Join Sarah Kenzior, author of Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America, in conversation with Jonathan Hanson, political scientist and lecturer in statistics at the Ford School. March, 2022.
0:00:25.2 Jonathan Hanson: Good afternoon. I'm Jonathan Hanson, a political scientist and lecturer here at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. On behalf of our Dean, Michael Barr and the Ford School community, it's a great pleasure to welcome you all to this policy talks at the Ford School event, featuring the best selling author, Sarah Kendzior. It's great to see some of you here with me in Weill Hall on campus, and to welcome the many others of you who are joining us virtually through YouTube. Today's event is part of an ongoing series hosted by the Ford School, and with... Along with Wallace House and the University of Michigan, the series is called Democracy & Debate 2021 and 2022, Democracy in Crisis: Views from the Press. This series, which will continue in the fall, features award-winning journalists with... And their insights into the forces that are threatening our country's democratic systems. We hope that you will also join us for the final event of the semester, featuring Pulitzer prize-winning historian, journalist and commentator, Anne Applebaum, here on campus in the Michigan League on Monday, April 4th.
0:01:40.6 JH: We also want to thank the Gerald R. Ford School Library and Museum, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, and Detroit Public Television for their support of this event and the overall series. Today I'll be joined by Sarah Kendzior, whose work centers on politics, the economy, and the media, a self-described non-fiction horror writer. Her most recent book is the best-selling, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America. Sarah has a PhD in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis, where she's researched propaganda and state crimes and authoritarian regimes. She's the co-host of the acclaimed podcast Gaslit Nation, and was named by foreign policy as "One of the 100 people you should be following on Twitter to make sense of global events."
0:02:35.9 JH: Her reporting has been featured in many publications, including NBC News, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Fast Company, The Chicago Tribune, Teen Vogue, The Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. She's also been a frequent guest on the MSNBC show, AM Joy, where she's discussed corruption in the Trump Administration, Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the January 6th insurrection. Sarah describes her book, Hiding in Plain Sight as "Pulling back the veil on a history spanning decades, the history of the American autocrat in the making revealing the inherent fragility of American democracy, how our continual loss of freedom, the rise of consolidated corruption, and the secrets behind a burgeoning autocratic United States have been hiding in plain site for decades." A reminder to everyone that there will be time toward the end of the conversation for questions. I encourage our attendees here in the audience to write your questions on the provided note cards and pass them toward the center aisle of the room to be collected. Our virtual viewers can engage and ask questions in the YouTube chat box or tweet your questions to the #policytalks. With that, I ask you to please join me in welcoming Sarah Kendzior.
0:04:05.5 JH: Welcome Sarah. Much of your academic research focused on dictatorships that were part of the former Soviet Union, such as Uzbekistan. You wrote in Hiding in Plain Sight that you began to see commonalities between the conditions in these countries and the United States, and that made you very concerned about threats to democracy in our country. What did you see that was so concerning?
0:04:32.2 Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, first, I wanna thank everyone for organizing this event and for inviting me. I'm happy to be here, albeit virtually. When I first started comparing Donald Trump's presidential run to the kleptocratic dictators of Central Asia, it was pretty early in the campaign. I saw similarities in the use of spectacle, the engrained career corruption that both Donald Trump and the former Soviet Apparatchiks that became lifelong dictators of Post-Soviet states in Central Asia, embodied at that time in Uzbekistan, it was Islam Karimov, the move toward the Dynastic kleptocracy which I saw as something he was likely to do and he did it. And of course all the demagoguery, the hate rhetoric, the targeting of ethnic minorities and so on and so forth. At that time, I thought that this was more of a metaphorical connection, a sort of similar political manner. I didn't realize how direct the connection was between Donald Trump and the former Soviet Union. In particular, Russia and the Putin regime, although it dates before that to his ties with various oligarchs and Mafiosos. So once he hired Paul Manafort, a Kremlin agent, who had long been involved with Kremlin operatives and plots in Ukraine, I became deeply alarmed because it was clear that these connections were not just metaphorical, but were an active connection that threatened the United States on multiple levels.
0:06:07.9 JH: Yeah, I have to say, as a political scientist who has done some study of authoritarian regimes, I never quite expected my work to be directly connected to American politics as well. It was a rather shocking development in our history.
0:06:21.7 SK: Yeah, I did not expect when I wrote my dissertation about Uzbekistan that I would then apply it to the host of Celebrity Apprentice, but you know, life works in mysterious ways, so.
0:06:32.6 JH: Quite indeed. Well, something had to change in America for these conditions to arise. We've long had the emergence of demagogic figures in our history, but none of them reached the position of power in the White House like Donald Trump did. And I wanted to trace with you some of the origins of what was behind this rise of authoritarianism in America. And I was struck by your writing in your book about Missouri as a bell weather kind of state. A situation which exemplified a lot of the changes that America has undergone. You spoke of white flight from the city, the decline of the city itself. The destruction of the kind of jobs that could support a strong middle class, whether through corporate raiders coming in and buying up corporations and shutting them down for their own profits. So you describe these conditions happening in Missouri and you then trace those to the rise of Trump-ism in American politics. And I wonder if you can just walk us through some of those connections.
