Sarah Kendzior

Hiding in Plain Sight

Air Date: June 1, 2020

Missouri-based journalist Sarah Kendzior discusses her new book “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America” and the threat of authoritarianism in the United States.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind @Home. Delighted to welcome to the program today Sarah Kendzior, author of “Hiding In Plain Sight.” Welcome, Sarah.


KENDZIOR: Thank you for having me.


HEFFNER: And I hope you’re saying safe and healthy and vibrant in Missouri, right?


KENDZIOR: Yeah, as much as can be expected.


HEFFNER: So, you know, you’ve written extensively and precociously about the threat of authoritarianism at home. How acute is your concern at this juncture as we anticipate the fall campaign and the November election?


KENDZIOR: I’m very worried. I’ve been worried from the moment Trump launched his campaign because I believed he would win and that once he won, he would rule in a manner reminiscent of a Central Asian or a former Soviet autocrat, a kleptocrat, principally, that’s what he’s done. He’s packed his cabinet with people whose explicit goal is to, as Bannon put it, dismantle the administrative state. He’s put our country in danger. He has purged agencies, he has packed courts, he has eliminated oversight and ethics from government. And that extends into the election. You know, its integrity was always in question. We have domestic voter suppression foreign interference, insecure machines, and a new fear, which is that, you know, assume the election is held, and assuming the Democrat wins, Trump will simply refuse to leave.


HEFFNER: Your thesis in part all along has been the kleptocracy, the authoritarianism, the autocracy has been plain to view, and we have gradually become desensitized to this decline because it’s been the American status quo. And this is the culmination of that decades long drought of moral leadership. So the immediate question amid the pandemic and these circumstances is what is the roadmap to recovering our democratic ethos in our core?


KENDZIOR: It’s going to be very difficult. I don’t even necessarily assume I’ll see it remedy in my lifetime. But I do think that the starting point is true. It’s brutal honesty about how we got to this point about events in American history that led us here, especially you know, corruption over the last 40 years, the erosion of the social safety net you know, broad assaults on democracy, whether the illicit war in Iraq or the financial crisis after which you know, no one was really punished. That lack of accountability greatly hurt us. On top of that, you have everything that the Trump Administration has done, which a lot of times people view as so outrageous or just chaotic, or he just wandered his way in there. They don’t see it as deliberate and they don’t notice the continuity that it’s often the very same bad political actors of the last 40 years, whether Bill Barr or Roger Stone or Paul Manafort or Trump himself that are involved in this. So we need to have a very frank open discussion and there needs to be actual legal consequences because those are the only kind of consequences that this group of criminals recognize. And then I do think in a way that we can move forward.


HEFFNER: Is that roadmap, legal accountability, and if so, in the current environment in which our Supreme Court just recently ruled in favor of Governor Christie’s political aides who said in an email they wanted to threaten the health of a neighboring community because it was under the administration of a Democratic opposing mayor. Our United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously liberal, conservative, Democratic and Republican appointees that because there was no ride in the form of quid pro quo with respect to land, or dollars, that corruption isn’t corruption. And that’s a reality that any new administration can either accept or abandon. But we have an entire body of a Supreme Court that unanimously said corruption is okay as long as there is not illegal transfer, illegal transfer of dollars and cents, every other kind of corruption, to deprive ventilators to communities because they have Democratic mayors to deprive state funding because there’s a Democratic governor that isn’t corruption. That’s the America we’re living in today.


