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When the results of the 2016 presidential election were confirmed seventeen months ago, political polls, the vast majority of journalists and news outlets, and conventional wisdom in America were proved wrong. But Sarah Kendzior, a journalist based in St. Louis, told me she “did think Trump would win.” With a Ph.D. in anthropology and an M.A. in Central Eurasian studies, she had been studying authoritarianism in Central Asia and noticed troubling links between the forces that had brought these regimes into power in other parts of the world and what was happening in America — how Trump, against expectations, was rising to power. Trump’s mission to control the press and persecute minorities, his secrecy when it came to personal finances, and his bravado were “standard characteristics of dictatorship,” she wrote in the Diplomat. And in countries with huge economic inequalities, as Kendzior believed America should be viewed, these kinds of leaders were rising to power.
Kendzior’s new collection, The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches From the Forgotten America, includes essays published between 2012 and 2014 for Al Jazeera, with a new introduction and epilogue. It’s a call to arms, highlighting the struggles of disenfranchised, overworked, and underpaid Americans, and urging our elected officials to recognize and address the inequalities that have become even more pronounced since when she originally wrote the essays.
I met Kendzior in a coffee shop in St. Louis and asked her to explain her thoughts on what Americans deserve to hear from James Comey, the myth of a strong economy, St. Louis post-Ferguson, and other topics. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
“Flyover country,” from your book’s title, is based on one of your essays. What do you think about that term and what it represents?
I wrote it as a rejoinder to that phrase being used in a pejorative way. Because I write about national and international affairs from St. Louis, people do this kind of double take — [they] assume that we can’t possibly have an investment in what’s going on nationally, [or] be aware [or] as qualified. There’s been this conglomeration of journalism on the coast that has left not just the Midwest, but also the South and the Southwest — basically, most areas of the U.S. — undercovered and underrepresented. I don’t like to give “flyover country” or “middle America” some kind of particular characterization, where there’s a prototype, some sort of typical person that would represent it. What people miss the most when they look at our region is the diversity. There are people from different demographics, different races, different political opinions. The biggest divide is often between cities and rural areas.
How does this perception about the stereotypical person from flyover country shape the way that part of the country is reported on?
The New York Times literally finds a man on the street and interviews the same man over and over. Before the election, the majority of the media did not predict that Trump would win. I did think Trump would win. As a result, there’s all this interest in all the states that voted for Trump. And in order to fill this narrative, they needed to come out and find the most stereotypical representative of a Trump voter. And I don’t even think they’re getting that right. They’re looking for a very angry, usually elderly, white male manufacturing worker. Somebody who fits that profile.
But when I was covering the election, I noticed a huge difference between the Trump fans who went to the rallies, who were very fired up, very into him, who found his bigotry and xenophobia attractive, and most voters I talked to, who were disillusioned, ambivalent — who tended to shrug their shoulders and say, “I might not vote,” or, “I guess I’ll vote for him, I’ve always voted GOP,” or, “I’m pro-life and that’s my issue.” There are all of these nuances. That’s not to defend voting for Trump, because I think when you do vote for Trump, you’re overlooking the fact that he’s threatening a sizable portion of our nation. He’s an anti-democratic candidate.
A fixture of your reporting is economic inequality — you write about the way that low-wage workers, like fast-food workers in St. Louis, are often unable to escape poverty, for example, or the way that adjunct professors are not making a living wage. How much did economics play into the Trump victory?
It played a role, but the thing to realize is that economics played a role for every voter. One of the things that does distinguish us as a region, if you are going to generalize about flyover country, is economic despair. The fact is that so many new technological industries are conglomerated in these very expensive coastal hubs, and we really don’t have the thriving economy. The Great Recession never ended for us. That did lead some white, male Trump voters to be angry, to believe him when he promised economic revival. But the majority of downtrodden voters in the U.S. are women, are nonwhite workers, are people working in the service industries, people working in places like Walmart. That is the future of the low-wage worker.
There have been labor movements fighting for those rights. That’s not really covered as much as industries like mining, which have been declining for thirty to forty years. I wish the media paid more attention to that trend. Trump put out this mythology that it’s immigration that’s causing job loss when, in reality, it’s automation. People are right to be upset. They’re right to be upset that their wages are low. But they’re blaming the wrong target.
When part of Comey’s memoir (out last week) leaked, Trump had a fit, saying Comey is a “slimeball” and should be put in jail (among other things). You’ve been critical of Comey — what do you think the American people deserve from him?
Comey has finally re-emerged. He did testify in the hearings. He did a good job in that capacity. What concerns me is these questions that have remained unanswered. He’s going to be a target for Trump anyway, but the fact that this is coming out in a book tour, that that’s how you access information about national security issues from a very important figure, is troubling.
The questions I want him to answer are: Why did he dismiss Harry Reid’s letters? Harry Reid said: “Russia is working with Trump, they’re probably going to falsify our election results, you’ve been looking into this for a long time, the public has a right to this information, you need to inform the public.” And [Reid] said that in August. And [Comey] did not inform the public. Then Comey had that fatuous Hillary Clinton investigation letter and Harry Reid again addressed him in a very condemning letter. He said: “I thought you were an honorable public servant, and you’re not. And you need to address this now.”