0:07:44.4 SK: Sure. I mean, Trump is a product of broken institutions, of institutions that were rotting before he launched this campaign. He then went on to exacerbate them, he was there to break them further. But in a lot of parts of America, including where I live in St. Louis, things had been deteriorating for decades and that deterioration accelerated quite rapidly after 2008. And when I think about St. Louis, and about Missouri in general, the main thing I think about is abandonment, that's what we feel. There are places in St. Louis you could drive through, I'll bring friends from out of town and they think, "Did a riot happen here? Did a tornado hit here?" And no. It's like the answer's nothing. Nothing happened here. No one stepped in to take care of people, no one stepped in to preserve places and to protect human beings.
0:08:39.4 SK: The basic functions of government or society had just eroded over a considerable amount of time and people came to, I wouldn't say accept it as the way it is, but expect it. And then on top of that, you had incredible exploitation of this pain, you had it through dark money. And Missouri was very early in that, we were the dark money capital of America well before Citizens United was passed. We had it in terms of radical movements like the tea party, which really took off from here, a lot of the main members of right-wing radical groups that gained prominence, came out of Missouri. Pundits like Rush Limbaugh, or Dana Loesch, or Jim Hoft from Gateway Pundit.
0:09:24.3 SK: This is a place that I think breeds that kind of tension. And also we've had quite a lot of civil rights activity as you saw during the Ferguson Uprising. So Missouri's a place where all these tendencies collide and they often do it in a violent way that forces them to the forefront of American consciousness at a time where people who live in more comfortable places are denying that those tendencies exist. And with Trump, he doesn't care about the public good, he doesn't care about helping America, but he can hone in like a vulture and prey on American pain. He understood that pain, that rage, and especially economic despair. I'll never forget one time on the campaign trail where he said that the unemployment rate in America was 45%.
0:10:13.2 SK: And all of these pundits, they snickered and they laughed and they were like, "What kind of idiot would ever believe that?" And at that time, my family, 'cause my husband had lost his job months before, we were hovering somewhat near the poverty line ourselves. And I knew, of course, that this is not a correct figure, but how it felt, how it felt at that time in 2015 and 2016, it felt like unemployment was 45% because everyone was struggling with part-time jobs, with gig labor, with long-term unemployment. And he knew how to exploit that, and of course, he did it in a racist, xenophobic, incredibly corrosive way, and we're still unfortunately living with the ramifications of that right now.
0:10:58.9 JH: So I think what you're saying is that Trump had a demagogic ability to exploit these feelings and this despair that had arisen because of economic dislocation?
0:11:10.5 SK: Yes.
0:11:11.4 JH: Around the world we've seen authoritarianism rise in conditions kind of like that, but what's happened mostly in the United State's history is that when a demagogic ruler arises or demagogic leader arises, that there's constraints that are put on. Political elites from the major parties don't allow that person to get the nomination for example. And it seemed in Trump's case that so many people underestimated what could happen. First, people thought there's no way that Trump could get the nomination. And then once he did get the nomination no one thought that he could actually win the election and rise to the White House. So a lot of the constraints that seemed to operate against the rise of extremism in politics in our history failed us this time. And I'm wondering what you think is behind that?
0:12:08.6 SK: Yeah, that's a great question. I personally found his win predictable and I became increasingly alarmed that others didn't. Because along with the predictability of his win was the predictability of the threat that he would go on and he would rule like a kleptocrat. And I'm sorry, I lost the main point of your question there. [chuckle] Can you briefly summarize it again?
0:12:31.8 JH: I'm just wondering what had changed in American politics that...
0:12:34.0 SK: Oh, why was he not restrained?
0:12:37.4 JH: Yeah.
0:12:37.5 SK: Yes, that's a great question. We saw this throughout the Republican primaries, we saw people briefly stand up to him and then stand down to him, cower to him. I think some of this is Trump as an individual. This is a guy who has operated as essentially a career criminal in New York City. Who used the brutal tactics of people like his mentor, Roy Cohn, which is to threaten people, blackmail people, never back down, smear people. I think he's extremely adept at using the media, he has been for a long time from his tabloid days. Through his reality TV shows to social media. I think his campaign team understood very well how to weaponize social media, and they also knew how to weaponize the blind spots of the American political system, they knew how to weaponize the fact that he was often underestimated because people just thought, "Well, this outcome is impossible, this outcome is not going to actually happen," and therefore they refused to prepare for it.
0:13:37.4 SK: And that happened again and again, not just in the campaign, but the presidency, people refused to believe he would actually attempt a coup. They refused to believe the capital would be attacked. They refused to believe he'd commit blatant crimes in office, and I think some of this is because of the reaction. People had more faith in institutions. It wasn't that they had so much faith in Trump. They had faith in the institutional ability to hold him in check, and I think as those institutions failed to react with the urgency and the severity required, people began to doubt their reality, because it's much more horrifying to think that Trump is not an anomaly, but part of a broader broken system, that not only will not withhold Donald Trump, but will not withhold other elite criminals or dangerous political operatives who are very similar to him and who will inherit that mantle if he chooses not to run again.
0:14:35.7 JH: Now, you mentioned the failure of our institutions to constrain Trump, and I think we all learned in maybe middle school civics about the checks and balances of the American political system and how our Constitution was so well set up to prevent this kind of thing from happening. And I think one of the lessons that we learned from 2016 and after, was the important of norms. Democratic norms on the part of just not only average people, but also among the political elite. And it seems like the erosion of these norms is potentially one of the problems that we're encountering in our society. So I just had some examples that I was thinking of on, we've seen changes in the Senate with respect to judicial nominations, President Obama had a nomination of Merrick Garland and then never was considered, for example. On more personal... Of a lower voter level, we saw Trump give rallies where the chant, "Lock her up", was a common thing, as though it was just okay to say that our political opponents ought to be jailed, and this is a pretty unusual and scary development in American politics, and I'm wondering whether these norms are recoverable, or what can we do in the face of the erosion of these norms?
