“Flyover country” was never meant to be a flattering term.
Middle America, lacking the wealth and sparkle of coastal cities, is viewed from the fringes as a collection of places where people — and money — depart, but never arrive. They are not destinations but rather hometowns left behind for better climes, upward mobility and at least the perception of higher class.
Flyover country is journalist Sarah Kendzior’s home. It’s her source of insight to the social, economic and political condition the country finds itself in today. It’s the intersection of economic stagnation, exploited workers, decay and racism. It’s a land that voted for Donald Trump.
“Underneath the explosive residue of the Trump administration lies the rot of systemic problems that have lingered for decades,” writes Kendzior in her book, “The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America.”
For years leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Kendzior, who lives in St. Louis, reported on those systemic problems endemic in the Midwest. Her book is a collection of those writings, originally published between 2012 and 2014 by Al Jazeera, with a postelection prologue and coda.
She brings to her analysis her academic research in authoritarian states, particularly those of the former Soviet Union, and the role of the internet in shaping political movements. In addition to Al Jazeera, she’s written for The Globe and Mail, Politico, Slate, The Atlantic, the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. Kendzior’s perspectives have been amplified on national news programs and notably through social media, which has offset her refusal — despite offers — to relocate to Washington, D.C., New York City and other media hubs for her career. In 2013 the periodical Foreign Policy named her one of the “100 people you should be following on Twitter to make sense of global events.”
When Street Roots spoke with Kendzior about her book, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens had just resigned under public pressure. For months he had been at the center of a scandal involving an adulterous affair, felony assault charges and even the threat of impeachment. Just before the announcement, Kendzior tweeted, “What happens in Missouri often anticipates the political climate of the U.S. We are still the bellwether state, in the worst possible way.”
Joanne Zuhl: What do we have to learn from Missouri right now?
Sarah Kendzior: Historically, Missouri tends to be ahead of the curve. You see all these innovators in American life that came out of Missouri, like Mark Twain or Chuck Berry or Walt Disney — the sort of people who kind of invented the idea of, or this fantasy of, what America was.
It also was the center of industry. And St. Louis was one of the first cities to have a huge decline in the midcentury when you saw the problems of poverty and racial strife. We’re located between East and West, between North and South. The issues between White and Black populations really came to a head in regions where we lived. So you saw White flight, you had segregated housing, you saw a rise in violence. All the bad trends that the U.S. has been dealing with for the last 50 or so years hit Missouri and St. Louis first.
I think it’s continuing now, and one of the worst trends we have nationally is our corrupt officials behaving with total impunity with no regard for the will of the legislature, no desire to serve the public, no interest in the public welfare. Greitens really embodied that. There had been calls for his impeachment since January, when these revelations about him came out. In a rare moment for Missouri there was a bipartisan consensus that he was so abhorrent and so awful for so many different violations — he was charged with multiple felonies — that he had to go. And he just stayed there!
That’s exactly how I think Trump would behave if Trump were impeached by the GOP. It’s hard for me to imagine the GOP actually getting their shit together and having the guts to do that, but if they did, I think he would just refuse to leave. And that impunity, that total disregard for consequences or accountability, is very upsetting to see, and you’re certainly seeing it play out in Missouri in that it took so long for Greitens to leave.
JZ: What compelled people to support Trump? Did people struggling in middle America really look at Trump and think, “Yeah, that guy gets me?”
SK: This isn’t a monolithic group of people. People voted for Trump for a variety of reasons. One thing that is monolithic is race, in almost everyone who voted for him is White. I think you would basically need to be White in order to overlook all of those attacks on racial and ethnic minorities and feel that you are going to be protected from them.
That said, I did encounter voters who really fell for his kind of economic talk. They felt desperate, they felt angry, they felt betrayed, and Trump is very good at tapping into others’ pain. I don’t think he is capable of empathy or compassion for other people, but I think he has vulture-like instincts for preying on people’s pain and exploiting it and using it. You see demagogues across history who have been very effective at this.