That was a week before the election. At that point, as Reid pointed out, this information was in the public domain. There’s this idea that somehow after the election we all found out about Trump and Russia — that’s simply not the case. Malcolm Nance had a book out in October. This was information that was culled from easily available sources if you bothered to look. It was strenuously denied by the New York Times, which published an article saying that there was no connection. If I were Comey and I saw that piece, I’d be concerned. I’d say, “That’s a real misrepresentation of what’s happening at my bureau — I need to issue a statement to correct that, because the American people are about to vote next week, and they’re going to vote on false pretenses.” I’m really concerned. If he thinks that integrity is a quality we need to cultivate in a society, then why not act with it?
St. Louis was at the center of attention after the shooting of Michael Brown — a black, unarmed teenager — in 2014. What’s happened in the city since then?
That’s been an awful thing. I covered that from the beginning, but I had trouble writing about it because I was personally connected to people protesting and very upset about what was happening. I had covered North County, where Ferguson is, beforehand. I struggled to get articles out about it, and ended up self-publishing one that I did. But I’m glad I did, because it did provide the history of the region, including racial strife and racial segregation. The migration of poor blacks out of North City, into North County, and the troubles they faced. This was mostly on fast-food workers, but most of them lived in Ferguson. Then we had the “uprising,” as people referred to it here, the teargassing and the protests.
We’ve had basically no reforms. The mayor of Ferguson is the same. It took the DOJ saying, “Yes, this is a structural racism problem” that caused them to change some of their ticketing practices. One thing that was troubling is that a lot of people who were not from St. Louis came to represent Ferguson. Some of them had good intentions, but they were raising money, collecting resources, for a greater protest movement. None of that went to the black people from St. Louis who rose up from the beginning and who were doing the work that went on night after night. People thought, “There’s a protest in August, there’s a protest in October,” but there was one every night for months. People lost their jobs, people lost their wages. We ended up with nothing, while a lot of people made a handsome profit.
There’s no St. Louis chapter of Black Lives Matter for that reason. Many feel that Black Lives Matter exploited the situation, whether they intended to or not, and left with the money. I have friends who were Ferguson protesters who are struggling to get back on their feet. I had to post a GoFundMe for a good friend of mine a couple of weeks ago because she cannot pay her bills. It’s a serious problem. These are people who are borderline homeless. While it may be glamorized in the media, people pay a real price here. People associate them with this movement, which a lot of racist white people in St. Louis see as a violent movement — which it wasn’t — and they don’t want to hire them. People paid a high cost for very little result.
People are demoralized, people have PTSD, and very little has changed in terms of racism. Except that racism is emboldened by Trump’s win and the more militant factions — the Oath Keepers and the KKK and the extremists that were also drawn into Ferguson — are also emboldened, and have been threatening Ferguson protestors for years.
You’ve spent years studying authoritarian regimes — specifically, the dictatorships of former Soviet Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. How easily could we crumble into an authoritarian regime?
We’ve been witnessing an erosion of democracy from the time Trump came into office. And the way Trump came into office was already from weakened institutions. It’s not like Trump arrived and abruptly everything shifted — although it did accelerate quite a bit. But political institutions, economic stability, the media as an industry, all these things, the erosion and collapse of them, which basically started in 2008 but you also have to throw in the fact that we had two wars — our country was weakened, and it was ripe for a demagogue. And you add in the foreign interference element, which is basically a criminal element, a mafia element, and you’ve got an unparalleled situation.
A lot of former democracies have been going down this road in the last five years. You see this in Poland, in Turkey, in Hungary — really narrow misses in Austria and France. And, of course, Brexit. Nobody is immune. You see Russian influence in a lot of these countries as well. But that’s because the Russian government, the oligarchs and mafia, which are basically a connected entity, realize that these countries are ripe for the picking. The GOP is either complicit or they’re intimidated into silence.
When you’re dealing with an eroded social safety net, which is a prerogative of the GOP, especially under Trump, it’s hard to make daily ends meet, much less try to guard your democracy.
Some of your essays about economic disparity were written in 2013 and 2014. Now, four years later, Trump has declared our economy “strong” again. Has much changed?
All that’s changed is the party that rules us, in name only. When I see polls where people who thought the economy was bad under Obama and now think it’s good, or vice versa, I’m baffled. I thought the economy was terrible under Obama, I think it continues to be terrible under Trump. I think the effect of it is worse under Trump, because they’re trying to strip away the social safety net so that people who are unemployed or don’t have money are less likely to get healthcare, less likely to get any federal or state aid.
The main problem is not unemployment but underemployment and temp jobs and a lack of benefits. All of that makes the cost of living so high that even if you are employed, it’s difficult to pay your bills, if you’re shelling out a lot for private health insurance. The cost of housing has gone up, especially in coastal cities. People come to a place like St. Louis because you can actually afford to live here. That’s a central reason I’m here. I’m not going to pay $3,000 a month to live in a closet with my two children. That’s freaking nuts. So I think the economy is in bad shape.
