Power LiesSarah Kendzior on the America That Made Donald Trump Possible

Sarah Kendzior, author of Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America (Photo credit: Kevin A. Roberts)

It’s tempting to think of Sarah Kendzior as a modern-day Cassandra. Like the Greek goddess cursed to speak the truth but never be believed, Kendzior saw Donald Trump’s electoral victory coming while the rest of us were busy cracking hairpiece jokes. She predicted the ineffectual result of Robert Mueller’s Russia probe as we pinned our hopes on eventually, finally, gaining concrete evidence of a stolen election. And she warned that Trump’s increasing turn to authoritarianism would only get worse: In a piece published two weeks after the 2016 election, Kendzior wrote that the reality of a President Trump was “[B]eyond party politics: It is not a matter of having a president-elect whom many dislike, but having a president-elect whose explicit goal is to destroy the nation.”

But Kendzior is the first to assert that she’s neither an oracle nor a doomsayer: She was simply paying attention. As a former journalist at the New York Daily News, she was familiar with Trump’s business dealings, social connections, and thirst for status and validation; as a PhD who focused her research on the intersection of totalitarianism and the internet in former Soviet states, she understood how autocrats manipulate news media to sow confusion and undermine a citzenry’s trust. And since 2016, her single-minded focus has been bringing to light the depth and reach of Trump’s connections to a sprawling network of kleptocrats, billionaires, propagandists, fixers, and strong-armers that Kendzior calls “a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government.”

Her new book, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America, connects these dots and then some. It’s not simply a book about Trump, but an indictment of the myth of American exceptionalism that made his ascendency possible. The paranoia birthed by Richard Nixon and Watergate; the ruthless venality in which Trump was schooled by his early mentor Roy Cohn; the creation of a television network explicitly engineered to churn out a boundless supply of profitable fear and fury. But it’s also about resistance and connection: Kendzior, a St. Louis resident and one of the sharpest voices cutting through the media racism that attended the 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, writes movingly about her state and its history of defending free speech; of the determination of her fellow activists; and, most heartbreakingly, of her children and the world they will inherit. Bitch spoke with Kendzior earlier this month.

I’ve been reading your work and listening to Gaslit Nation, the podcast you cohost, for a long time. I can’t imagine how it would feel to find out that nearly everything you predicted would happen has happened, and that you’re unable to stop it from continuing to happen.

It’s a horrible feeling. There’s no satisfaction in being right or being first or any of that. [One] of the reasons I was able to predict this is that Trump is following an autocratic playbook. It’s the same playbook that [Vladimir] Putin, Victor Orban, and [Tayyip] Erdogan—and so many others who either started out as autocrats or became them over time—have used.

One of the frustrating things for me, though, is that Trump has been a public figure for 40 years, and most of the people surrounding him have been public figures for decades. These are people who commit crimes openly, whose dirty deeds were [already] in the public eye. Almost everything I wrote in my book was pulled together through archives. There are a few firsthand interviews thrown in, but the majority of [source material] was in the public domain. Anyone could have found the things I found, and could have put them together. So it’s very frustrating that our agencies did not do that, FBI, intelligence, the Obama administration—even the George W. Bush administration, since quite a bit of it goes back that far. The mainstream media didn’t. And they also lied about it, on top of that. They called me and others who were bringing these facts to light early “alarmists” or conspiracy theorists.

It doesn’t matter who said it first; it matters that it’s happening, and it matters who gets hurt. And the same people have been getting hurt the whole time—the most vulnerable Americans, Americans who are already marginalized, Americans who are already suffering. And it’s a profound danger to the world. And now, with coronavirus, you get this moment where the severity of the threat is illuminated for everyone. It’s literally a matter of life and death. We have a criminal syndicate operating in the White House, and they are literally doing shakedowns on states and on governors, holding back medical equipment for both profit and for long-term destruction that will lead to greater profit. And still, people normalize it, excuse it, and look the other way. It’s endlessly frustrating.

The horror of this presidency has been in instance after instance of us believing that there is an adult in the room who will stand up at some point and stop this, and then realizing that they won’t. And this pandemic is such a stark illustration of that.

There are some people who I don’t think deserve the kind of inflated reputations that they were given by the media, [Robert] Mueller among them, and the “generals,” people like [H.R.] McMaster, [James] Mattis, and [John] Kelly. There was a brief time when Democrats were cheering for John Bolton—I mean, come on! But that’s where the panic and denial went—they would tout [each one] as the guy who was going to turn it around. I don’t understand why so many officials just uniformly refuse to hold him accountable, to use the mechanisms at their disposal to call him out.

