As Trump continues his attacks on the post office and issues another round of illegal edicts, Truthout’s Kelly Hayes talks with author and researcher Sarah Kendzior about the ascent of authoritarianism in the U.S. and the potential collapse of democracy as we know it.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know, if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes. Today’s guest is someone whose insights I think are absolutely crucial in the wake of Trump’s recent attacks on the post office and his unconstitutional executive orders around federal relief.
Sarah Kendzior is a writer and researcher and author of the books, The View from Flyover Country and Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America. Sarah is also the co-host of Gaslit Nation, a weekly podcast, which has tracked the corruption of the Trump administration and the rise of authoritarianism around the world. Sarah Kendzior, welcome to the show.
Sarah Kendzior: Thank you for having me.
KH: How are you doing today, amid everything that’s happening?
SK: As well as can be expected, I suppose.
KH: I hear that. Well, I am really grateful that you’re here today because your work in tracking the ascent of authoritarianism in the U.S. has been absolutely crucial. And as I have watched you get harangued and dismissed over the last few years for telling people the ugly truth about what’s been happening, I have sympathized a lot. Because while I don’t have anything like your expertise, I too have been labeled an alarmist for several years now and being proven right time after time doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on people in this regard.
SK: Yeah, it’s a frustrating thing. I mean, just that word alone, “alarmist,” it’s like, well, yes, we’re raising the alarm, because we’re witnessing atrocities in the making, and we would like to keep them from coming to fruition. Therefore, you know, we’re going to be very detailed, very loud, and try to actually have an impact so that people don’t suffer. Like this should not be something that’s considered a controversial pursuit inherently.
But we live in this world of, you know, horse race politics, or jargon filled, kind of abstract ideology, that it’s so remote, the discourse is so remote from the actual suffering, and severe crises that people are facing on the ground, that have gotten exponentially worse throughout the time that Trump has been in office and, you know, are the culmination in many ways of long term trends, you know. But you were right to raise the alarm, not just on Trump, but on the pandemic, you know, I saw you get harangued for that. I was right to raise the alarm on a variety of things and, you know, so were the many others who were dismissed alongside us.
KH: And what’s really been striking to me is that people talk a lot about climate denialism and how people are dooming us by refusing to admit what’s happening. And we are seeing similar dismissals, in my opinion, around the ascent of authoritarianism and fascism globally. Societies in general are held together by belief, and a firm belief in these institutions and this system is foundational for liberals. So now that we are seeing attacks on those institutions escalating in ways that are more noticeable and visible to the public, it’s not surprising that Democrats officials are not handling this super well. Denialism around the ascent of fascism under Trump has never been as dangerous, in my opinion, as it is right now with Trump’s Friday night massacre at the post office and these executive orders around federal relief. We aren’t talking about an election that might be tampered with, we are talking about an election that’s being sabotaged before our eyes in real time, while the Democrats keep repeating, “He can’t do that.”
SK: Yes, it’s frustrating because they’ve had four years to be prepared for this outcome and they of course witnessed an attempt, in many ways successful, to create the exact same set of circumstances in 2016, where there was voter suppression, domestic voter suppression, as a result of the partial repeal of the VRA. There was foreign interference. There were insecure machines that were able to be hacked. And we saw Trump saying that he would not concede. We saw Roger Stone saying there’s going to be a bloodbath if Hillary Clinton were proclaimed president. So a lot of this isn’t new. The Democrats have had four years to work on it. They’ve had two years in the House.
In March, the minute that the pandemic began to shut everything down, my first thought is, “Well, how are they going to weaponize this? How are they going to use this crisis?” Because you know, authoritarians never waste a crisis. And I think the only time I’ve ever written an all caps on Twitter was, like in early March, I wrote, “PROTECT THE UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE,” because I saw this coming a mile away. It’s not hard to figure out that, of course we’re going to have to switch to voting by mail, which is better anyway. It’s better to have hand marked paper ballots. It’s better to get away from these insecure machines to begin with. But of course, they’re going to then attack the postal service.
And I am so sick of hearing that this thing can’t be done or that thing can be done, when they’ve been doing these things in front of her eyes for four years, without consequences, often while announcing their plans in advance. And therefore giving a competent opposition party or just any, you know, I don’t even want to frame it that way. Like these are public servants, these are people who are supposed to be serving us. It is their job to protect us from harm, both abroad and within our own nation. And instead they act like, you know, they’re doing us a favor if they put in the basic kind of mechanisms that protect our vote instead of ensuring our constitutional right.