I’ll never forget, [Trump] once said the unemployment rate was 40 percent. All the pundits were laughing about it, like, “Oh my God! Who would believe such a ridiculous claim.”
And I kept thinking, that is exactly how it feels. It feels like unemployment is 40 percent. Because almost everyone I know is underemployed, working a part-time job or has no benefits, or has really low wages or hasn’t had a raise in a decade. They’re constantly on the edge of losing everything they have or losing their home. And that feeling is real.
So he told a lie that felt true, and that can be effective. That resonated with a lot of people because they felt like their concerns weren’t being heard. And I think if he hadn’t been such a massive bigot and xenophobe, this approach of talking about the economy that way might have also been effective with low-wage workers who are not White. But of course, [non-White voters] were listening to him denigrate Mexicans, and knew his lifetime of denigrating Black people. They saw through it and saw him as a con man, whereas a lot of White people fell for it.
In Missouri there has been a lot of outcry, even from Republicans, about his policies. Still, there’s kind of a sense of community in confronting this, in saying, “Wow. We were conned, yet again. We’re going to be in for a worse ride, yet again, and we brought this on ourselves by voting for him.” And I hope that people just admit that this is a lifelong con man, and when you feel vulnerable it is easy to be exploited. And the point should be how do we solve this? How do we make people’s lives fairer, and turn this around? I think a key step in that is getting rid of Donald Trump.
JZ: But it feels like things are getting even more divided. We can’t rubber-band our way back to where we were before. What are we going to be like as an electorate, or democracy, in the next elections?
SK: The majority of my adult life, America, in my mind, has been in decline. We’ve had two wars, one of which was fought on completely false pretenses. We’ve had a recession that never ended. We’ve had all these very dramatic changes with social media and how we can communicate, which I think has been handled really badly, leading to a mob mentality.
I don’t think we’ll ever be the same. I think the goal should be to be better than what we are, and to try to confront the problems at hand rather than having nostalgia for what came before.
What I’ve seen now is less assertive. There is hyperpartisanship for those who claim allegiance to a political party. That has really intensified under Trump where you have this tribalism and this blind loyalty, especially on the Republican side, for authority. But I think people in general are mostly disillusioned. They’re scared. Most people in the U.S. don’t belong to a political party. Most people are independent. About half of the country didn’t vote. So you’ve got a lot of people who are fed up across the board.
We’ve had these record protests, the women’s marches, the anti-gun violence marches, the teacher marches. We’ve had all these mass movements of people who just said, “I’ve had enough. I’m going to stand up for myself. I’m going to stand up for other people.” And that can lead to positive change.
You see people confronting these problems in a very direct way and mobilizing others to do so.
But then you have a power structure that is much more oppressive than the ones we’ve had before. One that has no regard for the Constitution, for freedom of speech, for freedom of assembly. One that’s actively attacking the courts and our constitutional principles. That makes for a difficult situation. I think the kind of surveillance effect of social media is really damaging because if people have a more ambivalent attitude or they want to have a good-faith argument, it’s really hard to do when you have an audience. And I see that on Twitter all the time, where someone comes in with a genuine question, and they get battered down. Or people will take Twitter as an opportunity to humiliate others. And all that is very negative, and it’s contributing to a bad climate, but it’s not entirely representative to what’s happening on the ground.
JZ: You studied kleptocratic and authoritarian countries. What are the lessons for America today?
SK: I started out studying the authoritarian states of the former Soviet Union, especially in Central Asia. And the difference between those countries and us is that they’ve never had a democratic tradition. It’s not to say there aren’t people there who seek freedom, who seek justice. You definitely hear a lot of demands couched in those terms, but there’s never been a government that’s given them that. So their expectations are different.
We have a set of expectations, we have a constitution. We’re used to basic rights, although those rights are unequally distributed. And we have had authoritarian policies throughout our history — the very obvious being slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, Jim Crow laws — so we were never immune to this. But it’s kind of hard to compare because of those expectations.
