The story of Donald Trump’s rise to power is the story of a buried American history—buried because powerful people liked it that way. It was visible without being seen, influential without being named, ubiquitous without being overt.
The Trump administration is like a reality show featuring villains from every major political scandal of the past forty years—Watergate, Iran-Contra, 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 financial collapse—in recurring roles and revivals, despite the widespread desire of the public for the show to be canceled. From Roger Stone to Paul Manafort to William Barr, it is a Celebrity Apprentice of federal felons and disgraced operatives dragged out of the shadows and thrust back into the spotlight—with Donald Trump, yet again, at the helm.
The crises of political corruption, organized crime, and endemic racism are all connected, and they shape everyday American life. But in addition to these structural problems, we contend with specific powerful individuals who have acted against the public good for their entire careers. We see the same old men, again and again, vampires feeding on a nation and draining the lifeblood from words like “treason” and “trauma” and “tragedy.” They are buffered by backers who prefer to operate in silence, free from the consequences of scrutiny. There is a reason they call it a criminal underground: you walk over it every day, unaware it exists until the earth shakes below your feet.
In the eyes of autocrats and plutocrats, the future is not a right but a commodity. As climate change brings unparalleled crises, the future becomes a rare asset, meant to be hoarded like diamonds or gold. To millionaire elites, many of whom already had an apocalyptic bent, a depopulated world is not a tragedy but an opportunity—and certainly easier to manage as they insulate themselves from the ravages of a literally scorched earth. The last four decades have led to the hoarding of resources on a heretofore unimaginable scale by people who have neither baseline respect for human life nor a traditional sense of the future. Their destructive actions have programmed a desperate generation to settle for scraps instead of settling the score.
Unless we were part of the opportunity-hoarding elite—the Ivankas and Jareds of the world—my generation did not get to have choices. Instead we had reactions. We fought to hold on to what we had before it was stolen, while thieves demanded our gratitude and supplication. The opportunity-hoarding elite told us we were imagining the permanence of our plight and sold us survival as an aspiration.
This book tells the story of how they cornered that market.
* * *
It is a terrible feeling to sense a threat coming. It is worse when the threat reveals itself to be real, especially when many of those you warned still dismiss it, and you do not know whether their reaction is rooted in apathy or doubt or fear. What is a warning, in the end, if not a confession—a declaration of what you value and what you will fight to protect? To warn of a threat and be dismissed is to have your own worth questioned, along with the worth of all you strive to keep safe. But there is a price to be paid in persuasiveness, too. I used to think that the worst feeling in the world would be to tell a terrible truth and have no one believe it. I have learned it is worse when that truth falls not on deaf ears but on receptive ones. It is one thing to listen, it is another to care—and yet another to act in time.
In fall 2015, I predicted that Donald Trump would win the presidential election, and that once installed, he would decimate American democracy. It was the latest in a career of issuing unheeded warnings. For years, I had warned of the widespread erosion of American institutions and social trust. I wrote a series of essays documenting my nation’s demise, many of which were later published in my first book, The View from Flyover Country. The essays were shaped in part by the harsh conditions of Missouri, the state I call home, a state that had long been the bellwether of American politics and now served as the bellwether of American decline.
But the crisis I documented was nationwide: rising political paranoia, opportunity-hoarding by wealthy elites, a “post-employment economy” of side hustles and unpaid labor, the weaponization of digital media by dictators and extremists, and the catastrophic consequences of unchecked corruption. These were not abstract concerns. The cumulative effect was a collective agony intensified by the all-American shame of seeing systemic breakdowns as personal failings. It had been a long time since I or anyone I knew had dreams instead of circumstances.
I had seen these conditions before in countries often presented as antitheses of my own. Prior to covering the United States, I was an academic researcher studying dictatorships in the former Soviet Union, focusing mainly on the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan. Until 2016, Uzbekistan was ruled by Islam Karimov, a former communist official who became Uzbekistan’s first president in 1991 and remained its dictator until his death, constitutional term limits be damned. Like all Central Asian presidents, Karimov was a kleptocrat: a leader who abuses executive power to enhance their personal wealth. (Kleptocracy literally means “rule by thieves.”) Kleptocracy usually goes hand in hand with autocracy—a system of government in which one ruler holds absolute control—and Karimov was no exception. He began his tenure proclaiming that he would make Uzbekistan great again and plastered his catchphrase, “Uzbekistan—a future great state!,” on ubiquitous signs.1 He called independent media “the enemy of the people” and hid information about national crises from the public.2 He persecuted political opponents, LGBT citizens, pious Muslims, and other marginalized groups.3 He had an intense yet strange relationship with Russia. And he had a glamorous fashionista daughter who kept inserting herself into political affairs despite her utter lack of qualifications …4
You may see where I’m going here.
