An interview with Hiding in Plain Sight author Sarah Kendzior
Sometimes it’s tempting to wonder if Sarah Kendzior’s observations about the current state of America might not have happened if she had found a better travel agent.
She was in New York on 9/11 and was in St. Louis during the uprising after Michael Brown’s death in nearby Ferguson. She’s also spent years analyzing how dictators in post-Soviet countries like Uzbekistan operate, and has discovered chilling parallels in the rhetoric of President Donald Trump.
Both he and tyrants across the ocean demonize enemies and attack the press if it isn’t sufficiently servile. While there is plenty of news that isn’t fit to print (or post), totalitarian regimes can cause untold damage when they are not kept in check. Because my ancestors fled Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries to escape religious persecution, much of her book seems especially chilling.
Nonetheless, because she has lived in St. Louis for so long, she has a unique perspective on how issues in the Heartland reflect and influence the rest of the nation. Kendzior has explored these topics in her previous book The View from Flyover Country and her new book Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America. She’s also written for Politico, The New York Times, and Canada’s The Globe and Mail.
While she may write for readers in the Great White North, Kendzior, who also co hosts the podcast Gaslit Nation, also reveals why she isn’t giving up on America. Many of the issues that have led to the protests now taking place in our streets, as she documents in her books, have been festering for ages. In this abridged version of our telephone conversation, Kendzior reveals how her fellow journalists should cover the Midwest and how it could become like the Eastern European regimes she used to cover.
In Hiding in Plain Sight, you point out that the labels for “red” and “blue” states are misleading because in the 2018 elections, Missourians voted for right-wing candidates, but the ballot initiatives like those for medical marijuana could hardly be dubbed conservative. Why do you think that commentators have misread this fact about Missouri?
I think there’s a difference between the ideas that people support and the values they hold and who is running to represent those ideas. As I lay out in the book Missouri is the dark money capital of America. We foreshadowed the problem of dark money in politics that was to arise nationwide.
And so I think that folks see a lot of propaganda. We as a state also suffer from gerrymandering and from other attempts to manipulate things. Whenever I see Missouri called a “dark red state” or a “bright red state,” I feel like there’s both the lack of knowledge of history because you know we were the state that kind of swung back and forth between red and blue, which, of course, are newly invented categories anyway.
Within the state itself, there’s diversity of everything, and that includes extreme diversity right across the ideological spectrum from extreme right all the way to extreme left. But occasionally as a state we do come together and agree on things, and you’ve seen that recently in the ballot initiatives that were passed supporting labor movements, supporting raising the minimum wage and, of course, supporting Clean Missouri, which elected officials then undid.
And as to why Democrats have a harder time in the last 10 years getting a foothold in the legislature, I think that that’s the result of Citizens United and of dark money and of smear campaigns. I also hold (former senator Claire) McCaskill to account for her own campaign, but I think it’s tougher for Democrats in this environment.
What do you think that McCaskill should have done to keep her seat?
She was up against a lot of challenges because of dark money influence and the backers of [Sen. Josh] Hawley’s campaign, the NRA, and all these powerful forces. But when she attacked her own base, when she basically bought into what the Republicans do, which is to make firm divisions in the state between St. Louis and Kansas City as one entity, and the rest of the state is something else.
She was like, “I’m not one of those crazy liberals from St. Louis.” It had a racial connotation, and there are plenty of people in St. Louis who are black and who felt like she was calling them out, or that she was trying to invoke images of the Ferguson uprising, and basically saying, “I don’t support that, like wink wink, white people I’m on your side.” There’s an element of that, and I found that disturbing, too.
But also, during that blue wave, there were people out pounding the pavement for Claire McCaskill, unpaid volunteers. These armies of workers who are just trying to get change for our state and our country. It’s been very disrespectful to insult your own base. It also made it harder for those volunteers to tell people, “Look, here’s why you should support Claire McCaskill, other than she’s not Josh Hawley, the Republican. She won’t destroy your health insurance.” It’s harder to say something to fight for her and say this is why she’s good instead of saying this is why the other person’s worse.
You point out in your books that the discord in Ferguson predates the shooting of Michael Brown. This sounds silly, but I found out that former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald, far from being an actual yacht rocker, grew up there in a blue collar family, and he adapted “Takin’ It To the Streets” from a term paper his sister wrote about conditions there. The issues he and his sister wrote about remain even though the news camera crews have left.