And so, yeah, they’ve been incredibly slow on the ball. I was slightly more forgiving of this in 2016, but only slightly, because this was a new crisis. You know, we’ve obviously had oppressive governments. You know, Trump is just as much the domestic phenomenon as he is a foreign import in terms of his kleptocratic ties. You know, he was the culmination, I think, of a lot of Reagan era initiatives getting pushed through. But you know, at the same time, the lengths that he would go, the anti-American, anti-constitutional, total disregard, not just for norms, but for laws, the long criminal history, the mafia ties. A lot of that was new, so it took a little bit of adjustment. But we have had for years and he has been a textbook, aspiring autocrat. It is not hard at all to predict what he and his cohorts are going to do. And we are now down to less than a hundred days until this election. And it is not just disappointing, but deeply frightening to witness this level of incompetence. You know, at a certain point, complacency becomes complicity. And that is what I’ve been seeing from the leadership of the House Democrats since they took office in 2019.
KH: And I’m also seeing some really disturbing denialism coming from the left, like from people who, in an effort to keep history present in our minds, hearken back to previous horrors as evidence that “none of this is new.” But flattening history erases distinctions that are tactically very important. Instead of warning of the extremity of what’s possible history becomes a, “nothing to see here,” hall pass for the present.
It honestly reminds me a lot of the show Westworld on HBO. When the robots encounter any interruption of their worldview, they look right at it and say, “doesn’t look like anything to me.” I sometimes feel like I am arguing with those robots when I have to tell people, yes, there is a distinction between torturous prison conditions that shorten people’s lives by years, and prisons and immigration detention centers that have become outright death chambers due to COVID-19. There is a difference between the government not living up to its obligations to provide healthcare for Native people and our Native clinics being sent body bags when they request COVID-19 kits. Having an unalterable worldview is not a strength. It means your enemies will always get the drop on you because you will never allow yourself to see change coming or believe it will last as it’s happening.
But this is the end game of late capitalism. We’re living in an era of ecological and political collapse. Obviously the board is changing and what happens next will dictate the shape of so much.
SK: Yeah, absolutely. You know, it has been frustrating to witness these kind of, you know, these sorts of arguments where generally speaking people should be on the same page because the threat is so severe, it’s so immediate. There are people dying now. There are people being badly, irreparably harmed now. We don’t have the time to kind of sit around and bullshit. That doesn’t mean that, you know, we shouldn’t look at the roots of the problem, or that the problems don’t have historical precedent, because of course they do.
But one of the things that’s been really baffling for me is of course, you know, I come out of this field, as an anthropologist. I studied dictatorships from the former Soviet Union. So that’s my area of expertise. And when I discuss Trump’s connections to Russian oligarchs, to these appendages of the Kremlin and connections to Russia and Russia as a brutal authoritarian hyper capitalist state, I get sometimes such a severely negative or, you know, a reaction of denial from the left as if it’s still the USSR, as if it’s still communist. As if these oligarchs weren’t exact analogs of the plutocrats who have decimated the United States and they are literally working together, like there, there isn’t like even a metaphorical connection.
These are all people who are on the same page. This is a global phenomenon. They are banding together, you know, to strip apart countries to sell them off for parts, to widen income inequality, to monopolize what kind of action can be taken on urgent issues, whether coronavirus or most notably climate change and the way that the resources, you know, of our planet are going to be used and weaponized and destroyed.
None of these are good people. And we, as ordinary people, I think are very much, you know, more alike and more on the same side than we have anything in common with, like Oleg Deripaska, or Mark Zuckerberg, or Sheldon Adelson, or, you know, whoever you want to bring out as your plutocrat, or autocrat. Or, you know, all of these regimes, too, that have been working together, whether the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia, Israel, Turkey, you know, and, Western, you know, aspiring autocratic regimes, like the one that’s taken hold in the UK. They are all part of this broader global crisis. And we, as citizens of these countries have been victims to, you know, these sorts of plots. So it really shouldn’t be that hard for people, you know, to, to band together in alignment on this. But I guess, you know I can’t remember the phrase, there’s something about like the, the minutia of small differences or something. That’s sometimes what I see happening. Because I do see a gulf, you know, between what somebody like Trump or Jared Kushner or what have you are doing, and what most people are alive want and how they see the world and how they see other people. It’s certainly not reflected on in Twitter dialogue where things are torn apart and distorted to just such an incredible and detrimental extent.
KH: In the current moment, “essential” is often code for “sacrificial.” In your book, Hiding in Plain Sight, you ask people to write down who they think they are and what they think they believe, and warn that in a year, they might accept and believe things they never thought they would. As the stage is set for the mass sacrifice of human beings to maintain capitalism, we are seeing that very phenomenon of people taking positions that they probably never would have believed possible. I know I have been shocked by some of the normalization I have seen around sacrificing people, including children. Can you say a bit about the further normalization of mass death under Trump and where you think it’s headed?