When I realized in 2015 that Donald Trump was likely to become the president of the United States, I began warning everyone I knew to prepare for what was long thought impossible: an American autocracy, wrapped in a tabloid veneer. This should not have been seen as far-fetched. In eras of economic decline and political chaos—like America in 2015—demagogues and dictators tend to arise. Trump was the former and seemed determined to become the latter. He ran his campaign like an autocrat-in-waiting: scapegoating immigrants and minorities, threatening journalists who refused to coddle him, vowing to repeal rights and protections, and expressing a preference for dictators over democratic allies. The media whom Trump called his enemy acted like his best friend, airing his rallies in full, letting his lies linger, and treating the prospect of his win as a joke or a ratings boon. Throughout 2016, hate crimes rose as Trump rebranded racism as populism and recruited white supremacists from the dregs of the GOP (like Jeff Sessions) and the extreme right (like Steve Bannon) to join his campaign.
All anyone needed to see Trump as a potential American autocrat were their own eyes. His desire to dismantle democracy was out in the open. He did not bother to hide his goals because he knew few believed he could achieve them. That sort of thing does not happen here, commentators scoffed, citing checks and balances and centuries of democratic stability. American exceptionalism—the widespread belief that America is unique among nations and impervious to autocracy—is the delusion that paved Trump’s path to victory. The only honest line of Trump’s campaign was that America was broken. Trump would know: he helped break it, and now he and his backers sought to capitalize off the wreckage. Trump did not strike me as stupid, like pundits kept proclaiming, but as a master manipulator who preyed on pain like a vulture.
In America, there was more pain than people in power were willing to admit, and more pain than people on the ground could bear. Trump did not feel like a novelty. He felt like a culmination.
* * *
My initial fear that Trump sought to rule like post-Soviet dictators was soon supplanted by the realization he was directly connected to said dictators through his own staff. In March 2016, Trump hired Paul Manafort as his campaign adviser. Manafort was a Republican political operative who had known Trump for over three decades, taking up residence in Trump Tower in 2006. In the 1980s and 1990s, Manafort and Roger Stone—another old Trump friend and presidential campaign adviser—partnered in a D.C. firm nicknamed “the torturers’ lobby” because their clients included the most brutal dictators in the world.5 By the mid-2000s, Manafort had left the firm to pursue his own specialty: serving oligarchs from the former Soviet Union.
Oligarchs are extraordinarily wealthy businessmen who both buffer and are protected by the Kremlin and other dictatorships in the former USSR. (The word “oligarch” is usually used in reference to Russia, but oligarchs are transnational operators.) Oligarchs and government officials have a synergistic relationship aimed at streamlining state corruption and facilitating white-collar crime. Their American analogs are plutocrats: the millionaires and billionaires who wield undue influence over the American political system, making it less democratic in the process. To see what unchecked corporate power looks like without even the pretense of law, you need look no further than Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Trump views Russia’s brutal hypercapitalism with envy. Putin, who stripped Russia of resources and rights, is rumored to be the wealthiest man in the world.6
Trump spent the early months of his campaign praising Putin. While appalling, this made sense: the two shared an affinity for corruption, extravagance, and white supremacy. What I did not know was that they also shared a history. When Manafort joined the Trump team, I began researching Trump’s ties to Russia, and discovered that the connections I assumed to be aspirational were real, stretched back decades, and had been acknowledged by Trump himself. “Putin contacted me and was so nice,” Trump bragged to Fox News in 2014, referencing his 2013 visit to Moscow to host the Miss Universe pageant. Trump added that the United States should stop “knocking Russia” because Russia was going to help ensure a future “win,” the details of which Trump did not specify.7
Russian state media outlet RT cheered Trump’s Fox appearance, part of their regular promotion of Trump as a credible American political leader.8 In August 2015, a team of Western scholars of Russia wondered why the Kremlin was so focused on a long-shot candidate best known as the host of The Apprentice, but their observation flew under the radar.9 It was not until Trump asked Russia for Hillary Clinton’s emails at a July 2016 press conference that Trump’s illicit ties to the Kremlin became a mainstream media topic—but even then, most of the story remained untold. Trump’s reverence for Russia was framed as mere improper behavior instead of what it was: an ominous twist on a long dark-money trail. For decades, Trump had relied on oligarchs and mobsters from the former USSR for support after Wall Street blacklisted him following his bankruptcies in the 1990s.10 The one bank that agreed to take him on—Deutsche Bank—is notorious for facilitating Russian money-laundering.11 But Trump’s illicit dealings went as far back as the mid-1980s—when the first Russian mobsters moved into Trump Tower—and his network of criminal associates has expanded ever since. By spring 2016, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump had spent most of his adult life connected to a transnational mafia with ties to the Kremlin.