Why the media doesn’t do that is another story. I have noticed that when whistleblowers do come out, they are largely women, from Sally Yates—one of the first fired officials to speak out—to Reality Winner and Natalie Mayflower Edwards and, during the impeachment testimonies, Fiona Hill and Marie Yovanovitch. Of course, there have been some men who have done this as well. But I sometimes wonder if part of it is that the people who have issued warnings are women—Hillary Clinton is a prime example of that, during her campaign. [The message] gets twisted, gets dismissed.

And I keep wondering about the individuals who could have tried to steer this in a different direction: What do they think the future holds for their own children, for their grandchildren? Because this crisis is not just limited to Trump; it’s a systemic crisis of corruption. It impacts major things we’re dealing with right now. It’s bizarre to me that they would play around at all with the safety and security of our country. There are things you just can’t take back: Whatever decisions we make now [about coronavirus], climate change, can’t be reversed. There’s a clock ticking down that wasn’t always there. Even just from a place of self-preservation, why would you want to live in that world?

Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America by Sarah Kendzior (Photo credit: Flatiron Books)

That’s been my question too. So many people, whether it’s politicians or journalists or people like Mueller, seem willing to destroy their own careers, their own families’ futures, their legacies, for Donald Trump. What do they gain? They can’t all be afraid he’s going to have them whacked, right?

Trying to argue from a position of shaming them is never going to work. All this talk about reputation and legacy: They don’t care—especially those who are obsessed with the Rapture, the end times…there’s no history in the end times, because there’s no future. In many ways, this is an apocalyptic group. You also have people like Trump who are incapable of shame. They’ve never demonstrated shame;  they just want attention, and that’s a different thing.

But also, history is written by the victors, and a lot of people forget that when they say things like “History will not look kindly on you.” We [still] have Confederate statues and things named after Robert E. Lee! It took a tremendous amount of effort for even slavery to be viewed as something that should be a great shame, and [to insist] that there should not be loving memorials to the people who helped uphold that system and in fact committed treason against the United States to try to preserve it. There’s a fundamental denial about our own past that contributes [to the present], and on the Republican side, they’re basically like, Well, we’re going to write the history books.  We’re going to tell you what happened. We will go down as the heroes. To the degree that [they] care about that, they will be the heroes of this history.

Karl Rove, about a decade and a half ago, stated this quite bluntly: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” That’s how they see the world; that’s certainly how Trump has always seen his own world. He likes to have a scripted reality. And so all these “normal” concerns about “what will people think if I do this incredibly evil, apocalyptic thing?” They just don’t share them. It’s irrelevant to them.

There many amazing lines in the book, but one that sticks with me is “There is a difference between expecting autocracy and accepting autocracy.” It seems like there’s been an effort, since Trump’s inauguration, to urge regular people to document, just day to day, what’s happening so that if there is a future, there will be records. I wonder if this pandemic, for people who aren’t in grave danger and who have the privilege of quarantining, is the time when we make a concerted effort to document how we got here.

It’s certainly a moment for introspection. It’s a surreal thing to have everything come to a halt, even the things that would traditionally distract you, like sports. I would hope people take stock of the situation and write it down. I think people have been inadvertently tracing the steps of this administration through the use of social media—through Twitter, through Facebook. I see a lot of people who tweet maybe a hundred times a day say “I haven’t had the chance to write down my thoughts,” and I’m like, “You write down your thoughts all the time!” We’re just not used to thinking of [social media] as real or meaningful. But it actually is meaningful. People get so exhausted from social-media posting and those kinds of exchanges that they’re like, “Ugh, now I have to write a diary?” But you’re [already] writing your diary in note form, so you might as well preserve it. At the least, I encourage people to archive their threads or whatever means they have of discussing this event.

Before I started writing extensively about the United States, I studied the former Soviet Union, and one of the things I focused on was a massacre [committed] by the government of Uzbekistan against the people of Uzbekistan that the government then lied about, and said “That never happened. We never did that. You’re making it up.” But there was all this documentation, and it’s because citizens bothered to write down their recollections, share their photos. [Uzbeks] posting things online [is] one of the reasons there’s a historical record of that event at all. The government tried so hard to erase it, and they couldn’t. So I’ve always thought there’s value in citizens archiving their own memories of a particular historic time. It contributes to a broader goal even if, in that moment, we might not realize how important it is. It means something for the future.

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One of the things you write about is the lengths to which corporate media, like the New York Times and CNN, have gone to not just normalize Trump but to cover up his past. And that’s terrifying, because what do we do when the institutions that are supposed to be recording and reporting the truth are abdicating that responsibility?

