American Dream, American Nightmare, Autocracy, Book Review, Both-And, Critique, George W. Bush, Glide Path, Great Writing, Hiding in Plain Sight (2020), History, Kleptocracy, Political Analysis, President Donald J. Trump, Sarah Kendzior
In the past four years, I have read so many good and great books, fiction, nonfiction, and mixed genre. Black and Brown writers — especially Black women and Latinas — have written nearly all of them. Brittney Cooper (crunk, crunk!), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Colson Whitehead (masterclass!), Crystal Marie Fleming, Darnell Moore, Bassey Ikpi (poetic masterclass!), Erica Armstrong Dunbar (literally brought together the academic with creative nonfiction) , Ijeoma Oluo, Kiese Laymon (Black abundance and excellence, of course!), Mona Eltahawy, Morgan Jerkins, Patricia J. Williams, the ever-great Roxane Gay, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Raquel Cepeda (a New Yorker after my own heart!), Imani Perry (3 books in two years — this woman has range!), Leta Hong Fincher, Jose Antonio Vargas, Alondra Nelson, Mycheal Denzel Smith, and likely another ten or fifteen I can’t remember by name.
All of them (really, all of y’all, since I have had conversations with you all in person, on social media, or in my head since 2016) have confirmed so many of my ideas around racism and narcissism, about the use of the interdisciplinary, about the hard-nosed work of writing. They have strengthened my voice around Black feminism, critical race theory, Afrofuturism (a term I was chagrin to use about my own writing this time seven years ago), and queer studies. They all have shown what I have been teaching since I was a PhD student in 1993 — the connections between -isms-laden ideas and deliberately punitive policies meant to cower the ordinary and crush the marginalized.
Sarah Kendzior has done so much on this last theme, uncloaking the connections between the ambitions of brazenly craven rich White guys (and some women) to enrich and empower themselves while destroying the US that came to be with FDR, the New Deal, and the post-World War II superpower boom. And Kendzior does so unassumingly, with bits of memoir that parallels the US glide path toward naked autocracy since the mid-1970s.
I’ve been reading Kendzior since her freelancing days with Al Jazeera, so, somewhere around 2012 or 2013. So many of the themes in Hiding in Plain Sight are familiar, if only because those themes of a hollowed-out St. Louis, a systemically racist and autocratic government, where corrupt and unaccountable leaders are front and center in nearly everything that Kendzior writes. Plus, I am a half-century old Black man and historian who grew up in malnourished welfare poverty and around eschatological cults in Mount Vernon, New York and in New York City. Everything Kendzior has written over the years, I know down to my bones and veins.
Because of that, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to buy Hiding in Plain Sight, forget about reading it. But Kendzior uses her book to build a case better than Perry Mason and Jack McCoy (of Law & Order lore, played by Sam Waterston) could on their best days. Kendzior’s thesis is that Trump as POTUS was inevitable, as the “elite criminal network” of which Trump is a part “has been building for decades.” This network includes “right-wing Republican extremists, apocalyptic religious movements of varied faiths, social media corporations, advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association, and part of the mainstream media.” According to Kendzior, what makes them new and lethal to the US is their “transactional nature and reliance on non-state actors.” Ultimately, this cabal “will take your money, they will steal your freedom, and if they are clever, they will eliminate any structural protections you had before the majority realizes the extent of the damage.” Along the way, they are transitioning the US “from a flawed democracy to a burgeoning autocracy” (pp. 8-9).
Kendzior skillfully uses her own growing up and adult experiences and the places she’s inhabited in building the interconnections between Trump’s lifetime of enabled narcissism and criminality and the rise of the American autocracy. She starts where she usually does, in Missouri, “the bellwether state turned corruption capital, the broken heartland that got the sneak preview to the national shitshow” (p. 20). Kendzior makes the case that Missouri and St. Louis even more specifically represents well the erosion of democracy all over the US with the infusion of dark money and out-of-state money and operators in state and local elections. I do think that she oversells the assumption of Missourian and Rust Belt irrelevance here, if only because every White American actor attempts a Missourah or Midwestern accent in the standard movie, TV show, or internet series not centered in New York.
But I digress. The gutting of Missouri and the rest of the Midwest between St. Louis and Pittsburgh (although so many cities outside the Rust Belt could say the same, like my own original hometown) was a deliberate one, meant to destroy unions, to line politicians’ pockets, and to enrich already filthy-rich folk. People like one Donald J. Trump.
Kendzior again builds a Mayan-step-pyramid-of-evidence to show how Trump had aspirations toward the presidency at least since the 1980s, and had gotten away with grifting projects and Ponzi schemes since the 1970s. And with those twin motivations, how Trump could easily become comrades with Russian mobsters and the likes of the infamous Roy Cohn, with Paul Manafort, with Roger Stone, and the rest of this crew of the craven. And Kenzior ties this one up with a macabre dystopian bow, bracketing Trump’s almost inevitable rise with the story of how her mother taught her about George Orwell’s 1984, a timeline her “mother laughingly assured [her] did not exist” (p. 76). “We are living in the future Orwell warmed about” now, Kendzior wrote.
Among the more heartbreaking vignettes in Hiding in Plain Sight is the story of Kendzior’s own personal experience with the new normal of constant job and financial insecurity born from a false Great Recession recovery in the years after 2008. The collective we have often looked back at the Obama years with fondness. But all the while, the US kept rolling down the same road to autocratic perdition, chewing up everyone not affluent along the way. Kendzior’s experience is no different from my own, and no different from at least 150 million others.
