Sarah Kendzior lives and writes in the heartland of America, and from what she has observed, the country is about to explode. The journalist tells WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman that the election of Donald Trump is but the opening act. Racism, white supremacy and violence are all bubbling very close to the surface, and scapegoating will add fuel to the fire.
Not only have stores and plants closed, but locally based journalism has all but disappeared. In the resulting information vacuum the influence of inflammatory cable and right-wing national media as well as fake news is huge. As a close observer of Trump Country, Kendzior paints a grim and almost hopeless picture of where the nation as a whole is going.
She also noted that one of the issues this election has revealed is the growing distrust of institutions, such as the FBI.
Regular WhoWhatWhy readers know that we cover the Bureau extensively – and that there is much to be distrustful about.
For new readers, here is a small sampling of our own articles on how the FBI abused its powers, botched investigations, risked national security, and deceived the public on a wide range of issues, some of which had life or death consequences.
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Full Text Transcript:
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
Watching the past week, post-Election Day has been like watching a car wreck. We know we shouldn’t look, but we can’t help but be curious. The key difference here is that the wreck affects us, the clown car or transition planning gives us some idea of how we will all be impacted over the next four years. The president said earlier this week that this is simply one of the zig zags of history; that often things have gotten worse before they get better. Certainly from a historical perspective, that’s true, but what does it mean for America and the world of the 21st century? Every day, we hear political pundits talking about what happened and why, and some of it is good and insightful, but most of it comes from the same people that didn’t see it all coming.
My guest today, Sarah Kendzior lives among it, in the heartland of America. She’s written extensively on the subjects of race and class and America’s role in the world. She recently published a book of her essays entitled: The View from Flyover Country and she writes a regular column for the Globe and Mail. It is my pleasure to welcome Sarah Kendzior to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Sarah, thanks so much for joining us.
Sarah Kendzior: Oh, thank you for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: As you look out at what drove us to what we’ve been dealing with since Election Day, one of the things I know you’ve written about and talked about is the fact that the predicate for this has been with us for a long time. This isn’t something that just happened in the past year or the past year and a half during the campaign; that events that brought us to where we are today have been brewing for a long time. Talk about that.
Sarah Kendzior: Yes, that’s true in multiple respects. In terms of Trump and his popular support, I do live out in St. Louis in Missouri and the recession never ended here. People are extremely frustrated with their economic situation and it’s been very difficult for people to hold onto middle class jobs and so that kind of popular economic discontent that both Trump and Sanders, and eventually Clinton heavily emphasized is important. It’s not the only thing. Obviously, Trump has run a very racist and bigoted campaign; sort of white nationalist campaign reminiscent of dictators. I should note that I do live in Missouri, so I have this perspective but I also have a Ph.D. in anthropology where I studied dictatorships, particularly post-Soviet dictatorships like Uzbekistan, so I’m an expert in that field as well. Many of the things that Trump did throughout his campaign reminded me very much of the dictators that I’ve studied in terms of his demagoguery, his use of spectacle, manipulation of the media and his manipulation of the masses. Those who voted for him, I think have signed on for something that they don’t really want. I don’t think he’s going to fulfill his promises to them in order to improve their economic livelihood or keep them safer. I, in fact, think the opposite is going to happen. That’s true because he has frankly stated so, including long before the election. For example, in February 2014, Trump went on Fox News to talk about Russia – which we should return to this because it’s very interesting that a reality TV show host would be on TV talking about Russian foreign policy in 2014 – but another thing he said during then, the interview was that in order for America to go back to where it was, to go back to being great, we need total economic collapse and we need riots. He explicitly called for this. His chief advisor and advisor throughout his campaign, Steve Bannon, who is an extreme white supremacist who runs Breitbart Media, which is a conspiratorial, right wing site, has also said similar things. He described himself as a Leninist who wants to destroy the state but I wouldn’t really describe him as a Leninist as much as an accelerationist, which is also what I would describe Trump. So there’s so many factors going into this and it’s a little bit head spinning but I’ve been tracking it all year. I became very worried throughout the year that Trump would indeed win; I know the polls said he wouldn’t but I noticed both the genuine popular support that I saw among people here in the center of the country but also a lot of manipulative tactics that remind me very much of how dictators take power, so I think it’s important to take a full look at everything that happened and really investigate because what we will deal with in the future is very dire and I think we should try our best to stop it.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about what you would hear from people in your part of the country, in the center of the country with regard to expectations; what they think is going to happen to the extent whether they voted for Trump simply because they wanted to shake things up or because they really did have expectations that somehow it was going to make their lives better?
