When Complacency Becomes Complicity: A Conversation with Sarah Kendzior
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I'm pleased to bring you this interview with Sarah Kendzior, who is the author of the best-selling books Hiding in Plain Sight. The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America and The View from Flyover Country. She is the co-host of the podcast Gaslit Nation, which covers corruption in the US and rising autocracy around the world. Kendzior has a PhD in anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis and her research focused on politics and digital media in the authoritarian states of the former USSR. She is writing her next book, They Knew. Our conversation took place on September 30 and has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): One of the ongoing themes of your books and Gaslit Nation is that Trump is a symptom of a broader broken political system.
Sarah Kendzior (SK): When Trump was running for office in 2016, I was alarmed, but not surprised. I had seen America basically exhibiting a lot of the same signs I'd seen in the autocracies and kleptocracies of the former Soviet Union. Within my lifetime, American economic inequality had greatly widened and corruption had become more entrenched. On top of that, there was a breakdown of institutional trust.
So when Trump emerged, I was worried about his corruption and the illegality of the tactics that Harry Reid and others were warning about. But I was also worried that he was tapping into a very real phenomenon of American pain, one that I felt distinctly where I live, in Missouri. And so none of this came as a shock to me. Trump was a product of a broken system. He remains in play because the institutional actors within that broken system have refused to enforce accountability.
RBG: It's very frustrating to see the Democrat leadership entrenched in their old ways of doing things and not responding adequately to the threats we face. Why do you think this is? Conformism and not wanting to rock the boat? Is it not comprehending that they have to use a different playbook, or not knowing what to do?
SK: I think it's a combination of things. I think it's complacency in some respects, but at this point, complacency is complicity. Admitting that the problems are so entrenched means examining how these institutions eroded when Democrats were in power, like during the Obama administration. They ran on a platform of accountability and they're refusing to enforce it.
I think some of it is motivated by greed, by their own desire to have dynasties. Look at Joe Manchin, he's the product of a political family, Pelosi's the product of a political family. I don't know exactly what their end game is, but we really need an assertive and transparent approach to protect our country and protect vulnerable people residing within it. And they're simply refusing to do that.
Of course, unlike the Republicans, the Democrats are not a monolith. There are people within the party who I do think are genuinely trying to bring forth change, trying to put in progressive policies and root out corruption and rot, but they're stopped by the leadership.
RBG: To play devil's advocate, you could say that the Biden administration has tried to change things, think of the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, etc., but they can't get them through the Senate.
SK: The Democrats are trying to pass bills targeted for the long-term preservation of democracy. And while I don't think they do enough on climate change, they're at least acknowledging the problem. It's just that their tactics are useless. If you cannot pass voting rights, if you cannot get rid of things like the filibuster that are such an obstacle to the implementation of these plans, then what's the point?
The Republicans will prevail in 2022, 2024, and whatever progress has been made, they will absolutely roll it back. There was kind of a disbelief about this among Democrats until very recently, but I think Texas kind of brought that home. Yes, the Republicans really are trying to overrule Roe vs. Wade. This is not hyperbole.
RBG: Democratic messaging is also really inadequate to the emergency that we face. And it often strikes the wrong tone and they miss a lot of opportunities. I know you also worked in journalism, so I'm curious what you think of that problem.
SK: It's a huge problem. And it's a strange one to me because it could so easily be rectified. And it's also not like there aren't people out there giving advice about this. You're giving advice, I'm giving advice. Everyone who's studied authoritarian regimes is giving advice specifically on messaging.
Elizabeth Warren had an appealing and very direct message about corruption and about kleptocracy and how that affects absolutely everything else. And if you're able to dig out that, then you're able to get things done on the economy, on public health and on foreign policy. That message is urgent and righteous and I think has very wide appeal.
You know, no one likes a con artist, no one likes to feel like they're getting screwed over. Nobody likes Jeffrey Epstein, nobody likes the Sackler family. Going after these white-collar criminals, that's something that would have widespread appeal and is also absolutely necessary. And I don't know why they don't do it unless they themselves and the institutions in which they work are complicit in the crime.
RBG: I'm curious to have your opinion on the "both sides" coverage of the media. This was prominent during the Trump administration, and seems like it's gotten worse. There are so many problematic headlines that normalize autocratic and corrupt actions, like the way many outlets wrote about the Arizona fraudit.
SK: We all know American autocracy is possible. We all know it can happen here. So these outlets are making a deliberate choice to do this. And I don't know whether it's financially motivated, maybe by advertisers. There's been such a massive change in the media industry, post Trump, they've lost quite a bit of revenue.
I feel like it's worse than just the old both sides habit, I feel like they really want these people to win. It's the same way they keep promoting these books written by deeply corrupt former members of the Trump administration, which I think are very dangerous.
I make a big distinction between someone like Alexander Vindman, who spoke up in real time and testified to Congress, did the right thing and then wrote a book. But there are people like John Bolton. And people like Bob Woodward, who withheld information, allowing enough time to pass that people don't view this as an emergency anymore. It sort of strips the immediacy from the crisis and that's extremely beneficial to Republicans and their backers.
RBG: For those of us who can project what will likely happen in the future, there can be a double stress. Facing the crisis of now, and anticipating the crises of the future. What do you do to keep perspective and stay balanced?
SK: To keep perspective on these topics, I read a lot of history. I look at books that were controversial in their time. I also sometimes just check out, I pretend it's 1991. I purchased a Walkman, I found my old cassettes and I listened to mixtapes from when I was in middle school. I just lie in the yard and let the sun shine on me. I have to do something completely offline. I would advise everyone to just take a couple hours for yourself, get the hell off the Internet, get the hell off of Twitter, cleanse your mind and your soul and then return to tackle the crisis.