For over a year I would wake up shaking. The economic nightmare I had documented for years as a journalist had finally gotten me, like a monster I had tracked but failed to slay…It made no difference what we could offer the world. We only knew what the world could take away…The rage, though — that stays with you. (pp. 133-135).
Kendzior wrote a book that few who truly understand the nature of the evil that has infected the US since the 1970s could argue is incorrect. Her analysis is nearly as excellent as the prose, to be sure.
I do have a few bones to pick. Mostly because I had a hard time figuring out the audience Kendzior was attempting to reach. Was it other journalists? The broader American public? Anyone who needs a Laurence Fishburne-style “Wake up!!!” call from School Daze?
I landed on nearly-disillusioned-White-Americans as Kendzior’s audience, the ones still clinging to the hope of the American Dream with their fingernails, the ones who all but realize that the Dream is a lie and a nightmare for almost all of us. “I am trying to show them [her children] our country was always vulnerable, always flawed, but that people fought back. We’ve survived as long as we have due to self-criticism and sacrifice, a willingness to examine our faults and try to fix them,” Kendzior wrote (p. 213).
I’m sorry, but this is the America I read about in a Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich textbook from fifth grade in 1980, not the America in which I have lived for 50 years, worked in since I was 14, and studied for three decades. This is a part of the American mythology, this idea of self-correction. The only times the US has changed to mete out symbolic half-measures toward its ideals has been when the marginalized through years and even decades of resistance have forced it to. Full stop. To suggest otherwise would be to suggest a land that believes in anti-racism, Black feminism, reproductive rights, non-binary sexuality, and democratic socialism. Where is this US? I am still looking.
Another criticism is around Trump himself, and about the arc of the autocratic glide path of the US since 1968. Yes, just as Kendzior and others have written, I have also written that Trump was an inevitable consequence of rampant criminality and grifting, of lying in the same bed with mobsters and autocrats from Russia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US. But really, in a country as racist, misogynistic, and narcissistic as the US has always been, someone like Trump was always the danger, and has happened on some level in the past (see Andrew Jackson, see James Buchanan, see Teddy Roosevelt, see even FDR’s four terms in office, as good as his New Deal policies were). The US is just two months removed from Mike “will get it done” Bloomberg running for president, a much more competent billionaire and grifter, with his own ideas for autocratic rule. It ended up being Trump, but it could have been any of a dozen aspirants we’ve seen from the top 1% over the past three decades, starting with Ross Perot.
Kendzior’s centering of Trump is disturbing because the “burgeoning autocracy” has always been an autocracy for Blacks and for indigenous Americans, going back to the days before the US even existed. In modern politics, the dividing line isn’t Trump or the Great Recession. It’s Vietnam and Richard Nixon and his “Southern Strategy” in 1968. It’s the Reaganomics and the corporate deregulation of the 1980s, followed up with gutting the social welfare state that has occurred with every president since Reagan, including Mr. “Mend it, don’t end it” himself, Bill Clinton. As Malcolm X said in his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan in 1964, “Oh, I say you been misled. You been had. You been took.” But not by Trump, at least not just. Trump was the one Kendzior and so many others saw coming, but could do nothing about, because Trump wasn’t the first.
And if Trump was inevitable, then what does that say about our first family of autocrats, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush? The amount of international meddling in which these two presidents engaged? The trillions spent on wars, all for more access to Saudi Arabian oil, their autocracy, and their money, and all to line their pockets and the pockets of cronies, especially those within the military-industrial complex? Dubya and Cheney used 9/11 to push the Patriot Act in Congress, the single biggest autocratic move in American history since the Electoral College? The players on the US side of the table may be different in 2020, but the evidence gathered in the years since 2000 show significant foreign interference and at least one rigged election. But I’m supposed to believe that Trump’s version of autocracy is worse because his corruption is much more obvious and because his flaunts it with buffoonery and a deluge of lies? Anyone remember a Dubya presser between 2000 and 2009?
I am a big believer in both-ands. Binary either-or explanations may be simple, but they are usually incomplete. Kendzior argues that Trump’s a master of using buffoonery and deception to bamboozle an audience and distract them from his daily crimes. Most of the rest of us think Trump is as dumb as shit. But why can’t he be both? Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler are all proof-positive that one does not need great analytical power to be savvy, brazen, and bullying enough to make one’s stupidity work for them. And when someone like Trump comes from money, it is that much easier.
There’s this song “Silent Running” by the ensemble pop/rock group Mike + The Mechanics — with Mike Rutherford of Genesis, Paul Carrack of Squeeze, B. A. Robertson, et al. — from 1985-86. Kendzior may have heard it growing up. The music is eerie and an homage to resisting totalitarianism. The lyrics, though, so poignant, both to Hiding in Plain Sight and to where my mindset has been about the US since the 1980s.
Take the children and yourself
And hide out in the cellar
By now the fighting will be close at hand
Don’t believe the church and state
And everything they tell you
Believe in me, I’m with the high command…
Swear allegiance to the flag
Whatever flag they offer
Never hint at what you really feel
Teach the children quietly
For some day sons and daughters
Will rise up and fight while we stand still
That’s what I hope my descendants (literal and figurative) will take with them, and that’s what I hope for Kendzior’s children. Anything about a primrose American past in the time before cronyism and Coronavirus, though, would belie this “Silent Running” truth. I strongly urge everyone I know to read Kendzior’s book. Just be sure to find the words “Bush,” “Dubya,” and “both-and” along the way.