It’s abundantly clear now. It’s not just St. Louis. It’s nationwide. It happened in Minneapolis last night [Note: We talked the day after George Floyd’s death]. It’s heartbreaking to see on its own, but it’s also heartbreaking to see how little progress has been made towards protecting civil rights, towards having real consequences for police brutality, since Ferguson.
It was also painful when there was this incredible exploitation of St. Louis, and especially of the black protesters from the St. Louis metro region. National news just swept in like a vulture and picked at people’s pain and didn’t care that much about the system issues underneath, was just trying to make it look like a wild burning fire, whereas in reality this is a sustained, overwhelmingly nonviolent protest that went on many months. It was usually not covered by the press. It was just covered in a few key weeks.
With the underlying issues, it just sort of showed a lot of folks in the media didn’t care whether they were resolved. In the aftermath are all these commissions formed, and there were all these studies made, but people are still suffering, and they’re suffering worse under the Trump administration and under an increasingly ultra conservative legislature in Missouri, that often likes to target St. Louis and Kansas City as these kind of blights on our state’s purity.
That’s how they sometimes frame it in their rhetoric, and they’re doing that more and more because of coronavirus. We’re [St. Louis and Kansas City] sort of like the land of crime and the land of disease. I think of the Lake of the Ozarks as a moment in the sun might have put a damper on that narrative 9laughs), but nonetheless it’s all of us.
It is a very frustrating thing to see because the baseline suffering that people were going through, I mean primarily black communities in St. Louis targeted by the police, it was made into like a cinematic kind of inquiry instead of just you know a genuine problem that people have to live with every day of their lives, whether there are cameras or not.
One of the things you covered in your podcast with Adrea Chalupa was the 2018 election in Kansas, which had somewhat different results, which led Ann Coulter to declare us dead to her. She couldn’t believe that people in eastern Kansas would vote for a lesbian, Native American congresswoman Sharice Davids and would reject Kris Kobach’s hunt for phantom illegal voters.
I think most people don’t actually know how the population of different states is allocated. I think most people don’t know that there are multiple cities and towns, and college towns and whatnot in eastern Kansas versus western Kansas, the same way that whenever I tell someone I live in Missouri, including NPR as I documented in the book, they assume I live on a farm. They assume I read some kind of agricultural life, and then I’ll reply that I live in St. Louis, and they’re like, “Tell me about your farm.” And I’m like, no, I live in a place with three million people. They don’t recognize that.
They just see you know blue and red squares, and they don’t understand that every state is a mix of people. And I think with Kansas, the dysfunction in our political system and the exploitation of people’s fears by the Republicans had taken root in Kansas. That’s why you end up with books like What’s the Matter with Kansas?.
I think that folks had not just seen the light, but I think political organizing had really increased, and people had figured out ways to kind of counter the propaganda to bring people together and to get another message out there to boost candidates that were going to represent their interests, like Sarah Smarsh [author of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth]. She encapsulates that side of Kansas very well.
She came from a multigenerational Kansas family, and in her book, she chronicles the changes that took place over her life when she was a child in the Reagan 80s with the economic hardships and the political expectations. I think Kansans have wised up, while Missouri, on the other hand, is kind of a combo of the dysfunction of Kansas with indicted officials of Illinois.
We have our own struggles to bear, but I think it’s admirable what people in Kansas did.
The passage in the book that made me want to reach for a highlighter was when you described a 2016 Donald Trump rally in St. Louis by noting the difference between the people around the perimeter and when you were actually in the auditorium.
There is a huge difference because in the sense that people were polite. People were behaving “normally.” That’s one of the disturbing things that harkens back to what you said in the beginning of this conversation, where you were bringing up Nazi Germany and how “good people” could engage in horrific things or at least tolerate horrific things being done to other people, if those people are deemed an enemy. And if they have a demagogue encouraging them to say the unspeakable and to do the sorts of things that used to be condemned, that used to make people worry that they faced ostracization if they participated in them. It was a really horrifying thing for me to see that play out in St. Louis. I’ve seen variations on it before but not in an organized way, not with somebody who was running for president.
