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State of US Journalism Is “Worst I’ve Ever Seen It,” Says Sarah Kendzior

“I can’t believe that I have nostalgia for these previous eras of crises,” says journalist Sarah Kendzior.

Part of the Series

“The public domain is being purchased, and it is being purchased in order for it to be destroyed,” says journalist Sarah Kendzior. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kendzior and host Kelly Hayes discuss the decline of journalism in the U.S. and how we can resist the erosion of our shared history, our values and our shared reality.

Music by Son Monarcas & Pulsed

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity, and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. Today, we are talking about the collapsing state of journalism in the U.S. and resisting the erosion of our shared history, our values, and our shared reality. I will be navigating these topics with my friend Sarah Kendzior, author of The View From Flyover Country, Hiding in Plain Sight, and They Knew. Sarah has a PhD in anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis, where she researched politics and digital media in authoritarian states. Sarah is also the author of one of my favorite newsletters, which is aptly titled Sarah Kendzior’s Newsletter.

Sarah and I became friends when I was visiting St. Louis, during the protests in Ferguson, about a decade ago. Over the years, we have both been derided and dismissed by fans of the status quo and the establishment — people who ridiculed our analysis until it became undeniable, at which point, they attempted to co-opt it, and reduce it to Democratic talking points. Those people probably don’t want to hear anything Sarah or I have to say about the political terrain in 2024, because if you don’t have anything nice to say about Joe Biden, they would rather you didn’t say anything at all. Well, we are going to say a lot over the next hour, and my hope is that we can leave you with some meaningful ideas and questions to engage. Because, while I believe elections matter, I think it’s incredibly dangerous to reduce our political work to electoral questions and to oversimplify our political analysis into electoral talking points.

One of the topics we will touch on today is the importance of independent media. I have talked a lot, over the years, about how thoroughly corporatized the U.S. media landscape has become. With so many publications going under, and so many media workers being laid off, I believe the award-winning work we do at Truthout is more crucial than ever. So, if you would like to support “Movement Memos,” you can subscribe to Truthout’s newsletter or make a donation at truthout.org. You can also support the show by subscribing to the podcast on Apple or Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, or by leaving a positive review on those platforms. Sharing episodes on social media is also a huge help. As a union shop with the best family and sick leave policies in the industry, we could not do this work without the support of readers and listeners like you, so thanks for believing in us and for all that you do. And with that, I hope you enjoy the show.

[musical interlude]

KH: Sarah Kendzior, welcome back to the show.

SK: Oh, thank you for having me.

KH: I want to begin today by talking about the current media landscape. The layoffs just keep coming. Being a writer or journalist has never been an easy way to make a living, but the situation has gotten increasingly bleak. You and I both have newsletters, which is a route a lot of writers are taking these days to make ends meet. As publications collapse or simply lay off workers en masse, more and more writers are vying for subscriptions to their newsletters. Most newsletter writers do not have editors, fact-checkers, or legal support, all of which places a greater strain on folks like us — and, of course, the average reader can only afford so many subscriptions. Can you talk about what’s happened to journalism in the US in recent years and over the course of the last few decades and how it intersects with the troubling political situation we’re experiencing?

SK: This is the worst that I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve worked in journalism now for 25 years. And I can’t believe that I have nostalgia for these previous eras of crises. For example, in the early 2010s where people were expected to write for free or to intern at large corporations that could certainly afford to pay them. And journalism became a way only for people with inherited wealth to make a living while the rest of us basically tried to survive.

My first job ever was at the New York Daily News from 2000 to 2003, so I watched digital media destroy print and I watched people have no backup plan when that occurred. And the fact that 25 years later we’re still in this position where there’s no sustainable model, it’s not just bad in terms of how it affects journalists, it’s much more dangerous in how it affects democracy and how it affects society.

And with this many decades having gone by, my biggest concern is how it affects memory. We have digital memory, we have investigative pieces, exposes, day-to-day coverage of all of these momentous political events from the last few decades housed online. But they can be deleted or altered at the whims of the plutocrats and oligarchs that buy them. And we saw this with Gawker back in, I believe it was 2016, and we’re seeing it now with Vice. And we’ve seen it with a lot of smaller outlets and a lot of individual websites. And this is disastrous because it’s our history that is being erased. And it’s also coming, of course, when there’s an attack on libraries, there’s an attack on free speech, there’s a rise in book banning. It’s all part of a greater project. I’m very concerned about that. I’m concerned about the information that was lost.

I used to have this mantra about Trump back in 2016 when I said, “This is not actually a laughing matter. This is a very dangerous candidate with lifelong ties to organized crime and lifelong financial misdeeds and just other abhorrent behavior.” And it’s all been publicly recorded through writers like Wayne Barrett or David Cay Johnston or publications like The Village Voice in New York and Vanity Fair. They were all covering him throughout the ’80s and ’90s. And so my knowledge of Trump never relied on any kind of inside information, it relied on works that were in the public domain. And now the public domain is being purchased, and it is being purchased in order for it to be destroyed.