Trump’s illicit foreign ties constituted a profound national security threat, but few US officials would acknowledge it during the campaign season. One exception was Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who wrote an open letter to FBI Director James Comey in August 2016, warning him that the election was under attack. Citing evidence of a direct connection between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, Reid wrote that Russian operatives sought to falsify election results and begged Comey to give the American people the full story before they went to the polls.12 Comey refused, and refused again after Reid wrote a follow-up letter in October. As the evidence mounted, I grew deeply concerned that US institutions were compromised and that the election would be as well.
The summer and fall of 2016 felt like screaming into a void, as Trump played his most reliable trick—covering up crime with scandal—on a gullible punditry convinced Hillary Clinton was both “the real criminal” and a lock to win the presidency. I warned that the polls were not reliable and that demography was not destiny: the increased diversity of America was offset by repressive new voter ID laws designed to disenfranchise nonwhite voters, who tend to vote for Democrats.13 I covered the rise of the white supremacist mob violence stoked by the Trump campaign, explaining that his conspiracy theories were an effective form of propaganda.14 I speculated that Trump, a real estate tycoon, had essentially bought the Fourth Estate, threatening critical journalists and witnesses into silence and exploiting the click-hungry desperation of the media economy.15 The fringes had been pulled to the center, the extreme had become mainstreamed, and no outcome should have been ruled out.
In the end I was right. Trump won. And being right felt terrible.
* * *
Once an autocrat gets into office, it is very hard to get them out. They will disregard term limits, they will purge the agencies that enforce accountability, they will rewrite the law so that they are no longer breaking it. They 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. That is why it is important to act early, particularly when that autocrat is backed by a crime syndicate that transcends state borders in its pursuit of power and wealth.
Most of the coverage of Trump’s apparent criminal activity, particularly with regard to the 2016 election, centers around Russia. This makes sense: the Kremlin is the main actor in the hijacking of the 2016 election, and Trump’s reverence toward Russia is one of his few consistent foreign policy stances. But what we are dealing with is far more insidious than an attack on the United States by a single government. Trump is part of a complex illicit network including individuals from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Kingdom, the United States, and more—some of whom do not have loyalty to any particular country. Their loyalty is to themselves and their money. Many are criminals without borders who have moved from hijacking businesses to hijacking nations. Some call them fascists; I avoid this term because being a fascist requires an allegiance to the state. To these operatives, the state is just something to sell.
This elite criminal network has been building for decades. It is linked to other groups: right-wing Republican extremists, apocalyptic religious movements of varied faiths, social media corporations, advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association, and parts of the mainstream media. It is pervasive but not all-encompassing. I am not arguing that every entity has been corrupted by it, but I would argue that total domination is the outcome they seek. Now that members of this network hold the reins of power in multiple nations, the goal is to strip each nation down and sell it for parts. The network is not uniform in its desires—some are in it for the money, some for territorial ambitions, some to satisfy their religious or white supremacist fanaticism. But over the course of decades, disparate parties have joined together to destroy democracy. They permeate the very institutions tasked to stop them. How that transpired—and what it means for ordinary Americans—is the subject of this book.
