Tracing conspiracy culture throughout U.S. history with Sarah Kendzior

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Tracing a conspiracy culture throughout U.S. history: Sarah Kendzior on why con men are an American institution

Sarah Kendzior is sometimes credited with predicting the rise of former president Donald Trump, long before he was elected to the White House. In her newest book, “They Knew,” she traces a broader “conspiracy culture” throughout American history.

From political scandals like Watergate to the willful disregard from pharmaceutical companies that precipitated the opioid crisis, people have been exposed to real trickery and trauma. Amid climate catastrophe, reverberating recessions and, of course, a global plague, an “epidemic of disillusionment and distrust” grips American life, she argues.

In a conversation with Grid’s misinformation reporter, Anya van Wagtendonk, Kendzior explained how American politics and media obfuscate truth and erode trust in institutions — and how American history is littered with people who gained power and wealth by manipulating that distrust.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Grid: Your book lays out several significant American con men, not least of whom is Donald Trump. What is so American about con men? Or why are con men so American?

Sarah Kendzior: That’s a great question, because con men appear elsewhere, but I think it’s the “rugged individualism” that’s prized in America — the commercialism, the sense that you could appear out of nowhere and transform yourself — that used to be an inspirational American story. All these stories of immigrants starting from nothing and turning into somebody else, and sometimes changing their name — that’s not necessarily bad, but it does open the door [for con men].

That, combined with the lack of a responsible, transparent state that provides public services, is where the con men make their move. They make their move as predators, and they prey on people’s pain.

Some of the examples I lay out in the book, including lesser-known figures like Norman Baker, thrive in the Great Depression. They thrive in times of great chaos and instability, and they bring that incredible confidence and arrogance. They do it within a system that is, one, not providing for the public and, two, not instilling any kind of consistent accountability, especially on the wealthy and powerful.

G: Tell me a little bit about normalcy bias and savior syndrome.

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SK: One of the things that I’ve been hearing from basically the time Trump was running, when I would bring up very serious issues — whether his ties to organized crime or his financial crimes, or his ties to the Kremlin, or to other illicit operatives abroad — was, “This can’t possibly be true, because if it were true, our intelligence services or law enforcement, or the Obama administration, or whoever, would stop it. And the media, which loves scandal, would certainly cover it.” So people went with this default assumption that I was exaggerating or lying or a hysterical woman or an alarmist. That’s normalcy bias. It’s this unearned faith that something that is truly wrong in society will be corrected by the powerful, instead of encouraged and enabled by the powerful.

And then, when that illusion begins to collapse, that’s when you end up with savior syndrome. That’s when you end up with these murky, shadowy yet benevolent figures that are believed to be there in the background, just waiting for the perfect time. That’s not just delusional; it is exceptionally dangerous.

G: We live in the social media age, and so much political discourse is mediated through technology. How do these new methods of communications interact with what you describe as our conspiracy culture?

SK: It’s become much more worrisome, I think, because of algorithms more than because of human interaction. Because I don’t think people are necessarily choosing their interactions as much as they were five, or certainly 10, years ago. They’re being directed and guided into certain arenas.

So you have a lot of information out there, and it’s not really accessible with the full context behind it. And that is very damaging, because a lot of people out there really are just trying to find the truth. They’re presented with an enormous number of conflicting and terrifying stories, and they want to get to the bottom of it all. And it’s become harder and harder to navigate that maze because of roadblocks, but also because of being directed into certain places, and also not being able to see other ones.

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G: What does that do to our shared relationship to truth?

SK: I describe [truth] as an increasingly useless currency, but one that I will pursue anyway. And I encourage everyone to keep pursuing it. Because we’ve been bombarded with so many lies — obviously, the round-the-clock lies of the Trump administration — but before that, just giant crises that deeply hurt the American people. The 2008 financial collapse and the lack of accountability for that, the lies that led to Iraq, Iran Contra, Watergate; you could go back to the Kennedy assassination. Cynicism is very understandable in that regard.

But of course, malevolent political actors will capitalize on cynicism. You see this in states that are much further down the road in terms of authoritarianism. Russia never completely censored its internet. What they wanted was for people to be bombarded with so many conflicting narratives and so much sensationalism and such a lack of truth about what’s going on within the government, particularly regarding corruption, that they just throw their hands up, and they just don’t care, and they move on.

That is what the government — including the American government — wants from its citizens. They don’t want honest civic inquiry. They don’t want people to feel like their representatives are public servants who are obligated to tell them the truth and obligated to act honorably. They want, instead, this stan culture of cults and worship. It’s deeply unhealthy.

G: You write about raising your children among this culture, saying, “My children learned early that the world keeps turning as it burns.” Is that a hopeful idea?


SK: They’ve grown up surrounded by continuous catastrophe. And of course, they learn more about it because I’m their mother and they see me doing interviews or they hear me talking about these things. But I’ve made a conscious effort to teach them about this country before it falls apart — and hopefully, it won’t completely fall apart.

I take them to beautiful places, to national parks, so that they have a real memory. So that they understand that they need to look closely when they see this kind of noxious rhetoric, and to also just find beauty in small things. To not deny that all of this is happening around them.

There is still some steadiness in life. There’s some steady beauty, awe-inspiring things that no one can take away from you. They belong to everybody. I feel that way about the night sky. There are times where I’ve taken them out to go see the Milky Way. We’ll drive deep into the woods in Missouri. I’m like, this is for everyone. This is for the world. And no one can take that from you, no matter how many horrifying things are happening around you. There’s still this beauty and goodness and small things that you can always appreciate.

It’s a mixed bag, I guess, but it’s what gets me through life. So maybe it’ll help them.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Anya van Wagtendonk
    Anya van Wagtendonk

    Misinformation Reporter

    Anya van Wagtendonk is the misinformation reporter at Grid, focusing on the impact of false information on policy, elections and social behavior.