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- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
- Kendzior has noted that America's past is full of scandal. "But what Trump is doing is very different, and it is much worse," she says.
"I have this horrible feeling," Kendzior says now. "Like I was conjured in a lab to cover Donald Trump."
Born in Meriden, Connecticut, Kendzior got her first byline at ten by winning a writing contest for Consumer Reports. Her first beat wasn't politics, but children's TV shows. Even her early work was unsparing. In her 1989 review of ABC's Free Spirit, the middle schooler chided, "The plot? It's hard to write about something that's not there."
Kendzior didn't get paid for the work. She can't help but note the irony.
"I only got paid in exposure," she says through a smile. She narrows her eyes, adopting an expression of mock seriousness. "So, it really set the scene for the future of the media economy."
Kendzior once seemed destined to thrive in what used to be the thriving journalism business. In 2000, after graduating with a degree in history from Sarah Lawrence, she leaped into a job at the New York Daily News, copyediting and uploading the paper's print editions to its early website.
Getting hired by one of the country's biggest papers right out of college should have kickstarted a long career. Her knowledge of web design and willingness to work long nights seemed like points in her favor.
As she covered the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, she says the constant updates finally convinced her bosses to update the website independently from the print issue. The future of journalism had arrived. Within a few years, the internet had torn the heart out of the print advertising market, and the media bubble burst. Kendzior survived the first wave of layoffs. She didn't wait around for the second.
Kendzior's interest in dictatorships began while fact-checking Daily News stories on American military bases around Afghanistan. She'd realized then that much of the available information was inaccurate or unreported, and the more she learned about the region's repressive, post-Soviet regimes, the more she wanted to know.
"I always had this question about how fascism rises," she says. "I understood fine the perspective of the dictator, but I did not understand, and I guess still don't understand on some level, how people just stand around and let it happen."
In 2003, she made her first career change, leaving the paper and, soon after, marrying a former Daily News colleague. (The two fell for each other during the long hours of the overnight shift.) But even after leaving journalism, her fascination with fascism and central Asia remained. The couple moved to Turkey, where she taught English in Istanbul. She visited Armenia, Georgia and the border regions of Turkey, all still unaffected by ISIS and the later war in Syria. Some of those areas, she notes, are "refugee camps now."
She adds, "It's very sad to look back. It was a very different world. It showed how dramatically things can change."
Kendzior returned to the U.S. in 2004, determined to turn her fascination with central Asia into a new career. In 2006, she graduated from Indiana University with a master's degree in Eurasian studies and was accepted into a PhD program at Washington University in St. Louis.
The couple intended to raise a family in a city vastly more affordable than New York City, and as they established themselves as Midwesterners — her husband landed a job in St. Louis in marketing — she focused her attentions on Uzbekistan, then a country ruled by a single president since declaring independence from the Soviet Union. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the exiled dissidents opposing Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, an authoritarian leader who could boast a 90-plus percent voter approval in all but his first election, in 1991.
Studying Uzbekistan, she began to learn what it meant when a government becomes intertwined over decades with the personality of a demagogue. And in talking to Uzbek dissidents, she learned how to resist one.
"Most dictatorships are democracies on paper," she says. "I remember talking to the dissidents about this, and they basically told me, 'You expect the worst, but you act like the laws on paper should be followed.'"
- COURTESY OF SARAH KENDZIOR
- As a reporting duo, Sarah Kendzior and Umar Lee met gubernatorial candidate Eric Greitens, right, in 2016.
Academia turned out to be another failed industry. Six years after enrolling at Washington University, Kendzior's published papers and PhD in anthropology amount to worthless professional tokens — the jobs in her field vanished in the 2008 financial collapse as schools increasingly relied on cheap adjuncts.
Leaving St. Louis wasn't an option. Her family had grown to include a baby and a toddler, and she couldn't afford to follow the academic path on a salary of $10,000 as an adjunct professor. Even in other cities, there were no tenure-track jobs waiting for recent PhDs, who were seemingly expected to live off poverty wages until things changed.
At one point, she remembers her adviser suggesting she simply ask her parents for money.
"I started laughing," she recalls. "I am a parent! I'm like 30 years old!"
So she turned back to freelance journalism, soon landing a job as a contributing columnist for Al-Jazeera English. She says she loved the job, at least initially, because "they let me write whatever the hell I wanted."
In her first columns, she laments the victims of low wages and failed industries, wielding prose that often follows an almost lyrical, sermon-like structure. Many of the columns are riddled with statistics, but others draw on Kendzior's own angst.
In May 2013, she wrote the essay "The View From Flyover Country" for Al-Jazeera. It is dominated by despair, the pacing punctuated with wordplay and relentless repetition. She writes like a beat poet stalking a stage, a preacher working her way into a righteous sweat. She writes:
"St. Louis is one of those cities that is always ahead of its time. In 1875, it was called the 'Future Great City of the World.' In the 19th century, it lured in traders and explorers and companies that funded the city's public works and continue to do so today. In the 20th century, St. Louis showed the world ice cream and hamburgers and ragtime and blues and racism and sprawl and riots and poverty and sudden, devastating decay. In the 21st century, St. Louis is starting to look more like other American cities, because in the 21st century, America started looking more like St. Louis."