Sarah Kendzior: Well, I went through a lot of Trump rallies and a lot of tea party Trump meetings in Missouri and also in Illinois throughout the year. I didn’t go as a journalist, I went as a member of the crowd and people would talk to me pretty openly because they thought I was a fellow Trump supporter. One thing that needs to be clear is that this is not a monolithic group of people. There are some people who really are very bigoted, who are anti-immigrant, who are racist; all of that is there. There are others that are just very desperate. They feel like their needs have not been addressed by the Democratic Party, by Obama and often by the GOP as well. I think that this is completely accurate. Since 2008, it’s been a struggle to live out here and to make ends meet. I think that we’re at a point where people feel so desperate and so enraged that they are willing to listen to anybody who is very actively stating that he’s concerned for their welfare, that he’s going to return their lives back to when it was good, especially that they would have steady jobs and work again and the feeling of safety and inclusion in American life. That feeling is very understandable. Donald Trump is not going to do that. He doesn’t actually understand or care about people in this part of the country. He’s had his whole life as a billionaire of major influence and political influence to care about what happens to people out here and all he’s done is shake people down. He’s done that all over the place; everywhere from Atlantic City to Gary Indiana. He’s about to shake down the entire country in a very kleptocratic way. I think by privatizing resources, by not bringing jobs, by making people feel more desperate – and that kind of desperation can lead to ethnic violence and can lead to hate crimes, especially when you’re being prompted towards those hate crimes explicitly by the administration. The hiring of Steve Bannon and others, he’s saying that this is sanctioned behavior now; that it’s okay for the president to be backed by the Ku Klux Klan, that you can get away with treating non-white people in a completely derogatory, cruel and often barbaric fashion. His promises, we should expect him to carry them out. A lot of people were doubtful that he would do things like make a registration list of Muslims or do mass deportation because these are the kinds of tactics that happened in dictatorships. These are the kind of things that don’t happen in the United States. We have had atrocities in the United States, but we usually prefer to not talk about them or brag about them so openly. He’s openly saying he’s going to do this, he’s said it throughout the entire campaign and he’s now making these plans. So we’re in for a very ugly situation where I think we’re going to be economically bottomed out. I think everyone is going to suffer, whether you voted for Trump or you didn’t. He might try to placate people in the beginning by throwing them some jobs, maybe through infrastructure projects but it seems clear from his team that the goal – as you’ve seen in other countries all around the world, is to try to make as much money for himself and his friends as he can by using and abusing executive powers to strip down national resources and carry out the kind of acts of corruption that he has, many of which we don’t know about because he won’t release his tax returns. So we should be prepared for economic volatility in a very extreme way. We should also be prepared for sanctioned violence and for policies that frankly disregard the Constitution and the rights of American citizens.
Jeff Schechtman: When many of these promises aren’t kept, when the lives of people in that part of the country don’t improve, are we going to see scapegoating that goes on in your view?