If I were to right now attempt to find the exact same information on Trump and his cohort that I found in 2016, I would not be able to do it. A lot of those articles have been deleted. A lot of them are paywalled. This is a problem that plagued academia for a long time and now plagues journalism where most people just cannot get basic access to factual information relevant to a candidate in an election. For that matter, they can’t get it on other essential matters like public health issues like what’s happening with COVID. You have to pay for that knowledge while propaganda and lies and memes and all of these other things just roam around free. There’s a real struggle. I’ve been talking for a while, so I’m just going to end it there and see what your thoughts are on this too.

Kelly Hayes: I really appreciate your thoughts on this. I was really lucky to come into journalism through the blogosphere, and to get hired as an intern, then as a fellow, and ultimately as a staff member at Truthout, where we have not had any layoffs in recent years. And I do want to emphasize the importance of supporting the kind of journalism that we believe should exist, and supporting ethically produced publications, because those outlets are an endangered species in these times. The corporate landscape is configured against us, on a number of levels, as are social media algorithms, which is why it’s important to sign up for newsletters, to directly connect with the material we want to read, from trusted sources, because algorithms are not designed to maintain a healthy media ecosystem. In fact, they’ve gone a long way toward destroying a lot of publications. It’s like we have a dying media ecosystem, on a toxic landscape, and now we have so-called AI, further corrupting the information sphere with mass-produced misinformation. The fact that social media platforms are incorporating AI tools is only going to accelerate this enshittification.

And speaking of social media, I was actually on the verge of deleting all my tweets last year, on that platform that Elon Musk wants us to call X but that we all still call Twitter. I had tried and failed, using a particular service, and I was about to go about it another way, and then I read something you wrote about how you were keeping your Twitter account intact because “chronology is the enemy of autocracy.” I really appreciated those words and they immediately rang true to me. Can you talk about how the idea that “chronology is the enemy of autocracy” applies to social media?

Sarah Kendzior: Yes, absolutely. I encourage people who have social media accounts, even if they’re leaving that platform for good reason, to keep their account intact because often it is the only record of something that occurred. Particularly if you’re an activist, a dissident, a journalist, a firsthand witness to a crisis, your record is an important historical contribution. And you might not feel that way, but with mainstream outlets and other sources of information being either paywalled or deleted, this is what remains. This is the people’s voice. This is the story that is told from the streets, told from the ground. These are people’s immediate personal reactions to what is happening untainted by retrospect and the biases that come with it, and so it is crucial.

We also live in an era where politicians lie. They lie across the political spectrum about some of the worst crises of our life. They lie about COVID, about climate change, about coups, about corruption, and so it is important to maintain a chronology and establish who knew what and when and what could have been done. Because what a lot of politicians do in particular is they feign ignorance or feign shock. In order to avoid accountability, they pretend the news they’re hearing is something that they’re hearing for the very first time, so therefore they had no responsibility or obligation to stop this crisis before it spread. And they do this on a number of issues.

What Twitter is is a large file of evidence, and it’s incredibly valuable. And this obviously doesn’t just correspond to the United States but to all of these countries around the world where you often saw activists using Twitter as a way to disseminate information. You saw this during the Arab Spring, during Occupy Wall Street, during Ferguson, during all of the protests that took place during Trump’s era, during the summer of 2020. All of that is recorded on there.

And I do wonder if one of the main things that they want to delete are all of the records coming out of Palestine, coming out of Gaza. And I don’t just mean what’s happening now, but 2014, 2021, all of these other eras where you saw the Israeli military massacring people and you had firsthand accounts including video, including photos from the ground written by Palestinian citizens. And this is something brand new.

I think 2014 was a turning point for how people considered that conflict and where their sympathies lay because the mainstream media reporting was so biased and we so rarely heard directly from Palestinians in the news, and we suddenly were hearing straight from the ground these atrocities that were being committed by the Israeli military and these horrific statements often said in Hebrew only by the Israeli government. But they would be translated by reporters from Haaretz or from other Israeli publications or just by speakers of Hebrew, speakers of Arabic. We suddenly had insight into that world and we knew the order in which things played out. And all of that is valuable.

And this is a very bleak thing to say, but a lot of folks who were involved in all of these battles for freedom that I just mentioned have died. They have killed over 100 journalists this year from Palestine. And a number of activists from civil rights movements and labor movements in the United States are dead as well. And their record is on Twitter, their record is on these social media sites, and it’s preserved. And there’s always an effort for powerful people to try to besmirch and smear someone’s reputation while they’re alive, also while they’re gone. And so that record of what people actually said and what they stood for and what they did is preserved on there. And I think it’s very important that we keep it.

And I think there should be a greater collective effort to archive the tweets, the articles, the content created by people involved in activist movements so that when powerful people try to tell the story of what happens and put all of the blame on the activists, on the dissidence, and I think we see a growing tendency of politicians to do that right now, we have the proof. Your best evidence is your own words. I’ve always felt that way. And that’s one of the reasons that I don’t paywall my own work because I’m so frequently falsely accused of saying things that I never said or having beliefs that I don’t hold that it’s just much easier to point people to what I’ve written and when I wrote it and say, “This is who I really am and this is what I really said, and it’s right there. Now you have something to work with.” And I think that’s a useful thing, an important thing for everybody.

