Individual One: The New Name of the GOP
It’s another wild week in the United States of America, where any child can grow up to be Individual One! Actually, that’s not true, you have to choose a life of crime and complicity, and this week’s Gaslit Nation discusses what’s new for the indicted (Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort), the people who failed to stop them (James Comey), the accomplices (John Kelly, Nick Ayers), and the new guy who will likely let everyone walk, Iran-Contra style (William Barr). Sarah and Andrea discuss how extreme wealth and corruption of the justice system have created a stratified class that can in a sense do no wrong -- because no one will punish them for the wrong they’ve done! We also weigh in on the crisis in France, the role of social media in political protest, and the ongoing fallout from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Hi! I’m Sarah Kendzior. I’m a journalist and scholar of authoritarian states, and the author of the book The View from Flyover Country.
I’m Andrea Chalupa, a writer, filmmaker and activist focused on Ukraine and Russia.
Sarah Kendzior: And this is Gaslit Nation, a podcast that examines corruption in the Trump Administration and the rise of autocracy around the world. This week, we’re going to start by talking about an all-too-familiar figure who we kind of wish would go away, and that is James Comey. He is back in the news again.
Andrea Chalupa: Why won’t he just go away and knit?
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, why isn’t he knitting? Too busy working on his sequel to higher loyalty and even higher royalty. Anyway, he is back being annoying. He has testified to Congress. This is a massive transcript that I will confess I did not read in its entirety because it sort of raised my blood pressure too high, and one of the reasons it did—there are a few excerpts I’m going to read to you about the hypocrisy of Comey and his inability to take any responsibility for the damage that he did in the 2016 campaign. So, this is Comey talking about the stability of the FBI, and here in the first example he is talking about the “nontroversy” about Hillary Clinton’s emails, the infamous October 28th whatever. They said that they were reopening their investigation into her, turned out to be absolutely nothing. And so, he says “to conceal this, this nonexistent crime that Hillary Clinton committed, would be to destroy the FBI and the Department of Justice. Forget Hillary Clinton’s presidency, although that would be severely damaged if she became President on that basis, I made the judgment that the Department of Justice and the FBI would be ruined if I concealed a lie from this Congress.” So that’s him on that.
Then, later in the transcript, you have Elijah Cummings, who is very early to the Trump-Russia controversy, asking Comey, “Where do we go from here, and how do we rebuild after the attacks on our democratic institutions and the constant breaching of our ethical norms?” So, he’s referring here to Trump-Russia and the Trump administration in general. And so Comey’s response to that is “well, our constellation should be the depth and strength of America’s values. The FBI will be fine, it will snap back, as will the rest of our institutions. There will be short term damage, which worries me a great deal, but in the long run, no politician, no president can in a lasting way damage those institutions, because their values are too strong.”
So there you go. He had just said that Hillary Clinton’s nonexistent controversy was so important that he needed to go public with it, because if he didn’t, it would destroy the FBI, whereas Trump, who is destroying the entire country, is just no big deal, and we’re just gonna snap back and we’re gonna be fine. So yeah, go tell that to the kids who got snatched from their parents at the Texas border, James Comey, because I do not believe you.
Andrea Chalupa: Right, and Comey is the one who held a press conference in the middle of the 2016 presidential election, which is in itself a break of protocol and weird, and he called out Hillary Clinton for her personal email use. Meanwhile, he was using his personal email for official FBI business and didn’t bother to tell us in that press conference. You know, he should have been like, “Well while I do this myself…”
That would have really changed the entire email narrative, Hillary’s email dead horse that the media wouldn’t stop beating.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, exactly. He doesn’t take responsibility. He seems to have a personal vendetta. You know, as I’ll say later, I don’t think that he should have been fired by Trump, because the reasons that Trump fired him was that he was investigating Flynn, not because he had done anything that was actually wrong, but there are plenty of things he did wrong, and he’s not really challenged on it. Like I would like if somebody asked him more about his email. I would like somebody to ask him why he took the head of the Russian mafia off of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List in December of 2015, one week after the infamous RT Gala where Michael Flynn appeared with Putin.
There are a lot of things that Comey could have done differently. There are a lot of ways that he could have prevented a lot of this catastrophe. It’s unfortunate that he’s not held to account by anybody except for these insane Republicans who issue baseless charges against him instead of actually looking at what he actually did that was wrong. And so you have hero worship on one side and undeserved degradation on another side, and it’s just, it’s very frustrating.
Andrea Chalupa: Hero worship of James Comey is completely misplaced. I think, you know, obviously history will remember him for the reasons you gave. Namely, I think, taking off the head of the Russian mafia right before the Russian mafia, aka in association with the Kremlin, helped install Donald Trump President, the Russian mafia asset. And so history will not be kind to James Comey, by any means.
But I think another important thing to point out here, and I met with an FBI agent who told me this, is that the men and women of the FBI looked up to James Comey, and they were heartbroken by his weird antics, like releasing that letter. He’s doing showboat moves like holding the press conference, things that made him just seem out of control. And so even people inside the FBI were like, “What are you doing? You’re our leader. We look up to you. We need you. Stop sort of doing things like this that are just so not in the spirit of what the FBI should be.
Sarah Kendzior: It’s shameful, and it has brought down the reputation of the FBI, which of course was deeply flawed beforehand, but now is flawed in entirely new ways relating to abetting treason and abetting the destruction of this country, and certainly not protecting it. You know, and if you of course saw the purge immediately after, of the FBI by Trump, where he was kicking out the people who were investigating Russia, investigating Trump’s finances, investigating Russian mafia ties, that hurts the FBI. That hurts the safety of our country, and Comey contributed to that, so it’s a terrible legacy. I mean, of course I’m glad that he confronts Trump. I’m glad he speaks out on what happened in regard to Flynn, but it doesn’t make up for what happened, and it doesn’t really seem like he has any regret or has learned any valuable lessons from this.
