Sarah Kendzior on Trumpland’s Criminal Distortions of American Reality
“Fighting corruption is not a matter of changing hearts and minds but of accumulating leverage.”
It is common to hear that Americans no longer inhabit a shared reality. To a large extent this is true, especially in an era of social media manipulation, but we did not share a reality in simpler times either. We never shared equal justice under the law. What we did perhaps share was an ideal—the dreamy lure of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But that dream was deferred, then mortgaged along with our future, and the question now is less whether the dream is dead but who is most to blame for killing it.
We dream now of lives not so brazenly taken; liberty not so flagrantly stolen—fantasies snuffed out by those who claim accountability is forever coming soon, like an endless preview of a movie trapped in development hell. The tactics used to dissuade people from demanding accountability are discussed in detail in the next chapter. But all of them reflect both the profound social and political transformations that have taken place in the past decade and the desire to deny them.
The first thing to acknowledge is that after four years of Donald Trump as president, the fringes have been pulled to the center, with the result that the center no longer holds. Trump created a template for elite criminal impunity that aspiring successors seek to emulate. None have done so as successfully, but expect them to try for decades to come.
Trump’s main tactic was never to bury his offenses, but to flaunt them. He covered his big crimes with smaller crimes, and covered his smaller crimes with scandals, and in the process attempted to destroy the very notion of truth. His presidency exposed the weakness and complicity of institutions and proved that trusting the official line was a sucker’s bet.
A product of wealth and privilege who spent forty years in the rarefied world of business and entertainment when he was not repeatedly running for president, Trump peddled himself as a neophyte outsider—because it was better to be thought an all-American racist renegade than a transnational career criminal, and it was better to be thought an aberration than a culmination of unchecked corruption. Trump presented himself as locked in a battle with the very forces that enabled his rise: media, law enforcement, and government. As president, he used the power of the deep state to allege a conspiracy of the deep state against him—an extremely deep state move.
Second, American history has always been a process of extremism being mainstreamed into respectability and then reassessed by later generations who refuse to excuse past abuses. Reassessments tend to emerge in times of political instability, like the 1960s state violence that spurred the 1970s investigative journalism or the muckraking reporting of the 1930s that sought to out those responsible for the Great Depression.
The Trump era ushered in similar reevaluations of US history, particularly of systemic racism and white supremacist power structures. In the most well-known example, the 1619 Project—a 2019 compendium of articles that centered the enslavement of Black Americans in the narrative of America’s national identity and purpose—challenged how many Americans saw their past. For many white Americans, the work was a shock; for many Black Americans, it was further confirmation of what they already knew.
In 2021, the publicization of lesser-known American atrocities prompted a referendum not only on race but on history itself. Institutionalists promised that “history will judge” powerful perpetrators of ongoing offenses to Americans who were at that moment learning about century-old atrocities, like the 1921 Black Wall Street massacre in Tulsa, for the first time. That the judgment of history had a hundred-year time lag discomfited partisans on both sides. History was written by the winners, and the winners were assholes. Some suggested that instead of the retrospective eye of history, perhaps actual, living judges should judge current offenders, but the institutionalists dismissed these demands as folly.
Meanwhile, the backlash to accurate history of racial oppression dominated political rhetoric in 2021, at least in between flare-ups of the plague. Antagonists of historical accuracy often framed the debate as a rebuttal of “critical race theory”—an interpretative framework taught in legal and graduate schools that rightwing pundits found they could mold into whatever meaning best lent itself to banning facts in schools.
It is notable that the term “woke” entered the popular vernacular around the same time as “red-pilled,” and that its use shifted in the same pejorative way. “Woke” was coined by Black Americans to describe awareness of systemic racial injustice before the term was co-opted first by sycophantic corporations, then by sneering white pundits wary of a critical mass of Americans becoming conscious of racist oppression, and finally by right-wing officials seeking a pretext for school censorship or a scaremongering election hook.
While the gulf in who uses “woke” and “red-pilled” and why can be vast, their tandem emergence points to a broader shift in American consciousness: a refusal to trust official narratives for the simple reason that official narratives have proven unworthy of trust. Why should Americans trust official narratives after the war in Iraq launched on a lie, the 2008 collapse of a financial system built on deception, the repeated acquittals of police officers who assault or murder Black Americans on camera? Why should Americans disregard what they see with their own eyes, which is a centuries-long pattern of state crimes being “solved” by being redefined as not being crimes at all? Why should Americans trust the authority of people who excuse authoritarianism? Why should trust be given away instead of earned? When did obedience become so laudable, especially when we do not know exactly who we are being made to serve?
Over the past decade, the phrase “red-pilled” has increasingly been employed by propagandists seeking validation for lies. But its initial use was an embrace of inquisitiveness: a willingness to look at terrifying truths and open the mind to troubling questions, particularly about the government. These are good impulses when sincere: a sign of free thought and an engaged citizenry. That “They’re just asking questions” has become a mocking dismissal of people who are often truly just asking questions shows how deeply questions are feared—and how the caricature of the conspiracy theorist has been weaponized by those seeking to protect a corrupt status quo at all costs.
