By Ed Meek
According to Sarah Kendzior, “we have a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government.”
Hiding in Plain Sight by Sarah Kendzior. Flatiron Books, 276 pages, $16.
Sarah Kendzior brings her unique perspective to bear in her engaging new book, Hiding in Plain Sight. Kendzior, who has a PhD in anthropology, has studied authoritarian regimes extensively. Her dissertation was on the use of media in Uzbekistan to consolidate the power of the state. Before getting her PhD, she spent three years writing for the New York Daily News. When she turned her attention to the United States from her hometown of St. Louis in 2012, she began to notice some troubling trends toward authoritarianism. And she was already familiar with Donald Trump from her days in New York. By 2015 she believed that Donald Trump, then an outsider candidate for president, was going to be elected.
With his Celebrity Apprentice background, his get tough on crime platform, his pledges to drain the swamp, and his claim that “I alone can fix it,” Trump was appealing to a wide swath of Americans who felt disenfranchised and abandoned by both conservatives and neoliberals. Kendzior is well-acquainted with Americans who have been left behind. In her first book, The View from Flyover Country, she illustrates just how bad the situation has become for people in the middle of the country. In her new book, subtitled The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America, she outlines Trump’s history of ambition, which stretches back to the ’80s. She explains, in detail, how our media and entertainment venues, combined with support from Russian criminals, contributed to Trump’s ascension to the most powerful position in the free world.
Kendzior traces the roots of Trump’s development as an amoral, power hungry narcissist to lawyer Roy Cohn, whom she calls “a vicious Republican operative who worked for Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and New York City crime families while insinuating himself into and manipulating national media.”
Trump is, of course, famous for manipulating the media. He is well aware that, because journalism thrives on selling stories, the more outrageous the yarn the more likely it will sell big. As far back as 1984 Kendzior tells us, Trump was talking to the Washington Post about creating an alliance with Russia regarding nuclear weapons. “Some people have the ability to negotiate,” he said. “It’s an art you’re basically born with.” He goes on to explain how he could master the operation of nuclear missiles easily. “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles.” At that time, Cohn, as Trump’s lawyer, helped the Donald and his father get out of a lawsuit claiming they had refused to rent to African-Americans. In response to the lawsuit, Cohn filed a countersuit. Kendzior tells us that Trump learned from Cohn to “counterattack, lie, threaten, sue, and never back down.”
Kendzior points out that at the same time Trump had been profiled in the NYTimes as looking “so much like Robert Redford… Donald Trump is New York’s number one real estate developer.” Trump learned from Cohn to use the media to promote himself; if and when negative stories came out, his strategy was to threaten journalists with “litigation and violence.” In the ’80s Cohn introduced Trump to Roger Stone, (convicted last year for witness tampering and lying to investigators) and Paul Manafort, (indicted by Mueller for tax fraud, bank fraud, and conspiracy and sentenced to 47 months in prison). Manafort and Stone became allies who would stick with Trump for his entire career.
It was in the ’80s that Russian criminals began buying Trump’s condos with laundered money. Rudy Giuliani initially garnered a reputation for closing down the Italian mafia but, as Kendzior points out, that opened the door for the Russian mafia, including Semion Mogilevich, whom Kendzior calls the most “powerful criminal in the world.” Mogilevich moved into Trump Tower in the ’80s; he was also number one on the FBI top ten most wanted list until, mysteriously, he was removed from that round-up by Mueller. This alarming pattern — of law enforcement dropping cases or failing to go after criminals — is a recurrent theme in Kendzior’s volume. The practice often applies to Trump as well as his close associates.
Trump became friends with financier and sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein in the ’90s. Epstein, who served thirteen months for having sex with an underage girl, was known for his wild parties in Palm Beach (on his private island) and Manhattan where he would introduce powerful men to young girls. Attendees included Alan Dershowitz, Bill Clinton, and Prince Harry. In 2016, a woman who claimed she’d been raped by Trump when she was a thirteen-years-old at an Epstein party filed a lawsuit against Trump. But after “anonymous” death threats she withdrew the suit.
Kendzior is a relentless researcher who brings all this malignancy and perfidy together in Hiding in Plain Sight. She also delves into the Mueller case against Trump. Like many of us, she wonders why Mueller ended his investigation when he did without going after Trump for taking emoluments or cheating on his taxes or using laundered money. She asks why Manafort wasn’t convicted of the serious charges against him and why Mueller didn’t arrest Jared Kushner for his back-door deals.
Kendzior also examines the role of the media in the rise of Trump. She begins with his celebrity status in New York and then his luck in the Reality TV era with the success of The Apprentice. She also goes into the way Trump and his associates are able to manipulate the news media in a mutually beneficial relationship. When negative stories came out, such as the Access Hollywood scandal or the Stormy Daniels pay-off or the Trump University scandal, Trump was either able to counter the stories with attacks on a rival or threaten and/or buy off his accusers.
Kendzior makes her own back story part of the book, and that is sometimes effective and at other times distracting. Nonetheless, Hiding in Plain Sight is well worth reading for its clear-eyed depiction of Trump and our ongoing political nightmare. As Kendzior proclaims on her podcast Gaslit Nation, “We have a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government.”
Ed Meek is the author of Spy Pond and What We Love. A collection of his short stories, Luck, came out in May. WBUR’s Cognoscenti featured his poems during National Poetry Month in 2019.