KH: I really appreciate that perspective, and I was really grateful for your intervention, around preserving all of that information in a public way. It made sense to me, the moment I read it, because I really believe that part of what Elon Musk was trying to do with his takeover of Twitter was to obliterate our shared reality. With the media landscape in collapse, and with so much of the historical record paywalled, social media is a deeply important record of our shared reality and of our firsthand experiences of political life. It’s always been a messy, troubled realm of communication, but making it into an even murkier cesspool that skews toward rightwing conspiracies definitely serves fascist and authoritarian interests. So, I decided to keep my tweets up to preserve a record of when activists like me were warning people about COVID, and what was happening in the streets across the course of movement work in my city, over the last decade. And I agree that we need to do some archival work around preserving those histories, because in the same way that publications can disappear years of journalism in a flash, all of our contributions on social media can likewise vanish in an instant.

I also really appreciate what you were saying about Palestine and the importance of the historical record that people on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank have created. Can you talk about what’s happening now, in Gaza, and how that information is being received in the U.S.?

SK: It’s very… Upsetting doesn’t cover it. I was thinking about the fact that you and I spoke in the fall and it was so overwhelming and so horrific then just for us as Americans to view the coverage from abroad, to watch people who we had followed online for a long time be murdered or suffer or wonder if they were going to be okay or just wonder about all of these children who were being murdered.

I think when I last spoke to you, maybe 8,000 or so kids had died. And that’s now up to over 14,000. This is the worst, most brutal atrocity I’ve seen in my life in terms of how short a time it took to commit it and how disproportionately the victims are children. There are many other atrocities to look at. You could look at what’s happened in Syria, for example, what’s happening now in Ukraine, but it took longer.

And also, one of the most disturbing aspects as an American is that our government is firmly on the side of the oppressor. We are what is standing in the way of humanitarian relief for Palestinians and of the chance at political freedom. It is Joe Biden. It is his veto and the veto of the United States, at the United Nations. It is his partnership with [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. And it’s not just him, it was also Trump and every president before him and the entirety of the US Congress in all of our institutions firmly backing Israel even though Israel is committing war crimes.

And so I think in October and November, a lot of folks who weren’t as familiar with the history of the region were realizing that, yes, Israel will bomb a hospital, yes, Israel will kill children. These aren’t nasty rumors that people come up with to try to smear the reputation of Israel, this is just the history. This is what they’ve done to Palestinian people since 1948 and even beforehand.

And I think now people realize, yes, they do this, and yes, many of those IDF soldiers enjoy it. They make TikTok videos. They sit around and hand out cotton candy, literally, and celebrate the slaughter of children who live right next door to them. And that itself is horrifying to see along with these images I can’t get out of my head of Palestinian children who’ve been butchered and mutilated and killed, images that honestly I try to not look at because it crushes my soul.

But what’s disturbing me about right now is that I think when we last spoke, people were in a state of shock and also in a state of I guess curiosity, to put it mildly. They wanted to know the truth of the matter, they wanted to dig deep into it, and now they’re beginning to acclimatize themselves to genocide. You’re constantly hearing this mantra, the, “Vote blue no matter who,” where it’s really vote blue no matter what with the “what” being genocide, being abetting a genocide, funding it.

There are very specific requests being leveled at the Biden administration. Stop sending arms to Israel, stop giving unconditional aid and unconditional support to Israel. Help the Palestinians with humanitarian aid. Recognize the unfairness, the atrocity of this situation. They’re not unreasonable requests, they’re very serious, but they’re being treated as just part of a political campaign when this is really a catastrophe and a war crime. And that’s very depressing to see.

I feel like there’s a collective loss of American humanity that’s being encouraged from our political leaders where we’re not supposed to grieve, we’re not supposed to feel sad when we see a dead Palestinian child. And they’ve always wanted us to have that kind of reaction, but given the level of atrocity, the fact that Gaza is almost completely destroyed, of course we’re going to be very upset.

And it is the vast majority of Americans who feel the way that I do. That includes evangelicals, that includes the majority of Jewish Americans. I think it even includes the majority of Republicans. They want a ceasefire. Everybody wants a ceasefire except for officials in the U.S. government. And so you have to ask, “Who’s really in charge here? Who is making these decisions? And why?” Because it’s not unreasonable and it’s in just basic moral interest, but you would think also in the self-interest of the Democratic Party to stop funding a genocide given that it has turned so many people away from wanting to… not just wanting to vote for Biden, but from stomaching the idea of voting for him. There’s a line people draw where they’re like, “I can’t do that. I can’t get on board with Biden abetting genocide.”

And it’s of course also the Republicans abetting genocide. It’s everybody. There are so few exceptions. There are so few people willing to take a stand against this, which is so depressing and so disproportionate compared to the Americans, who are willing to take a stand, whether it’s active protestors or just people who are simply polled and ask, “What do you think about this?” And they respond, “I think I want a ceasefire. I think this is abhorrent. I don’t think those children deserve to die.” I don’t think that we as a country are as vicious and terrible at all as the people who represent us. And it is so shameful that we are left with these individuals making our policies and laws.