I think better examples might be the move toward authoritarianism in kleptocratic governments in Europe, particularly Hungary, Poland, Turkey — countries which did have a democracy.
In the case of the former Warsaw Pact countries, they had come out of being dominated by the Soviet Union and being deprived of freedom. They became democracies and those democracies eroded. There are a lot of things to look for, and I document in this book the institutional weaknesses: weaknesses in our economy, in social trust, in our political system; trusting different parties to actually represent you and acknowledge problems on the ground. When that anger burns for such a long time, it just takes a demagogue to come in and exploit it. Another thing that characterizes this era is digital media. There’s a lot to learn about propaganda when you look at Trump, and a lot of people have rightfully brought up Nazi Germany and its propaganda apparatus as an example. But there has never been a digital media infrastructure and this ability to impersonate people — hordes of anonymous bots that stand in for conventional wisdom but don’t actually represent it. Those are all brand new problems and they create brand new types of autocracies. And I think that’s something the whole world is collectively struggling to deal with. And I don’t see any place that’s immune to that.
JZ: And they discredit even valid news by saying everything is fake.
SK: And that’s an old tactic. That’s a Hitler tactic. Die Lügenpresse: the lying press.
That’s something that he did. It’s just so much easier to do now.
I think the next frontier in this is going to be doctored video and audio. As the technology becomes more sophisticated and becomes accessible to governments and their operatives, I think we’re in for really horrible video impersonations. We’ll see them without knowing we are seeing them, and then afterwards be like, oh my God! Kind of the same way people reacted after the bots in the election cycle. I’m dreading that. It’s not like all is lost. We just need to have a sense of what are our values, what are our principles, what are our morals. Are we living up to them? Be honest about what we see. Double-check sources. Be skeptical without being completely paranoid. It’s sort of a fine line to walk, but it’s necessary at least that we try.
JZ: You say in one of your columns that poverty is lost potential. That the proliferation of low-wage and even no-wage positions shuts out voices from poor communities by denying them the opportunity to work. You say that mistaking wealth for virtue is a cruelty of our time, with implications for individuals but also society as a whole. Please talk a little about that.
SK: Most people acknowledge the inherent unfairness of unpaid work. There’s been a resurgence of the labor movement and people starkly looking at the fact that if people are working 40 hours a week, you should be paying for their work. If people can’t afford to get their foot in the door, that’s an unequal hiring practice.
What people don’t consider is what kind of world we’re missing, what kind of world would we have had these practices not existed to begin with. And all the talent and all the potential that’s being missed because of the requirements for unpaid labor and for expensive degrees and for credentialism, too. This is a new phenomenon, that you need to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a piece of paper in certain industries that didn’t require it a generation before. It’s limiting the talent pool, which limits the transmission of ideas. It limits the people who have structural power from hearing other people’s ideas.
It keeps us in this rut. You see so much conformity. I think that’s one of the biggest problems with our media. We have a media that’s overwhelmingly male, and, in terms of political coverage especially, that’s overwhelmingly White, that’s mostly based in four cities. That didn’t used to be the case at all before the gutting of local news. All those cities are really expensive. And it just contributes to a weird and biased view of what American life is. It fuels a lot of the resentment that Trump and others were able to tap into. If you come from a family of wealth and you’re working as a journalist in New York City, where land is in demand and jobs are plentiful, you’re going to have a very different perspective than if you’re like me living in St. Louis driving by abandoned malls and empty lots and crumbling buildings every day, and seeing a lot of the lack of opportunity and a lot of open suffering. It changes your perspective. I wish we had a more inclusive economy, especially for people working in policy or media that have influence over the lives of millions of people.
What lessons do cities like St. Louis, and on the other end of the spectrum, New York and San Francisco, have to offer a city like Portland? We’re dealing with our own gentrification issues, the lack of affordability and the departure of the “creative class.”