By that point, Kendzior had already lived in St. Louis for seven years. She was raising two young kids, living through the aftermath of the recession in a city already far beyond the point where a post-industry recovery seemed possible.
The essay concluded: "St. Louis is no longer a city where you come to be somebody. But you might leave it a better person."
Slowly, Kendzior says, she began to understand St. Louis, its complexities and contradictions. Part of that understanding came from her friendship with Umar Lee, a writer and cabbie who had made it a personal hobby to take local journalists on tours of the rarely covered areas of St. Louis, the suburbs north of the central corridor.
On a winter day in 2012, Lee picked Kendzior up in his cab and set off, driving through Pine Lawn, Jennings, Ferguson and Kinloch.
"It was a snowstorm," Lee recalls, "but I gave her a several-hour tour of all over St. Louis city and county, like I did for everybody."
Journalists, says Lee, are often trapped in the bubble of their neighborhoods, their view of St. Louis limited to certain bars and restaurants and the city's sports franchises. When he met Kendzior, he remembers being struck not just by her grasp on the government structures of the suburbs they passed by, but her empathy for the people they met along the way. Lee and Kendzior went on to share bylines, including on a lengthy feature for Politico Magazine covering Ferguson and the "decaying black suburbs" north of St. Louis.
Lee grew up around those often forgotten suburbs. Kendzior, he notes, had none of the aloofness that he'd come to expect from New York City reporters.
"She's really good at getting people to open up, being empathetic," he says. "I think she has a natural gift for that. It's not from an academic background."
In 2014, Kendzior quit Al Jazeera, writing in an outraged Twitter thread that the outlet had started pressuring contributors to write more "hot takes" and less thoughtful pieces. It wouldn't be the last outlet Kendzior would blast on the way out the door, but she never failed to find a landing place for her columns.
Her range was impressive; she could just as easily expound on the hyper-local stories of St. Louis as central Asian regimes. In 2015, she interviewed St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones for a story about predatory payday loans for the Guardian. Three days later, her name appeared in the New York Times, as the author of an op-ed analyzing the legacy of a massacre in Uzbekistan.
Later that year, with the presidential election season kicking off, Kendzior's various areas of expertise finally collided in a common subject: a populist celebrity who won flyover country by vowing to "Make America Great Again," a platform that joined the promise of a stronger country with a vow to expel the culprits — Mexicans and Muslims — who were supposedly dragging it down.
Kendzior watched the growing groundswell from a deeply red state with mounting anxiety. In March 2016, she stood alongside giddy Trump supporters at a campaign rally in downtown St. Louis. The line to get in snaked around city blocks.
"I spoke to everyone in line," she recalls. "I listened to them tell me about the hope they had in him, how they really believed he was the guy from The Apprentice, that he was this powerful businessman who was finally looking out for the economic opportunities of regular people."
Kendzior and hundreds of others arrived too late to get a seat inside. With the Peabody Opera House quickly packed to capacity, the overflow became a churning crowd that spilled into the cordoned-off streets. Inside, protesters dropped a banner from a balcony, and minutes later a block of the audience rose in unison, chanting and locking their arms while security guards dragged them out of their seats. Outside, Kendzior watched fistfights erupt, the violence ending with bloodied protesters being led away by police.
She remembers standing outside the opera house, listening to Trump's voice booming through the speakers that had been set up to ensure the candidate's message — and chants of "build that wall" — wouldn't be lost on the throngs who failed to make it inside for the show. The crowd outside, she says, "became a mob."
"Their worst impulses came out," she explains, "things people never thought they could say in public, and permission was granted by Trump saying those things. This is how demagogues form their movements. It's a very frightening thing to witness first-hand."
But it was also frustrating. Some media outlets treated Trump's campaign as a movement destined for the mockery of historians. "At that point," she says, "people still thought it was hilarious that he was running, that this was really funny."
Kendzior had stopped laughing at Trump months prior, seeing his smearing of Mexicans as rapists and murders as a move right out of the authoritarian textbook. The fact that Trump wasn't shy about blatantly scapegoating minorities — or pledging to crack down on Muslim immigration — only strengthened her sense that she was witnessing something familiar and horrible. Openly declaring a national program of persecution "is very typical of dictators" of central Asia, she points out. "They want to flaunt that power."
With Trump ascendant, Kendzior's work was suddenly in high demand. Her coverage of the St. Louis rally was published in the Guardian, and two weeks later, the Diplomat, an international online news magazine, published a Kendzior essay placing Trump within the "spectacle states" she'd studied in central Asian dictatorships. Trump, she wrote, was like an American version of Turkemenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov, the late despot who built a personality cult so deep that he ordered the days of the week renamed to evoke details from his autobiography.
One month after the St. Louis rally, Trump notched his sixteenth Republican primary win. Days later, Kendzior tweeted, "We live in the tunnel at the end of the light."
The line predated Trump. It first appeared in a 2013 Kendzior essay about "surviving the post-employment economy," but it had come to her again, three years later, rising in her imagination alongside the certainty that not only would Trump be the GOP nominee for president, but that he could win.
"When I tweeted that out, it was clear to me that he was going to win the primary," she says now. "I saw this as basically confirmation of everything I'd been warning about for years. That this could happen here. That we weren't safe and that we were heading into something more vicious and awful than what we'd already endured."