Nations have faced autocracy before and recovered. It is not easy, but it is possible: witness the peaceful revolutions that preceded the collapse of the USSR, the dissolution of apartheid in South Africa, and the fall of tyrants throughout history, from Hitler to Milosevic to Mubarak. But the crisis we face now is new. Its transnational nature and reliance on non–state actors who can use digital media to override borders—Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is a prime example—means it lacks true historic precedent. Climate change is another factor that makes our current crisis distinct from any other. It is doubtful that this group of roving criminals and kleptocrats are the climate skeptics they purport to be. It is far more likely that they are, as Naomi Klein phrases it, “disaster capitalists” who see opportunity in a dying planet, and who will spare no expense in pursuit of their own preservation.16
Throughout this book, I describe how digital media has transformed state repression and citizen protest, and how globalization allowed organized crime to proliferate on an unparalleled scale. I explain that mafia networks have long been accomplices of dictatorships (and sometimes democracies). But now the state has become a proxy for the mafia, an arrangement overt in Russia but present to various degrees in countries worldwide. Trump is a node in a sadistic network whose ambitions extend beyond borders, and whose ties go back decades. This book explains how America went from a flawed democracy to a burgeoning autocracy, and how the refusal to render consequences for elite criminality allowed us to get there.
The election of the first anti-American president was caused neither by electoral whim nor by the good fortune of a charismatic madman. His rise was made possible by a coterie of criminals who do not want to be punished but delight in being caught. Flaunting their criminal impunity is part of the thrill. Their belief that they would never be held accountable is logical since they had never faced serious consequences despite spending decades committing illegal acts. In fact, they had reaped ample rewards. Now, finally, they had the greatest reward of all: the power to rewrite law itself.
In 2016, the same phenomena took place all over the Western world. Demagogic white nationalists rose, elites falsely played down their loss or the ramifications of their win, and hate crimes exploded when victory was achieved. It was all predictable, but now there was no clear organized process to stop it. Instead, vulnerable people waited for responsible officials to intervene. They are still waiting.
* * *
I was not the only one to predict the election results or the reshaping of American political culture under Trump. Pundits and politicians like to say that “No one saw it coming,” but what they mean is that they consider the people who saw it coming to be no one. The category of “no one” includes the people smeared by Trump in his propaganda: immigrants, black Americans, Muslim Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, LGBT Americans, disabled Americans, and others long maligned and marginalized—groups for whom legally sanctioned American autocracy was not an unfathomable horror, but a personal backstory.
“No one” also included a slew of scholars of authoritarian states who saw parallels to Trump in figures like Hitler, Milosevic, and, of course, Putin, but who were dismissed as alarmist despite their expertise. These scholars are a mix of liberals and conservatives from across the political spectrum—scholars who otherwise rarely agree. But we all saw the same danger: that is how predictable autocracy is and how reliably Trump meets its criteria. Our shared insistence that, yes, American democracy is destined for destruction unless we radically change course should disconcert you.
The category of “no one” is diverse and savvy and I’m glad to be in its ranks. The category of “no one” does not include the many pundits and politicians whose failure to grasp reality has created a national security threat, and whose lack of empathy toward the targeted proves even more dangerous.
* * *
In November 2016, I still hoped we could avoid catastrophe. We had two and a half months to get US officials to grasp the severity of the situation and to prepare Americans for the horror and chaos ahead. Alongside many others, I organized, researched, and wrote articles. One article was called “We Are Heading Into Dark Times—This Is How to Be Your Own Light.”17 It was an open letter to the people of the country I love.
I’ve included excerpts of this letter here to capture what I felt and what I understood at this specific time right after the election, free of the revelations and ramifications that I describe in later chapters. I want people to understand that our political plight was, in fact, predictable, and therefore to some extent preventable—and to question why those in power either denied the extent of the rot or came to embrace and embody it.
My fellow Americans, I have a favor to ask you.
Today is November 18, 2016. I want you to write about who you are, what you have experienced, and what you have endured.
Write down what you value; what standards you hold for yourself and for others. Write about your dreams for the future and your hopes for your children. Write about the struggle of your ancestors and how the hardship they overcame shaped the person you are today.
Write your biography, write down your memories. Because if you do not do it now, you may forget.
Write a list of things you would never do. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will do them.
Write a list of things you would never believe. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will either believe them or be forced to say you believe them.
