America is now a mafia state
A conversation with Sarah Kendzior, scholar of authoritarianism and vindicated alarmist
By Anand Giridharadas
Sep 29 2020
When your time comes to speak out against the threat of authoritarianism, do not be overdue for a haircut.
On November 29, 2016, I went on “Morning Joe” to talk about the recent victory of Donald Trump. Thanksgiving had just passed, and I shared that, for the first time since my parents immigrated to America in the 1970s, our family felt profound fear simply to exist in the country as brown Americans. What unfolded was a pointed and memorable back-and-forth, mostly between Joe Scarborough and me, about whether I was being “irrational” to be afraid before Donald Trump had even been sworn in.
Had I known the segment would go viral, I would have first arranged a much-needed haircut, with or without a tax deduction. But here we are. A prominent moment on television, and I look like the Heat Miser.
@DailyCaller @MSNBC he looks like the Arab Heat Miser.
But it was the discussion that mattered, right? Right? That’s what I try to tell myself. And the discussion, at its heart, was about vigilance in a democracy — in this case, in the context of a threat by Trump to strip the citizenship of Americans convicted of flag burning. What Joe and I were really debating was: When do you sound the alarm? How much do you trust the existing institutions? Do you jump at the first threat of demagoguery and authoritarian tendencies or wait for things to bloom?
JOE: Hitler is not coming back.
ANAND: No one said Hitler is coming back. But this is how many places that went in dark directions, many places — this was one of the ways in which it started.
SCARBOROUGH: Okay be careful. And be careful not to spread fear if it’s not rationally based.
I was, I say proudly now, an early alarmist about the coming of Trumpism. In my case, it might have had something to do with the new freedom I had gained two months earlier to say whatever I wanted, however I wanted, without worrying about consequences for colleagues, after an involuntary separation from The New York Times. And of course a lot of people were early alarmists alongside of me. Many were women; many were not white. Being on the wrong end of certain power equations perhaps trains you to be an early-warning system for tyranny. We didn’t need to wait for the hysterectomy concentration camps and the separated children and the Muslim ban and the plague deaths to call out Trump as a singular authoritarian menace.
And a dean of our early alarmist ranks was Sarah Kendzior, who stood out from Trumpism’s dawn for the force, bravery, detail, and prescience of her warnings.
A journalist and scholar of authoritarianism, Sarah quickly established herself as one of the few voices who could situate Trumpism in two distinct longer arcs: that of American institutional decay, and that of foreign experiences of the onset of autocracy.
Now, with the election just around the corner and Trump’s authoritarian, criminal, fascistic, kleptocratic, and buffoonish tendencies on fleek, I was eager to talk to Sarah, who is the author of, most recently, “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America” and co-host of the weekly podcast “Gaslit Nation.” I wanted to know how she sees this moment and what she thinks we can do to escape it.
It IS happening here
ANAND: To start at the end, you’ve been warning about the authoritarian threat of Donald Trump for years now. Given the president’s comments in recent days, where do you think we stand?
SARAH: We’ve been living through what I’ve called a “deja news” cycle where the same stories appear again and again, but they are stripped of the context that reveals their full horror or impact. The latest iteration of this is Trump saying that he may not accept the election results and stoke violence if he doesn’t win. This is literally the same thing that Trump — and Roger Stone — threatened in 2016, but the media is calling it “unprecedented” and making no reference to Trump’s 2016 statements, despite that one of them was said at a debate and was widely covered at the time.
This bizarre selective amnesia is tremendously damaging. The American people need chronology and context to understand the threat. Also, the fact that he threatened this in 2016 should have made officials prepared with a response should he threaten it again in 2020. They should have assumed he’d do it, this time with the backing of the state, and should have come up with a plan to combat it. Instead, they feign shock to avoid accountability. So we stand at a dangerous precipice, but it’s made far more dangerous by the refusal of so many people to admit how we got here.
ANAND: The new disclosures about Trump’s tax evasion and faux success are, on one level, same old, same old. And on another level, potentially a big deal. How do you understand them in the context of this moment? And do you worry that the more likely criminal prosecution gets in his post-presidency, the more desperate we can expect to see him, the more willing he will be to steal the election or incite violence, to avoid jail?
SARAH: We knew Trump hadn’t paid taxes. Hillary Clinton said this during one of the debates, but there was little follow-up to her claim. There was also little follow-up on a series of documents from the Czechoslovakian security services revealed in 2016 which stated that in 1977 Trump had entered a bizarre agreement with the federal government to not pay taxes until 2007. We do not know the terms of this arrangement, but the documents are indeed real. UK journalist Luke Harding investigated them, and I wrote about them and their ramifications in “Hiding in Plain Sight.” It’s a big untold part of this story, especially when you connect Trump to his four decades of dealing with transnational organized crime and corrupt U.S. government officials, which is what I did in my book.