KENDZIOR: Yes, it is actually in my book, in “Hiding in Plain Sight” I wrote about that same phenomenon in Missouri where I live. I wrote about Missouri as the bellwether of American decline. And one of the things I brought up were you know, legal studies from about a decade ago saying that even quid pro quo corruption has no meaning here. That we essentially live in a lawless land in the wild Midwest. And now that kind of corruption, that kind of entrenched criminality within the system in which those with power and money can get away with almost anything. That is the, you know, the way of the land, you see it in so many states, it’s not universal. It’s not completely consolidated, but it is the ideal situation for people involved in white collar crime, organized crime, money laundering, or for political parties like the GOP who embrace dark money and who seek not democracy but a one party state and they’ll use whatever means to get there. So yes, I’m very worried about the court system, but I think some of the problem is that, you know, there’s been a reluctance among officials to admit that this is happening. You know, we heard over and over again: Mueller’s got it, Comey’s got it. Congress and Pelosi and the House have got it. Then it’s the 2020 election will save us, whereas we really have a systematic breakdown and we need to admit that that has happened and that, you know, they’re just not. And I think it’s because they’re so humiliated by this institutional failure and maybe not being on the ball. You know, when all of these trends started by thinking everything was okay, that unfortunately is what allowed it to happen. And often these are not malicious actors. These are people who did not want this outcome, but they underestimated the threat and we are all suffering for it. And so I wish everyone would just kind of come clean, you know, and call them out and name names.


HEFFNER: And they did name names in your home state with respect to the recently ousted governor, you know, he was involved in a corruption scandal that I want you to share with our audience and basically tell us whether or not he hid in plain sight with immunity with impunity or with immunity. And did he get away with it because it seems like he partially did and partially didn’t.


KENDZIOR: You’re referring to Eric Greitens, and so let’s see what the rating is for your program here ‘cause it’s fairly specious. Eric Greitens was the Governor of Missouri. He ran as the sort of, you know, contrived redneck Missouri persona. In reality, he’s a Rhodes Scholar who lived in a mansion and you know, was using the GOP to get into political power. Once in power he was involved in a lot of shady activity. He tied a woman up in his basement and photographed her half naked and blackmailed her. He had a system, an app where he would delete emails, including state documents. He was involved in a number of financial fraud, including stealing from veterans groups, you know, a lot of which went back to his campaign. Some of his campaign officials are greatly tied to the Trump Administration, especially to Mike Pence. You know, and so he was indicted.

He was indicted a couple of times and this was back in 2018 and what was remarkable at the time and the big sphere of everyone in Missouri is that he has refused to leave. You know, and the Republicans even in Missouri were pressuring him. They were like, you know, you’ve got to know, you have committed crimes and what appears to have happened otherwise, I can’t completely vouch for this, is that some sort of deal was struck where he wasn’t going to be actually prosecuted or incarcerated. But he stepped down. And so now we have a new governor when he was not handling the coronavirus pandemic well, but to my knowledge, he’s never tied up a woman in his basement. So points to him I guess. But yeah, it was a real example of the kind of fear that this unbridled corruption, particularly when our state corruption is linked to a national corruption within the Trump Administration, where Greitens was seen as someone who could potentially be the Vice President or the President of the United States. That’s very frightening. And right now you know, he’s planning his political comeback and because there’s no consequences for this kind of behavior, I could see that happening over the next couple of years.


HEFFNER: So what was the ingredient though for that pressure to be institutionalized in the sense that there was a check with respect to his administration of the state and Republicans were ultimately fed up enough? The mainstream coverage seemed to suggest there was a personality issue as much as there was malfeasance. But I’m just wondering if your example in Missouri, as you say is the laboratory of democracy dysfunction correction course. What clicked with those legislators to say corruption is not partisan unless it’s only being committed by one side, right, corruption is antithetical to our constitutional values on a state and federal level, so what clicked with those legislators that hasn’t clicked with the Susan Collins and rest of the Republican, Rob Portman, others who came into their Senate tenures with an aura and something of a reputation for accountability and have just dropped the ball so utterly.