KH: I couldn’t agree more. I also think the discourse around voting or not voting for Biden reflects our larger frustrations with the power we don’t have politically right now. We do not have the organized power to force the hand of our government. I really appreciate the “uncommitted” campaign as a way of trying to turn some of this discourse around the election into appreciable leverage. Because what matters most in a situation like this one, where politicians feel the political costs of yielding to public opinion outweigh the costs of going against it, is to create greater costs. Materially demonstrating that votes are at stake is one way to do that. I also really appreciate actions like the shutdown of the Port of Vancouver and some of the blockades of arms dealers that Dissenters and others have enacted, because disrupting the flow of capital — that’s the kind of cost that hits home with leaders who are tasked with the maintenance of capitalism.

What really worries me is that it feels like we’re in a situation where we are settling into a largely cooperative disapproval of genocidal actions. Because we do live in a country that will enact genocide, allow us to disapprove, and call that freedom while the annihilation continues unabated.

SK: Yes, absolutely. And I do think that those who have gone and put themselves in potential physical harm by protesting at this time where police forces are increasingly militarized, they’re much larger than they were before, I admire them profoundly. But I think a lot of people are overwhelmed by the magnitude of this conflict, by how blatantly unapologetically horrific it is. That exposure doesn’t seem to lead to any kind of shame and therefore to any kind of action on the part of Israel.

That used to be the old line of thinking was that if the autocrat or the mafioso, mafia state regime was exposed, then they would have to change its ways through international shaming. And there was some truth to that. For a long time, I studied Uzbekistan, and I studied it at the height of its totalitarianism. And generally speaking, they didn’t care if people knew it was a totalitarian state. They didn’t care about human rights activists or anything. But when they had forced child labor, when they had children out picking cotton in the cotton fields for companies like Gap and Gymboree and so forth, when people found out that they were mass-abusing children, they ended that policy. It took a while, but they eventually did because that was a line that no country wanted to cross. Nobody wanted to be known as the abusers or killers of children.

And so that is one of the things that’s so scary with Israel is that they don’t seem to mind at all being known for massacring children, for massacring innocent Palestinian children. They even had an official who said that, kids ages zero through four, you can leave them alone, but anybody older than that, the 5-year-old, 5-year-old is a terrorist. That’s an actual policy from this extremist government. And so I think there’s this sense among activists when they see things like that, my God, how do you convince people that bereft of morality to do anything?

And I still think basically their strategies are correct to try to target the weapons producers, the people shipping them, et cetera, but we’re being attacked on multiple fronts. And I think another one of those fronts we’re being attacked on is, of course, what you mentioned in the beginning of the show, is media, with the documentation of these crimes. It becomes harder to figure out who to protest and what tactics are effective in that protest if we don’t know what’s going on and if we can’t trade and share information easily in a public forum. It is very frustrating.

And it’s also frustrating that I think most of our American officials don’t seem to care about our outreach. I do think that there’s been some inroads, at least rhetorically things are beginning to change, but it’s too late in many ways. Over 30,000 people are dead, an entire region has been destroyed, and our country did that. Our country contributed in a major way. That said, I encourage people to continue fighting back, but just to be as creative in their tactics as they possibly can be and focus on how does this help the victims? How can we protect them? And at the very least, how do we protect the truth? How do we preserve their stories? How do we make sure that this isn’t forgotten or rewritten or played down in the way so many other atrocities toward Palestinians have been played down and successfully rewritten in the past?

KH: The last time we spoke, we talked about liberal arguments that any criticism of Biden was harmful because it helps Trump. I want to revisit that idea because we’re going to be hearing a lot of that this year. One of the reasons this argument troubles me is that regardless of what people do in November, they need to understand the larger political trajectories that Trump and Biden are part of because we need to understand what is happening to us, systemically, in this age of catastrophe and collapse. If we confine our political imaginations and analysis to partisan talking points, we are doomed, frankly, because both parties are on trajectories that will ultimately destroy us. That isn’t an argument against making strategic electoral choices. Because elections do have consequences, in terms of people’s immediate safety, the pace of ecological destruction and the unraveling of what freedoms we do have.

I will never tell people that they must or must not engage with electoral politics. That’s not what I do. But to reduce electoral politics to good versus evil — which is what a lot of people are demanding, because according to them, advancing any narrative that isn’t good Biden versus evil Trump, is putting democracy at risk — really robs us of any analysis of the age we’re living in. This is a time of catastrophe and collapse, and both parties are ultimately tasked with maintaining the capitalist system amid that collapse. The manner in which people are sacrificed, excluded, or contained may be different, and the justifications for that violence may be different, but it’s all capitalist end game. That’s what we’re up against, whether we’re on the neoliberal authoritarian track or the fascistic Republican track. Whatever choices we make or don’t make at the ballot box, we have to understand that.

I also think your analysis of the U.S. as a mafia state is really relevant here. Can you say a bit about that?

SK: Yes, the U.S. is a mafia state. It’s that more than a fascist state or a fledgling fascist state, especially when it comes to Trump. Trump uses fascist rhetoric, fascist tactics. I have no problem with people labeling Trump as fascist because I think it gets the point across. I think it gets the level of danger across very well. But technically what he wants to do, as you just said, is collapse this country, is to destroy this country. And a traditional fascist leader wants to expand the country, they want to embody the country.

And what Trump and his cohort have always wanted to do is strip this country down and sell it for parts. They don’t care if the United States exists. In fact, they want the United States to not exist. This is why they keep pushing secession movements in Texas, in California. This is why they keep pushing this red versus blue dynamic because it’s incredibly profitable.