Andrea Chalupa: No. James Comey is like an Ivanka and Jared. He’s trying desperately to fix his own PR, and it’s disingenuous, and he needs to just accept the fact that history will be the final judge. And if we have an open, free society in the future, it will not remember him kindly. History books will look back on him playing a major destructive role in 2016.
Sarah Kendzior: Although I have to say on that note—this sort of segues into what I wanted to talk to you next—we see history repeating itself in the most destructive way possible since the Trump administration began to form, where you see the same figures from Watergate, from Iran Contra, from the 9/11 aftermath and the war in Iraq, from the financial crisis all inserting themselves into this administration or into linked organizations. For example, Oliver North heading the NRA, because they never faced any consequences for what they did before. They never faced any penalties, and one of the reasons this is alarming me more than usual is that we have William Barr as the nominee for Attorney General, replacing the disgraceful Jeff Sessions, and you know the reason that they want Barr, who worked as Attorney General under George H.W. Bush, is because he basically wants to exonerate Republicans, as he did during the Iran Contra Scandal, where he let them off the hook, while persecuting Democrats on baseless charges, which he’s done in his agreement with Trump that Comey should have been fired on false charges and his blathering about Hillary Clinton and uranium.
So, this is an extremely partisan figure. This is somebody who’s there to protect Trump. It’s very similar to the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, who was put in there because of his belief that a sitting President cannot be indicted, and so I just feel like no one is learning any lessons here. And because no consequences were ever brought in all of these previous scandals which are very much embedded within the Republican Party. We have to live with the same terrible people recurring again and again.
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Andrea Chalupa: I guess the theme of this episode is shaping up to be mediocre white men getting away with helping damage our democracy. Because, you know, William Barr served as AG under George H.W. Bush, whose own legacy we saw whitewashed. There was like a national day of whitewashing Bush, Sr.’s legacy that we all had to sort of suffer through. He wasn’t—he was only a great president compared to the current Republican president, or not a bad president compared to Trump, of course. But George H.W. Bush pardoned like half a dozen Reagan officials who were part of the Iran Contra affair. That’s what he did before leaving office. I mean talk about somebody that had no problem with trying to stop all those cases going to court and justice being served. Half a dozen pardons before leaving office. And so it’s not surprising that you have someone like William Barr coming out, you know, someone whose legacy was serving in that White House.
Sarah Kendzior: These are people and cases that go back decades. We can look at different times of our lives, like we can remember being children during Iran-Contra and kind of hearing all these names swatted around and now they walk free. We can remember being, like, in our twenties for the Iraq War, and people like John Bolton committing disgraceful acts, or Scooter Libby, you know, recently pardoned. And you know, it goes on and on. And of course the culmination of all of that is Donald Trump, who was a reviled figure or a mocked figure for the majority of my life, somebody who was associated with corruption, bankruptcies, generally being a moron and an asshole. And his image gets rebooted and whitewashed where he becomes this tycoon, or people projected their desire about the stable and rational and well-meaning president onto him even though it was totally undeserved. It’s very frustrating to see everybody. You know, we’re not on second chances. We’re on like twentieth chances for all of these guys. There’s no way that they can sink. And so you really see this stratification of society where there’s a certain class of individuals that just cannot, they can do no wrong, because no one will ever punish them for the wrong that they’ve done.
Andrea Chalupa: If we survive this as a country, if we survive the Trump regime, if we avoid an Ivanka Trump regime, I think any sort of Democratic challenger in any race for President can just spin the debate against the Republican opponent by simply saying, “You’re the party that gave us Donald Trump.” Over and over and over again. [Laughter] Like that’s the rebuttal to everything now. And really force the Republican Party for generations to wear that orange letter of shame for what they have done to not only our country, but the world.
Sarah Kendzior: It should be an orange number. It should be one for Individual One.
Andrea Chalupa: [laughter] A big, orange one!
Sarah Kendzior: That’s what they are. They’re the party of Individual One. You know, in America anyone can grow up to be Individual One, but you know honestly you have to choose this path, and they need to take accountability for their choices, for backing him knowingly in the midst of this.
Speaking of people who did that, John Kelly is gone, or is going. Yet another departure in this White House of Horrors. Good riddance, I say. You know, John Kelly got hyped up by the media as the, quote, “adult in the room,” but he came in as a xenophobic bigot. He spent his time doing things like attacking military widows and lying on behalf of Donald Trump. He really seemed to do nothing to benefit society as a whole or hold this administration’s worst ambitions in check, so my only question is who’s going to replace him. Initially, people were saying it was Nick Ayers, who was a Republican political operative and Mike Pence’s Chief of Staff, and there were all these long stories about his biography and, you know, whether he was going to be Chief of Staff. He ended up turning down the position, but one thing I need to bring up as an individual with the misfortune of living under the rule of the Missouri State Legislature is that Nick Ayers was Eric Greitens’s campaign advisor. And Eric Greitens’s the disgraced governor of Missouri that had to resign last year after being indicted for multiple crimes, some of them I don’t think Nick Ayers was involved in, like when Eric Greitens tied a half-naked woman to a piece of exercise equipment in his basement and then photographed her without permission and then blackmailed her. But he was involved in a number of campaign finance violations and in a lot of dark money. Missouri is the dark money capital of America. We have basically no limits. We have no transparency, and that combination attracts people like Nick Ayers. And so in Missouri, Ayers is, you know, very closely connected to the Greitens campaign and is in fact under investigation for violations, and you know this investigation extends to the role of dark money in the GOP in general, to the role of the NRA. Then that of course extends back to Russia. And, of course, because he’s Pence’s Chief of Staff, you have Pence implicated in this. There’s this sort of like dirty quadrangle of Greitens, the new senator-elect Josh Holly, who is now also under investigation for campaign finance violations before he event took office, Pence and Ayers. You know, with sort of Manafort hanging out in the background because he’s who chose Pence. And it’s really dirty. It’s really gross. And I encourage people to actually investigate it, because the national news did not bring up any of this. They did not even mention that he was involved in the Eric Greitens campaign. So please go look at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Kansas City Star. You’ll actually find this information, because it’s horrifying, and it has ramifications for the country as a whole.