KENDZIOR: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I sometimes wonder if this scandal were occurring now, you know, in 2020 versus in 2018 where we’ve had such a further erosion of accountability, such flagrant criminality, you know, as described during the impeachment hearings and otherwise, whether maybe Greitens would still be around, maybe the Republicans wouldn’t push so hard nowadays. You know, back then it was a few things. The Missouri Republican party isn’t a monolith. You know, during the primary it was kind of split between Trump and Ted Cruz. And there were a lot of, you know, fundamentalist Christians who found Trump you know, fairly repulsive. Eventually they kind of signed on. And I think they had that same attitude about Greitens that this was just like, you know, they weren’t as bothered you know, in a moral sense by the financial stuff. It was the sex-related stuff I think that was getting to them. But I think mostly, you know, it was, it was his campaign team. I think it was the fact that if Greitens were to be brought to trial, a lot of revelations about where he got his money and about the dark money system of Missouri that fuels our politics would be revealed to, you know, to Missourians as we cast our vote. And we are a state that has been trying to get dirty money out of politics for a long time. They passed an initiative; voters did in 2018 called Clean Missouri that was supposed to stop these kinds of pernicious political practices. It’s now of course being struck down by the Republican government. But I think that that’s where the leverage is. The leverage is in following the money. It’s in exposing the corruption. It’s in exposing the way that con artists and grifters dominate our government because I do think that people will vote for a lot of bad things. They will vote for a bigot. They will vote for people who will shatter the social safety net. What they don’t want to vote for is somebody who’s going to steal their money. No one likes a kleptocrat. No one likes to be fooled. That is what Greitens was. That is what Trump is. And I think that if the Democrats or any opponent of Trump hammered that home, that this guy is a criminal, is taking your money. I mean, who the hell wants to vote for that? You know?


HEFFNER: Is it also true, Sarah, that there was more of an evidentiary basis to make those accusations and ultimately indictments in a way that Bob Mueller refused to investigate, and it’s not clear if Congress with the present Supreme Court will ever have access to the financial records that exposed on the state level of someone like the former governor Greitens.


KENDZIOR: Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, Mueller did not look for Trump’s tax returns. He did not look that deeply into Deutsche Bank, which is the center of Russian mob laundering, the Jeffrey Epstein case you know, various arrangements Trump had financially you know, it’s basically a pathway to a lot of secrets. He also didn’t interview key parties or indict obvious criminals like Jared Kushner. And the thing is with the Mueller probe is that these are people who confessed their crimes, like Donald Trump doesn’t try to hide this association with Russia. He gets out on the stage and says Russia will you get me Hillary Clinton’s emails. And then in 2017, his son Donald Trump, Jr. tweets out incriminating emails about that meeting in Trump Tower. So you’re kind of looking at this and you’re like, Mueller, this doesn’t seem very hard to solve, being that they’re constantly telling you about their criminal behavior. Like, how in the world could this one take two years and you know, to lead basically to no results. We had a number of baffling decisions made during that probe. Like the plea deals for people like Michael Flynn, a very dangerous individual who was working simultaneously for Russia and Turkey and you know, involved in all sorts of illicit endeavors. He’s a danger to us, now walking around free. He got a plea deal, served no time and now Trump wants to put him back into the administration. How in the world is that justice being served?


HEFFNER: Right. Well look, you’re, we’re going to see this tested now during the campaign, the extent to which Mueller’s exoneration in effect, based on his refusal to investigate in his narrow mandate, if you want to call it that. Initially we thought that that would embolden Donald Trump, then we had the Ukraine affair and impeachment, and now we’re in the midst of this pandemic, in which the government is failing on any number of levels and that same kakistocracy and corrupt modus operandi of government is fully in operation. I guess my question is Sarah is do you think the emboldening of his corruption over these many months is going to lead him to reelection under any circumstance because of what you’ve documented about his autocratic tendencies that no president has really professed since Andrew Johnson. Maybe Andrew Jackson. So I mean it’s hard to ask this question, but I have to, which is, is the corruption going to enable him to be reelected under any circumstance?