And their model for this is the Soviet Union and the resource hoarding and the oligarch wars of the 1990s and the incredible amounts of money that were made after the USSR collapsed, made by Russian oligarchs, or at least oligarchs from the former Soviet Union; they weren’t always Russian ethnically. But also Americans and Westerners, many of whom, like people like Paul Manafort are part of the Trump campaign and have this direct stake in that happening. And so yes, this is all a big interrelated process. And you’ll find people pilfering like this engaging in kleptocracy on both sides of the aisle.

And when it comes to Trump versus Biden, back in 2020, one of the key reasons people voted for Biden was the belief that he was going to hold Trump accountable for the multitude of crimes that Trump had committed in office, which include attempting to launch a coup, include sedition, crimes which you would think no president would dismiss. It also included abuse of the pardon power, obstruction of justice, abuse of migrants, a ton of financial crimes and improprieties. This list is very long. And they expected Biden to do something about that, to clean up corruption.

I think corruption is an across the board issue. I think a lot of Republican voters, they don’t like corruption either, it’s just a matter that they blame the Democrats much more for corruption than they blame the Republicans. And I think initially a lot of them fell for this image of Trump as some sort of renegade outsider, even though he’s the consummate insider. He’s somebody who’s been hooked up to the political and business and entertainment insular worlds for his entire life as well as to organized crime. But they thought he was somebody who would wreck the system and maybe in the end balance it. And people should not fall for that at all because they’re using that same strategy.

And the thing is the Democrats are not fighting back by listing all of the crimes that Trump has committed because it was their responsibility to hold him accountable for those crimes, whether through, say, the second impeachment trial for sedition and attempting a coup or through the DOJ and Merrick Garland. And Merrick Garland, of course, was put in place by Jamie Gorelick, his lifelong best friend who was also Jared Kurshner’s lawyer and a lifelong friend of Biden. This is just one group of people, and they all interact and they move from position to position and things don’t change, things just get worse for American citizens.

And it is very important to analyze this back and forth. I often get accused of, quote, “both sidesing” the issue when I bring up Biden being bad along with Trump being bad. And I’m like, “Well, yes, because there are two people and they’re both bad, and it is important to look at specifically why.” Sometimes they’re bad in the same way they both support genocide, they both support Trump’s wall. Biden overruled Congress on multiple occasions to do that. But there are also ways in which they are very different. It’s important to point those out as well.

But the key thing is Trump and his group, they’re the main criminals. The Democrats and Biden, and especially this long-term group of Democrats like Pelosi, Schumer, et cetera, people who have been in Congress for a very, very long time, they are the enablers. They make this possible. They prevent investigations. And you can see this going back to the group surrounding Obama when he first came in that refused to go after Wall Street, refused to go after Iraq war criminals. It’s the same thing over and over. You can see it in the Clinton administration when they wouldn’t prosecute Iran-Contra. This happens over and over.

And at this point though, I seriously wonder if Biden even wants to win because they’re not acting at all like somebody who wants to win, they’re acting like someone who knows they’re going to lose. And they’re trying to streamline autocracy and make it palatable to liberals, get liberals to accept things that they never would’ve accepted under Trump that they’re now trying to find a justification for because Biden and other Democrats are either in favor of it or are not standing in the way, particularly something like Gaza or the treatment of migrants on the border or our loss of civil rights.

And so they’re doing that and they’re often berating their own base in the process. They are blaming young people, they’re blaming marginalized and vulnerable people instead of blaming plutocrats and oligarchs and dictators and others who should be taking the blame. They blame, I think, their own voter base even more than they blame Trump. And when they look at Trump, they love to reduce it all to just Trump the individual instead of Trump the network.

And they do the same thing with Putin. They’ll look at Putin the individual, they will not look at Putin’s network because guess what; Putin’s network isn’t just donating to the Republicans, they’re donating excessively to the Democrats. They gave the DCCC its largest donation ever in its history. Len Blavatnik, he’s a business tycoon I’ll say so you don’t get sued who is partnered with sanctioned Russian oligarchs. And because he’s an American citizen, he’s able to legally give large sums of money to both political parties, and he has done so. And when he does so, the investigations into all of these dirty financial arrangements that particularly the Republican Party has made but also the Democratic Party has made with oligarchs from the former Soviet Union, suddenly those investigations go away. And they don’t want anything looked at too closely, they just want heroes and villains. And they don’t like to look at the places where they overlap.

KH: Something you just said that I hope really sticks with people is the part about scapegoats. We’ve talked about this before, and I hope people will keep their attention fixed on this aspect of things. Biden is doing himself serious harm right now, politically, but the people who are being scapegoated for his potential loss in November are the same people who the Republicans will target for violence, administratively and otherwise, if they win. And what this dynamic creates is a situation where people can say, well, you brought this on yourselves — in the same way that some people dismiss the suffering of people in red states, saying well, whatever you’re going through, I guess your state shouldn’t have voted Republican. This process of making oppression, suffering and violence more palatable to the public makes people being ground under seem like something we can more easily dismiss, or deem inevitable, or blame victims for, and I think there are a number of interests and motivations at work behind all of this normalization, but what’s most important is how it culminates and who it serves.