0:16:03.0 SK: I'm not sure they're recoverable, I think that it requires confrontation with the rot. With the institutional weaknesses and failures and flaws that were there to begin with, and then I think from that point, we have to create new norms. And the problem is we have a political establishment that is living in the past, and that still seems to be clinging to this delusion that we can kind of move forward without really dealing with what's happened over the last four years, whether in terms of ongoing threats to national security that Trump and the people around him, particularly those who he pardoned at the end of his term still pose, or the broader assault on norms.
0:16:43.8 SK: I think what we need are for these norms to be codified in law. We cannot just assume that checks and balances as some sort of good faith effort are going to hold. Checks and balances are only as good as the people who enforce them. And the constitution is a piece of paper, unless people actually act upon its precepts. And to do that in this kind of environment, which is essentially a mafia state culture with this group of individuals, it requires courage, it requires fortitude, and I think most difficult of all, it requires transparency and humility. It requires everybody to kind of admit how they failed in that this ever happened in the first place. And I think that that is what people don't wanna confront. As Trump's opponent said, it took a village, it took a village for this guy and his goon squad to get into this position of power and then abuse it in the first place, and so it requires a look back in history, and that's what I tried to show in Hiding in Plain Site, which spans four decades. There's a lot of blame to go around and very few people willing to kind of confront that openly.
0:17:57.6 JH: Speaking of norms, one of the most essential norms of a democracy, is that when you lose an election, you engage in a peaceful transfer of power. We know what happened on January 6th, but I note that Bill Kristol tweeted earlier this week, he said, "Trump smashed that tradition," and he goes around continuing to deny the legitimacy of what happened in 2020 election, and it just seems that millions of Americans are perfectly willing to follow along with that belief. Regular voters, but also politicians at a wide variety of levels of government. So what do we do when a major political party, one of our two major parties, chooses not to adhere to these traditional norms of democracy, that when you lose the election, you go home and live to fight another day?
0:18:51.0 SK: The loss of a peaceful transfer of power is something that we could assume would happen as kind of a baseline expectation of American democracy, that's a tremendous loss. And it's going to be a permanent loss. Every election from now on, I think is going to be heavily contested, but one way to prevent that or at least try to slow that, is accountability for the criminal elites who organized not just the January 6th attack specifically, but the coup leading up to it. It's now been over 14 months and we haven't seen accountability. And one thing that's interesting to me is if you look at polls that were taken in January 2021, when people asked if Joe Biden was the legitimately elected president of the United States, overwhelmingly, Americans said he was, and that includes Republicans, they all agreed.
0:19:46.2 SK: That this was nonsense that Biden had won. You move forward about six months and then that starts to go down because they had the Arizona fraud. This constant barrage of republican propaganda from places like Fox News saying that Biden was illegitimate, saying there were all these incongruities. Meanwhile, the Democrats are not indicting anyone, they didn't form the January 6th Committee for about six months, they're not acting like this is an urgent matter of democracy. You go forward a year and it's even worse, I'm sorry, I don't have the exact numbers at my disposal, though, they are in my upcoming book.
0:20:20.7 SK: They knew because I think what happens is the public reacts to how officials react to an event like that, and they assume it can't really be that serious, that what Trump and his coterie did that it was illegal, or at least very, very wrong, that if it was so wrong, there would obviously be a swift, urgent, and serious response, that people would face real consequences and because they didn't, and at the same time, you get this propaganda barrage from the other side saying Joe Biden is the villain here, Joe Biden is the illegitimate cheating actor, that starts to sink in to people's minds, and so it's really the passage of time. You know, time is a friend to autocracy and an enduring strategy of these folks is just to run out the clock and try to avoid consequences. And I'm continually puzzled why the DOJ, the Democrats and anybody who wants a democratic society keeps playing right into their hands by refusing to enforce consequences for the most dangerous actors.
0:21:23.8 JH: I've often wondered myself, do we just carry on with politics as usual after an attempted insurrection for the election. It doesn't seem that much has changed, and I wanted to get to that question of why there's not been action, if we have some understanding based on your own research into the situation, why there's been no action, at least action directed toward organizers from the Department of Justice against organizers for the insurrection. We've seen some prosecution of the people who basically stormed the capital grounds, but behind that was a layer of organization, and you've written a bit, I've seen it on Twitter, you've got some thoughts about this, and I wondered if you could share those with us.
0:22:10.7 SK: Sure, I'll try to keep this brief. Basically, this goes back to what I said before about humility and institutional rot and people refusing to look at their own best negligence and at worst complicity in these situations. This coup was planned in advance openly on the internet to the point that people were selling January 6th civil war t-shirts, making hotel reservations, people like Steve Bannon, Lin Wood, Michael Flynn were recruiting. The insurrectionist, Trump was openly encouraging this attack, it was all there, and it was in the public domain, and the people who have tried to stop this, tried to stop what could have been a very violent attack on members of Congress. Multiple members of Congress came forward and said their offices were ransacked, people were threatening to kill them.