We have these very stark contrasts between cities like New York or San Francisco, which are very prosperous but also very expensive. They’re incredibly difficult to live in unless you have a very high-paying job, which most people don’t, so most people move there with money saved in advance.
And then cities like St. Louis, where it is possible to buy a house and get by, but the opportunities are few. There are all these places going out of business. The sheer number of people who have gone through long-term unemployment — it’s very different than other cities in the U.S. Looking at it you see the apathy. You see that problems will not get fixed. City officials will let neighborhoods rot, deprive people of resources. Of course that happens in places like San Francisco too, or in New York. You have homeless populations, people suffering in poverty there. It’s a shared problem.
But there is this inequality stretched out on this geographic scale that didn’t used to exist. From the time I was born, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, people in St. Louis and New York made pretty much the same amount of money. There wasn’t this giant discrepancy. And now there is, and the reason why this matters isn’t just that this city is richer than the other cities, it’s that the cities that are rich tend to have hubs of industry that can transform American life, like technology or policy or media. They’re conglomerated in these rich cities, whereas St. Louis doesn’t have that. And they often exclude people like me. I’m often the token person from the red state.
JZ: You say expensive cities are killing creativity, and that it’s not just the presence of artistic endeavors, but something more social and cultural, and creates an environment where failure is catastrophic, which reduces risk-takers. What’s the peril to a city when that happens?
SK: That’s a problem, and it’s something that I see paralyzing young people in particular, who are starting out, wanting to make sure that they keep their job, keep their benefits. They’ll be in a creative field or an intellectual field, and they’ll conform to whatever the standard is. They’ll do whatever gets the most clicks, or the most cash, or put themselves in an exploitative situation where they’re churning out a product rather than a work of purpose. I think if you are there, what choice do you have? Unless you have independent wealth. You’re locked in the system.
I’m not criticizing people who end up in those sorts of jobs, but it is damaging. It’s damaging for innovation in general, for creativity in general. It’s an extension of what I was saying before, of people getting locked out of opportunities. Whereas in like St. Louis and cities similar to St. Louis — I’ve heard this from people in Cleveland and Buffalo and Pittsburgh, where the cost of living is lower — there is a creative intellectual community. There’s always somehow this idea that’s impossible. But we exist. We’re here. It’s not that only prestigious cities should have a monopoly on progressive thought. I think it is good to be in a place where if you fail, it’s not the end of the world. The flip side of that is it’s harder to get started, to form all these networks to get started in your profession.
JZ: So what do we do? What are the lessons from all this? We can’t trust media, corporations own everything, billionaires pull all the strings, and science is discredited by the powers that be. The tenets of common sense are thrown out the window. What’s the point in complaining about all this?
SK: When you complain, you bring the problems to light, and if you don’t complain, then people often don’t know the problems exist.
There are people throwing these principles out the window, whether it’s Constitutional rights, or concessions of justice, or acknowledgement of science or basic human kindness. There are people who are attacking that. There are also people fighting back. Focus on the fight. Study the power structure. Try to think like the more evil-hearted people and anticipate the tactics in advance. It’s pretty easy to predict how they’re going to behave. They’re doing textbook kleptocratic and autocratic tactics. They’re going to look for weaknesses. They’re going to try to exploit them, so patch up those weaknesses. Whether it’s institutional, like our justice system, or just how we treat each other. You can’t exploit a problem when the problem isn’t that bad.
We need to take a moral stance, to acknowledge what our flaws are, and then we need to try to fix them, and that plays out differently locally, nationally or transnationally.
People often ask, “What do I do?” And that depends. Where do you live? What are the problems where you live? What are you good at? What do you have to offer people? What makes our world good and interesting is that we are all different and that we all have something to offer and that together it is possible to turn this around. It will take a lot of work, but the first step is to say, how can I help who is suffering? How can I remedy that and go from there?
Courtesy Street Roots, our sister street newspaper in Portland, OR. Follow Executive Editor Joanne Zuhl on Twitter @jozuhl.
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