SK: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. A lot of people, I think, do not want to discuss this at all. They don’t want to acknowledge that this is happening because it’s, it’s genuinely terrifying and it is different than policies we’ve seen before. I think in the sheer, the scope of it and in the capability of the government to do this broadly. They do not care if we live or die, you know, we’re useless eaters, as the Nazis said. We’re, you know, the shit that oligarchs grow their money in, as Ukrainians say. My partner on Gaslit Nation likes to quote that a lot. I mean, they see people as fundamentally disposable. And I think that recently, one of the reasons we’re seeing so many more white people participating in the Black Lives Matter protests is, I think coronavirus has opened their eyes to the fact that they too, you know, to a lesser degree, but still, are seen as disposable.
You know, none of our lives are seen as worth anything. And I think, you know, Black Americans have long known that, they didn’t need to learn this lesson now. That’s how the system has been structured. And the same is true of Native Americans. The same is true of any group that’s been a target of genocidal, or brutally state sanctioned autocratic practices in the United States over its history. Now that scope has been broadened to include nearly everyone and to have basically no protection under law. And the fact that it extends to children, it’s one of the most frightening things I’ve seen. You know, this is an anti-children administration, whether it’s migrant children in internment camps, whether it’s children who are victims of school shootings and who then have their reputations and lives destroyed if they survive those school shootings and speak out against them, whether it’s children stripped of health care, whether it’s children who are going to face the brunt of climate change over the next few decades. You know, it’s a very terrifying thing that they are so cavalier and so sadistic and so cruel in regards to children.
And it’s made me wonder about them because, you know, I feel like the GOP especially is functioning essentially as an apocalyptic death cult. And I always wonder, like, what is in it for you exactly, in this literal scorched earth policy. Like, what does it mean for your children who are maybe in their thirties or forties or for your grandchildren, and what kind of world are they going to inherit? And I don’t know exactly what they think is coming. I mean, basically I think they see climate change- I don’t think they are climate change denialists. I think they very much know that it’s real, and they’re seeking to insulate themselves from the worst effects of it by basically hoarding all money, all resources, all opportunities for themselves and designing a society in which they’re closed off from other inhabitants, in which depopulation is seen as a good thing. A mass die off, in their eyes, is seen as a good thing. And when I tell people this, you know, they often feel like it’s an extreme position or it’s some sort of sci-fi dystopian lens on the world, but you hear it in their rhetoric. You hear it in what Trump says, you hear it in the rapture fiends that surround him making policy. You hear it and just the brutal dismissal, you know, for the fundamental sanctity of human life of everyone around them. And they have the money and they have the power and they have the will and they lack the morality and it’s, it’s a very frightening time. It’s extremely important that we get these people away from the halls of power.
KH: Absolutely, circling back to Trump’s executive orders, the Dems are talking about Constitutionality, an argument that really only appeals to their already enthusiastic supporters. Hungry people who are afraid of losing their homes don’t want to talk about the rules. As someone who knows what it’s like not to have a place to live, and what it’s like to be hungry — not just ready to eat, but hungry — I know that most people would accept help from the devil himself in those scenarios. They don’t care about the rules, they don’t care about decorum or formality. When people are staring down losing what little they have left due to congressional gridlock, they are not going to see the person who breaks the rules to give them relief as the problem. It’s the ultimate trap, because if the Dems win on the law here, and it does appear that the law is still on their side, Trump still wins the narrative. The story will be that he tried to give people relief when Congress failed. When people say the relief wouldn’t have been sufficient, which it would not be, people will say that something is better than nothing — and that’s an idea that definitely resonates with people who are about to lose everything. My biggest concern about these executive orders is not simply that they’re a power grab, but that they’re a PR move for power grabs.
SK: Yes, absolutely, and it’s part of a long trend of Trump knowing how to shape that kind of narrative. You know, like signing his own name on the checks that went out for coronavirus relief is another one. I mean, I think we’re at the point where he has done so many cruel things, so many just — God, I’m trying to think of a word to describe recommending that you drink bleach to get through a pandemic — so many, like, over the top, awful ideas that I think pretty much anyone can recognize, you know, this is not a person who has the interest of the public and it’s welfare in his heart. This is not a person who is coming up with ideas to improve our lives.
But yes, you know, the emotional element, the fear and the desperation that people are feeling may change the way that they perceive his actions. And, you know, he was good at this during the campaign. I’ll never forget the day that he came out and said that unemployment under Obama was 40%, and all of these pundits were laughing at him. They were like, “What an idiot, you know, he doesn’t even know basic statistics. Can you imagine believing that?” And I just remember thinking, that’s what it feels like. It feels like it’s 40 percent because everyone I knew was struggling to pay bills, was working multiple gig jobs, was, you know, getting laid off and, and scrambling, or in long term unemployment trying to work again. You know, the feeling was that it was 40 percent. And when he’s able to tap into that emotional component, even if what he’s doing is not backed up in fact or logic, even if he’s taking credit for solving a disaster that he caused. It could be successful, but to some degree though, I feel like almost all of these PR concerns at this point are moot because I think they’re going to try to rig the election.
