An unaired interview on Trump, authoritarianism and kleptocracy

A few weeks ago, a news outlet sent me some interview questions, which I answered too late for the interviewer to use and therefore they didn’t get printed. (I apologize to this outlet and to everyone else to whom I’ve replied late; it has been an overwhelming month and I’m getting hundreds of emails per day.)

Anyway, these questions are among those I’m most frequently asked, so I’m printing the interview here myself. I answered these on November 26:

I’ve been following your work for a while, and got the impressions that you saw this disaster coming when most of the Liberal media and blogosphere was still in denial. What made you so worried?

There are three reasons I was able to predict the election fairly well and see Trump’s rise early. The first is that I used to work in New York tabloid media, and have in recent years worked in digital media, so I was familiar both with Trump as an individual and with how mass and digital media are manipulated for political purposes. I saw firsthand the erosion of the media economy, and how easily that could be exploited by a charismatic demagogue like Trump.

The second reason is that I am a scholar of former Soviet authoritarian states, particularly Uzbekistan. My dissertation was on how the Uzbek government and its opponents used digital media for political purposes. But more broadly, I’ve studied how dictators rise, how they mobilize the masses, and how they use spectacle and rhetoric to sway people. I recognized a lot of commonalities between Trump and the dictators I study in Central Asia – one article in particular, “Trumpmenbashi” discusses that comparison in depth.

Third, I live in Missouri. I live in the heartland, where the media economy has bottomed out, where local journalists have lost their jobs, and national journalists – if they cover us at all – do so by parachuting in for a few days and doing superficial coverage. There is a difference between being a tourist and being a resident.

I’ve lived in the Midwest for well over a decade and it is true that the economy did not recover here, that people are suffering disproportionately when compared to elite coastal cities, that there is widespread corruption, and that there is tremendous frustration and disillusionment with political parties. Trump was right about that, even though his solutions are extremely wrong. I wrote many essays as well as a book, “The View From Flyover Country”, about the hardship this part of the US has endured over the past eight years. When I leave St Louis to go to a place like New York or DC, I feel like I’m leaving District 12 for the Capital. I don’t think people necessarily get how wide the gulf has become between places like St. Louis and places like New York, which decades ago were a lot more alike.

Our economic and political conditions are not well understood by coastal media and politicians, who do things like brag about low unemployment numbers, which infuriates people. Coastal elites fail to see that underemployment and lack of opportunities have hurt millions. And when you’re hurting that badly, it’s easy for a demagogue to attract your attention.

The Trump fans aren’t a monolith – all sorts of people voted for him (although they were mostly white): wealthy, middle-class, poor, suburban, rural. This idea of the Trump fans as a movement of white working class populism is a myth promoted by the Trump camp, and not reflected in what I saw on the ground here in Missouri, and also in Illinois, as I was both interviewing Trump fans but also just seeing them as my fellow Midwesterners all year long. But I did watch Trump’s appeal grow, and I knew that he was pushing some of the right buttons, and I worried folks in my state would be conned by this man who had conned so many before. I was alarmed by how he stirred up racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic sentiment that already existed here and sanctioned violence through a campaign that scapegoated some of the most vulnerable Americans.

Now Trump is openly building a kleptocracy backed by billionaires and white supremacists, and several Trump fans, including a few in Missouri, have written to me in alarm, saying this is not what they signed on for. A lot of folks just wanted good jobs to come back, and to stop feeling let down by the government and other officials. It’s pretty clear looking at Trump’s policies that this is not what is going to happen.

 What was the worst and most influential fake story you’ve seen during the campaign?

The obsessive focus on Hillary Clinton’s emails was ridiculous, especially the non-story James Comey created toward the end of the campaign, where in his capacity at the FBI he implied Clinton was the subject of a serious investigation when she was not at all. This was a breach of protocol that should be investigated. In addition, Comey is supposed to be investigating Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign advisor, who has done shady deals with dictators around the world. In August and October, Senator Harry Reid repeatedy asked Comey to release the results of this investigation as he believed the election was compromised by Russian influence, to the extent that the results of the election may have been falsified. Instead, Comey pushed the Clinton email non-scandal, and the press fell for it.