KENDZIOR: I mean, I think it’s certainly possible and I would call it more of a reinstallation than a reelection because I’ve never thought we were going to have a free and fair election. I think we should try, you know, I think that’s why we should have been looking at things like voter suppression, foreign interference, insecure machines all along. It’s why we should be pushing for voting by mail now so that they can’t exploit the coronavirus crisis to do that. But yeah, he has no intention of leaving. It’s not hard to understand what Trump wants. He wants money, power, and immunity from prosecution. And right now he uses his executive privileges to say that he can’t be prosecuted. And people like Mueller, accept that they say, Oh, it’s, you know, I’m just following present precedent. Like even though this person is obviously tremendously damaging to our country, he is purging, you know, the FBI at which Mueller worked. He is blatantly committing crimes. I mean, the list of impeachable offenses is just, it’s endless. It’s emolument. It’s obstruction of justice, it’s lying to the FBI, it’s all sorts of things. And they, they haven’t pursued it. So yeah, every time he gets away with the crime, he becomes more emboldened. And every time someone in his circle does or they walk free, he becomes emboldened as well. And you know, why wouldn’t you? It’s logical. I mean, it’s reprehensible, but it makes sense from his perspective.


HEFFNER: And there are two ways to view the consequences electorally in the pandemic one is, you know, you’re an expert now just on the political accountability piece of this, but fly over country about what you’ve written extensively, the Heartland, however you want to, what’s the best way to refer to these varying states? It’s not just Missouri, it’s any state in which, you know, the, American people are more governed by suburb and rural counties than metropolises. But you know the two ways to view it are the pandemic is going to encourage accountability even if it encourages in the next months, further abuses of power. But ultimately the view from “Flyover Country,” that quote your first excellent book is, is going to be accountability. And I’m, I’m wondering, based on your experience of the pandemic in Missouri and elsewhere where you always tweet out beautiful photos of our great country, the Heartland, do you think that accountability on a failed pandemic response is going to transcend some of the conventional party lines in the same way that President Obama was able to win in the Heartland, Indiana, close to winning Missouri? Do you think that Biden’s capable of that?


KENDZIOR: It’s hard to say because what I’m seeing is a weaponization of the pandemic. I think because it disproportionately affected New York and we’re seeing all of this really destructive behavior, you know, people thinking of wearing a mask and practicing social distancing as a partisan form of behavior instead of just common sense and public safety. I feel like I’m seeing a microcosm of the national situation living in St. Louis, in Missouri because you know, I live in a metropolitan region of about 3 million people and that region crosses over between a red and a blue state or a quote red state of Missouri and the blue state of Illinois. And that’s all the St. Louis region. And you know, I think that these designations of red and blue are really facetious and you can see it here. What we’re having happened with our governor is he is quote opening up Missouri, liberating Missouri, sucking up to Trump, not passing any regulations in part because he doesn’t want to pay people unemployment. But we in St. Louis are still under “shelter in place.” And so that kind of mirrors what Trump is doing nationally where he’s saying, yeah, we’re all open for business. Everything’s fine. He’s not testing anybody but cities you know, under their mayors, under their county executives or what have you, they are under much more restrictive practices. So wherever we are, we are, you know, seeing different things. And of course we have great economic inequality in terms of who has to go out beyond the front lines, put themselves in danger. It’s often people in service jobs and things like that. And there’s also been disproportionate you know, racial suffering in terms of who is most likely to catch this. It’s disproportionately affected black and Native American communities. And so they’re weaponizing all of that. I hope it doesn’t happen. I mean this is a time where we as Americans should be coming together. We should be having national mourning. Trump is against that. He won’t even lower the flag. That to me is very sad cause I’m sad for New York, from Missouri and the way I would hope New York would be sad for us. It’s something terrible. You know, where to happen here. And it’s really just shameful and sad that we don’t have that sense of national unity in such a time of crisis.


HEFFNER: Do you think that the work of the Lincoln Project and the former Republicans who have made the realization that Donald Trump is a mortal threat to our democracy and our way of life, do you think that that is experienced and felt in a lot of suburban and rural homes and that that will be a crossover effect that even with the paralysis of the underserved communities that you’re describing, that that will be so potent, as to overcome the traditional lines of demarcation that you’re talking about red and blue and Republican and Democratic representation.