And generally speaking, they’re not acting at all, like people who are trying to win an election, they’re not trying to please the population and they’re not trying to expand the base. They’re not trying to win and people over. It’s honestly rare for them to do anything that’s not overtly sadistic. You know, their initial reaction to coronavirus was to make policies that allow it to spread as rapidly as possible, endanger lives, keep people from getting necessary medical equipment like masks and ventilators. You know, this was a preventable crisis that they have just basically worsened and then capitalized on the carnage. So for them to do anything that’s even remotely helpful for people, even if it’s to claim a win, like, that’s a more of a, I dunno, that’s a phenomenon that I think may go by the wayside, especially if they have a second term where I think that the sadism will be much more overt. I don’t think that they’ll even keep up the pretense of having a democracy. I think it’s going to become more of an accelerated brutality. So this may be its last gasps on the PR front.
KH: I completely agree with that. I believe that if Trump is reelected, we will see that sadism ramped up. We will see a total lack of concern for what it looks like to anyone, but his base. And I think we will see an escalation in mass death and a continued expansion of the prison industrial complex, not simply in terms of actual structures people are caged in, but in terms of hyper surveillance and hyper criminalization and how those things are used to control workers. I think we are staring down those things on a long enough timeline with neoliberalism as well, because late capitalism doesn’t have a happy ending unless we derail it and transform everything, but here and now, I think we are talking about a brazen and ruthless level of escalation if Trump is reelected. I don’t see how anyone could expect anything else and I personally don’t think I would survive four more years of Trump. At the very least, I don’t think I would get through it uncaged.
SK: It’s very frightening. And you know, those are the stakes. And I don’t know, I sometimes feel like there are two groups of people. There are those who recognize that and, you know, kind of wonder what will happen to themselves or their family, or, you know, vulnerable people, especially within their family, and those who feel like they will just coast above it, coast above those four years. And I think maybe they cling to that, you know. Like, I see that in our politicians, I see that in our punditry, you know, this kind of like, I’m going to look the other way, I’m going to stay out of this because maybe subconsciously they do know, you know, that we’re right about this and that to speak out as to put yourself in some kind of danger.
And you know, there’s a lot of ways that people are in danger. And honestly, the biggest one I think is health, is, you know, the discrimination against people suffering from chronic diseases, the elderly, children, any population that was already vulnerable before the Trump administration has had the crises that they face exacerbated in these four years. And this is such, you know, a Nazi reminiscent regime in the way that they view people, you know, who, like I said before, the Nazi category of useless eaters, people who are disabled, people who they don’t see as contributing in some way. And yes, you know, the scope of that is broader. And with coronavirus, you know, those numbers are going to increase and I am frightened by the prospect of what they could potentially do with those suffering from that disease. You know, I hope I’m wrong and all of the hypotheticals that go racing through my mind every night, like, I really hope I’m wrong, but it’s extremely important to get these guys out.
KH: Well, you know, I would definitely also pay good money to be wrong, but I feel strongly that if we are wrong, it will be because people accepted that these things were possible and tried to do something about it. And right now, not enough people are willing to process it, and you certainly can’t stop something if you’re not willing to admit it could happen.
SK: Yes. It’s so frustrating too, because you know, I know I’ve seen you saying this as well, it’s like, we have limited time. Like, we have never had the time to sit around and figure out what’s going on. Especially when it was blindingly obvious. Like, we had a time period where things could have been slowed, you know, things could have been improved and now we are running out. And now I’m seeing, you know, even representatives like yesterday, Ted Lou was on Twitter saying basically like, yeah, our election is going to be rigged. It’s going to be an autocracy. And they were like, well do something about it. And he kept writing over and over, like, what do you want me to do? And it’s like, good god man. Like, and he’s actually someone who tried, he tried to force the house to do, you know, a lot of things like using inherent contempt, and subpoena people, hold more hearings, get information to the public.
But when I see this sort of overt, like, “yeah, it’s a foregone conclusion, nothing more we can do” [attitude], I’m like, okay, you’re finally admitting clearly that we have a problem of, you know, encroaching autocracy, or honestly, autocracy that’s already consolidated to a certain extent. Now you’re going to be like, “there’s nothing we can do.” Like, you always have to try to do something. You may fail, you know, that often these actions do fail. You know, you fail and fail and fail. Until eventually, at some point, you know, you may win. That’s how all activists’ movements go. That’s how fighting authoritarianism has always worked. It’s not some kind of easy struggle. I think it’s often romanticized in the West, in the U.S. in particular. But you have to try, and to see people sort of throwing their hands in the air, after they denied that the problem was severe, it’s like the worst of both worlds.