A few days before the election, the New York Times public editor has admitted that Russian influence on the election was the actual biggest story of the year, but that the New York Times failed to follow through. They were distracted by the email nonsense, and dropped the ball on investigating what mattered. So did other outlets. And now we’re all paying the price.

Is it possible to combat this phenomenon or are we doomed to live in a post-truth world, and thus looking at the end of our Democracy?

Democracy is not just a matter of trust but of power. It is difficult to control what power you have in an authoritarian kleptocracy run on brutal force – which to be blunt, appears to be where we’re headed – but you can form networks of trust, and you can still seek the truth. History is full of people who have endured this struggle; we are merely doing it in a technological era which can cause immense confusion but also has advantages, as individuals are able to establish a consistent record of reliability. Actions often speak louder than words in this regard.

Furthermore, local ties are a strong deterrent against any idea of a “post-truth” world. It may be hard to trust what you see elsewhere, but you know what you see with your own eyes, and your neighbors do too. You might not agree on the relevance of what you see, you might debate ideas, but you are working within the same basic reality. That’s why I think building up local media and civic organizations is a good step toward eliminating this idea that trust and truth are lost.

You are very vocal with your criticism of the U.S media. What was the media’s biggest failure, and how can they fix it?

There are so many failures, I don’t know where to start, but I would say the first is the failure of empathy. And by that I mean real empathy, not just flying in and talking to someone worse off than you for a few hours and then filing a quick report. Journalists should serve the public. The needs of the most vulnerable should be prioritized. So if you’re studied a rising dictator, the main questions should be: who is suffering? Who enables this suffering? Who profits from this suffering? Who is standing by and letting it happen, and who is causing it?

Prioritize people worse off than you, and have some humility. Don’t go in with a preconceived narrative; listen to people and try to reflect their concerns honestly if you’re writing a feature, and don’t hold back with your opinions for reasons of careerism or access if you’re writing an op-ed. Say what you really think. There’s just too much at stake right now. I’m an anthropologist by training, I have a PhD in anthropology from Washington University. Many the tools of anthropology would be very helpful to journalists at the moment.

I read an interview with you in which you sounded very very bleak. At this point, what should happen to change this pessimistic outcome? 

Don’t worry about me being bleak! I’m a pretty simple person and I get joy from small things, like my family, or a nice day outside, or a good meal, or some trashy TV. I know my values and I’m at peace with what I need to do, even if my writing makes me a target of the new administration. I’m not going to stop calling out brutal and corrupt policies.

I’m worried about other people – especially people who aren’t prepared for what may be drastic political changes in the US. Trump isn’t a typical GOP candidate, and his backers aren’t typical backers. This is kleptocracy and authoritarianism. I don’t think the US mindset is accustomed to how vulnerable we are, how fragile we are, how susceptible we are to both foreign influence and to our worst instincts. We’re told we’re exceptional, but we’re just a regular country, albeit one with a great constitutional tradition that we should try to uphold. It’s important to try to be the best version of the United States of America, to try to live up to the ideals we never fully achieved and at times betrayed. I love this country and that love keeps me going too.

But as Americans, we need to be on guard, not just about what our government is doing, but about how we treat each other. The government can do all sorts of terrible things, but it cannot make you into a terrible person. You always have the choice to be good, to be helpful, to look out for others, to honor your values. You can try to do the best you can even in very trying circumstances.

Human history is not a kind story. People have lived through atrocities and are doing so now, all over the world – many of them a result of our own ill-conceived US military operations, which have helped destabilize the Middle East. People have lived through atrocities on US soil that many gloss over, particularly the treatment of non-white Americans throughout our history. So I’d encourage people to look at how others survived tragic times, how they stayed grounded and, in many cases, how they ultimately won. I’d particularly advise Americans to read about authoritarianism and fascism both in history and today and to read black and Native American history. Because it has happened here, and it could happen here again.

However, no one can know or change who you are inside. You always have the power of your conscience, to do the right thing in the best way you can. Some people have told me they are struggling to be brave, and I think that’s totally understandable. This is a scary time. So when you cannot be brave – be kind.

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