I’m also thinking about the fanaticism that fuels some of these trajectories that we’re discussing, and about Project 2025 and Christian Nationalism, or Christo-fascism as some call it. I think it’s really noteworthy how extreme that agenda has become, and how open the Republicans are about that extremism. It’s all happening in plain sight without a lot of reaction that you might normally associate with it. I think one of the reasons we’re seeing a less robust response than we might have in the past is that Biden is so unpopular, and a lot of people are busy debating his failings, rather than digging into the Republicans. But I’m curious about your thoughts about the cultish religiosity that is propelling some of these Republican policy agendas and the cultish politics that we really need to be worried about as we move through this era of catastrophe and collapse.

SK: Yes, exactly. We’re living in an era of political cults that react to actual religious cults that have been building steadily since the Reagan era. A bit beforehand, but I think Reagan is really where it kicked off. And so you and I have spent our entire lives in this political environment. We have no memory of anything that came before it.

But yeah, there is an explicit right-wing Christian fanatical objective, a direction that they want to lead our country. You often see people like Chris Rufo announcing these initiatives in advance, wanting to get rid of abortion, which then leads to getting rid of birth control, which then leads to getting rid of the freedom to have sex for non-procreation reasons in general. It’s a sliding slope. And they just announce it.

And the thing that drives me crazy is that the democratic politicians, they don’t treat this as a crisis that is happening right now. Even though I’m in Missouri right now, I don’t have bodily autonomy. I don’t have the right to decide what I do with my body anymore. They treat this as if it’s a future threat. They treat it as an election issue, as something that you can use as a fundraiser. They’re not taking it seriously and they’re not treating it as an immediate threat.

When you see something like Project 2025, when you see Trump saying, Hi, I’m going to be a dictator. I plan on doing that, which is something he said, you should treat it as a threat right now and consider the amount of leverage that these groups have because it’s enormous. They are funded by billionaires several times over. They have state secrets from all of the time that Trump was in the White House and from all of the time his operatives, people like Roger Stone, have been gathering blackmail. They have been openly threatening public officials well before Trump was president, but in particular while he was president and after he was president. Anyone who he tries to cross they threaten with violence and they get away with it; they don’t face any repercussions. Even if it does go to court, you then just see people like Steve Bannon or Roger Stone or Manafort or so on just walking around plotting new coups, plotting new fascist initiatives. And the people who are supposed to be holding them accountable, the people who are supposed to be standing up for us, are instead tweeting mindless stuff or whining that they’re in this position and not doing anything to fight back.

And we’re doing what we can, I think, ordinary Americans, but we can’t do a citizen’s arrest, which is what is needed when you’re dealing with a mafia state. Generally, I’m not a fan of the “let’s arrest people to stop a problem” approach. That’s not something I generally would recommend, but when you are dealing with lifelong criminal mafiosos linked to serious organized crime networks, white collar crime networks, entities with billions of dollars being pushed and pulled around and money laundered and so forth, you need professionals to do that. And you need it stopped legally because, like I said, they don’t care about shame. They don’t care about being caught, they just care about being punished. And there’s no move to do this. And it is frustrating because I think the reaction to the refusal of the Democrats to do their job has not been to criticize them and say, “Hey, this is what you could be doing. This is what you should be doing,” it’s to cultishly embrace whatever it is they’re doing and assume that they have some secret plan.

And there’s a whole propaganda initiative out there where they just tell you constantly, “Oh, Comey has a secret plan. Mueller has a secret plan. Garland has a secret plan.” And of course they don’t. And then they get to the point where they’ve run out the clock, and then they’ll admit, “Oh wait, Merrick Garland is actually terrible. He’s jeopardized our entire democracy,” but by then it’s too late. By then, not just the Republicans, but any plutocratic institutionalist who thrives on corruption, they’ve already won. And so that’s a thing that’s hard for people to even take in and people react in different ways.

I react angrily and I react by documenting what happened and explaining the ties and the networks that led us to this place. Other people react by having this fantastical belief that you can vote out the mafia. You can’t vote out the mafia, and you can’t magically assume that things are going to be fine. And you definitely are not doing anyone any favors by attacking online the very people who are more likely to vote for your candidate, more likely to turn out for Democrats and so forth because those people are upset with corruption and the refusal to stop it. As a strategy, it’s asinine. And you would think they would know that, yet they are practicing that anyway.

KH: I think part of that behavior is that we are conditioned to view our self-expression as political action in the United States as opposed to having any actual political strategy.

SK: I think that’s true. And I think some of that comes from the fact that so much money is now required to even get a foothold in typical electoral politics, especially after Citizens United. And that’s why I encourage people to look beyond election day, to look beyond electoral politics and see what other avenues of influence they have because when you boil everything down to one day, it’s a way of curtailing that broader discussion. And I do think that that is something that corrupt officials want. And it’s a way to get people to feel like they’re doing something meaningful, like when they’re out there saying, “Vote blue no matter who,” or whatever, yelling at people online when they’re not, they’re just contributing to that cult rhetoric, that cult mentality when creative thinking, free thinking is what we really need now the most.