And there’s something surreal about the whole atmosphere with the Peabody Operahouse. It’s this old fashioned building. They wanted that glamour. They wanted that image of prestige and refinement, so you have that. And you have Trump’s voice coming out of these megaphones, just blaring and everybody standing there like a captive. It was chilling, and it was chilling to watch people be so obedient to him and to throw away you know whatever kind of values or friendliness or whatever was keeping those dark emotions under wraps in order to please him and be part of that mob movement and attacked the protesters and attack people who disagree with them.
That change happened within an hour, and it shows how dangerous that style demagoguery is. It’s something I’m very worried about as we head towards the election in November, because I think that should Biden win—that is assuming there is an election. I don’t think Trump has any intention of leaving; he’s going to declare the election illegitimate, and he will encourage his base towards violence. And I worry that’s what he was going to do in 2016 If he had lost then, and I worry about that being carried out with state sanction because now he’s acting as the president, not just as a candidate.
You’ve seen this playbook in the stuff you’ve mentioned about the late Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov. Both he and the President have demonstrated similar rhetoric. You’ve demonstrated this approach can work just about anywhere.
It can happen absolutely anywhere. Every country that experiences autocracy is one that once said, “it can’t happen here.” I think we were particularly reluctant to see it, our officials, especially because America has historically been a democracy, I mean never completely. We were a democracy with Native American genocide, with slavery, with Jim Crow laws.
People want to overlook that when they put on this lens of American exceptionalism, but every country is structurally flawed in that way. We were never that different to begin with. It’s hard to compare exactly with Uzbekistan because Uzbekistan never had that tradition to begin with.
They went straight from Soviet Russian to being an independent dictatorship. For their country, even though it is also democracy on paper, the laws were never upheld. We were more in the middle, where we’ve gone back and forth toward progress and then taking steps backwards. The stuff we’ve taken in the last four years, especially, have been horrific. There’s been gutting of institutions, packing of courts, persecution of those who blow the whistle, of those who oppose this administration and then incredible denial that this is even happening, from the media, from politicians.
Every now and again they sort of wake up and they’re like, “My goodness. America is turning into an autocracy.” I’m like, “Where have you been?” There have been people aiming for this outcome for a long time, and in Trump they found their vehicle. The problem is you have to stop this early. You basically have to stop this before it starts because once an autocrat gets in, it’s very hard to get them out because they transform the system so that it serves their aims. It doesn’t matter to them if it’s legal or moral or if it’s never been done before.
All those concerns, this sort of institutional, bureaucratic, sentimental concerns that a lot of officials have, they don’t fly when you’re dealing with autocracy or a Mafia state, which is really I think we’re headed for, a system like Russia, which is a kleptocratic Mafia state. They don’t care, so you should never dismiss any outcome as impossible.
Hiding in Plain Sight documents that eastern European intelligence services have had Trump on their radar ever since the late 70s when he married his Czech-born first wife Ivana. The Czech version of the Stasi was keeping tabs on him.
It was very common for all of the Soviet status satellite states or the Soviet Union itself to keep tabs on any wealthy powerful Westerner that was going to come to visit.
Of course, the reason Trump was there was because of Ivana Trump was originally from Czechoslovakia. The documents that I referred to in my book, which were from their own files about Trump from the late seventies, are really strange.
It’s really weird to me that they haven’t been investigated more. There’s only been one reporter, Luke Harding, who I mentioned in the book, who made a concerted effort to find out if there is any truth behind this, or why in the world do these even exist?. It said he had made an agreement with the federal government to not pay taxes. It also said he had presidential aspirations. It said he was going to run for president, and then he was going to have three kids with Ivana, that he was contracted to do all this. Two out of those three things happened.
We don’t know about the tax situation or the reluctance for him to share that information or to share his bank statements. I wonder about this, given that there is this nexus of white collar crime, organized crime, espionage plots, and corrupt institutions, including the corruption of the New York FBI, which could have been one maybe working with Trump in some capacity, whether he was an informant or whether he was somebody who they just sort of looked at his criminal apparatus and decided for whatever reason to look the other way. It’s clear that happened, but we just don’t know why exactly.
I wonder if the answers to that lie in investigating whatever kind of arrangement might have led to him being given exemptions for all sorts of things, whether taxes or criminality or associating with criminals. It’s a very, very strange story, and it kind of mystifies me why it wasn’t investigated, not just by reporters but by Congress.