State-sanctioned racial oppression and simmering suspicion over government crimes were not the only topics to gain traction during the tumultuous Trump years. We also entered the era of ‘me too.’—a movement highlighting the ubiquity of unpunished predatory behavior. After Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was outed as a serial sexual abuser in the fall of 2017, a slew of powerful men in politics, media, and entertainment—Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Les Moonves, Brett Ratner, Mark Halperin, Kevin Spacey, Eric Schneiderman, and on and on—were also exposed as sexual abusers.
Their crimes had been covered up by accomplices, many of them powerful figures in their own right. The idea that celebrities who had entertained you for decades or leaders who were supposed to protect you from harm had long been serial rapists and assaulters, and that the people around them knew it, jolted the public from the myth that conspiracies are rare. Turned out everyone could keep their mouths shut after all.
Conspiracies of the powerful are common—so common that their protection is inscribed in the language of business and politics and law. For abusers and their accomplices, conspiracy is comfortable, a blanket of privilege used to smother attempts to tell the truth. “It was a consensus about the organization’s comfort level moving forward that bowed to lawyers and threats; that hemmed and hawed and parsed and shrugged; that sat on multiple credible allegations of sexual misconduct and disregarded a recorded admission of guilt,” wrote Ronan Farrow in his 2019 bestseller Catch and Kill, the story of how Weinstein’s abuse was covered up by everyone from NBC to the Israeli mercenary intelligence firm Black Cube. “That anodyne phrase, that language of indifference without ownership, upheld so much silence in so many places.”
Conspiracy is not only a matter of how many people are willing to stay silent, but what tactics can be used to keep them that way. The combination of the emergent #MeToo movement and the corruption of the Trump administration illuminated these tactics: nondisclosure agreements, private mercenary espionage agencies, catch and kill media operations, and the old standbys of blackmail, threats, and bribes. The problem was that these tactics still worked, and continue to work now, despite wider awareness of them. The power imbalance is too severe.
Fighting corruption is not a matter of changing hearts and minds but of accumulating leverage. What leverage does the American public have when confronted with acts of extreme conspiratorial corruption—the kind employed by people like Epstein and Maxwell, the kind that seems to have swallowed all the institutions of accountability that were supposed to prevent it? The only refuge left is your own conscience, and the hopes that others share your revulsion toward abuses of power and your desire for the truth—and that your fellow travelers will not be preyed upon in the process of finding it.
Until the advent of the internet, the easiest way to keep the public from examining conspiracies was media consolidation. Prior to the 21st-century digital media economy, investigative journalism was both better funded and more common, but information traveled slowly and was restricted to narrower audiences, often determined by geography. The Craig Spence case could be buried, along with the questions it raised about national security, by simply dropping the topic and letting time do its work. The Epstein case was initially shaped or suppressed in a similar style, but its revelations could not survive online scrutiny. The participants were too diverse and revulsion at the central crime—child abuse, one of the last universal taboos—was too uniform.
Traditional tactics of obfuscation were also not going to work with a president like Trump, whose mafia-state tactics brought discussions of the merger of organized crime, white-collar crime, and state corruption closer to mainstream attention than ever before. (This integration was, ironically, laid out in detail in 2011 in a speech called “The Evolving Organized Crime Threat” by Robert Mueller, who later failed to hold Trump and his cohort accountable for exactly this activity.) The sheer number of indicted operatives and pedophiles in Trump’s orbit, as well as the endless exposures of other public figures revealed to have been predators or foreign agents all along, illuminated the criminal underground long propping up the shining city on a hill.
It became reasonable to believe that a critical mass of people in power were either criminals, pedophiles, or traitors, or that they were being blackmailed, bribed, or threatened by a criminal, pedophile, or traitor. Dismissive cries of “that’s just a conspiracy theory” do not work as well when the conspirators, high on their own impunity, keep confessing their crimes and posting the evidence online.
New ways of curtailing the road to critical inquiry emerged—some organically, some intentionally. The most effective tactic for silencing journalists and political opponents was threat. But the greatest weapon of obfuscation for the general public was the exploitation of American optimism. Regardless of their political leanings, Americans were invited to buy into a mirage of accountability predicated around a future date that shifts with dashed expectations—a kind of inverse of traditional apocalyptic prophecy. For centuries, false prophets told people when the world would end and simply moved the date when life stubbornly went on. But here, the opposite occurred: a glorious era of justice was forever imminent in our mortal realm, if only people would stay quiet and obey secret state forces whose existence they could never validate.
Apocalypse, literally, means “revelation.” But what Americans received from their deep-state false prophets was apocalypse-lite: all the doom without any of the insight. The new apocalypse was an evangelical embrace of bureaucracy—a true hell on earth. And here we arrive at QAnon, the pro-Trump messianic cult that buried a crucial grain of truth in a morass of lies; and its mirror image, the institutionalists committed to unquestioning faith in the American justice system regardless of how obviously it fails them.
Excerpted from They Knew: How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent by Sarah Kendzior, available via Flatiron Books.