KH: And when they do put up a fight, again, it’s this quoting the rule book sort of thing that doesn’t really appeal to everyday people in any way. If the Democrats wanted to pursue the Constitutionality argument, around Trump’s executive orders, and have it land with people in a meaningful way, they would have to couch it in the reality that fascism is ascendant. They would have to embrace that narrative, and they will not do that, because it runs counter to the liberal faith in institutions and that faith empowers them. Democratic elites are always selling a story about how they know what they are doing, and that they have a plan — it’s a very “the adults are talking” mentality. They rely on their most enthusiastic supporters thinking that they are playing four dimensional chess at all times. They cannot admit how weak their hand is, and in some cases, they aren’t even aware of how weak their hand is, because they have bought their own hype about these institutions and their ability to sustain them. What scares me most about those people is that they are convinced and insisting that these people think these conditions are those that guarantee electoral defeat, when these are the conditions that prompt an autocrat to make the transition complete. And the catastrophes we are experiencing are lending him the cover he needs to do it.
SK: Yes, absolutely. And they’re also, again, it’s the same conditions in 2016 and the same mistakes made in 2016, where so many of them just assumed that, you know, Hillary had this on lock. And this was always something that baffled me. It’s like, you know, that Trump is a career criminal. You know, that there are hostile foreign states working to illegally influence this election. Like, it never even crossed your mind that they might win, that they might succeed. And that if people who are willing to do that to succeed, you think they’re just going to follow the rules. You think they’re not going to violate every possible law in order to protect themselves, because that’s what’s at stake for them.
Like people always act like, “What does Trump want, it’s some great mystery?” It’s the same thing any dictator wants, which is money, power, and immunity from prosecution. And it’s been very frustrating to watch the Democrats kind of plod along. You know, I feel like I’m in this dual reality where on one hand, you know, they’re making these kind of weak arguments about what they call “kitchen table issues,” you know, by which they mean healthcare and education. Of course, those are now all in complete crisis because of coronavirus. And then on the side, they treat this issue of the fact that we have an autocrat in power, we have a mafia state being formed, we have a Kremlin asset in power. Like, as if that’s something you can just sweep aside. And as if that doesn’t actually affect the so-called “kitchen table issues” of, you know, education and the economy and whatnot. It’s all linked. And I think that, you know, most Americans realize this, like, you can just listen to Trump talk and you know that, you know, there is a broader agenda here and it’s his self-enrichment. It’s his brutalization of this country. It’s the abandonment of the public good. And it’s elite criminal impunity. That’s all tied together.
And one thing, you know, that really baffles me is the Democrats’ kind of argument about, you know, record turnout, and their insistence that we have it. And I agree with this, I think record turnout is very important. It’s important to at least show, you know, what side we’re on, that we’re standing up against autocracy and so forth. But a really great way to demoralize people to the point that they don’t vote is to have them go out, volunteer and canvas and vote in record numbers in 2018 to get a Democratic House and then do nothing when you have that Democratic House to help them– to not subpoena people, to not investigate people, to drop investigations, to make little jokes with Bill Barr, to do a half-assed impeachment that ignored the scope of the crimes, that ignored things like the abuse of migrants, that ignored abuse of the pardon power, that ignored the Mueller Report, which was, you know, the thing that they were so wrapped up in and also their reliance on it. Like people keep saying like, well, what’s the point of voting for you? Like, if you’re not going to protect me, if you’re not going to represent me, like, why am I literally risking my life? Like in the age of coronavirus and violent voter intimidation, why am I doing this for you? And, you know, and I have to say, please still do it. Like, please still vote. Because the alternative is, you know, four more years of Trump in a rapidly consolidating autocracy, that will be much worse than what we have now.
But that is not an endorsement of this Democratic Party. I like individuals within the party, but I think overall, you know, I worry that this is going to, you know, maybe drive down votes, but certainly it has put a damper on the kind of volunteerism and enthusiasm that I saw citizens display in 2018. A lot of people who had never volunteered in politics before were getting out there and getting active and they wanted accountability. You know, that was the thing that they were looking for. They wanted somebody to put a stop to this flagrant lawlessness, to this elite criminal impunity. And instead, you know, they’ve been in many ways complicit actors, and that’s a very demoralizing, very disheartening feeling for the electorate to have.
KH: Yes, and the same people who have not wielded the law to the fullest extent that they could have are constantly pointing to the law and saying, as we were saying before, “He can’t do that. He can’t can’t do that.” I find people’s fixation with the laws that supposedly constrain Trump baffling. I am at the point where I am telling people to tell me who is going to stop him, because I, too, can look up words that have been written down that supposedly dictate how things work, but I also know that the lines in a coloring book do not control the course of crayons.