One of the things we need to do is to state just that. It has been four years, and when there’s a demonstrable pattern at a particular publication—and there truly is at the New York Times—then that paper [can] no longer be referred to as the paper of record. It’s highbrow Breitbart, so continual and so deliberate in the intent to whitewash these crimes. And that doesn’t mean that everybody there is in on it. [The NYT] still produces some good work, but that’s true of any propaganda agency. That’s what a good propaganda agency does—it lures you in with some grains of truth and then smothers you with falsehood.

That’s true of CNN and most cable media. And people realize this, of course, when it comes to something like Fox News. They’re like, “Fox News is an arm of the Republican party,” but they’re more reluctant to apply that label to the New York Times. [People] still see it as this prestigious institution, and they’re kind of stuck in a lens of nostalgia instead of looking at it critically. But the failure comes from above. It’s the editors, it’s the owners. And there are so many alternatives out there, sites that are still doing good-quality investigative reporting, like BuzzFeed and the Daily Beast. They’ve been picking up the slack where legacy outlets have failed, and they should be appreciated for that. So given that we have all these other options, I encourage people to just read broadly and look for consistency in reporting.

I was looking for reviews of Hiding and there are prominent outlets that I would expect to review it that have not, and part of me is like, That can’t just be an accident. Right? It can’t be an accident that so many media outlets haven’t even acknowledged a book that is currently number one  in “Democracy” on Amazon.

[Laughs.] I mean, it’s a bestselling book. Part of this is self-explanatory: When you write a book that shows, with a lot of evidence and footnotes, that mainstream media is corrupt and that it’s covering for a crime syndicate, and here are some examples, those publications may not see me in such a favorable light. [And] I describe in the book other authors to whom this happened, over decades—authors whose books were pulled, authors who were censored on television, authors who were threatened and who had excessive litigation thrown their way. So yeah, there’s probably going to be an effort to bury my book, and I expected that. I’m honestly shocked that it came out. [I thought], There’s no way they’re going to let me tell the truth. But I did, and it’s out there, and I have half a million Twitter followers, so it’s just something that everyone’s going to have to deal with.

Our country is in a much more perilous situation than these leaders let on, and Trump uses that to his advantage.

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I wanted to come back to women and whistleblowing. The phrase “Believe Women” is associated with the #MeToo movement, but the past few years have made it equally resonant with regard to women whistleblowers who have been dismissed as alarmists and hysterics. How do we make a case that a baseline where we believe women is key to preserving democracy?

Unfortunately, that burden lies on us as women, along with men who do believe and who back us up in that respect. But I’ve given up on [trying to] convince people who are fundamentally unwilling to be convinced. I think it’s more useful to elevate the people who are speaking out. That’s why on Gaslit Nation we interviewed Reality Winner’s mother, to get her story out—because that’s another case that mainstream media will not report on. I try to do that with other women whistleblowers.

In the corporate-media world, they don’t encourage you to take risks. They don’t encourage you to challenge power. They instinctively want to avoid controversy and avoid challenging powerful, wealthy people. That’s why independent media is so critical now. The more of that we have, the less control [corporate media] has over us, and the better off we are.

Something this book does is articulate how having an actual conspiracy theorist as our president has sucked all of us, to some degree, into a world that’s just conspiracy and paranoia all the way down. Do you see any way out?

Trump and his team [have] done a lot of the same things you see in Russia, though Russia certainly did not invent [them], which is to try to destroy the notion of truth itself, and thereby destroy the notion of law as having any kind of objective meaning. Another thing they do is flip the script: If [Trump] has a long relationship with Jeffrey Epstein and are worried that will come out, they come up with something like Pizzagate—an elite sex-trafficking network, only now it’s the Democrats and Hillary Clinton. There’s so much projection involved that you can often decode a Trump crime just by flipping the narrative. It’s exhausting, however—the feeling that we [are], as citizens or as journalists, constantly having to crack a code.

I know there are a lot of people who trust me: I show my work, I footnote everything, I give examples, I’m very concrete. But if you were just to repeat, to somebody who doesn’t know anything about the situation, what’s in this book, [they would] be like, That’s completely wild! If that were true, someone would have done something about it! And that’s when you get to the fundamental horror of the book: It’s not that no one knows, it’s that they all know. Most people in official power, they know. I’m not breaking news. The reason they don’t want to talk about it is that they have failed to combat it.

Our country is in a much more perilous situation than [these leaders] let on, and Trump uses that to his advantage. He uses the narrative absence of the Democrats not coming together [and saying], “Guess what, everybody? Trump’s been involved with organized crime for 30 years” to put out all sorts of conspiracies about them. He owns the narrative. But in the end: Keep looking for the truth. Look at people’s actions and compare them to their words. And push for representative government to actually represent you, which includes holding criminals in our government accountable. That’s what they should be doing. That’s their job. 

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by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.