0:23:01.1 SK: I mean we saw people saying they were going to hang Mike Pence, among others, you'd think just purely out of self-interest that they would take this seriously. I do think there were members of Congress who did. You could look at what Jamie Raskin did, for example, during the house impeachment hearings, all of those efforts were curtailed by the leadership, Pelosi cut that impeachment hearing very short, she then insisted that the formation of the January 6th committee be bipartisan, knowing full well that that was never going to happen with the complicit Republican party trying to cover up their own dirty deeds with Merrick Garland, he has also refused to seriously pursue these elite operatives.
0:23:43.0 SK: People like Bannon and Flynn who were planning coup 2, the sequel to the coup. This is incredibly dangerous to me, so it's kind of mind-boggling that not only Garland won't rise to this occasion only rolling up the random QAnon folks and whatnot, but that Biden isn't applying more pressure because our sovereignty is at stake, our democracy is at stake. There's some shady financial ties that I've looked into, I would just recommend people go to gaslitnationpod.com, that's the archives of my podcast, and you can look through, find out which dirty donors gave to all these folks who are standing in the way as obstacles to accountability. I think there's a long story there, but I'll let you move to the next question for the interest of time.
0:24:30.6 JH: So I do wanna shift gears a little, although, I wanna come back to this line of question later. I wanna switch gears and talk about the media environment that we're in these days, and for the reason that for democracy to function well, we need to have freedom of the press, vigorous debate in the media, we need to have the expression of ideas so that at the very least voters can get a sense of what the issues are and make wise decisions when they go to the ballot, cast their ballots. And what I'm wondering about is to what degree we've seen change in the media that makes that kind of democratic dialogue very difficult. So for example, we've seen the decline of traditional journalism, newspapers at the local and state level, in particular have been really devastated by the rise of the internet and the ability to maintain its traditional business model, and with the rise of social media as an alternative means of presenting information to people, we're sort of just awash with all sorts of information, and it's often very confusing to wait through all that and figure out what's right and what's not right, and I wonder to what extent as a former journalist yourself, to what extent you think that some of the problems we're encountering with Democracy have to do with the erosion of the media as a form of information that we can trust?
0:26:02.0 SK: Well, I think it has to do with it a great deal, I think the loss of local newspapers, local reporters, people feeling like a journalist is part of their community and they can trust them, has played a big role, not just in politics, but say with COVID, with people's willingness to believe various things about the pandemic. If you're a part of a local community and you see the obituary section or just stories about what is happening in your community and the virus, I think that you're less likely to fall for disinformation operations that come from other places or that are national. What has happened is a lot of these communities that don't have a local paper turn to national news, and then the new thing that happened in 2021 is that a lot of media outlets, a lot of ones that do more or less accurate reporting, or at least they try to do accurate reporting, have paywalled their content, and so it's difficult for people to get basic information about, "What happened on January 6? What can I do to keep myself from getting COVID? What's going on with the elections? What's going on with anything?"
0:27:10.0 SK: Meanwhile, cable news is free, Fox news is free, Facebook memes are free, yet in your pandemic info from Nextdoor.com is a thing people are doing in lieu of other resources, that presents a problem, misinformation and disinformation are free, and they move quickly. Traditional reporting and investigative reporting that takes time is slow and quite costly, and everything's becoming more and more bifurcated, even with streaming, you see all these little news networks popping up that you have to pay money to subscribe to, and on top of that, there's Substack, Patreon, and this, of course, emerged from the fact that big giant corporate conglomerates in media were refusing to pay their staff and their reporters a fair wage, so of course, people go off and they start their own thing and hopefully try to keep it free. My stuff is free because even though it hurts me financially, I feel it's important to get the information out there, but I understand why folks do this for us to be part of a society, part of a country where we need to have a shared set of facts, we don't need to all agree on the meaning of those facts or the interpretation of them, but we need to agree that on the baseline reality, this is very, very detrimental to that.
0:28:26.7 JH: So in this environment, we've seen the rise of a lot of conspiracy thinking, the rise of QAnon was a very notable feature in the 2020 election, and we continue to see conspiratorial thoughts behind a lot of the suspicion about the election outcome and all of that. And I know you've been doing a lot of thinking about the role of conspiracy thinking in American politics, and what can we expect will be happening as we look ahead with this?
0:28:58.2 SK: Well, I think the... I write about this in my new book, which is called They Knew. There's a difference between an actual conspiracy as in an organized plot made in secret by powerful actors generally to profit and to hurt the public good, a conspiracy theory which is just questions about the nature of that conspiracy, which is hidden from the public, of course, it raises various inquiries and then weaponized conspiracy theories, which is when somebody like Alex Jones invents dangerous, harmful lies about events like for example, what's going on with his trial in Sandy Hook is a perfect example of this. The latter group, where you are lying about real people, you're making things up out of thin air, and it's meant to hurt people, it's meant to be cruel, that is obviously unacceptable, and it's a form of propaganda, but I think conspiracy theories on the whole it's not bad inherently to have a theory about a conspiracy.
0:29:57.3 SK: And the reason people have theories is because the government refuses to provide them facts, it refuses to hold hearings, it refuses to have transparency. And this is not new. This has been going on for decades. I also think the advent of the internet allowed people to kind of open up things that happened in the past and pose new questions about them, and I think Trump's rise to power... I don't wanna say that there's anything really good about this, but Trump allowed the American imagination to expand as to kind of corruption and criminality in government is possible, so if people had suspicions about a prior historical event, they might start to look at that event again, especially since so many of the same players, people like Roger Stone or Bill Barr, for example, they recur again and again, and things like Watergate, Iran-Contra, the aftermath of 9/11, the 2008 financial collapse, his whole cabinet was like a Celebrity Apprentice of D-list federal felons that he just sort of dredged up and installed into power, and you have to ask why, and you have to ask was there not accountability, why are all these people back?