So that being said, do you have any ideas, Andrea, on who is going to replace John Kelly?
Andrea Chalupa: Well, a couple possible ways this could play out. But I do want to take it back to Pence, because we can never say this enough: Manafort, a master of the dark arts, must have chose Pence for a reason. Manafort was very much a key chess player in all of this, and I absolutely believe the reporting at The Guardian that Manafort was meeting with Assange over a number of years, those years being very key years when the Kremlin was sort of ramping up its interest in Donald Trump and its involvement with him, and putting pieces into place that would help Trump win office. And anybody that doubts that reporting and raises an eyebrow, well think about the reporting that The Guardian did, all the stress tests that The Guardian did internally just to get that story to print. They had people on their staff, editors, that were making the same challenges toward the piece that people were making once it was published. The Guardian knows what it’s doing. It’s known what it’s doing for a very, very long time, so I absolutely trust the reporting there, and it was done by two excellent reporters.
So, back to Manafort and Pence. There’s a reason why Manafort chose Pence, and I think part of that is that he’s a chronic liar, as we know. He desperately needed an out because the polling was showing that he wasn’t going to be re-elected as governor of Indiana. So Manafort recognized somebody that could play ball with their corrupt cabal of Kremlin-backed Republicans, and they put him in charge of the transition team. And when you’re in politics, information is power. You want to be in the center. You want to know what’s going on. That is your source of power. You want to be in the center of it and stay relevant and make yourself indispensable. And so Pence knew everything that was going on. Of course he did, and that goes for Ivanka as well, who was very active in leading the transition team. He knew what Flynn was up to in dealing with the Russians directly. They knew what Gates and Manafort were up to, who worked actively, of course, in the transition, including advising on selecting cabinet members, and all the sort of going-ons behind the scenes prep with the Kremlin backing and involvement. This was all done out in the open. I was in Paris shortly after the election, and somebody there was telling me that the head of Republicans abroad for France was told to meet with the Russian embassy in Paris. This was like open bridge-building that the Republican Party was doing for many years with the Kremlin, and so Mike Pence was privy to all of this. And the big question is: is he being squeezed by the FBI now? Is he being pressured to flip? Was that big Flynn memo that came out during the Flynn sentencing, was that a bat signal to Mike Pence and others like him, saying, you know, if you can come over to our side, we will protect you and take care of you? So, Pence has a lot to lose. He’s very ambitious. He’s all about Mike Pence, like any politician, so it is interesting that his guy, Nick Ayers, did not take that job. And you have to wonder whether it’s because Pence is working out a deal and is trying to get a ladder out of there.
What do you think about that?
Sarah Kendzior: I think that’s possible, and I also think Nick Ayers is one of these people like Manafort or Bannon that’s more effective in the shadows than out in the spotlight. And so whatever kind of organizing or fundraising that he may be doing, especially with all of this dark money, especially with all of these secret donors, it’s better for him to not do it in the spotlight. And you know he also kind of reminds me of like Corey Lewandowski, who I think is kind of underrated, in a way, for his ability to remove himself from the situation right before it gets very dangerous. And so I do think it’s interesting to watch, and I think we need to be reminded about how dirty Pence is, and how he was a witness to all of this, and how he lied. Once again, back to Elijah Cummings, he sent Pence a warning letter about Flynn before Flynn was confirmed, saying, you know, that Flynn was essentially a traitor, and that he had committed illegal acts, and he should not be put into this position of power with access to intelligence, all this stuff. And Pence got that. It was a formal document. Ignored it. Jeopardized the safety of our country. And that alone I think is grounds for some kind of investigation and removal, and given that they’re incredibly slow to remove even incredibly obvious threats to Jared Kushner, I kind of doubt that they’re gonna make a move on Pence, because he does have that veneer of respectability. You know, he’s a calm liar. He manages to resemble a normal, functioning human being, which puts him in great contrast to Donald Trump, looks good by default. And I think that a lot of the Republicans are placing their bets on him.
And I guess one more thing to add to what you said is that I completely agree with you about the Luke Harding article about Manafort and Assange. That seems plausible to me. Luke Harding has a very good record on this story. There’s been all this debate lately about who was early to be covering Trump and Russia and this whole scandal. A lot of folks that were actually steadily denying it, or praising Julian Assange, are suddenly claiming have been on the ball. The point isn’t credit, but you know you want to know who’s a reliable source, and Luke Harding is a reliable source, and I really doubt that he would jeopardize his career by putting out a bunch of bullshit on such a major story. So, I hope that there’s a follow-up and we get more of the details, but, you know, seemed accurate to me. And like you said, I want to know how Pence was implicated, because he was hooked up with the Trump campaign at that point, and I really don’t know how all this would have passed him by.
Andrea Chalupa: You are reminded, again, that Luke Harding of The Guardian is an excellent reporter, because they work so hard to discredit him. Obviously, internally, he had to pass all the tests of his own editors at The Guardian just to get that story in print, so they definitely did their work as they always do when you take shots like this. Every newspaper has to.
But yeah, so who is going to be the next Chief of Staff? [laughs] It’s like this horror show reality contestant challenge.
Sarah Kendzior: I feel like this is like Spinal Tap, with the exploding drummer.
Andrea Chalupa: [laughter] Exactly right.
Sarah Kendzior: Like that’s what I feel like the Chief of Staff position is.