Sarah Kendzior: Yes, absolutely. That’s something I’m very concerned about. I think right now, people who voted for Trump are obviously happy he won. Some are just regular people who are glad their candidate managed to beat Hillary Clinton, but others – we’ve seen an enormous spike in hate crimes. I think one of the largest in the history of the country since they started tracking this: in the week after the election. Everything; from swastikas being painted in places to “make America white again” to people being beaten and bullied, to children being taunted in classrooms to threats to Muslims and Jews, it’s just very disconcerting. There doesn’t seem to be much reaction in our government to stop it. Leaders are not speaking out very strongly about it with a few exceptions, and I think it’s very interesting that one of those exceptions is Harry Reid, who’s leaving the government. He spoke out in the strongest way. So you kind of have to wonder why aren’t Obama and other leaders being more forceful when there’s a real state of threat from the president-elect in this team to average American citizens and that this threat is being carried out in a populous way and will eventually be carried out with the law itself; with executive power itself. I think as he does not fulfill his promises and jobs do not return here and if resources are denied and the people suffering increases, he will encourage them as he has throughout his campaign, to look for scapegoats. Those scapegoats will be Muslims, Mexicans and anyone else who he wants to blame this problem on. The media has really played this down. They played this down throughout the entire campaign, including major incidents such as two weeks before the election, a group of Trump fans were arrested by the FBI for building a weapon of mass destruction to blow up an apartment building that housed Somalis in Kansas. That to me is a pretty major story. Imagine if that was the other way around and bunch of Muslim Somalis had plotted to blow up a building of white Kansans. It would be everywhere, but I don’t even know if you’ve heard about it, I don’t know if your listeners have heard about it, but you can look it up. Kansas City Star covered it pretty extensively. So there’s something going on in that a lot of this seems to be sanctioned by the media, sanctioned by the government and it’s extremely reminiscent of dictators, both past and present and I think it’s an urgent crisis. I think it’s something that the government and the people, people who believe in American values; that we should be free, that we should be safe, that we should honor each other as citizens and respect each other’s rights as citizens. Anyone who cares about that should be very concerned right now and be contacting their representatives and speaking out and trying to amass as much mobilization against this kind of sanctioned brutality, if possible.
Jeff Schechtman: A lot has been written about the degree to which people on both coasts really don’t understand what life is like in Flyover Country. You’ve talked a little bit about that. Is there any sense among the people in that part of the country, in the middle of the country; of what’s transpired, of what’s changing, the way the world has changed with respect to cities and urban America?
Sarah Kendzior: One thing that I have to say straight out is that we’re not a monolith out here either. St. Louis is different than a small town in Missouri. Missouri is different than Nebraska. Sometimes, there’s this coastal tendency to kind of treat us as Flyover Countries and treat us as indistinct. What we do have in common in the region is yes, our concerns are ignored, they have been for a long time. I was in Rust Belt, a Midwestern city that was hit very hard by the recession and I’ve been writing about that and documenting it for a long time and I don’t think coasts understand. We lost a lot of businesses here after the recession but one of the businesses we lost was media. There is an incredible downsizing and cutting of our local newspapers, especially in small towns but even in big cities like St. Louis where out papers are barely hanging on. That has plenty of information that comes out and skewed the national narrative. People tend to rely much more on cable news outlets, on national news outlets. Right now, one out of every four journalists is currently living in three expensive coastal cities. When that happens, you get a very skewed and distorted view of what the average American is experiencing. I think that this comes across to people as apathy, they get very frustrated. They feel like their very legitimate concerns are not heard and that provides an opening for a dangerous demagogue like Donald Trump to come in and pretend to be the one who cares, but it’s a great irony because he is in fact a New York billionaire elite, he’s stocking his cabinet with other billionaire elites. He is not concerned with what is going to happen to us out here and we’re already suffering out here and I think our suffering is going to get worse. That’s a great shame. I call on elected officials out where I live to take the threat of Donald Trump and his administration very seriously, to remember that they were elected to serve the people and that they haven’t been doing that well for the eight years, but I think a lot of people would be willing to cut them some slack if they could intervene now and derail what is an extremely dangerous situation.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent is there an understanding of the way in which the world has changed as a result of technology and globalization, and that in many ways the genie can’t be put back in the bottle? There’s lots of talk, of course, about manufacturing and jobs lost. In terms of manufacturing output, really it’s higher than it has been in a long time. The difference is it takes one third of the amount of jobs to do that manufacturing today. To what extent is there an understanding of these fundamental shifts?