KH: You were talking about plutocrats, and one of the great plutocratic forces in the United States right now, of course, is Big Tech. We have talked a lot on this show in the past year about the role of technology in authoritarian politics. In a recent episode of “Movement Memos,” we heard from some Chicago organizers whose campaign to end our city’s contract with the tech company SoundThinking for a product called ShotSpotter succeeded. To me, this was a really exciting development because the tech platformization of policing is just horrifying. The deployment of algorithms to create psychological alibis for police is just another layer of impunity for cops who do not need more impunity. But these technological developments such as predictive policing technologies and facial recognition really do lend themselves to authoritarianism in scary and dystopian ways, as does the rise of cop cities. Can you talk a bit about tech and the expansion of the police state and how these things relate to authoritarianism in the U.S.?

SK: That’s a great question. And throughout all these years when people have asked me to compare what’s happening now to authoritarian states throughout history, I’ve always said that you can’t quite do it because the emergence of digital technology, and in particular of the internet, of this ability to talk to each other across countries across states and so forth and to surveil each other of governments to be able to do that through mass surveillance, that’s all unprecedented. That’s new. And it’s changed incentives and it’s changed the way that people govern and are governed. On one hand, it allows us to meet and have this whole conversation where we’re hashing this thing out, at least for now, but mostly this technology works to aid dictators and police and oppressors I think at this point more than it enables free expression in part because it’s so easy for them to take away our free expression. They’re doing it right now, closure of all these media sites with the replacement of human beings with AI.

But the combination of police and technology and facial recognition and the kind of things we’ve seen used in China, what they’re doing to the Uyghurs, we also see this used in Israel against the Palestinians, it is very frightening. It’s the reason that I walk around looking like the Unabomber. I always have to have hoodie and sunglasses and a mask — for COVID reasons and whatnot. But there’s a big part of me that I don’t want to be recorded. I don’t like that people’s doorbells are now able to record me or people can walk around with cameras. We’re all holding little cameras in our pockets; we all can be recorded at any given time. We live in this panopticon, and it’s nightmarish in a way that I don’t think people really thought could be realized. But it’s very scary to live in. I think it makes people self-censor, and I think that it makes people rightly worried that out of context statements or actions are going to be used against them in a court of law and easily manipulated.

On the flip side of that, the emergence of AI means that they don’t even need to tape you, they can just take some footage of you and invent it, create a scenario where you’re doing something you’re not, and try to incarcerate you for it. And so there are so many potential dystopian outcomes to this technology that I am dreading the next few decades and trying to figure out the best way for all of us to protect ourselves. Because when we lose objective standards of veracity, like this is a film, this is a recording… and granted, those of course didn’t always work in the past. When I was 12, Rodney King was beaten, and then the police who beat him up were acquitted, so we know that, once again, exposure doesn’t always equal justice. But it used to be a route of establishing what happened. Now it feels like they possess this incredible technological advantage to be used against people who have very little power. And they want to use it to take away the remaining power that they have. Yeah, all of this should be looked at combined and in just the way you laid it out, talking about the rise of big tech and cop cities and all of this technology at once as a whole.

KH: And I think it’s important for folks to consider Israel as a case study of what to be deeply concerned about when we look at the extremity of false propaganda that is leveled by Israeli officials in defense of the atrocities in Gaza. Right now, Israel churns out propaganda that strains credulity, to put it mildly, in order to defend the indefensible. Some of it is ridiculed, and rightly so, but even the most over the top lies can help define popular narratives. Because people believe what they want to believe and amplify what they want to amplify. But when we think about how incessantly authoritarian regimes lie in order to control the narrative, and how emerging technologies are going to further enhance those lies over time, it’s downright horrifying. Reality, and our efforts to have any shared sense of it, is truly a front of struggle, which is why the remaining independent media that we have is so important. I’m reminded of the fact that under fascist regimes in the past, one of the first forms of resistance that tends to emerge is illicit newspapers — people who were recording the truth and disseminating it as a means of resistance. I think that we need to have some attention to that and what that means and what that looks like in our time.

SK: Yeah, absolutely. This is another reason I think it’s important people keep hard copies of things that are created and have been created because they’re steadily being rewritten or deleted or modified in ways that tell a different story.

And yeah, I do think Israel is the country to look at for what is likely to come for the American future. A lot of folks bring up Russia — there’s certainly lessons to be learned there in terms of kleptocracies, in terms of mafia state politics and so forth — but look at what happened with Israel’s presidents. I always say Biden is the placeholder president. He’s like the guy who’s put in between mafia Grover Cleveland over here with Donald Trump. He’s meant to just take up that space and streamline autocracy.

That’s the same thing that happened with [former Israeli prime minister Naftali] Bennett and Netanyahu. You had all these years of Netanyahu, you had a brief reprieve, and then suddenly he’s back and he’s hooked up with the most far right government that Israel has ever had by far with people like Kahanists. I think that, should Trump return, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. It’s going to be a much more far right regime than it was the first time around. And the first time around, it was terrible. It was a bunch of monstrous people working together.