It is increasingly clear, as Donald Trump appoints his cabinet of white supremacists and war-mongers, as hate crimes rise, as the institutions that are supposed to protect us cower, as international norms are shattered, that his ascendency to power is not normal.
This is an American authoritarian kleptocracy, backed by millionaire white nationalists both in the United States and abroad, meant to strip our country down for parts, often using ethnic violence to do so.
This is not a win for anyone except them. This is a moral loss and a dangerous threat for everyone in the United States, and by extension, everyone abroad.
I have been studying authoritarian states for over a decade, and I would never exaggerate the severity of this threat. Others who study or have lived in authoritarian states have come to the same conclusion as me.
And the plight is beyond party politics: it is not a matter of having a president-elect whom many dislike, but having a president-elect whose explicit goal is to destroy the nation.
I am writing this not for those who oppose him, but for those who support him, because Trump and his backers are going to hurt you too …
You can look to the president-elect himself for a vision of what is to come. He has told you his plans all along, though most chose to downplay or deny them. You can even look back to before his candidacy, when in February 2014, he went on Fox News to defend Russia. Why a reality TV host was on Fox News defending Russia is its own story, but here is what he said about his desired outcome for the United States: “You know what solves it? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll have a [chuckles], you know, you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”
This is what “Make America Great Again” means to Donald Trump. It is how he has operated his businesses, taking advantage of economic disasters like the housing market crash for personal gain. It is why, during a long and painful recession, he made “You’re fired” a national catchphrase, because he understands that sometimes it feels good to know that the person getting fired, for once, is not you. He said he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and people would still vote for him, and he said he could grab women “by the pussy” because “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
He is right about that last part. No one holds Trump accountable, because he is exactly what he claimed to be railing against: an elite billionaire with no concern for the average person, a kleptocrat who enjoys taunting people less powerful than him with threats. When you have that kind of money, which Trump was given at birth and further gained through fraud, there are few limitations to the ways you can hurt people.
He is right that the system is rigged: it is rigged in his favor. And now it is rigged against you, unless we find a way to stop it …
I will rearrange my life so I can fight this fight, because I am fighting for my country, and I never give up on my country or on my countrymen.
But I need you to fight too, in the way that matters most, which is inside. Authoritarianism is not merely a matter of state control, it is something that eats away at who you are. It makes you afraid, and fear can make you cruel. It compels you to conform and to comply and accept things that you would never accept, to do things you never thought you would do.
You do it because everyone else is doing it, because the institutions you trust are doing it and telling you to do it, because you are afraid of what will happen if you do not do it, and because the voice in your head crying out that something is wrong grows fainter and fainter until it dies.
That voice is your conscience, your morals, your individuality. No one can take that from you unless you let them. They can take everything from you in material terms—your house, your job, your ability to speak and move freely. They cannot take away who you truly are. They can never truly know you, and that is your power.
But to protect and wield this power, you need to know yourself—right now, before their methods permeate, before you accept the obscene and unthinkable as normal.
My heart breaks for the United States of America. It breaks for those who think they are my enemies as much as it does for my friends. You still have your freedom, so use it. There are many groups organizing for both resistance and subsistence, but we are heading into dark times, and you need to be your own light. Do not accept brutality and cruelty as normal even if it is sanctioned. Protect the vulnerable and encourage the afraid. If you are brave, stand up for others. If you cannot be brave—and it is often hard to be brave—be kind.
But most of all, never lose sight of who you are and what you value. If you find yourself doing something that feels questionable or wrong a few months or years from now, find that essay you wrote on who you are and read it. Ask if that version of yourself would have done the same thing.
And if the answer is no? Don’t do it.
I have followed my own advice in terms of staying true to what I value and how I treat people. But despite my best efforts, this administration changed me. I had spent my professional life studying authoritarian regimes with the luxury of being able to leave them. My studies had been voluntary; I could stop at any time. When I went abroad to authoritarian states, I faced certain risks, but I took them knowing I could always return to the relative security of American life. Now the horror had come home.
The knowledge that the political transition is not yet complete, that we are still in the process of protections being stripped, speech being suppressed, and rule of law being annihilated shakes me, because I know how much worse it can get. I don’t have longing for the past. I have nostalgia for the future, because I am a mother, and whatever system wins will be the one my children inherit. When I allow myself to picture the world in ten years or twenty years, I have to force myself to stop because the pain is too much. I remind myself that the future is not set in stone, that I still have some ability to shape it. I cling to what cannot be predicted or controlled: love, imagination, originality. I try to live in a way that would break an algorithm. I pray to the unexpected.
