My old copywriting colleague may have been psychotic — "they're in my head" — but now they really are in your head, or whatever this weird human-internet cyborg has become.
You may want to "get them out of your head" but hazard lies that direction. To forget Trump is to let him proliferate in the compost of decaying checks and balances. To ignore the populist is to accept him. To look at him head-on is to recognize the dangers of his near-absolute power.
What about Canada?
We can talk about how Canadians are different: considerate, too sensible for this orgy of outrage. How we'll work together to avoid a takeover by shadowy forces manipulating us online. But here we have polarization, too, a less visible but growing divide.
And I think we need to talk very seriously instead about what all this might portend for the next year of elections here in the True North. We've just seen once again how effective well-played social media campaigns can be with the election of Doug Ford as Ontario's premier. What struck me most during Ford's campaign was its simplicity and repetitiveness and how I, for one, never saw a Doug Ford ad. The absence of a plan. He even eschewed the big signature ideas: no 'Great Wall,' let alone policies, solutions, or real proposals for how your money would be spent. If I didn't know better, I'd think this is a man who knows nothing of the world or how it works.
But this is a man who has a great deal of experience in politics and with people. He knows enough to surround himself with operatives savvy about how technology works. And he was sophisticated enough to let them work their dark arts. The old "air wars" of elections used to be fought mostly in the news media and through television advertising. But the PCs this time relied on “literally thousands” of online ads they produced inexpensively in-house, according to a campaign official gloating to the National Post. With the ability to target specific demographic and geographic groups through Facebook and Google, those internet spots proved more important than any traditional media, the campaign official said.
The targeting was so precise, “a husband and a wife should not be seeing the same ads.” Of course, I never saw one. (I'm sure Facebook has me in my appropriate box: progressive, woman, Vancouver-based, likes heron, ducklings and goslings on the seawall and articles about abuses of social media platforms, posts way too many pictures of her kids.)
The PC's efforts were amplified by a veritable blizzard of online outrage. Online bots operated at "inhuman frequencies" pumping Facebook pages like Ontario Proud to the very apex of political rankings.
It's the Brexit-Trump online playbook. A strategy that started a couple of years ago in the Britain and the United States and has made its way to us. We need to take it very, very seriously.
Canada's brilliant Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland told the New York Times Magazine in a story published this weekend, that she recently read a "terrifying” quote from Adolf Hitler. It explained his rise to power in Germany in a time of economic uncertainty and grievance.
"I will tell you what has carried me to the position I have reached," Hitler had said. "Our political problems appeared complicated. The German people could make nothing of them. ... I, on the other hand ... reduced them to the simplest terms. The masses realized this and followed me."
"How do you attract voters and public support compared with the flashiness of exciting, chaotic, fact-ignoring populism?” Freeland asked. "The reason Hitler won was because all of the other politicians were giving complicated and difficult explanations about difficult things. Hitler just told people simple things that they wanted to hear."
Compelling as road kill, Trump mesmerizes, thrills and appalls those of us caught between horror and the disbelief. He keeps the show going. It's like a bad Broadway play where the curtain never comes down and the doors to the theatre are bolted closed. You have to watch. Whether we're talking about how he insulted Trudeau and Canada at the G7 or how he's angling for his Nobel Peace Prize in North Korea, it's like a Netflix series where the writers just won't end it and you should stop binging but you can't, you don't.
As COO & Chief Strategy Officer at Institute for Education in NYC, Kaivan Shroff, commented on Twitter, "Surreal to watch Trump cozy up to a dictator who murdered Otto Warmbier and threatened to nuke America, just days after viciously attacking our closest allies — even those who came to our aid during 9/11. #TrumpKimSummit
It is surreal, hearing Trump as he reduces everything to simple terms. He remains the perfect president to take advantage of the digital age where soundbites have been pushed aside by tweets. He's the oaf others can bend and shape in the algorithmic structures of the Tech Libertarians, getting into your head through your tablet or desktop or handheld. Whatever the device, he's speaking to you through, he's irrational and dangerous to the best of the values and principles America embodies, and he speaks in one voice, empowered and enabled by Twitter itself. You may try to ignore him, but he will reach you and he will be heard.
By the time he was elected, I'd already heard way too much. I was aching for Hilary to win, first and foremost because she was the only qualified candidate, but also, to be honest, to make it stop. His voice.
His angry blaring from behind the podium at debates. His stalking of Hillary, looming over her, like Big Brother himself. And the worse part for me when the fates, some Americans, (and Russians?) got him elected was that I knew I would have to go on listening to him, to that voice with its cadence and its simplicity. It's creepy. Yes. And I knew it then, that whether he's insulting your democracy, hating on something hallowed and fine, badmouthing your religion, or grandstanding with his dictator friends, before Trump's voice and bots fall silent, "Get him out of my head!" will be the mantra of our era. And still he'll go on sputtering, berating, raging, and bragging, a bully armed with bombs on a playground vacant of adults.
Linda Solomon Wood is National Observer's editor-in-chief.