Andrea Chalupa: The Russians should just send someone over. I feel like at this point they’re like, “God. We’ll take care of it, we’ll send someone.”
Sarah Kendzior: Kislyak is out of service at the moment. [laughter] He could formally join the foot. He’s been in the oval office. He’s gotten some trade secrets there, why not just, you know, install him?
Andrea Chalupa: He knows his way around.
Sarah Kendzior: Exactly! They’re familiar with all this information anyway. My fear on this is that, well, one, Stephen Miller, but also Jared and Ivanka. You know, I think we sort of have to wonder, is Trump picking the Chief of Staff? Or are the Republicans and the folks at the top of this corruption scheme picking the Chief of Staff? Because if it’s Trump, I think the primary concern is going to be his money and immunity from prosecution. And he’s a paranoid individual. He’s trying to build a dynastic kleptocracy, so I could see Ivanka or Jared moving into one of these positions in a formal way. As horrifying as that may be. If it’s the Republicans, yeah, I mean, I don’t know. Like, Nick Ayers. That’s who everyone thought it would be. Now that he’s out, by the time this episode airs, hell, maybe we’ll know. But I feel they’re just gonna put like a snaky kind of person who can go the long road, who’s gonna be able to last through whatever chaos is coming our way, and whether it’s Trump or Pence ultimately holding the reins, I think that’s what they’re gonna look for, like a Pence kind of guy, a guy who seems more lowkey. But if it’s Trump picking it, not so much.
Andrea Chalupa: I think at this point, with the ship so clearly sinking, they’re going to be hiring for somebody whose sole job is to protect the President, and the President’s money, and the President’s family. That’s really what they’re interviewing for.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, because that’s also protecting the Republican Party, because the Republican Party’s implicated in all of this. It’s not sort of, you know—
Andrea Chalupa: For a number of reasons. For all the Russian dark money, and for the hacked materials that the Russians stole from Republican leaders in the RNC that they must be holding as blackmail, for its collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, which is now under investigation by the U.S. government and the UK government, for a number of reasons. And Republicans are absolutely complicit in one of the greatest conspiracies in human history. This is something that’s gonna be studied for centuries from now, of how this all went down. How did the Russian mafia steal an election for a Russian mafia asset? That’s gonna be baffling for generations of historians, of history. So, congratulations to us for living through this time. [laughter]
But back to who gets the worst job in the world. If he can’t find some bottom feeder who’s so ambitious that he or she would just take this job, and that tells you everything you need to know about that person—that person is therefore incredibly dangerous, because they’re willing to go into a job with serious legal liability knowing that this is a president that pressures people to break the law to protect him, that blackmails people, threatens people—so whoever just lacks the morals to do that job. And if this person comes out of nowhere, we have to accept very quickly that this person has a level of ambition that’s incredibly sociopathic and dangerous to our country. So that’s one thing.
The other: if there is nobody, then yeah, I could see him putting Jared and Ivanka into that role, because they have no scruples, of course. Right? We know that Jared is still texting with the Saudi Crown Prince and advised him on how to survive the quote-unquote “scandal” of torturing and butchering a writer for the Washington Post. That’s, to me, like we can never, ever, ever allow Jared and Ivanka to forget that. That has to follow them around for the rest of their lives. And in fact, in 2020, every Democrat, every candidate, Republican and Democrat, Independent, doesn’t matter, all the leading candidates in the primaries in 2020 have to be put on record about where they stand on the murder and butchering of Jamal Khashoggi. What is your position? How should we punish the Saudi Crown Prince, who could very well soon be the King of Saudi Arabia? There’s reports that his father’s in ill health. So, what is your position on Saudi Arabia and that very troubled relationship we inappropriately had with them for many decades that is no longer serving us? We’re allowing them to get away with killing a journalist. So all journalists need to defend other journalists now by really putting these candidates on record of where they’re going to stand on this issue, and not let it go away.
So yeah. If Jared and Ivanka take over this Chief of Staff position, then that effectively makes Jared and Ivanka the President of the United States. Because, you know, Trump at this point, all he wants to do is have Twitter meltdowns. And eat McDonalds. And watch Fox and Friends. [laughter] And self-tan or whatever he does, but yeah. That’s pretty much it. So Jared and Ivanka will effectively be President, which is a nightmare.
Sarah Kendzior: The other thing is, they might not formally fill the role, but much like other roles in the White House haven’t been filled. I mean, this is a gutted government. You certainly see that with the State Department. It opens up a void for the influence of people like Jared and Ivanka and also a lot of Trump background players to be felt. And this is very typical in a kleptocracy, and another thing that’s typical is as the years go by, as an autocrat is struggling to consolidate power, which has been the case here, because there still is the ability for pushback, they become more paranoid. They become more insular. They’re certainly concerned about losing their wealth, losing their power. And the people you trust are family, or you trust lackies who have proven somewhat loyal to the end. So I think that in a lot of capacities, these members of the Trump family have been playing roles that they’re not formally assigned, and extending their influence beyond what their prescribed position is and that’s a very dangerous thing for an alleged democracy.
But speaking of lackeys, this was a big week for Michael Cohen. I feel like this happened like 20 years ago, because we’re living in Trump time, but I have a new favorite piece of writing, and it’s a very sad era that this piece of writing is the SDNY court memo about Michael Cohen, where you finally see somebody in a prosecutorial capacity laying this out in moral terms, in language that expresses the extent of this crime, not just in terms of the individual, but for the whole country. Here’s a little quote of their recommendation memo on Cohen, where they want him to have substantial time in prison and a very large fine. He says, “Cohen managed to commit a panoply of serious crimes. His offenses strike at several pillars of our society and system of government. The payment of taxes, transparent and fair elections, and truthfulness before government and in business.” And so I really liked this memo. I was glad to see somebody having the guts to kind of spell this out.