“Do it and see what happens” is the law of the business world. Worst case, there’s usually, at most, a hefty fine. Greater consequences are so rare that the risk is viewed as almost negligible. People didn’t recognize that Trump was entering the White House on a grifter’s terms. They assumed institutions would keep his foolishness somewhat constrained. They called him a buffoon, but insisted he was not a fascist because he didn’t believe in anything. I recently wrote a Facebook post outlining how I thought Trump might go about invalidating the election, and the post travelled pretty far, and there were people who were genuinely angry with me because they thought it was alarmist to even name these possibilities. To me, it’s really scary that people are still thinking that way. I think we have to name those things and that we are actually running out of time, as you stated, when it comes to having those conversations. So with that in mind, how do you think Trump will go about trying to invalidate this election or otherwise upend it? What do you see happening?
SK: Oh God, well, there are a variety of possibilities. You know, I think in the background of the whole time period, there’s going to be violence, violence in the streets, that I think he’s going to encourage both from his supporters, but also more of these, but also more of these unidentified little green men types that we’ve been seeing in places like Portland. I think that, you know, hand in– I don’t want to say hand in hand because it sounds like they’re equivalent. I think at the same time, after the election, we will probably see mass protests against Trump, against autocracy. And I think that’s a good thing, but I think we’re going to be seeing a crack down on it. And so all of that is going to be playing out in the background.
Meanwhile, I think that he’s going to rely on the bureaucrats surrounding him to do the kind of legal maneuvers that Trump has always done. You know, going back to his days with Ray Cohn or Michael Cohen, where you have a lawyer, who’s also basically a fixer, a mafia lawyer type.
And I think that we’ll have a repeat of Bush versus Gore in which, you know, Trump is going to contest the results. He can use a variety of pretexts. You know, obviously the coronavirus we’ve seen him also talk about you know, voting by mail equaling voter fraud. We’ve already seen them trying to prohibit voting by mail. And now we see with the postal service, they’re trying to price states out of voting by mail. We have states that are already in dire financial straits, and they just more than doubled the price that it costs to send each ballot out to a voter, you know, for the postage on that. So they’re doing everything possible.
I think they’ll also, you know, they’re going to rig machines. I think they could alter tallies. I mean, the thing to remember with Trump is that it doesn’t need to make sense precisely. You know, he operates on his own logic. You know, this is the guy who invented a hurricane with a Sharpie. And, you know, if he says it happened, he will just repeat it, and repeat it, and repeat it until there’s this drum beat behind him that is echoed in Fox news and echoed in the GOP. And unfortunately, you know, and this is where it really counts, echoed in the court system. He installed Brett Kavanaugh, or I should really say that GOP did, because it was not Trump’s idea. It was too sophisticated, I think, for that. They put him in, uh, in order to have, like, a ringer in there in case, you know, a contested election actually reaches the Supreme court as it did in 2000, so that they will vote in Trump’s favor. And I think that it’s basically, so what I’m saying is a combination of, you know, legal machinations with a, you know — sorry, I’m so overwhelmed by the sheer horror of the situation. With violence in the background, the violence on the streets, I think, is going to prompt a lot of Americans to just say, “Let’s just end it. Let’s just get this crisis over. Let’s just move on.” And at the same time, you know, he will use a variety of excuses and means to state his case, but it doesn’t need to be truthful, logical, it doesn’t need to have precedent. All this talk of laws of, “Oh, you know, somebody is going to bring him out in handcuffs and then Pelosi automatically becomes the president.” Like, it’s just, it’s fantasy.
I mean, if he’s led out in handcuffs then great. If I’m wrong about all this, like, fabulous. I would love to be wrong. I’ve been waiting for a very long time to be wrong, but he’s not someone who will concede. It’s just not in his nature. You know, he advertises himself as a risk taker, but he only participates in scripted reality. He only will run in a race that he knows he will win. He would not take that kind of a personal risk to himself. And he definitely would not take that kind of legal risk because if he’s not in office, if he doesn’t have the protection of executive power, then he could potentially be held liable for state crimes. And we’ve seen them moving a little bit closer to that in New York. I mean, I’m kind of like, I’ll believe it when I see it, in terms of anything actually happening, but, you know, they’re moving closer with his financial records and whatnot. But yeah, it’s going to be a very dangerous time. November through January, I think is going to be one of the most dangerous times in American history.
KH: People holding out hope for prosecution, it seems a little much to me. For one thing, if Trump loses and he’s potentially going to leave, I think one of the only cards the Democrats have to play is to promise no prosecution if he steps down.