0:31:06.5 SK: And so from that, you end up with theories, and one of the things that... The worst thing that happened with QAnon, I think is obviously the vast majority of things that QAnon put out are... I'm trying [chuckle].. I keep wanting to say bullshit, I don't know if I'm allowed to... Of course that's not better. They were lies and propaganda and just not factually accurate, but there's a grain of truth within all that when they would look at something like the Jeffrey Epstein case, for example, a real case of sadistic, pedophile elite traffickers involved in international relations, that was a real thing, and because people kept accusing them of lying about that, when that was proven solidly true with the arrests of Epstein and then Maxwell, it gave a veneer of validity to their more wild and unproven claims, and that's what happens when the government and the media are not transparent and honest about corruption, so if there's a lesson to take away from that it's that we need more honesty even if the truth is painful, 'cause the truth may hurt, but the lies will kill you.
0:32:16.5 JH: I wonder if the traditional media is up to the task of handling an existential threat to our system. Traditional journalistic standards for coverage of politics tend to take of both sides or all sides approach to things, where these people say this, these other people say that, and try to remain objective and neutral, with respect to these different opinions. But when one side is arguing for overthrow of an election, how can you both sides that? And I'm just wondering if traditional journalism needs to change the way it approaches these issues.
0:32:57.1 SK: Yes, it absolutely does. They need to get rid of the horse race coverage, the constant reliance on polls, and especially treating an existential threat like it's a game. And I think here you'll notice a real difference in coverage from journalists who have always been in an existential threat in America. If you look at what Black journalists, for example, were writing about Trump from the beginning, throughout the campaign, throughout his time in office. I mean, obviously, there's great range within this group, but I haven't met a Black American who said, "Wow. It was so unbelievable to me that this incredible racist career criminal managed to ascend to power without anybody stopping him, and then went on to do sadistic and horrible things to our country." Because that is the history of being Black in America.
0:33:44.1 SK: It's a history of selective autocracy. It's autocracy aimed at a particular group. So I think journalists from that particular group, and this also includes Native Americans, this includes often immigrants who are subject to discrimination and to a different justice system than what White Americans are facing, they caught on to this pretty early, so one thing is to pay attention to folks who got it right all along. Kind of ask yourself why, and then follow in their footsteps. But also this whole meaningless model of pundits blathering on TV, feigning shock to avoid accountability, feigning that things that have happened throughout American history, although not quite as severely and quickly as they did in the last six years, are somehow new, and that we were in some kind of perfect American exceptionalism paradise before.
0:34:37.0 SK: That's gotta go. Folks can see through it and it doesn't do... And it just doesn't do us any favors. This is not informing the public. I also wish that there is more hardcore investigative journalism particularly on financial matters. And for a brief time, basically during the early stages of the Mueller probe, where it seemed like that kind of journalism was gonna be backed up by the government, there was that, and then it came to a crashing halt, both for financial reasons within media corporations, but also 'cause I think the political culture changed and the dominant narrative became move on, move on, move on. Don't look back. Consider this an anomaly. Consider this over. It wasn't an anomaly, it's definitely not over, and it still needs to be investigated.
0:35:23.3 JH: Yeah. So I'm trying to... Now I wanna turn to sort of what lies ahead. We haven't seen the kind of prosecutions that you're talking about with response to January 6th, at least yet at this point in time. What do you... If in the absence of any significant action on the part of our law enforcement agencies, what do you think will happen in the next... In 2024 with Trump potentially running for office again?
0:35:53.4 SK: Yeah, I'm very concerned about that. I'm concerned about 2022, as well. The main thing I'm concerned about in terms of elections is voting rights. And these new voting rights laws that not just disenfranchise people, but allows state legislatures to toss out votes if they don't like them. We're seeing this in Georgia and Texas, and we may see it in other places by the end of the year. And then at the same time, the fact that Trump committed a multitude of crimes in office, he's Individual 1 in a federal probe, he was impeached twice. He's confessed to a number of crimes. He confessed to obstruction of justice the first time on TV in 2017, and nothing happened, so he confessed to it again in 2022. Sometimes I wonder, does he want to be apprehended, like sincerely? Does he want this to end?
0:36:43.4 SK: 'Cause it's like he's... I think he's trying to push people to see how far he could go with this, how weak our institutions really are. They're very weak, 'cause they're refusing to hold not just him, but his partners accountable. And I'm worried about this broader apparatus, 'cause it's not just about Trump. It's about the entire GOP at this point, which basically functions as a crime cult surrounding him, emulating him, obviously quite fearful of him. And then, the Democrats are basically enablers at this point, not uniformly.
0:37:15.0 SK: That's the difference, I think, between the Democrats and the Republicans, is you do have diversity and approach, diversity and opinion, and less of a culture of fear and threat. But it's still there, and they are not acting like people who are gravely concerned for the survival of our country as a sovereign democracy. I think if they were, they would have been attuned to voting rights, they would have pushed for immediate accountability for the coup plotters, simply to prevent this from happening again and not to normalize it, just send a strong message that, of course, this is unacceptable. Of course, there must be a peaceful transfer of power. These are things that Americans should be able to take for granted, and we clearly cannot, so we have to course correct and look at what went wrong and how to fix it. Instead, it's this kind of head in the sand attitude, and as time goes on, that becomes more and more dangerous.