Sarah Kendzior: I mean, I can’t speak for other people. I can just speak for myself and how much I observe that being covered and being discussed by the news and by public officials, and I don’t think it’s discussed as much as it should be. I do fear automation. That is how a lot of workers lost their jobs. Trump emphasized outsourcing, but a lot of what’s changed the economy over the last eight years has been internet shopping, the closure of local stores and malls; the people that used to work there are now being unemployed. I think we’re going to see the rise of a lot of automated technology that will replace workers. Some of trump’s key allies are Silicon Valley people who have kind of a libertarian philosophy and don’t particularly care about workers. They’re just interested in the technological aspect. They don’t seem to have a moral obligation to think about who this is going to hurt and what’s going to replace it. I think that this is dangerous, but I think there are other policies that would make a lot more sense, including raising the minimum wage and also creating jobs in this new economy for blue collar workers and eliminating the kind of credentialism that new jobs often require. Now, jobs that you didn’t need a college degree for a few decades ago, you suddenly need a college degree for, and a college degree is suddenly incredibly expensive. That keeps a lot of people locked out of the job market. I don’t see Trump really understanding this. I don’t think a lot of people understand this but what everybody does understand is the desperation as this conspires. Whether that desperation can be put to good use as in nullifying it, giving people jobs, giving people a good life, giving people the opportunities that they deserve and eliminating their hardship, that would be great. But I think Trump sees this act as an opportunity to exploit people’s pain and hardship and as that hardship increases, we’ve seen throughout history, the way people turn cruel when they’re suffering. The way people who thought that they would never ever do something to another human being can be led to do that if their economic situation is dire, if they feel like they can get away with it by law and if they feel like they’re part of a mass mob movement. Human beings are very susceptible to this. It’s not a case of are you good or evil, but is the action you’re taking good or evil? Are you willing to aby evil, are you willing to just stand by while other people are going to get hurt? So I’ll just say right now: if you are going to stand by and watch Trump do the things that he’s planning to Mexicans and Muslims and think that it’s not eventually going to happen to you because you’re white or because you’re someone who voted for him or supported him, it will happen to you because the only person that he cares about is himself and his very rich elite backers and they are going to strip down this country and you are going to lose even more than you have. I have no animosity towards the Trump voters. I obviously don’t condone the bigotry and the racism that many have expressed, but they are my neighbors, they’re my fellow people in Missouri and I see where a lot of them are coming from so I hope that everybody heeds this warning because things are going to get bad and as Americans, we need to look out for each other and we need to look out for our country.
Jeff Schechtman: When we look for historical precedent for this kind of dislocation and this kind of reaction, talk about what you see.
Sarah Kendzior: It’s interesting; if you study the history of states and a regime knows that it’s going to have fairly absolute power over the people, they often stop being subtle about it. They often stop leaving out what we call “tells” so that people can understand what’s going on. People who are savvy to these regimes can understand what’s going on because they recognize these historical parallels. So when Trump is saying America first, which is a fascist slogan, when his advisors are talking about making the trains working on time, which is associated with Hitler, when they’re talking about draining the swamps, which is a phrase that came from Mussolini, when Trump is tweeting Mussolini, when he’s tweeting pictures of Jewish stars next to piles of money and you combine that with his actual administration, which includes people who have supported neo-Nazis, even extreme right wing people like Glenn Beck has come out and said that Steve Bannon is a neo-Nazi. I think quite honestly, and I don’t mean to frighten people that we need to prepare for the worst. When you start hearing about them making a registry of Muslims; yes, that should make you remember that there was a registry of Jews. There’s an attitude that America is exceptional, that it can’t happen here. It can happen anywhere. All the countries that thought that this could never ever happen, that people would be good, that the government would never betray them like this, they found out the hard way, that it can. So I think that it’s really important that we confront this very frightening reality and it’s not a fantasy, it’s a reality now that he’s the president-elect. I assume he will have the power to carry out this. We need to stop it; we need to stand up for each other. It’s not a matter of partisanship at this point. It’s not a matter of getting Hillary into office or something, but just stopping cruelty, stopping sanctioned, violent, anti-Constitutional acts that greatly hurt the American public. Once this gets going, if you look at the history of fascist of authoritarian states, it moves extremely quickly. It seems to be that everything is normal, and then little things creep in and then once they have power they will abuse it. So we also need to look at the institutions that are supposed to keep this in check. An institution like the FBI, which seems to have been compromised. We have Comey releasing his statement before the election that there is an investigation into Clinton and then afterwards admitting that this investigation did not have to with Clinton and was leading nowhere. You have to kind of wonder why he did that. You have to wonder why the FBI went rogue on Twitter and suddenly a few days before the election, started releasing all sorts of files about Clinton and then also releasing a very flattering file of Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father; calling him a philanthropist. Donald Trump’s father was sued for racial discrimination and also participated in a Ku Klux Klan action. That’s the sort of thing that the FBI was actually investigating; for his racism. That’s not the way the FBI presented him. There seems to be warring factions within some of our institutions. Again, I studied authoritarian states for a long time. You can look for tells. The CIA inexplicably tweeted out a picture of, I think it was Hitler’s China followed by a little historical anecdote about Hitler’s collaboration with Russians. I don’t know how to really interpret this. The CIA of course is a place where they do this sort of subtle stuff for a living, they’re trained to look for it in other states. When they’re analyzing the social media and data of other countries, they look for signs like this, like what are people actually saying. So I feel like in little small things like that, you can see our institutions releasing some sort of sign and it’s important to try to distinguish whether that sign is an SOS, like a kind of warning or whether it’s saying we will be complicit in these actions because our best bet to stop these horrendous policies from being carried out is for them to be blocked by organizations that in the past, served the country. For example, the FBI was the one that took down that group of men in Kansas, those three Trump fans that were planning to blow up that apartment of Somalis. If they’re not going to stop those actions, we’re in deep trouble. So there really needs to be a congressional investigation into what exactly is going on and into whether the election has been compromised by Russia as Lindsay Graham has stated, as John McCain has stated and as many others have stated, particularly given Trump’s ties to Russia, the role of Paul Manafort, who has helped elevate dictators all over the world but especially in Ukraine in collaboration with Putin. This all some sounds like a spy novel. I think it’s been hard for people to swallow that this really could be happening but I would never say this unless I was very sincere. As I said before, I’ve been studying this for a long time so I think it’s really something that our government should get on investigating and I would urge citizens to call their representatives. It doesn’t matter if you live in a blue state or a red state, just call because you want an investigation into potential corruption of Trump, his administration and this election and especially foreign interest and what exactly is happening with our American officials. I think that if there is public pressure, then maybe people will speak more freely and respond.
Jeff Schechtman: And finally Sarah, is there anything that gives you reason for hope? Anything that gives you cause for optimism, given where we are today?
Sarah Kendzior: I’m not hopeful at all about what the administration will do. I know it’s going to do terrible things. What gives me hope, and I like to say we should be pragmatic before we’re hopeful, we should be mobilized and organized before we’re hopeful but of course, you have to have hope in your heart. I studied a lot of terrible regimes in history and in the present day, and I see that when people band together and they do what’s right and they stand up for their fellow Americans and they are willing to confront the darkness ahead and work very, very hard that they’ve managed to save their country. They’ve managed to save their countrymen. They’ve managed to work and rebuild and make it a better place. America’s been in a bad place for a long time. We’ve had two terrible wars. We’ve had a shattered economy. The situation that allowed this to happen, that allowed Trump to come to power was not just that he moseyed on in, like we were vulnerable to this. So we have a lot of things that we need to fix but we will be unable to fix them under this administration. People keep saying wait until 2018, wait until 2020. I don’t think we have that much time to try to mitigate the damage that he’s going to do because it will be extreme and it will move very quickly. So really, the time is now. The time to call your representatives, to mobilize with your community, to look out for your neighbor and to think, wait what kind of person are you? What kind of country are we? What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be a good citizen? What does it mean to be a patriot? To me, that means you stand up for each other. You work for each other. If your government is doing something that you find morally objectionable, that seems unconstitutional, if your government is not being transparent, if it’s putting open, white supremacists as the chief judges, you should say yes, this is not normal. This is not American values and then go from there. Work with your own communities locally and also try to contact people nationally to share your concerns. If you are concerned about it, and I really think you all should be. It’s not partisan. If you’re a Republican listening to this, you’re just as susceptible to these things as a Democrat. There’s really nobody who’s immune, except for the team of wealthy elites and backers that are with Trump. I add there that his appointment of his family members into getting clearances and being part of the administration is something you see all over the world in dictatorships. It’s been such a flagrant sign that the person in power is not serving the country but is serving himself and his family and is abusing executive power in order to accumulate more wealth. We don’t know Trump’s financial situation because he never released those tax returns, which was also unprecedented. So these are all concrete things to watch out for. I’ve been posting about them a lot on my Twitter account, which is Sarah Kendzior on Twitter, so you can go and find a wealth of information if any of this is new to you, which it might be because the media really isn’t reporting on it as extensively as I hoped they did and I think it’s very important that citizens become informed.
Jeff Schechtman: Sarah Kendzior, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Sarah Kendzior: Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Trump protest march (Ted Eytan / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0)