Book Review: Sarah Kendzior, ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’

If you read Spy Magazine in the 1990s, you already knew everything you needed to know about Trump

There’s a feeling I can’t describe when I read a book like this; a sort of ‘I’m dying inside’ sensation in the pit of my stomach that what I am being exposed to confirms many things I believed to be true, but did not want to accept. In the end, while reading Sarah Kendzior’s ‘Hiding in Plain Sight (Macmillan, 2020)’ I felt both a cold rage and an embarrassment at my own naiveté.

The book’s author, a student of autocratic regimes and author of the 2018 bestseller The View from Flyover Country,’ has said she is surprised the book was published in the middle of a pandemic, much less published at all. Regardless, the book is now on The New York Times bestseller lists as well as several other bestseller lists.

Kendzior, who has made the rounds of cable news shows for years, especially AM Joy on MSNBC, and also co-hosts her own podcast ‘Gaslit Nation’with Andrea Chalupa, has pursued the dark history of Trump for many years, much like Ahab stalked the whale. She pegged Trump for The White House before anyone took him seriously (I had after he ascended the golden escalator, but that’s a story for another time), and meticulously documented his rise through the ranks of the New York real estate gangsters and glitterati to Washington DC.

A warning to the reader: Kendzior pulls no punches. What is detailed in these pages is, in reality, a true crime work, with the President of the United States as the benefactor of a criminal machine so powerful and immense that it seems every institution of American government and media has, in some way, been compromised by it. The language, for a political science book, gets salty, but it is justified.

For me, every page brought fresh anguish. But sometimes in order to save the patient, the wounds must be cauterized. If you need to know, if you must know, how America got into this sorry situation, you will take the medicine, bitter as it is. Much of the book reads like one long indictment of Trump and company, which it could be if anyone in government had the nerve to pursue it.

I usually inhale books that catch my interest, but this one proved to be a challenge to get though quickly. The reason is my compulsive need to highlight content I deem important. And there are tons of it. There is no filler or fluff here — every paragraph leads to another fact, another revelation — something else we should all have looked at.

Other than Trump, who are the players? The Russians, yes, but in addition to oligarchs and mobsters, there are so many players from other nations, notably Israel, and Americans in business and government who made their shady deals for access to money and power.

Even Trump’s show, The Apprentice, served as a cover for a money laundering scheme connected with the proposed Trump SoHo condominiums (now The Dominick). The show would be among many media exposures that served to normalize Trump in the public’s eye.

The connections between Trump and the entire motley cast, including dead pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, the excretable Roy Cohn from whom Trump learned his trade in duplicity, lobbyist for butchers Paul Manafort, Russian mafia figures, and other sleazy power brokers, are all laid out for the reader in chronological order.

Kendzior has stressed throughout her interviews that all the information in the book was available for anyone who wanted to find it. She chronicles time after time when the US media passed on tips of Trump and company’s criminal acts, preferring to concentrate on celebrity gossip.

She also decries the fall of American journalism, noting that the ability to practice the craft in a city as expensive as New York, fell to the dilettantes of the field who would be loath to expose the misdeeds of their own social class. As a former print journalist, I share her sense of loss and appreciate the fact that Kendzior stayed true to her working-class roots. As she noted, for many of us, we had no choice.

I will leave the reader to dissect Kendzior’s highly readable connecting of the conspiracy dots. But one passage which struck me speechless, is perhaps the most important paragraph in the book:

“In 2006 — the same year Trump SoHo was showcased on the Apprentice, the same year (Felix) Sater took the Trump children into the Kremlin, and the same year Manafort moved into Trump Tower, Michael Cohen became Trump’s personal lawyer. In 2015, Sater and Cohen exchanged a series of emails saying they were conspiring to gain Vladimir Putin’s support in bringing Trump to power. “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote in an email to Cohen. “I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this, I will manage the process.”

Dear reader, have you ever heard of this? Neither did I.

I was struck by the sheer volume of jaw dropping revelations about Trump that are obviously unknown to his biggest fans. The question arises — even if you forced them to sit and listen to it on audiobook and showed them the voluminous footnotes, would they believe it? Sadly, I believe they would not; willful ignorance is as dangerous to our struggling democracy as any tyrant.

That brings me to the underlying story in this book: in Kendzior’s view, the rise of Trump coincides with the fall of both integrity in American political and social life, but also the last gasps of the American Dream itself. Kendzior takes us to Missouri and St. Louis, where she lives, and uses them as a microcosm of the political and economic rot that started to take hold of America in the 1980s and led us to our present condition.

The struggles her family and friends endured in St. Louis after the crash of 2008 are particularly telling. The loss of expertise in academia and the media to minimum wage survival left the country intellectually poorer. “Most of my friends have life stories that are simply a series of reactions to disasters,” she writes.

“Every ordinary person around my age has a secret self from before the crash, one who dared to dream of more than a life of necessities reclassified as luxuries. There are marriages that never happened, children never born, chances never taken, because the struggle to hang on to what you have is so great that it hurts your heart to hope for more. You can’t afford the literal cost, and you can’t afford the psychic cost. In the postemployment economy, a generation learned to manage its expectations.

The rage though — that stays with you.”

You sense that struggle between the writing of a political scientist and the inner rage of a pissed off citizen throughout the book, and it’s a quality that makes her writing so approachable. These are not just bad events in time, but inextricably entwined in the stuff of our lives, and their consequences will reverberate throughout the generations. And people should be pissed about it.

Another aspect of the political and social scene Kendzior covers is the way the Internet has been co opted by state actors for their own ends and as a surveillance tool. The fall of the internet as a hope for democracy and openness, with incidents like Gamergate among others, is another loss of innocence people of her generation also dealt with.

An incident in which black female twitter users outed trolls impersonating black people in 2014 is telling. The women were able to reveal the harassing accounts to be Russian agents and Breitbart trolls, laying the groundwork for interference in the 2016 election.

Kendzior points out that had Twitter taken the harassment these women experienced seriously, the scheme to interfere with the 2016 elections online could have been squelched two years before it happened.

“It took Congress years to identify an intelligence operation that black women pointed out in real time,” Kendzior writes. “The system racism enabling this willful ignorance put democracy in jeopardy.”

Racism and white supremacy play a major part in the rise of Trump and Kendzior explored their inculcation in American life. In particular, the Ferguson uprising, happening in her own back yard, is still an open wound.

She writes: “In St. Louis, we still live the Ferguson aftermath. There is no real beginning, because Brown’s death is part of a continuum of criminal impunity by the police toward St. Louis’s black residents. There is no real end because there are always new victims to mourn. In St. Louis, there is no justice, only sequels.”

In the end, ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’ isabout Trump, but so much more. Kendzior takes pains to show that the Trump phenomenon did not happen in a vacuum, but in an America that was stripped of its promise and its empathy, pumped full of racial resentment and despair, until there was nothing left for many but hate.

It is the kind of hate that puts children in cages, kills a woman in Charlottesville, and makes death threats a part of both Kendzior and podcast co-host Chalupa’s lives.

The book ends with Kendzior taking her children on a whirlwind tour of American heritage sites, national parks, presidential libraries and monuments. She wants her children to see the America she knew in case it disappears.

In some respects, parts of it, the intangibles of life, honor, integrity, decency, empathy, may already be gone. Loss is a theme that runs through her work, with Trump and his gang the nexus around which all things revolve.

“In the end, The Apprentice cancelled America,” writes Kendzior.

If you need to have a reason to believe and fight for your children and those yet unborn, read this book.