Our Sunday Long Read this week is Sarah Kendzior's interview with Who What Why's Jeff Schechtman on the coming authoritarian kleptocracy of Trump, from a writer who has covered Central Asia for years and has witnessed such regimes being formed first hand. Kendzior is the US correspondent for a number of foreign papers, and writing from this perspective she is sounding a very loud alarm that the US press is already deeply compromised and should be considered at this point to be nothing more than Trump's propaganda outlet, and that if experience and history is any teacher, America's descent into a dark version of itself will happen extremely quickly.
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.Again, Kendzior is an expert on the kind of kleptocratic dictatorships that preceded Trump. Just as the Gilded Age in the 20's led to the Great Depression of the 30's, I think that's where we're headed now, only in a much more compressed time scale. Her view of America is that we need to mobilize now to try to head off the worst of Trump's impulses before they become the new normal.
I don't think we will. Not in time to stop what's coming. And when Trump fails to produce, the hammer is going to come down upon the most vulnerable of us, and people are going to die, and violence is going to be constant if not widespread, and then, history teaches us, the crackdown really begins.
As bad as 2016 is, we're all going to be wishing for it to come back before too long.
Also, pay attention to Kendzior as a voice in the weeks and months ahead. Here she is on AM Joy this morning talking about the Grifter-in-Chief.
She makes a lot of sense.