We have lost a lot over the last few years, but one of the most disorienting losses is our sense of time. This is a common experience for people living in a democratic country that is transitioning into an autocracy. The last three years have been as much about deciphering the truth of the past as they are about debunking the lies of the present or fighting for the freedom of the future.
When I was a child, my baby boomer relatives would tell me the story of where they were when JFK was shot—the day their illusion of safety ended. That moment was crystalized: the location, the shock, the grief, the demarcation between one era and the next. In Trump’s America of nonstop crises, every day brings a soul-crushing development or an earth-shattering revelation. But I can rarely pinpoint where I was for any of them without a struggle, the way the details of a nightmare fade when you awaken but your body stays tense with fright. Everyone I know who follows the news closely experiences the same exhausting disorientation. We are trapped in a reality TV autocrat’s funhouse mirror, a blurred continuum of shock and sorrow that exhausts our capacity for clarity of thought.
There is a difference between expecting autocracy and accepting autocracy. It is necessary to expect it so that you can plan how you will fight. But the battle lines change, and you often end up changing with them, no matter how hard you try to resist. It is impossible not to change inside when children are snatched from their parents and held in concentration camps at the Texas border; when there is a sociopathic commander in chief with a nuke fetish threatening the world at whim; when the American government operates against the American people in collaboration with hostile states; and when you learn that men carried out horrific acts for decades without repercussions. It is impossible not to be shaken when you realize how many people knew of these crimes for so long and did nothing to help the victims. You feel haunted by the alternative America that could have existed had people told the truth.
For certain twenty-first-century elites, criminal impunity has turned into criminal immunity. Public leverage is disappearing along with the concept of the public good as a priority of the powerful. You live knowing that if you aren’t a propagandist or protector of the perpetrators, you are the prey. You watch as victims of decades-old atrocities stand up and speak out, hoping for resolution in our era of reevaluation, only to be reduced to a fleeting headline or a cautionary tale. You watch as crimes become “solved” by not being called “crimes” at all. You listen to the administration lay out the road map for future horrors—an acceleration of the existential threat of climate change, an entrenchment of autocratic measures—and to pundits proclaiming that these are mere fantasies. Everyone says it can’t happen here, until it does.
When I was pregnant with my second child, I remember wondering how it could be possible to love my second as much as my firstborn. A friend told me that love for your children is infinite; your heart expands to hold it, and she was right. What I did not realize until the last few years was that the same is true of grief. Whatever well exists inside us to capture the magnitude of loss—of lives, of expectations, of freedom—is vaster than I knew or wanted to know.
There’s a kind of horror that shakes you to your core, when you start believing in the devil because of what you witness and in hell because you want comfort. Sometimes all you are left with is anguish, and the desire for others to find the strength to survive and fight. People say that history will be on your side, but these days history is an endangered commodity. In autocracies this is always the case: history can be erased, history can be rewritten. But our era is different: the present cannot become history unless there is still a future, and a future is no longer guaranteed.
People ask me how I find hope. I answer that I don’t believe in hope, and I don’t believe in hopelessness. I believe in compassion and pragmatism, in doing what is right for its own sake. Hope can be lethal when you are fighting an autocracy because hope is inextricable from time. An enduring strategy of autocrats is to simply run out the clock.
* * *
While I was a graduate student in anthropology studying post-Soviet dictatorships, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered by Putin’s henchmen. I grieved for Politkovskaya, and I understood why she wrote what she did, despite the risks. At the time of her death in 2006, I had just published an exposé on a state massacre in the city of Andijon, Uzbekistan, that angered the Uzbek government. This was the first time I had written a work that had consequences in terms of my safety and also in terms of public policy. My article was used by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as other international organizations, and helped enable Uzbeks from the Andijon region to receive asylum abroad.