SK: Oh God, if they do that, then they, I mean it’s such a profound betrayal of this country. And I am afraid that they’re going to do that. I mean, one thing everyone needs to remember is that we have a recurring cast of characters here. It’s like the political crime version of Celebrity Apprentice, where Trump just sort of like dug into the dredges of history and dragged out people like John Bolton, and Roger Stone, and Paul Manafort, and, you know, Jeff Sessions and installed them all in this White House where they committed crimes on a regular basis for four years. And Bill Barr is another one. And the thing is, if there had actually been accountability for prior Republican administrations that committed massive crimes, whether Watergate and the pardoning of Nixon or Iran-Contra and the pardoning and the lack of consequences for the actors in that, or the 9/11 aftermath where 9/11 was never, you know, investigated in a truly meaningful way. The Iraq war under false pretext, the 2008 financial crash and the looting by Wall Street.
Like no one has been held accountable really for these crimes. And among the few who were, you know, were pardoned by Trump. And when you do not hold people accountable early, they will just come back and they will commit the same crimes. And they will commit worse crimes. And they will re-install themselves in power and make life worse for everyday people and drain whatever power remains of the Democrats, of our institutions, of other places that are supposed to, you know, hold them accountable and be a force for checks and balances. Like we will lose the country completely, even if it looks like we’re winning, if they do not hold these overt criminals accountable, and if they do not set a precedent that this can no longer be abided and that if you’re going to commit these kinds of acts, you don’t get to get out of it because you’re incredibly wealthy or connected, or because you’re linked to a transnational mafia.
I mean, that’s kind of the thing in the background of a lot of this is that, you know, these guys are mobbed up. People like Paul Manafort, people like Trump, people like Kushner, they are mobbed up and there is a culture of threat behind them. We saw this in the impeachment hearings where all of the witnesses had been threatened with physical violence, where Trump wanted to put a hit out on the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. We saw this in the Manafort trial and the Stone trial, both the judges were threatened. The jury was threatened. That’s the culture in the background. And I think that that explains some of the hesitancy we see on the part of Democrats and of other institutional actors to really pursue this, you know, they’re afraid of harm — harm coming to themselves, harm coming to their families.
But that will just continue. That will just get worse and worse and worse unless you try to stop it as soon as you can. And there’s so many countries that are examples of this. Like, I think, you know Russia is a good one. If you compare Russia 20 years ago with where it is now, you know, you see this consolidation of crime. You see this mafia state growing and people after a while, adjusting their expectations accordingly. And it’s, it’s really, it’s a tragic way to live. It’s not a way of life that we should be encouraging, especially in such a vulnerable time with other existential threats looming, namely climate change, but the pandemic as well.
KH: I am glad you brought up history and how this connects back with prior administrations. One of the things I appreciated about your book, Hiding in Plain Sight, was your discussion of 9/11, and how it made us malleable. People longed for simple solutions to complex problems. They wanted shows of power and decisive action. They accepted those things, even when they didn’t make sense. This was a preview of the moment we’re in, in a number of ways. What lessons do you think we need to take from what we allowed to happen in our names in the wake of 9/11?
SK: Well, I think one is that any action that is advertised as a temporary policy put in place because of an emergency situation, can be one that will potentially never leave, or that will be in place for a long period of time. You know, and this, of course, has historical precedent in other countries as well, like with the Reichstag fire and the policies afterwards in Nazi Germany. But I think our surveillance culture, I think things like the Patriot Act, you know, we’re still feeling the repercussions of those policies.
And we also saw a really flagrant criminality and abuse of power, especially for people like Karl Rove, you know, who outright said that he and the, you know, the top elites of the Bush administration were creating reality and that we, ordinary people, were just puppets to them and that they are history’s actors. They define reality. They create history, you know, Bill Barr kind of said something similar recently. And that is how they, that’s how they see the world. And now we’re seeing, you know, an extension of that and how they see human life itself, in the way that they see people as disposable, they see history is malleable. They see our circumstances as something that they mold. And I think that the only reason they were able to get away with this to such an extent, was the incredible fear, the incredible panic and uncertainty that people felt after 9/11.
And you know, we’re all feeling an incredible amount of fear now. We have a Great Depression level economy. We have a pandemic. We have so many of the familiar things of our life abruptly stolen from us. And we have an administration that absolutely doesn’t care about the human cost. But I do think people are more on the ball now, because we have lived through these crises, you know, in our lifetime, through 9/11, through the great recession, you know, where there was never truly a recovery from that. You know, things did not turn around. Things did not get better. It’s been a steady downhill slope, and now we’re just accelerating down the hill.
And I do think people are more aware. I think in that sense we’re better off than we were 20 years ago. I think the internet has actually been helpful for this. It’s brought activists together. It’s brought information to the fore that would have been otherwise buried. I think one thing that’s actually very important for activists is to make sure that that information doesn’t get buried now. All of these records of what prior administrations have done, all of these old articles, you know, old books. I think one of the next moves of the Trump administration, if it continues to be an office, is to try to destroy those sort of archival accounts so that we don’t have a sense of our own history. Because if we lack a sense of our history, we lack a sense of our present and we lack the ability to formulate ideas of the future. And that’s what they want. You know, one of the most potent weapons that we wield right now is information, the ability to spread it, the ability to share it, to bounce ideas off each other. Like, we shouldn’t take any of that for granted. And so that’s, that’s a good thing that we have that, but it’s going to be in jeopardy, I think, in the years to come.