0:38:07.3 JH: So one of the changes that might have happened during this past year, was legislation to protect voting rights across states, in the face of this onslaught that's happening at the state legislative level. And there's been a lot of support within the Democratic Party for that, but not enough. With the Senate being divided 50-50 and not every Democrat on board. So potentially we see that, as you say, the Democratic Party itself is not taking this seriously. And then on the Republican side, it seems like we're seeing an effort to remove from the party anyone who was a dissenting voice, after the events of January 6th. So for example, I noted this past week that many Republican members of Congress were at a fundraiser for Liz Cheney's opponent in the upcoming election. And this is just one... And then recently, Trump has endorsed the opponent of Governor Kemp in Georgia on the idea that he was insufficiently active in, I guess, overturning the Georgia's electoral vote. So I'm wondering what the prospects are for change if our political elites aren't willing to take the lead, what can we as Americans do to push this along?
0:39:30.2 SK: Yeah, that's a great question, and it's a difficult one. The main thing I say is, "You have to remain resilient." Resilience is more important than hope in this situation, you have to stay the course regardless of the odds, you have to be honest about the situation. I still... I said this when Trump was elected in 2016. Write down what is happening, write down how your expectations and other people's expectations of what democracy means, of what elections mean, of what any of this political culture means, now, and watch how they shift over time, because that's how they get you, that's what they're banking on is a kind of passivity, a kind of complacency that becomes complicity over time as to what people can do as individuals, it's such a hard thing to say, 'cause in 2020, the American people really did something unusual in that they managed to out-vote an attempted coup during a pandemic. People really went all out, they canvassed, they organized, they stood in line for hours and hours on end, often facing severe threats, and they did that because they wanted a platform passed, and hardly any of it is even really smaller parts that you think would be something Biden could fix easily.
0:40:46.5 SK: Like Let's have the postal service work again, have not come in to play, and so I'm gravely concerned about this election, not just in terms of who won't be able to vote, but who won't want to because they feel so let down and abandoned. And as I said in the beginning of this talk, when people feel abandoned, they're drawn to these demagogues, they're drawn to anyone who just seems to be doing something, even if that something is destructive and horrific, they wanna feel part of something. And it's alarming to me that we're seeing these same tendencies repeat once again.
0:41:22.8 JH: And then a little bit... Hopefully a more positive note, is there are anything hopeful that you see happening in American politics right now that might point in a better direction for us all?
0:41:32.7 SK: Oh, I don't know, it's hard to say. I think our institutions are rotted but our people are still pretty good, I don't think our institutions are embodying the will of the people, which is a very unfortunate thing, but when I talk to just anyone, including people who are Republicans, or at least more conservative than me, they all see these problems, they see the lay of the land, they see the corruption, they're frustrated, they're angry, and that's kind of like half the battle is to get people at least recognizing the same challenges and threats that we're facing, so I have faith in America, I have faith in the American people, it's just our leaders and our institutions are broken and we need to make moves to replace them and that process is a difficult one, but I don't know, I pray to the unexpected and I look at Ukraine honestly, right now, I see how they're pushing back against much, much more serious, severe odds, and I think that they've been inspiring to a lot of people. And if they can push back in that kind of way, we certainly can do the same in our less immediately terrifying situation.
0:42:41.5 JH: Yeah, I've been looking through some of the questions that our audience have presented, and they're all along the same line, what's the most realistic best case scenario we have for holding Trump accountable? I am always scared when I read your posts. Should I be? You've been frightening in your impressions to date, just how effed up are we? Is there hope? Another person says, "If officials aren't going to take swift action against organizers of the insurrection, what can we as individuals do to make the best use of our right for accountability?" It seems like we're all having some of the same thoughts.
0:43:15.9 SK: Yeah, I think people feel powerless. I just spoke to a local democratic group here in St. Louis, and that was the emotion that people were expressing over and over again, and it's a horrific feeling, and I think the pandemic has exacerbated it because it's made everything feel surreal and uncertain, and I think people are just still kinda trying to get their bearings about the incredible trauma and tragedy that we've witnessed over the past two years. So first, I would say those feelings are normal. The other thing I'd say is, I don't offer hope and I also don't offer hopelessness, that's not really... That's not my style. I also don't think that that's what keeps the democracy going, I think it's perseverance, it's looking out for each other, it's being loyal to your moral core regardless what people are saying to you and speaking the truth, even if people don't wanna hear it. I rarely made concrete predictions about the future, the things that often horrify people about what I say are simply things that have happened in the past that are either considered unimportant by the media or that have been buried by them, and then I unearth those things I unearth those back stories and the pieces begin to fit together and they form a really terrifying picture, and it's terrifying to me too.
0:44:28.8 SK: I'd rather not have this be the truth, I get no satisfaction out of being right, and I get no satisfaction out of finding these abhorrent corrupt connections. But that's just how it is, but my advice is, regardless of your feelings, just keep going, think about who is worst off in this situation. I doubt it's any of you. There are people who are suffering out on the street, there are people who've lost multiple loved ones, if you're debating about whether to vote, I think despite our abhorrent political system right now, go vote, 'cause you're not just voting for yourself, you're voting for the people who are worst off, and as bad off as they may be under the current Democratic party, they're gonna be way worse off under the apocalyptic death cult that is the Republican Party. So I guess my main advice is put others first, put the people who are most vulnerable first.