I understood Politkovskaya’s moral imperative to tell the truth no matter the cost. But it is one thing to write about the plight of another country and voluntarily make oneself vulnerable; it is another to experience the hijacking of your own nation firsthand. In 2006, living as a white woman in a flawed but relatively stable democracy, I could not comprehend on an emotional level how Politkovskaya processed Putin’s brutal consolidation of power. In her 2003 book A Small Corner of Hell, a compendium of her reporting in the war-torn region of Chechnya, she wrote:
I have a calendar like this for the 2002 Nord-Ost year, which has passed so quickly, and for the beginning of 2003. This calendar has no chronology and no external logic. It has nothing but images tied together by the logic of feelings surrounding this tragedy.
“Feelings?” someone might ask, dragging the word out disappointedly. “What about analysis? Practical conclusions? A sober prognosis?”
I’m not very good at prognosticating. Besides, we live in the time of Putin, when it is once again permissible to sacrifice thousands of lives “in the name of a bright non-terrorist future.” There are people who can analyze this, but few who can sympathize. And since feelings are so rare now, they are the most important thing in my calendar.18
I am not comparing my situation to Politkovskaya’s, who braved brutal conditions in both Russia and Chechnya and paid for it with her life. Nor am I proposing that America is an analog of Russia. America’s history of constitutional democracy is distinct from Russia’s history of entrenched autocracy, and while I’ve dealt with death threats for several years—a more common situation for political writers in the United States than most realize—I am not yet facing anything close to the dangers Russian independent journalists do.
Where common ground exists is in our kleptocratic leaders, in the cruel financiers who prop up our corrupt governments, and in the endless blitz of propaganda that seeks to erode the very concept of truth. Russian scholars have been discussing this phenomenon for decades, but it now dominates American discourse too. As I explained on MSNBC’s AM Joy on January 22, 2017, days after Trump’s inauguration, when the concept of “alternative facts” had first entered the vernacular: “What they’re trying to do is establish power: they are lying to flaunt power. They are saying to us: ‘We know that you know that this is a lie, and we don’t care, because there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.’”
Over years, ceaseless propaganda and spectacle, exacerbated by corrections and retractions, can destroy your sense of reality. Time spirals forward and lurches backward. Your memories of political events become blurred when you try to reconcile your initial reactions with the revelatory backstories behind them, forcing you to process your country’s history—and your own—in new and painful ways. As you do this, you have to live your life, which in the United States means struggling to survive in a gutted economy under a brutal regime that either seems to be collapsing or consolidating, depending on the day.
Like that of Politkovskaya, my own internal calendar now lacks a clear chronology. My memories are often reduced to “images tied together by the logic of feelings.” I knew this was likely to happen, and not only to me but to everyone. This is why I wrote that open letter encouraging people to write down who they were before autocratic consolidation took hold. I wanted Americans to have a way to remember what we thought of as normal and acceptable and track how far we have deviated. While many of us retained our integrity, there is no denying that we have become inured to the Trump administration and its cruelty and chaos—not accepting of it, but accustomed to it. Our expectations shifted, our standards fell, and our memories of the time before faded.
This book is an attempt to tell the truth about the time before, the story most people missed the first time around, and how the refusal to tell it led us into our current plight. It is a history of crime and corruption that ran underground for decades only to emerge in ways that are stark and unavoidable, like bedrock jutting out in a fallow field. Trump’s path to power parallels a decades-long erosion of American stability, integrity, and democracy. I tell some of this American story through the lens of my own life and reporting, as I tend to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; or the right place at the right time, depending on how you see it. Trump’s rise in the late 1970s coincided with my birth, and as I grew up I watched the consolidation of that corruption not so much shape my future as steal it.
I don’t remember a time when I felt safe in America, but I remember when I thought it was possible I would be, someday. The nostalgia for what never was is a familiar feeling for those born in the opening salvo in the symphony of American decline.
Whether as a scholar covering authoritarian regimes abroad, a journalist covering the decline of the United States, or an involuntary dissident in my own country, my recourse has been to write things down: to try to find clarity through words and give the madness meaning. The last three years forced me to not only reevaluate my nation but my place within it. I don’t believe in hope. I believe in facts and history. I believe my own eyes and ears. I believe the American people deserve the truth about what happened to their country.
To understand the truth you need to understand the history of America—the raw, mean version. I will begin in the center: in Missouri, the bellwether state turned corruption capital, the broken heartland that got the sneak preview to the national shitshow.
Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Kendzior