But it’s depressing as hell that I have a favorite sentencing memo. I don’t want to live in a country where I have a favorite sentencing memo related to the probable treason of my president, or the President I should say. Individual One. So yeah, dark times. And of course there was a contradiction in certain ways between the memo from the SDNY and Mueller, which was, you know, much more ambivalent about the kind of consequences that Cohen may face. We don’t know why. We don’t know if it’s because he’s cooperating, or they just don’t want to show all their cards yet, but what are your thoughts?
Andrea Chalupa: It’s pretty stunning that the President of the United States has been implicated in a felony. I think that Republicans, who like to pride themselves on being the party of national security, were finally the party to destroy America’s standing in the world, and to shift the world towards a new world order. Republicans did that more, arguably, than even Putin did. I could go into, like, the nitty gritty of, like, the whole Cohen case. I mean, Cohen came from like a mobster background. This is what he knows and breathes, and these guys have gotten away with this for so long, and that’s really the fault of the institutions like the FBI that were supposed to be protecting us, and instead they lost their years of negotiations with the Russian mafia, whether that was under Mueller or Comey or both. I mean, obviously if you have a Russian mafia asset as President of the United States, your side is losing. And so it is great that a guy, like a cheap suit, consigliere like Cohen, is getting caught. That’s pretty amazing. I mean, those guys usually just go off to Florida in their golden years, so I think the fact that he is having to serve prison time even though he finally very clearly sided against Donald Trump, that just shows you how deep those redacted portions in that memo do go.
But I want to go back to the Republicans again, because America’s time of being this leader of the free world, it’s coming to a close, and it’s not Putin’s fault. It’s not China’s fault. It is the fault of the Republican Party. The world simply cannot rely on us anymore. We elect George W. Bush for eight years, and he unleashes the apocalypse by invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and that leads to ISIS and all this instability. And then, of course, we get Obama, and Obama immediately comes in and wins the Nobel Peace Prize just for not being George W. Bush. And so we have eight years of glowing stability [by] people, in terms of how America is perceived by our allies as being a strong, respectable democracy, but then we burn the house down again by electing Donald Trump, of course with the Kremlin’s help. And so that’s just too much political instability. Even if we have a democratic saint elected for the next eight years in the coming presidential elections, our allies aren’t gonna trust us anymore. Because then we might just, after those eight years are up, after a Democrat serves those two terms in the White House, we might just elect another crazy again for the following four to eight years.
And so that’s really what has done it. It’s just this yo-yoing back and forth between a war criminal, to like a normal person, then to a Russian mafia asset. No amount of normal in the White House can take us back from that. And so what are your thoughts on that?
Sarah Kendzior: Plenty of people make the mistake of thinking that once Trump goes, this problem goes away, which both forgets the problems that existed that brought Trump into office—you know, the erosion of institutions and social trust, the recessions and wars from which we never recovered—it also forgets the less examined criminal activity that had carried on unabated during the George Bush era, during the Obama era, the rise of the Russian mafia and other mafias and their infiltration into the corporate world and into states worldwide. And you know, that’s the other thing, when you sort of ask, like, what is the fate of our allies, I don’t know who our allies are going to be, for two reasons. One is, as you said, that Trump is steadily alienating them. He’s attacking the EU countries. He’s attacking Canada and Mexico. But you know, while he’s doing that, he’s cozying up, of course, to Putin, to Erdogan, to Netanyahu, to MBS, to Duterte, to Kim Jong Un, to dictators around the world. And you know, as we’ve said many times on the show, you have a new alliance. You have an axis of autocrats.
The other problem is that countries are steadily moving towards these right-wing governments. You know, we saw this in Hungary, in Poland, recently in Brazil, and I guess this brings me to a question I wanted to ask you about, which is: what’s going on in France? And you’re married to a French guy, and you’ve been to France, and Paris is burning, and I want to know your thoughts on that, and about Macron, and how this situation may play out.
Andrea Chalupa: There was a huge sigh of relief when Macron won the election because it wasn’t Marie Le Pen. And so, expectations for him were very, very high, and then the disappointment set in, because he promised these economic reforms, but there was just too much severity involved. Like he wanted to privatize the train system, for instance, and of course there were protests there, because that would chip away from certain protections for the workers. And then there was another tax hike that was being proposed, and then of course the hike in fuel prices. And so, all of this, in a time of income inequality, which is really up there with global warming as a meteorite-sized crisis that’s hit the planet, so people were just far too squeezed. So, these protests are legitimate protests. They’re similar in spirit, in a sense of what drove people out to the square in Kyiv, but in Kyiv that situation was far more extreme. We’re talking about unimaginable corruption for Western nations. That was plaguing Ukraine under Yanukovych.
But really what we’re seeing is just a massive movement in Paris and France against income inequality. And Macron could, you know, he is young, and he needs to do better by the French people here. And he needs to do more to protect their social safety nets. And I’m shocked by what I’ve been hearing when I do go to France with my husband to visit family. It’s not the rosy, romantic picture we all thought we were getting when he won the election. This does rest on his shoulders, ultimately. But of course, in any sort of political unrest, you do have bad actors that are trying to capitalize on this unrest, and so you are seeing a lot of reports, including recently in Bloomberg, reporting the French government is now going to be opening up an investigation on how Russian troll farms and Russian propaganda are trying to fan the flames, and how there could be some involvement of bad, Russian-supporting actors in the protests themselves, and I think that’s all legitimate, too, just as the concerns of the protestors themselves are legitimate. I think every single movement is vulnerable to people coming in and infiltrating it for their own agenda, or to discredit the movements of, both can be threats to any movement.