As for the debt and other information revealed in the NYT piece, none of this is surprising, but people need to learn how to interpret it. People should review his mentor Roy Cohn — Trump’s tax-dodging, mobbed-up, media-savvy lawyer who was the biggest influence in his life. Cohn dreamed of dying owing the US government enormous amount of money, and in 1986, he did. Acquisition of wealth is not the goal for either Trump or Cohn; debt is not a problem for them. A luxurious lifestyle, powered by fraud and threat and untouchable by law, is the goal. People need to examine not only Cohn and Trump’s crimes but the complicit actors that enabled them, which in this case includes the I.R.S., the Department of the Treasury and other broken U.S. institutions. Trump and Cohn are symptoms of a broader disease.
Trump will continue to try to steal the election. That was always the goal, and the tax stories don’t change that. The revelations about his taxes also won’t affect his base in the way some pundits claim. Trump doesn’t care if they know that he doesn’t pay taxes because he thinks taxes are for suckers. His base will also see it this way. What I do wish his base (and everyone else) would understand is that the reason Trump doesn’t pay taxes is because he is a key part of the so-called “deep state” and “DC swamp” and “NYC elites” that his base claims to despise.
But in terms of the election, the focus should be on the mechanisms of rigging — domestic voter suppression, foreign interference, insecure machines, the destruction of the U.S. Postal Service, and so on — and what to do if he cheats and is caught or refuses to concede, both of which are likely. No one should ever compromise in holding him and his crime cult accountable.
ANAND: Now, to go back to the beginning, what was the training and thinking you’d done that shaped your way of seeing Trump when he arrived on the presidential scene?
SARAH: I have a Ph.D. in anthropology. My research was on authoritarian politics in post-Soviet independent states, particularly Uzbekistan. When Trump began campaigning in 2015, I immediately saw parallels between him and the flamboyant Central Asian kleptocrats I had long studied. The deeper I looked into Trump’s past, I found that his connection to corrupt actors from the former Soviet Union was not only metaphorical but distressingly literal. This became particularly clear when he appointed Paul Manafort, long-time oligarch and Kremlin lackey, as his campaign manager.
I was also alarmed by how easy it would be for his campaign to exploit social media. As a graduate student studying Uzbekistan at a time when the internet was relatively new, I was interested in how digital media affected trust, and what I found was that it increased paranoia and fractured the fledgling bonds among Uzbek exiles scattered across the world who were, thanks to the internet, able to communicate regularly for the first time. This was a controversial observation when I was in grad school — between 2006 and 2011 — because conventional wisdom was that the internet was an inherently liberating technology that would further the spread of democracy. To say otherwise made you a heretic, but I’ve gotten used to being that. A heretic is just a person who tells the truth too early.
I was also watching how authoritarian rulers like Vladimir Putin or Ilham Aliyev were purposefully leaving the internet open just enough to bombard the population with propaganda instead of censoring it all together. This approach, which Rebecca MacKinnon called “networked authoritarianism,” became the model not only for authoritarian states but for crumbling democracies over the past decade.
Trump’s savvy use of digital media was aided by his skill at manipulating print and cable media, which he has successfully done for four decades, whether through tabloids, reality TV, or Twitter. My first job out of college was at the New York Daily News. I worked there from 2000-2003, so I got an inside view of how the media is made and what kind of narratives New York journalists swallow and spit out. I knew Trump’s real backstory, and I knew how he would rewrite it.
I also had another unique vantage point: I live in St. Louis, a city that never recovered from the economic crash of 2008. This region was and remains in tremendous economic pain, and Trump was skilled at exploiting that pain in 2016, though, of course, he had no interest in remedying it. Many journalists missed this because they live in wealthy coastal enclaves and believed that the “recovery” was real. I strongly oppose the “real America” vs. “false America” dichotomy — or the “red state” vs. “blue state” dichotomy for that matter — because it’s bullshit. Like I wrote in my book, America is purple — purple like a bruise. But it’s true that media is an insular profession dominated by people who tend to be out of touch with everyday American life. However, they’re just as out of touch with everyday people in New York City or D.C. as they are with everyday people in Missouri. The gulf isn’t about geography so much as it is about wealth and networks, though obviously where you live reflects that somewhat. Anyway, I have no interest in being part of that world, and I think my aversion to it helped me tell the story of Trump honestly.