Many of us in the press tend to gravitate toward Trump’s gaffes, but you don’t have to be a genius to cause great harm. Musolinni’s government was actually incapable of making sure trains ran on time, and Italians suffered. Some didn’t live to talk about it.
Exactly. That’s been a frustrating thing this time. When I often hear people emphasizing gaffes and mistaking malice for incompetence, which is certainly the veneer he wants to have, or just these kind of asides like, “History will judge you unkindly.”
When [Attorney General] Bill Barr said the winners write history, people were so shocked by the statement. I was like, it’s true.
They’re going to take great pains to make sure the other side of the story isn’t told. That was one of the things that motivated me to write the book in the first place is to just have this down in print or available on Kindle in a way that it can’t be destroyed. Also the work of all the people that I cite in the book is remembered as well, because as of now that side is winning, and people rest too much on what’s happened in the past.
They assume that we as a country will always progress forward, that good will conquer over evil, or the worst are the people who think that these four years were some kind of freak anomaly, and this will just go Obama, Trump, Biden.
And somehow the deep structural problems that underlay this whole crisis are just going to disappear. Even if Trump actually leaves, which would be terrific, we’re still going to be stuck with the wreckage left in his wake, as well as all the problems that helped bring him in: widespread corruption, elite criminal impunity.
We now have an economy in a great depression. On top of that you have coronavirus, climate change, and a lot of people with a lot of money and power who have no interest in solving these problems. They just want to profit off of them. It’s very hard to get the leverage to stop people when they’re in possession of dollars.
That’s what at the heart of the individuals holding up Trump, whether it’s members of the Russian Mafia or people like [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg, these are not good people, and they’re knocking out the public welfare of Americans. They’re not looking out for democracy itself.
The book also explores how the punishment for the crimes that people like Paul Manafort committed is disproportionately low. He’s stolen far more than a fellow sticking up a liquor store could, but he gets an early release.
It’s a tremendous problem, and the periods in American history where we actually prosecuted white collar crime usually lead eventually to actual prosperity for ordinary Americans. You kind of saw that with Wall Street in the early 90s because that crime does affect ordinary people.
It’s part of a broader system of corruption that’s not not just about the theft of money but the theft of resources and the use of violence to get it. They call it “blood money” for a reason. Paul Manafort, in particular, embodies that. He had a lobbying firm that was nicknamed the “Torturers Lobby,” which he shared with Roger Stone and a few others. They represented the most brutal people in the world and helped them steal money. In the process of helping them, God knows how many people died or suffered because of that.
That’s basically what we have now installed in the White House and that makes it even more complex because with white collar crime, people rely on their connections, their networks, their wealth, this sort of veneer of respectability that they’ve often built up before they’re actually prosecuted. It’s much worse when those people are in elected office because they will abuse law itself, and they will put in their henchmen as Trump did with Bill Bar to carry out legal maneuvers that protect them. It gets really really hard to stop this problem at the roots when they’re able to rip out the protections that were there to begin with these systems of accountability and replace them with Citizens United and what’s transpired now.
One of the things you did that I thought was really cool is that you have taken your kids to some more of America’s treasures like presidential libraries, parks, and monuments. You’ve shown them more of what this country is about than a lot of youngsters their age would have seen. You address much of what’s wrong with the status quo, but there also seems to be a lot about this country that you still love.
That’s why I’m so angry about what’s happening because I do love this country, and I don’t want to leave it. I want these problems to be fixed so that my children can live in a better version of what we have. This is my home, you know. There’s no other place for me. There’s no other place where I would feel like I belong, and it’s important for me to teach my kids the full history of America.
I’ve got kids in elementary school and middle school. They’re not going to slog through a bunch of books. They read, but they’re children, and it’s more fun for them, and the immediacy of it is more vivid for them when we take them to museums or presidential libraries. Of course, I love national parks, and I’m very worried about what the Trump Administration is going to do to the national parks. I just like to drive around, and I like to do road trips. So I feel lucky that I was able to take my kids. All of these places especially before the coronavirus appeared, making that difficult, if not impossible.
What I want is an honest presentation of American life, and that means good and bad. It’s not a one sided thing. That’s definitely not an anti American thing. I’m anti-corruption, and when I see you know criminal elites corrupting my country, I’m obviously going to speak out about that and tell the truth about it and try to change it.
A New York Times Bestseller from Flatiron Books. Available now wherever books are sold.