What Putin did, of course, in working to install Trump, he was not only trying to get the sanctions back, but what he was showing the world was, “You cannot contain me. I am above the law. I am Putin.” And somebody like Macron, who’s been incredibly vocal in standing up to Putin, of course the Kremlin is gonna jump on this unrest in Paris, and really trying to spread the bots to make it seem so much worse than maybe it even is, have people on the ground to do things that maybe the regular protesters would not simply do. There have been sort of outsiders. I’ve read reports that have been doing more of like the destruction, and fanning the flames of violence, and all of that is dangerous. And if you see any reporters, any journalists, scoffing at the reports on the several hundred Russian bots that are like fanning the outrage online, promoting all this fake news about the protests themselves, and sort of dismissing it…because that’s what a number of people have done all along, when the early reports on all the pro-Trump memes and Facebook posts and other social media bots, all those reports coming out in 2017, that was how the Russians stole the election for Trump on social media. Well, first of all, in Trump’s case it was one small component of a much larger operation. Here in the protest in France, the bots do matter. I’ve been in the center of a social media movement. I helped launch one for Ukraine. I helped launch one that promoted, here in the U.S., the March for Truth, I got that going with complete strangers over Twitter. Social media, you can never underestimate it. It’s an absolute force for good, and it’s an absolute force for destruction in the world. We see that repeatedly, so never, ever, ever underestimate the impact of social media. Any journalist who tries to scoff at this needs to look around their own newsroom and ask themselves how many desks are there that are empty, how many floors in your building are now empty because of this digital media disruption that has decimated your industry, that has substantially shrunk your industry. That’s on account of all these new social media companies coming up, and this whole digital disruption. So yes, social media does matter. It does have an impact. But that doesn’t mean these protests themselves aren’t legitimate, and there’s very real concerns there, and Macron absolutely can and should be doing better, and the weight of the world is on his shoulders to do better, because he cannot be vulnerable to some fake populist president like Marie Le Pen winning the next election, because that would be a major disruption and a major threat to the EU experiment just like on par with Brexit.
Sarah Kendzior: One of the things you just said about the emptying of the newsrooms—if you look at articles, a very common practice is for lazy reporters to go and just pluck tweets off of Twitter, have them represent public opinion, and stand in for actual reporting on the ground. And they’ve been doing this for years, and it’s a terrible practice. It’s resulted in Russian propaganda and other propaganda accounts, people who don’t actually exist being represented as the will of the masses in all these articles. Some of the coverage of this reminds me of Ferguson, which, you know, I was on the ground for, and there was an enormous discrepancy between what I saw with my own eyes and what I experienced and the way it was being represented by the media. There were, you know, a number of reasons for that. There was a very parasitic relationship.
I forgot to mention earlier—we have a guest on Gaslit Nation this week, my friend Umar Lee, who was also my writing partner when I was covering Ferguson, and, you know, we were both there from the beginning. We saw this tragedy bear out. This was a protest that started as a vigil and became basically a kind of marketing movement for manipulative people to glom onto and spin to their own advantage, whether financial or political, and so, yeah, it’s very important, you know, that you look carefully at your sources, especially in a very confusing and heated political crisis, like France is experiencing, or like St. Louis experienced four years ago. And make sure you kind of know who you’re reading, and who has expertise, and who’s been there for a while, and who is reliable, because it’s so easy for the situation to be manipulated, and it shouldn’t be a controversial thing to say, that manipulative actors are going to exploit an emotionally tumultuous and politically dangerous moment. That’s just what they do. That’s what Russia does. It’s what America has done in the past. This is not a revelation, and I’m appalled by the inability of folks to kind of comprehend that, when you say, you know, and outside party is involved in a conflict, we’re not saying that the conflict isn’t real, or the outside party invented it, just they got involved to their own advantage. It shouldn’t be hard to understand.
We’re hearing from my friend Umar Lee. He’s a writer and activist. You know, one thing I have to say— when we’re ending this on a grim note—is we interviewed Umar because he was in St. Louis for the funeral of our mutual friend Bassem Masri, who was a Ferguson activist who passed away unexpectedly at the age of 31 about two weeks ago, and he was somebody we both knew. So while Umar was here, I thought I want to make sure people know the actual story of what happened in Ferguson, and not the bullshit I was seeing peddled online after Bassem’s death. And one of the things we talked about in this interview, as you’ll hear, is the stress of living in St. Louis, which is the most violent city in America, and how common violence is. And so between, when I interviewed Umar, it was after the death of Bassem and before the murder of Umar’s mother last Monday, so that just happened. And you know, this is a very rough city, this is a rough time for him, but you’ll learn more of his thoughts on that in this interview that we’re gonna play now.
Sarah Kendzior: Hello, I am here with my friend, a St. Louis legend, the Prince of Provel, Umar Lee. If you don’t know Umar, then you haven’t been reading my work. He has been my occasional co-writer, a friend who I reference in my book, The View from Flyover Country. He covered Ferguson with me back in 2014, and he is with me today in St. Louis.
Umar Lee: What’s up, what’s up, what’s up? This is the STL Stranger, Umar Lee. Hello to all Sarah Kendzior podcast fans.
Sarah Kendzior: Thank you, Umar. So today, we’re actually here on a sad occasion. As you may have heard, a friend of both me and Umar’s, Bassem Masri, who was a well-known activist and live-streamer and protester in Ferguson unexpectedly passed away last week at age 31 from a massive heart attack. That’s why Umar is back in town.
And so, you know, today we want to talk a little bit about Ferguson, about Bassem, about what actually happened there. You know, if you’ve read my work you know there’s a lot of misconceptions about the way Ferguson has been portrayed in the national media, and so, you know, yeah, that’s what I wanted to get in with you. First, do you have any comments on Bassem? You know, you knew him really well. About his life in St. Louis?