KH: I know you are not a big fan of the word hope. And I think part of that is that we use that word very differently. When you talk about hope, I experience it as a warning against hope as a passive emotion — a form of optimism really, whereas I picture it as a part, and not really existing outside of, action. Can you say a bit about how passive hope, or optimism, is going to screw us over right now?
SK: Yeah, I think that that tendency, it goes hand in hand with American exceptionalism, which is something that a great deal of our, you know, fellow country men and women suffered from where they really thought it can’t happen here. That we’re somehow immune from this. You see that politically, but I think on a personal level, you know, there’s a difficulty in looking at the darkest possibilities. And the refusal to look at them means that the problems are not addressed. And if the problems are not addressed, then they’re not solved. And I think there’s also the sense of, if things are really so bad, if they’re really so terrible, somebody is going to come in and fix it, you know, prior institutional actors or, you know, our agencies or, you know, some kind of savior’s going to come in and make it right. And I saw a lot of that type of thinking over the last few years, particularly around people like Mueller, but now I’m seeing it around the election. That does not really pan out. So yeah, that’s the kind of, you know, hope that I’m not a big fan of. But I also am not a fan of hopelessness. Like I try to just not even think of it in that way. I try to think of it in terms of, you know, principles and values and possibilities and you know, what kind of world are we trying to create? You know, what kind of, you know, how do we want to treat other people? What kind of society do we want to participate in and think of it that way, instead of sort of sitting back and basically behaving like the kind of Americans that Karl Rove was envisioning as these passive actors, as these little pieces, you know, on a chess board to be moved around.
Although actually, I mean, we’re not even at that, that level of metaphor, I think in their eyes. But you know, I have things that sort of help get me through this. I mean, maybe it’s more like faith or persistence or resilience or what have you. I feel like that’s a good quality and that’s a quality that, you know, everybody who has fought a dictatorial regime, whether abroad or, you know, here in America. You know, during things like the civil rights movement, you have to have that kind of persistence, you know, that moral clarity, the refusal to give up, you know, not just give up on your cause, but to give up on other people, you know, to abandon other people’s welfare in their time of need. Like, I think that’s just, that’s like a sinful place to be. Like, I think if we all prioritize you know, those who are suffering, those who are vulnerable and then proceed from there, you know, then when they have some kind of clarity in our approach, regardless what the circumstances we’re facing, what kind of administration is coming from the top, that’s a healthier place to be, I think, because that’s a place of compassion.
KH: Absolutely. Just speaking as an organizer, I think hope, or whatever word people use to encapsulate these ideas, should not be a fixed thing hanging in the air like a star, it should be a path. I think it rests in what we are willing to do and build. I think those of us who are engaging with movement work have a duty to cultivate mechanisms, relationships and waves of active struggle that embody our hopes. Stagnant hope is mere optimism, and optimism is often a lazy affair. Latching onto the idea that things will probably improve demands nothing of us. An acknowledgement that human potential runs in more than one direction demands everything of us. That’s what my hope looks like, personally, and whatever word encapsulates that for people — that collision of belief and action — I hope that they hang on to it right now and I hope that they find their courage because we are going to need it. In the months ahead, we are going to need creative protest, dynamic organizing, fierce networks of community care and brave workers who are willing to shut down this entire system rather than surrender to fascism. To me, hope is the voice in the back of my mind that reminds me that when we are more invested in each other than we are in this system, we can shift the balance. I hope we all find that voice inside ourselves when it matters most in the months to come, and I hope we’re as brave as the moment demands, because the world is at stake and people are worth fighting for.
SK: Absolutely, very well said.
KH: Well, I am so grateful to you, Sarah, for joining us today. This has been a great conversation and I always learn so much from you.
SK: Oh, same. Thank you so much for having me on.
KH: Can you remind folks of where to find your work?
SK: Sure, I have two books, Hiding in Plain Sight and The View from Flyover Country available basically anywhere. My podcast, Gaslit Nation, is available wherever you find podcasts. And I’m on Twitter @sarahkendzior, tweeting pretty regularly.
KH: Wonderful, we’ll be sure to link all that in the transcript. This is actually the final episode of the first season of movement memos. And I want to thank everyone who’s joined us for the ride. I hope that these episodes are not simply useful to you in passing, but also resources you can return to. I’ll be back in a few weeks and I’m looking forward to spending more time with you all. 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.
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