0:45:25.0 JH: So one of the things you just mentioned as we wait for more questions from the audience is about how Ukraine, the situation in the Ukraine has... You've shown, there's a resilience there, a desire to defend a country against an incursion. And I've been wondering, pondering a bit, how this war changes domestic political dynamics here. Because what we saw with Trump's first impeachment was an effort to extort someone who's now regarded as almost heroic leader of Ukraine, Zelenskyy, as trying to extort political promises out of him for Trump's own political gain, in exchange for stinger access to the kind of defensive technology that would have helped prevent or ward off a potential Russian attack.
0:46:15.7 JH: And right now, Americans are pretty united behind supporting Ukraine. But if you look at the politics of it, we have Trump being closely tied to Putin, and even in recent weeks, saying things that are pretty sympathetic about Putin's strategic brilliance and things along those lines, and I'm wondering how you react to that, as someone who's followed this over the past several years, are Trump's previous actions finally going to be brought to light in a way that will hurt him politically, whereas in the past, it didn't seem to do so very much.
0:46:54.2 SK: Yeah, that's a great question, because I think, one, the failure of anyone to act on the Mueller report and also the the lack of urgency and intensity of that probe, hurt the public perception of Trump as what he is, which is a Kremlin asset who spent his life having his broken businesses and bankruptcies built back up by a system of organized crime, mainly the Russian mafia and oligarch networks, and then began working more directly with the Kremlin, with Putin later on and bragging about it. He was not subtle, he hosted the Miss Universe in Moscow and asked Putin to be his best friend, he asked the Kremlin to get him Hillary Clinton's emails and then of course, changed the US foreign policy in a way that made Putin's current invasion of Ukraine easier.
0:47:48.2 SK: And this is part of a broader transnational strategy. We saw the same thing happening in the UK with Brexit, a weakening of international alliances, a weakening of NATO and of the relationship between the US and its European partners. A lot of folks didn't really wanna look at this, and I think they especially didn't after there failed to be consequences. It's like people, they shied away from reviewing this history because nothing was done, and again, that gives the impression to the public that it was somehow not serious or there was some sort of obscure concern, particularly regarding Zelenskyy in the first impeachment that didn't really affect their daily lives. I think we all now see that, and I hope that people bring home how incredibly dangerous the connections of not just Trump, but people like call Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, have to the Kremlin, how it helps Putin's war, how it's hurting Zelenskyy and Ukraine.
0:48:42.4 SK: There is kind of an, as of recent, unprecedented unity that's bipartisan, that's very broad in the support for Ukraine over Russia, and normally that would make me feel somewhat optimistic, but we saw that same unity in the immediate aftermath of January 6th, we saw some brief unity in March 2020, April 2020, in terms of how we were gonna handle the pandemic. And the narratives of what happened those times, as well as a general kind of culture of public empathy became eroded over time through propaganda from the right and inertia from the left. And so I hope folks do see both history and the present clearly, but I also know how easy it is to manipulate this for political gain, and I just hope the same thing doesn't happen again that this isn't streamlined and normalized as well.
0:49:37.6 JH: Yeah. Audience member questions, "Is there a country you've studied that has successfully stopped the erosion of their democracy, that we could use to follow as an example?"
0:49:51.2 SK: That's a good question. You can obviously look at all of the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe, and afterwards you could sort of look at the collapse of the Soviet Union, although that obviously yielded very different outcomes for the Baltic states versus Russia or Belarus, or the authoritarian states of former Central Asia, but there have been peaceful revolutions in my lifetime, there have been moves from autocracy to democracy. I think it's much more complex now for a variety of reasons, one of which is digital media and this sort of sense of, we're part of a globalized interconnected community, where the actions of one country very much affect another in a way that they didn't quite so inherently before. Our finances are tied up, our politicians are tied up, on top of that, we have the ticking clock of climate change bearing down, and I think that that affects how people make political decisions, how they evaluate things like natural resources and how they handle them.
0:50:51.2 SK: There's just a lot of different variables in play. And I certainly don't wanna dismiss the past, I encourage everyone to study history intently, but I do think we're in an unprecedented era where it's hard to find a direct analog to the past and try to emulate it. We're kind of in new terrain. And again, I do think it's very interesting what Ukraine is doing. This is a country that's had a lot of its own corruption for decades on end, they are in the process of trying to clean that up, which is one of the things that Putin found so important because it screwed with his finances, with his claims to power, and that's one of many reasons he felt that he could invade, so they still fought though, and that's the thing, it's like even when the odds are bad, you fight anyway.
0:51:41.9 JH: I know that when you were doing your doctoral work, you studied the color revolutions. And I wonder if there's anything that we can learn from that era that gives us any lessons for today. In the back of my mind, I've wondered if we might need a little color revolution of our own, if things got really bad, Are there parallels to that at all?
0:52:06.4 SK: Yeah, I mean, I think so. And I think also, you can look at the color revolutions and the diversity of how they played out, where you found some more concrete democratic gains. You found other places like Kyrgyzstan, kinda going forward and then backward, and forward and backward again. I think one thing that people don't seem to realize is that there is more protest in the four years that Trump was in office than any other point of American history, including at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. People are, especially from other countries, they sometimes ask me, "Why aren't Americans rising up? Why weren't they out protesting against Trump or against corruption or against all of these problems that you're having?" And I'm like, "They did. They really did, it just wasn't considered important, a lot of times by the media, or people would forget it." They'd forget the George Floyd civil rights protest, they'd forget the women's march, the protests about climate, the giant protest about gun violence that happened I believe it was in 2018. The protest to impeach Trump.
