Only one rule remains valid about US politics in the age of Donald Trump: whenever it seemingly can’t shock any more, it does. Election campaign season is gripped by once unimaginable fears of violence, sabotage and a possible refusal by Trump to cede power if he loses.
This sorry state of affairs is also a vindication for Sarah Kendzior, one of the earliest writers to sound the alarm about how Trump would change America. Her trademark phrase is that the Trump administration is a “transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government”. Such uncompromising language has won her fans, but also helped define her as a Cassandra, especially when many seemed willing to give a newly elected Trump the benefit of the doubt.
In an interview conducted before the president contracted coronavirus, Kendzior says an unwillingness to believe the worst is part of the problem. “If a mafia state has really taken hold, wouldn’t someone from our institutions do something about it? And the answer is no, they didn’t, but it’s the lack of that expected response that I think has led people to believe things are safer than they are, better than they are, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.”
What about “Hanlon’s razor” — never assume a conspiracy where mere incompetence will do? “That has to be thrown out,” she insists. “These are overtly malicious actors who confess their crimes.” Hence the title of Hiding in Plain Sight, published this year, her book chronicling four decades of Trump’s entanglement with international — especially post-Soviet — organised crime connected to political power.
Many authors have tried to explain how Trumpism could happen. What makes Kendzior’s book stand out is how she weaves Trump’s ascendancy into two other chronologies: the erosion of America’s institutions and the polarisation of its economy, told in part through her own life story.
Kendzior, who turned 30 the month Lehman Brothers collapsed, bears the scars of her generation. “I had begun
my adult life at the tail-end of a dream, one that rapidly transformed into a nightmare of dashed expectations
and diminished returns,” she writes. America’s failure to resist Trumpism owes a lot to this death of aspiration at the bottom, she argues, set against enrichment at the top.
Hiding in Plain Sight observes that back in 2000, she could be hired as a reporter on the New York Daily News straight out of college and be paid well enough to live on her own in New York. She then witnessed the onslaught of the internet on US newspapers. Ten years on, she writes, “my old Daily News job had been converted into an unpaid internship”.
The death of local journalism was instrumental in the deterioration of US politics. “If it’s your local community, you usually deal with the same set of facts,” Kendzior says, while “national propaganda outlets [create] a different kind of America, where we’re seeing past each other instead of seeing each other.”
Funding cuts led US universities to rely on insecure adjunct teaching jobs, and Kendzior gave up on academia after a PhD in anthropology about post-Soviet Central Asia. But that research taught her to recognise an autocrat: “We’ve seen [Trump] follow the textbook road to autocracy . . . Our institutions were very fragile and corrupt and the refusal to admit that led to the broader refusal to recognise how profoundly dangerous [Trump’s] installation was.”
That refusal is encouraged by the media and entertainment industries. Kendzior reserves particular scorn for The Apprentice, the reality TV show
that was, in her telling, a dry run for autocratic propaganda. “Dictatorship is a branding operation,” she writes. “The Apprentice conditioned Americans to accept fraud as entertainment.”
Kendzior has a knack for a good phrase. She hosts a podcast called Gaslit Nation, named after the emotional manipulation used by abusers to make victims doubt their own sanity through aggressive lying. Her previous book was titled The View from Flyover Country, reflecting the American microcosm that is her hometown, St Louis, Missouri.
While she writes in her book as if America’s perdition is assured, in conversation she is less deterministic. But she takes as given that Trump will try to stay in power, and expects unrest as he casts doubt on the result. Her big fear is that even a Biden administration will want to “move on, keep the peace”. She blames Democrats for repeating this mistake after successive Republican misdeeds — Watergate, the Iran/Contras scandal, the Iraq war — which enabled the people responsible to “come back into power, like a Celebrity Apprentice of felons”.
Patience may now have run out: “Americans have spent a couple of decades not having a future — clawing our way into basic safety — and are staring into a future of climate change and disaster capitalism.” Even after a Biden victory, a reckoning with the “root problem” of institutional corruption is essential, she tells me. “Folks have had it, they’re not going to roll over.”
Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America, by Sarah Kendzior, Flatiron Books, RRP£21.00, 288 pages
Martin Sandbu is the FT’s European economics commentator. His latest book is ‘The Economics of Belonging’
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