Umar Lee: You know, I knew Bassem since he was a child. His father Zuhdi, Zuhdi Masri, is a pillar of the African-American community in St. Louis, a big figure in the Muslim community [inaudible] Mosque, and very active in St. Louis city politics. His father Zuhdi really provided a role model, not just for him but for the community. St. Louis, like Cleveland, like Milwaukee, like Chicago, like Memphis, like Detroit, even Brooklyn, is similar to a lot of places where you have a lot of Arab-owned businesses in the Black neighborhoods that sometimes have poor relationships with the community. We saw this with the gas market protest of Arab-owned stores over the summer in St. Louis. The knock on them is that they make money off the Black community and are able to build big homes that they don’t live in, you know, off of Ramallah and the West Bank, but they don’t re-invest in the Black community. Bassem’s father Zuhdi did the opposite. He invested in the Black community, sent people to rehab, worked on gang reconciliation, was really a force in the Oak Island Park neighborhood in North St. Louis. And really provided a role model to other Arab-owned businesses. Unfortunately, only a handful followed, but at least they have that role model. So Bassem grew up like that with his dad—very politically engaged, Palestinian family from Jerusalem, and I was fortunate enough to visit the family on a number of occasions in the refugee camps of East Jerusalem, and when Ferguson came, when Darren Wilson gunned down Mike Brown, Bassem had that to bring to the table as someone like his father that cared for the community, and someone that was raised on concepts of social justice. And as a character. You know, Bassem was not the refined guy that you see on MSNBC or NPR. He was not the guy that was going to talk about intersections and systematics, and you know this kind of NGO language. Bassem was an unrefined guy, much like myself, that would get out there, cuss and yell, and show his anger. Really had close to no filter. Bassem was like an old Pall Mall cigarette, old Lucky Strike. You know what I’m saying? Smoking with no filter. And that made him a big target of trolls, a big target of the haters. People who came on the radio and online Twitter trolls really hated Bassem, but people loved him at the same time, so it’s a great loss to our community. You know, he talked to my sister a week before and said he wasn’t feeling well. And I just mourn the life of Bassem.
But you know, the Muslim funeral, the Salat al-Janazah, is very simple, over in a matter of minutes, it’s not grandiose. You know, we’re all gonna die. I’m gonna die; everyone else is gonna die. But the important thing is to remember his legacy. In 31 short years, he made quite an impact.
Sarah Kendzior: I agree, and you know, I also agree with your characterization of him as his own person, as an impassioned fighter for justice. You know, I knew him on a personal level, and I knew him to be compassionate and kind and sweet. You know, that was a side of him I think sometimes the mass media wouldn’t always hear, but you know one thing is everybody in St. Louis has been reminiscing about Bassem, and you know talking about their experiences with him. They’re always saying, you know, “This is a guy who was always sincere.” He wasn’t in it for fame. He wasn’t in it for fortune. He wanted justice. He wanted justice in St. Louis, particularly in the communities where he grew up. He wanted justice for Palestine. And I guess my question to you is, it’s now over four years later, you know, we’re basically at the four-year mark of the verdict. How is the status of justice in St. Louis? Has there been justice in the terms that Bassem and others laid out during Ferguson and St. Louis?
Umar Lee: Well, it’s a long struggle. I mean, I think we’ve made some progress, but I think the core issues are still there. We’re still getting people killed by the police. We’re still getting issues of—we got four police officers indicted the other day for their violence against protestors in the Jason Stockley verdict protest. So, we still have many of the same issues that brought people to the streets. And let’s remember that on August 9th, 2014, there was no organization. There was no organizers. There was no national group. There was no Black Lives Matter movement. There was nobody that brought people to the streets on August 9th, 2014. People in St. Louis, overwhelmingly African-American, organically took to the streets. It was an organic uprising, and Bassem was a part of this organic uprising. Myself, I was out there in the street organically. No one told me to be out there. I was born and raised in North St. Louis County, and I’d seen these issues my whole life. That’s what brought me to the street. That’s what brought Bassem to the street. That’s what brought other people to the street. Many of these issues have not been resolved. You know, we had a Ferguson commission report. Most of those changes have not been implemented. We’ve had other recommendations from activists. You know, some of them have been implemented and some of them have not been implemented. We’ve had good candidates run. Some of them have won. We have some fresh faces in office in the St. Louis area, but we have many of the same old actors, too, so the core issues of Ferguson are still unresolved. It’s still a struggle.
Sarah Kendzior: What do you think the national media gets right or gets wrong about what happened in Ferguson? Do you see discrepancy between what’s been emphasized to the public and what you saw on the ground?
Umar Lee: I don’t really think—I mean, Whose Streets is a pretty good documentary because they were there, but generally speaking, the national media does not get it right. I think Chris Hayes—I mean, he totally misquoted me in his book, took my quote completely out of context.
Sarah Kendzior: What quote was that?
Umar Lee: Where it’s—I said Ferguson was progressive. I did mean Ferguson was progressive, but what I was saying was, North St. Louis County has a ton of municipalities, and that relatively speaking Ferguson was seen as progressive compared to the neighbors. The municipalities that really had a bad reputation, particularly in the Black community, were places like Jennings and Florissant, which had a much longer and more severe history of police brutality and racism, not that those issues did not exist in Ferguson. That’s not what I meant. What I was saying was, as bad as Ferguson is, there are other places in North St. Louis County that were worse.
But one of the things I think the national media gets wrong is that it’s been totally sanitized.
Sarah Kendzior: Mmhm.
Umar Lee: The Ferguson uprising was an uprising of high school dropouts. On the streets was overwhelmingly young black males. Many of them had been in the system. By the time the movement got cleaned up and put in the media and written about, those young black males had been erased. Guys that look like Mike Brown and had come from the background of Mike Brown got erased, and in their place were people with college degrees, people that were working for these foundations and NGOs, and that became the face. You know, I saw this happening in Ferguson, because it first started very organically, but then I saw people that began to fly in from out of state, from out of town. I saw one particular person that had been in these Arab Spring hotspots, and next thing, they’re in Ferguson. I said, “Okay, something’s going on.” Something’s at play here, you know what I’m trying to say?. And I noticed there was a difference between the daytime, when a lot of NGOs were running stuff, and at nighttime, when it was more organic, and a lot of the nighttime people have been written out of the narrative, because a lot of these academic types don’t like Mike Brown any more than Darren Wilson didn’t.