0:53:05.7 SK: There were a whole bunch of those. The protests to get the Russia investigation going. Like these all happened. And they've been kind of memory holed by people. Maybe again, because they didn't produce any kind of concrete result, but they are important in terms of activism, building community and also just rejecting this consensus that everything is okay, that things will magically work out, that the corruption isn't that bad, or that Trump can't do... His administration can't do that much damage, and so on and so forth. So I think in some sense, this is kinda goes back to what I said, I feel like the American people are in a better place, in terms of understanding their political system, than the people who work in the system itself. That's where the problem is. People are on the ball. I think we're all really tired, after two years of COVID and all the other things we deal with, but there's a sense of understanding. And it's just a matter of, do our leaders feel accountable to us? How much leverage does the average person have anymore?
0:54:04.8 SK: And I think if you look at wealth inequality, if you look at the hoarding of wealth and opportunity, you may find your answer there, as to why we don't seem to have the kind of leverage that we did in the past. But we're also going through a lot of economic changes now, in terms of labor shortages and so forth, and I think that folks should think about that, think strategically about how we can get what we want, which I hope everyone one wants a free, democratic, fair society where we're not struggling to survive and crumbling under corruption.
0:54:38.6 JH: Thank you. Another question's come in. It says, "On Gaslit Nation, you've discussed the troll farm that supports Merrick Garland on social media. And is the 'We only have one shot response to postings on Garland's lack of action' part of that same coordinated effort? How is it possible that the Department of Justice only has one shot?"
0:55:02.3 SK: Yeah, [chuckle] that's a great question. They do not have only one shot, they have many. They have many perpetrators, and those many perpetrators have committed many, many crimes, all of which should be investigated at the least, and prosecuted if merited. When I say that the DOJ has a troll farm, I really mean that. I don't know if the DOJ runs the troll farm, or has any hand in it at all, but there are identical responses, like identically worded responses, a script, that will appear if you criticize, even [0:55:34.5] ____, Merrick Garland on Twitter or other social media platforms. And they'll come at you in waves, they'll threaten, they'll harass you. It's ridiculous. They also make up lies. Merrick Garland personally caught Timothy McVeigh, Merrick Garland personally caught the Unabomber. They invent this fictitious superhero pass for Merrick Garland that he just doesn't have. They get upset when you correct it.
0:55:55.8 SK: It's a very strange phenomenon. I really don't like those analogies that are like, "If you saw this in another country, what would you think?" Because we do share so many commonalities with other countries that people normally don't like to think of America as being similar to. But if you heard another country had a troll farm cult of personality bought threat machine, based around worship of the Attorney General and the Justice Department aimed at harassing journalists. What kind of country would you think that is? 'Cause I know, I would think that's a mafia state. And so it's a really strange phenomenon, and I wish that there'd be more investigative journalism about the roots of that.
0:56:38.3 JH: Thank you. We're here in the School of Public Policy. We have many masters students and some undergraduates who are... Who all, I would say, wanna make a difference in the world. And what they hope from their studies is to go out and change things. And one of the things I struggle with sometimes is, the things that we're training them to learn, which is how to look at policy from the technical standpoint, to see what works and what doesn't work. And how to make policy change in a way that, through rational discussion and dialogue and compromise. And then I look at how our political system actually works, and it's hard to translate that into what's actually happening in the real world. So I'm wondering if you have a message you can share to our students about how they can make a difference when they go out there, given the political difficulties that we face.
0:57:31.5 SK: Yeah, that's a great question, and I can understand why today working in public policy would be disheartening. I guess the upside of living in such a tumultuous time is that there's an element of unpredictability. And like I said, I think a lot of the systemic rot, the corruption that we've been contending with for decades, is out on the table. And if you approach that with bravery, with the courage of your convictions, with innovative ideas, when you're not just being careerist, you're not just aiming to please people, but you're really aiming to serve, to serve the public, to try to improve the public good. I think that within this chaos is an element of opportunity to do that. I think the public is responsive to new ideas, in a way that they haven't been in a while.
0:58:16.8 SK: Some of those new ideas aren't great, those are like the QAnon new ideas, but there's a flip side to that, which is I think people are more open to reconsidering what is justice? What does the public deserves? What should the role of government be? What part do I have to play in a society? People are thinking long and hard about those questions after being cooped up, especially, or just dealing with the horror of the pandemic. So I just encourage folks to be creative. Don't try to please a status quo, 'cause that status quo is tumultuous. It doesn't really exist anymore. And that's the tough situation, but also possibly a really positive one.
0:59:02.9 JH: I think that's a good note at which to bring us to a close. I just wanted to say that if... I really enjoyed our conversation today on these really, really important issues. A struggle, I think, that is much deeper and more entrenched than any that I'd ever expected our country to be in at this point in time. And so, it's really important for us to continue this kind of dialogue about the threats to democracy in America.
0:59:33.0 SK: Yes. Thank you so much and thank you everybody for your questions, they were great.
0:59:41.6 JH: Let's give Sarah a round of applause.
0:59:43.9 JH: Well, that brings an end to our discussion today. Reminder next Monday, April 4, Anne Applebaum will be here at the University of Michigan at the Michigan League. So look for those announcements on the internet. Thank you very much.
0:59:58.6 SK: Thanks everybody.