And so yeah, there’s going to be emulation structurally and I think there’s going to be emulation in terms of tactics and especially in their use of technology. And another thing to remember there is that Trump, [Steve] Bannon, all these folks, these are people who understand media very well. They understand mainstream media, they understand entertainment, they understand Big Tech. They are pioneers in a way in this field for fascist politics and how to use them and how to create narratives and how to break the American sense of collective reality apart. And they will continue to do that. And there is not a lot of blowback to that, which is why I’m always encouraging people to follow their own morality, to write down daily a record of not just what’s going on but how do you feel about it? What do you find acceptable? What is your red line? What are the things that you would never ever accept as right? And then if you feel like you’re diverging from that version of yourself, ask yourself why and what sorts of pressures are causing that and what you can do about that.

But sometimes it’s hard when everyone around you is caving into these forces. I think people take their cues from others and they think, well, it can’t be that bad or someone would be doing something about it or there’d be an uprising or… fascism, authoritarianism, it’s often not quite as dramatic and immediate as people think; it creeps into people slowly. It changes their souls from within. It stifles their political imaginations. And that’s something folks need to watch out for.

KH: What you just said reminds me of something you wrote recently, which was, “What matters more than whether you vote for Biden is what kind of person you become by November. What horrors you will have learned to accept. What orders you opted to obey. Who you have decided is disposable.”

Those words remind me of sentiments we both expressed during the Trump administration, minus the part about it being less important who you vote for, of course. During that time, we were cautioning people to be aware of what was being normalized, and of what they were learning to tolerate or treat as inevitable or as background noise. We were warning people that they had to consciously rage against the further normalization of mass death and human disposability. Because once our moral clarity is gone, and we have become emotionally immune to atrocity, we are lost, and we won’t even know what to fight for — which would render all of the left’s many disagreements about tactics and strategies irrelevant. The fact that we are still issuing these warnings now really gets at the heart of what we were talking about earlier, in terms of these dual trajectories. Do you have any further thoughts you would like to share about those trajectories and where they’re headed?

SK: No, I think you nailed it. I think we’ve been hit simultaneously with the normalization of mass death through COVID, which was encouraged from above, from the top down to just shrug it off, and also mass disability through COVID, and then now mass murder in Gaza. And we’re encouraged to feel either nothing in reaction to this or to feel contempt for those who’ve been hurt by it. And I think they want to get Americans so frightened of being in this position that they would rather be on the side of the oppressor because the oppressor is clearly where the power lies. There’s this illusion of safety if you side with the oppressor instead of being the one who’s picked on.

And when I see people reacting the way they do, the people who are suffering, whether it’s somebody who has COVID or somebody who’s from a marginalized group, when I see people talking about the election and saying, “Have fun on your deportation,” or, “Enjoy losing the right to your uterus,” or, “Enjoy dying of COVID,” or all of this mockery of really horrific things that we’re scared are going to happen to us, it’s hard to handle because it’s not just coming from MAGA or even primarily from the right wing anymore, I see it much more from Democrats who are hardened inside these political cults and who I do not think would’ve expressed any of these sentiments at least publicly during the time that Trump was in office.

I think COVID in particular has scared people more than they’re willing to admit because, of course, that’s something that’s also encouraged from the top down. You’re not supposed to be afraid of COVID, you’re supposed to just shrug it off like it doesn’t mean anything, and then therefore shrug off deaths from it like that doesn’t mean anything. And that makes people scared to talk. It makes people scared to confide in others because they know that they’re not going to receive empathy and support, that they might receive mockery and cruelty during one of the most painful and frightening parts of their lives.

And so all of that is very bad, and so obviously I encourage people to not behave in this way, to watch yourself if you feel that fear taking over and pushing you in the direction of hatred and cruelty. It’s not just a matter of not giving them what they want, it’s just that it’s wrong. That’s the wrong way to treat people. It’s not how you would want to be treated. Sometimes things can be just reduced to the golden rule. If you don’t want to be treated that way, then don’t do it to other people and don’t try to rationalize it and find excuses for atrocities either.

KH: Well, Sarah, I want to thank you so much for joining me today. I always get so much out of our conversations, and I always really appreciate getting the chance to talk with you.

SK: Yes, same here. Thank you so much for having me back on.

[musical interlude]

KH: Well, I am always so grateful for the opportunity to talk with Sarah about what we’re up against politically in these times, and how we should understand those threats. I know that some people may find these topics daunting, but to me, there really isn’t any hope without a clear-eyed analysis of what we are up against. Understanding these forces is essential to crafting a vision of how we might create a different trajectory for ourselves, and how we might undermine the forces that would destroy us.

Coming away from this conversation, I hope you’re thinking about what kind of practices and projects you can take on to defend against attacks on collective memory and our shared sense of reality. I hope you’re thinking about what kind of costs you can help attach to genocidal policies. And I hope you are determined to build the kind of power that we have yet to organize — the kind of power that could shift the course of history. What is your role in this moment of crisis, and how will you resist the erosion of your values in these times? I know I am leaving you with more questions than answers today, but asking the right questions can often be the start of something downright transformative. So, let’s grapple with these questions together and see what we can build.

If you want to hear more from Sarah Kendzior, you can subscribe to her weekly newsletter, which we will link in the show notes of this episode. Much like my own newsletter, Sarah’s newsletter is free unless you would like to support her ability to make it. So, I hope you will all check it out and hit subscribe.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

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