In this interview, Muftah speaks with Sarah Kendzior, an expert on the authoritarian states of post-Soviet Central Asia, about President-elect Donald Trump. Ms. Kendzior is a journalist with a Ph.D. in anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis and has extensively covered and commented on the 2016 U.S. presidential election for international media outlets. Ms. Kendzior’s in-depth study of authoritarian societies and close coverage of contemporary American society and politics make her a unique authority on the dynamics of “Trumpian” politics.
This interview was conducted on November 26 and has been edited for clarity.
Muftah: What do you believe was Trump’s initial motivation for running for president? Do you think his motivations changed as he got deeper into the process?
Sarah Kendzior (SK): That’s a complicated question. Trump has been inconsistent in policy throughout his life, switching his views dramatically as well as his party alliances. Where he has been consistent is in his desire for fame, power, and money, the latter of which he obtained in large part through fraud schemes, ranging from the Trump University scam to corrupt business practices everywhere from Gary, Indiana to Atlantic City and beyond. Though he did not in fact write “The Art of the Deal” — Tony Schwartz did, and has since described Trump as a sociopath and threat to human civilization – Trump has enjoyed making deals, particularly those which con people out of their hard-earned money. His presidential campaign, which he promised to self-fund but did not, instead relying on the donations fromm cash-strapped U.S. citizens, is another deceptive deal.
As for his presidential aspirations, Trump seemed motivated by his crusade against Barack Obama, particularly after President Obama roasted him at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011. That exchange helped spur Trump’s birther movement, which was always less about where Obama came from than where people like Trump thought he should go. You see remnants of that mindset in the bigotry of his campaign. An enormous number of hate crimes have been inspired by Trump’s rhetoric, which was widely embraced by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan.
At this point, however, I think it’s as important to look at the background of those supporting Trump as it is to look at Trump himself. Advisors like Paul Manafort have backed dictators around the world and, in particular, have aligned themselves with Vladimir Putin’s hostile political activity in countries like Ukraine. Manafort is supposed to be under FBI investigation. In August, Harry Reid specifically called on James Comey to reveal the results of that investigation to the public before the election, as he believed Russia planned to “falsify official election results.” He asked Comey to release information about the investigation again in October.
Instead, Comey released a non-story about Hillary Clinton’s emails that was irresponsibly covered by the press, perhaps influencing election results. Comey should be investigated for his role in that affair. Additionally, the NSA has warned that the election has been compromised by Russia. In October, David Corn at Mother Jones published an interview with a former FBI official saying that Russia has been cultivating Trump as a candidate for a long time.
In addition, the hiring of Steven Bannon should be examined, as his website, Breitbart, has published a large number of white supremacist and conspiratorial narratives. Bannon himself has announced his intent to destroy the United States.
All of this merits better investigative reporting than what we have been given by our media, which also has been threatened openly by Trump and his team. A congressional investigation into foreign influence is merited, along with a vote audit, and recount. The FBI should follow through on its obligation to release what Reid deemed “explosive information” about Russia’s role in the election. How deeply Trump himself is aware of foreign influence is unclear, particularly since he won’t release his tax returns – which he should immediately do, particularly as it becomes apparent he intends to abuse executive powers to boost his personal wealth. Trump is creating a kleptocracy.
To what extent are Trump’s policy proposals and promises a product of his own beliefs and to what extent are they being taken directly from his advising team?
SK: Trump has very good instincts for honing in on American pain and exploiting it for personal profit. Everything from Trump University, with its false promises, to making “You’re fired” a national tagline points to that ability. He is a charismatic showman, like many celebrities and dictators. He needs the applause of the crowd; he falters and panics without it.
As for his policies, they have, as I mentioned, been wildly inconsistent, with the exception of his fealty to Russia. His admiration for Putin substantially precedes the campaign and he was lauded in Russian media long before he declared his candidacy. Trump is assembling a cabinet which is pro-Putin and more generally pro-dictator, as well as extremely Islamophobic. They are taking real actions to build a registry of Muslims. Historians have warned of the obvious parallels with previous registries of religious minorities, which led to internment camps or mass slaughter. Trump certainly is not objecting to these policies, but I doubt he is their originator. I believe they come from his team, and that team of advisers should be examined.
What do you make of all the leaks and rumors about appointments, etc. that have been flooding the media, since the election?
SK: I’ve studied dictatorships for a long time, and one thing that authoritarian regimes do is try to divert you from bigger crises – for example, kleptocratic actions or violations of the law – by trotting out a rotating array of potential advisors. Trump understands this very well; he is basically using the same template as he did on “The Apprentice” only he is doing it to build a cabinet. I would examine his potential picks for serious corruption and advocacy of cruel and racist policies – people like Jeff Sessions, for example. They should be on the American radar anyway as threats to civil liberties. But, I would also expect the Trump team to change nominees quite a bit before ultimately making a decision.
What newspapers, magazines, and websites do you recommend following for the most accurate news and analysis regarding the Trump administration-to-be?
SK: I don’t recommend any particular site or publication, but encourage readers to look at the track records of writers covering the election and covering Trump. See whether they have been consistent, whether they have been accurate, whether they have paid attention to who will suffer under his policies, whether they have had beneficial business dealings with Trump (or currently do) and whether they have been threatened by Trump. That should help you decide who is trustworthy. And even then, I think it is important to examine all journalism with a critical eye, and to read broadly.
What specific advice do you have for people who want to fight back against the discriminatory and repressive policies being proposed by the new administration? For example, what should people living in “red” states do vs. people living in “blue” ones? What are the best actions to take before and after the inauguration?
SK: The policies of the Trump administration are going to play out very differently depending on who you are, where you live, whether you are an ethnic or religious minority, whether you live in a rural or urban area. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. That is why it is important to organize with your local community, both for resistance and subsistence. This is a great time to get to know your neighbors and your civic organizations, and build networks of trust that can function offline. It is also very important to let those who have been explicitly targeted by the new administration – like Muslims and Mexicans – know that you have their back. It is better to ask people what they need and see how you can be helpful than to assume you know the answers.
So, right now it is a very important time to listen, be reflective, be compassionate, and never accept cruelty – state sanctioned or not — as normal.