KENDZIOR: Yeah, I mean, all of those, those boundaries are kind of not as stark as I think folks think they are. And Trump was never as popular in Missouri, you know, or to my knowledge in other States as people think that he is, I often hear this, 40 percent of people like him figure bandied about, there’s really no substance for that. His voters are not his base. And a lot of people feel disillusioned, feel, let down, feel betrayed by the way that this administration is run. You know, I’ve talked to Trump voters who paradoxically thought that they were voting for stability. They thought they were voting for some kind of strong man who was going to take away, you know, the dire circumstances and uncertainty of their lives. And instead it’s just gotten more and more chaotic. I don’t know if you know that group or that add is really the thing that’ll do it cause I think people knew this on their own already. But that’s why I’m much more worried about the integrity of the election and Trump conceding than I am about Biden or you know, if something happens and there’s some other Democrat, you know, I think any of the Democrats honestly would win over Trump in a free and fair election because I think he’s generally widely disliked. The problem is I don’t think we’re going to have a free and fair election and I don’t think that folks are taking the steps necessary to ensure that. And it’s become even more challenging with the pandemic.


HEFFNER: And you can check out our recent interviews on voting rights during the pandemic on The Open Mind podcast. One of our most recent conversations was with Ned Foley, who’s an expert on disputed elections and game played that situation with us. Before I let you go, Sarah, you are in Missouri, Missouri; tomato, tomato, and so I don’t know if Seth Meyers talked to you about this off camera, you were recently on with Seth. The intersection of our politics and entertainment for those who view show Ozarks on Netflix, it certainly gets into a whiff of impropriety, corruption, and illicit behavior, intersecting with Illinois, your home state and this part of the Heartland. I haven’t asked you before and I haven’t seen you tweet about it. So I wanted to give you an open forum to comment on how realistic a portrait that is of the mainstreaming of corruption in our political processes.


KENZIOR: No spoilers. I’ve seen season one. I thought it was great. I started watching season two, but I was writing “Hiding in Plain Sight” when it came out. And I was like, I can’t see this some more. I can’t write about Eric Greitens and watch the show. It’s like too much. I have no relief. So I’m planning to get back to it. I heard season three is even better. I do think it’s a good show. I was worried it was going to, you know, traffic in stereotypes about Missouri. But you know, I go down to the lake and it really is a wide variety of people and there is, you know, quite a bit of criminality and corruption, as well as, you know, many good people in Missouri. I think Missouri was silly to not let the show the film here. You know, we could be making quite a bit of money with that and then just another lame decision from our government. But yeah, I’m excited to get back to that now that the book is done and I can get some entertaining relief.


HEFFNER: And folks can of course download it through electronic means. They can listen to it I’m sure in time if it’s not already available as an audio.


KENDZIOR: The book you mean?


HEFFNER: Yes, the book.


KENDZIOR: Yeah, yeah. It’s available: Hardcover, ebook, audible, like any format you want.


HEFFNER: And just to close, you know, I did want to ask you, because your subject so much overlaps with our guest, Tom Nichols a couple of years ago. You know, when you see “Hiding in Plain Sight” and sort of want to just impart some wisdom to viewers who are going to look at your book, do you see it more as up is down or up is nothing in the sense of, you know, the kind of conundrum, is it more Orwell or Huxley that we’re living through right now? So is up, down or is up nothing.


KENDZIOR: It’s a combination. I mean, I think that we are experiencing a genuine transition into autocracy in which we’re losing many of our rights. We’re losing many of our constitutional protections and we also have incredible propaganda, doublespeak, big brother surveillance, what have you. We are also you know, entertaining ourselves to death. I think that people are lulled by a media system that is much more an infotainment system than an actual, you know, thorough telling of truth. That kind of you know, system came into play in the nineties with reality television and cable news. Trump is very, very skillful at navigating that new kind of media system. And he always has been. And I think that that is one of the reasons he gets away with the amount of crimes that he does because people just see them as scandals and you know they’ll talk about them for about 48 hours. There are no consequences, and then they drift away. But these are serious offenses and people should take them seriously.


HEFFNER: Thank you. Thank you, Sarah. I appreciate your time. Please our viewers go take a look at “Hiding in Plain Sight.” Congratulations on the book and stay safe.


KENDZIOR: Thank you. Thanks for having me.


HEFFNER: Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.