And leaders inherit situations from their predecessors.
Right! Obama inherited the worst pile of shit any president inherited. He gets two wars, a massive recession that’s the worst since the Great Depression, and a racist, hyper-partisan GOP Congress, which he has to battle tooth and nail to pass any initiative. Don’t get me wrong — I think Obama messed up a lot. I think his foreign policy, especially, is a mess. I’m really pissed off about how they handled the Russia stuff. He obviously should’ve been on top of that. But he had an uphill battle and he didn’t create these problems. He was not entirely successful in solving them, but at least he had an interest in solving them — instead of exacerbating them, which is Trump’s blatant interest. He does not pretend, and neither does most of the GOP. Paul Ryan may slink away, but he was blatant in his childhood dream of starving poor people to death. We all knew what he was about.
You believe that companies like Walmart use “charity” as a guise to cover up the fact that they’re not paying workers a living wage. How is this happening?
The examples I brought out were of companies having charity drives for their own employees, [whom] they were underpaying. It’s this way of seeming generous but does nothing to address the structural issues. It can be harmful. I don’t begrudge anyone who donates to charity — but they need to look at the big picture. What happens when the camera goes away? We need a structural change in how workers are compensated and treated. In order for that to happen, you need to get very honest and real about the problem at hand. And what exactly these companies are doing.
And in St. Louis, the minimum wage actually dropped from $10 to $7.70.
The fast-food workers movement — St. Louis was the third city in the country to have that. They had a very active protest group and they worked very hard to raise that wage. When it finally passed, it was a rare positive victory for people in St. Louis. But the state legislature, as soon as it was a GOP-dominated legislature, smacked it back down. There are businesses in St. Louis that refuse to follow that, that are keeping the minimum wage at $10 an hour because they believe in it. And because it’s traumatic for people who have been working, and got something closer to a living wage than what they had before, to have to go back to that lifestyle of deprivation.
Missouri under [Governor Eric] Greitens and under this legislature has had a crazy run. Women can get fired if their bosses know they’re on birth control. The NAACP issued a travel alert for black people going through Missouri because it’s too dangerous to travel. All of these unthinkable things that people say won’t happen under Trump — I’m saying, “They’re already happening where I live!”
You’ve been critical of higher education — the fact that Ph.D.’s can end up as cab drivers and fast-food workers. But you also say that you lose both ways — that those without a degree have even fewer choices. Should people still get higher degrees?
I’m thinking about this myself. I have a daughter who will be college age in seven years. A college degree does not guarantee you a job by any means. It does generally guarantee you a massive amount of debt. The thing is, the absence of a college degree means you’re relegated to the lowest tier of employment where you’re going to be making minimum wage. It’s just a bad bargain. I think credentialism is a huge problem. I wish credentials were not required for all these jobs that didn’t require them ten, twenty, thirty years ago. I have a lot of friends who didn’t go to college, and they’re basically locked out of any kind of intellectual work because of this. Even if they’re very talented, people will not even give their work a chance. I think with my wallet. It’s not a matter of decision, it’s a matter of reaction. When you don’t have money, you just do what you can to get by. That’s how most people live their lives. It’s not a luxurious array of choices that is out in front of us.
Another thing I’m worried about is that the quality of higher education has declined. I have a Ph.D., I’ve seen it from the inside. I think most adjuncts and TAs mean to be good professors. If they were given proper resources, they all would be. But you’ve got people teaching seven courses in a semester, running all over the place to scrape together an annual income of maybe $20,000 to $25,000, and they can’t survive on that in a big city — if they’re in New York or something. You get a lower quality. I keep thinking, “Do I wanna pay for this? For my child? To be taught by some harried, rushed professor?”
You also highlight the fact that when higher education is closed off to people who can’t really afford it, there will be detrimental effects on creative output and public discourse.
Oh, absolutely. I think we have a false meritocracy. You see it in our political system. You see it in our media. People are buying degrees. If you come from family wealth, you’re much more likely to enter this realm of prestigious institutions that charge more than the annual household income. And again, this conglomeration in very expensive cities is a problem as well because the expectation is that you’ll do unpaid labor for a corporation that can afford to pay you.
In prestigious industries that have real influence on political life, on social welfare, on all these things that affect the majority of the country, you’ve got the most privileged and kind of out-of-touch people working in those positions. It’s going to have an impact. It’s not necessarily a critique of the person who takes them because they’re just trying to get into their field or whatever, but it is a critique of the companies and government employers that don’t pay people. And it’s become a weird expectation. People have started to think, “This is normal,” and I’m just like, “This is absolutely not normal.” This is exploitative. This is unacceptable, and the longer you go on pretending it’s normal, the more it’ll be kind of enshrined as, “This is just the way it is.”
And so what I was trying to do with all these essays is kind of wake people up into saying, “No. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s immoral for it to be this way.”