Sarah Kendzior: I’ve had the same experience, just from staying here. When the cameras left, people left with the cameras. And it became and industry. Ferguson became kind of a buzzword, it became kind of a product, and from what I see, there are activists who lost their jobs because of Ferguson. They were either working an hourly job, and their boss wouldn’t let them have time off, or they lost their job because it hurt their reputation. In the process, they lost health insurance, they lost resources. I think people are still struggling, you know, with PTSD. They’re struggling with the police brutality they experienced on the ground. And, I guess, what are your thoughts on that? And I guess part of me doesn’t want to go down this road, but so many people are asking about it, you know, there’s been a lot of talk about the numbers of Ferguson activists who have died since 2014, so I guess if you want to give your thoughts on that...
Umar Lee: Well, it’s a tough issue. I mean, I lost my job myself. I’d been in Laclede Cab for over 10 years. I lost my job as a direct result of protesting. Many other people lost their job and just are generally unemployable in St. Louis because of a high profile during the Ferguson protests. It’s what it is, you know, I still continue to financially struggle to this day because of Ferguson. I’ve never got back to the level that I was pre-Ferguson, and so I took a financial toll. But this is not dissimilar to what happened in the Civil Rights movement. People had to pay a price. People lost jobs. And, you know, in many other conflicts throughout the world, people take a stand and pay a price. I’ve paid a financial price and other people have as well.
As far as the deaths of Ferguson protestors, look. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t like to engage in conspiracy. You know, if someone wants to look at it and see if there is a pattern, after a look at the data and see if this is an anomaly…I mean St. Louis is a city where a lot of people die all the time. There’s a lot of murder. Number one in the country in homicides. Lot of people were murdered; my nephew was murdered last Thanksgiving. His father was murdered two years before that. All of us who grew up here have a lot of friends who have died on these streets. You know, I myself have been a victim of violent crime on more than one occasion. I mean, mental health. You know, some of the protestors have committed suicide. People do suffer from depression, other kinds of mental health issues. We should not have any taboo on that. Unfortunately, people lose their lives to these issues. Drug addiction, people die from the health-related effects of that. I mourn for each one of these losses. Is there a pattern? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s wise to speculate without evidence and I will not speculate without evidence. I will say each death is a tragedy. I mourn each death. But to say if it’s a pattern, or a conspiracy. I can’t say that because I don’t have the evidence to support that argument.
Sarah Kendzior: One other thing as we’re talking about this, I’m just remembering our time of covering this and going there, and one of the earliest things I remember you saying—this was still in August kind of before it had kind of become a national industry—you were looking around, we were talking about the future, and you said, “You know what’s gonna happen? In 2016, some Nixon-type candidate is gonna come walking in. They’re gonna exploit the situation and America is gonna make a hard lurch to the right.” Which of course is what happened with Trump. You also covered Trump with me. We went to those Trump and Eric Greitens rallies together. [laughter]
Umar Lee: And Mike Pence—
Sarah Kendzior: Mike Pence, the Elvis of Politics, as we told a credulous reporter. [laughter] You were correct on that, and I’m just wondering, what have been your thoughts since Trump’s election, about like where these kind of criminal justice, civil justice, civil rights movements can go under a leader like Trump?
Umar Lee: In 2014, as you said, I was on the streets of West Florissant in Ferguson, and I had been tear gassed just a few minutes before. The streets were full of smoke and bad smell, and I have asthma anyway, and, you know, I have breathing problems. And the thought came to me, I said, “You know, we’re gonna have a Richard Nixon type in 1968. He’s gonna promise to represent the silent majority—the quote-unquote silent majority, because we know this is a myth—and to restore law and order to America.” I saw it coming. It did not see Donald Trump. I mean, Donald Trump, to me, was like a reality TV guy. I didn’t see him being that person, but he ended up being that person. That’s where we are today. I think what happened in Ferguson led to the protests in Baltimore—Freddie Gray, and, you know, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. All these other protests we saw started in Ferguson, because people had been getting killed for a long time, and in Ferguson—and people don’t know that Ferguson is in St. Louis County, just two miles outside the City of St. Louis border, so most of the protestors were not from Ferguson, but from other places in the St. Louis metropolitan area, but what happened in St. Louis and happened in Ferguson, from Derek Myers and I can’t remember the guy that was brutally killed on Riverview, but that was a horrific police killing.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, on video.
Umar Lee: On video. That fed a fire that launched nationwide protests, so now when Amber Guyger walks into the apartment of Botham Jean in Dallas, Dallas in on fire with protests and demands Amber Guyger is arrested. And we know she’s just been indicted for murder. That started on the streets of Ferguson.
Sarah Kendzior: St. Louis is a place the national media tends to overlook unless we have a tornado or a riot or an election, but a lot of movements have come out of here, like it was early for the Tea Party.
Umar Lee: First Tea Party rally.
Sarah Kendzior: First Tea Party rally. We had Ferguson. We had people, you know, I look at Eric Greitens as kind of—
Umar Lee: Phyllis Schlafly.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, Phyllis Schlafly. You know, Greitens is a representative of maybe finally some accountability for these individuals, although I don’t really know if we’ll see that replicated in Trump. But generally speaking, but also you know, economic collapse, and things like the death of the suburbs, and the death of the retail industry, like it comes out.
Umar Lee: That’s what I want to—
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, go on.
Umar Lee: Because I forgot the second part of your question, because I was just rambling on. What do they get wrong about St. Louis? This is flyover country, number one. Like Joe Scarborough, the ultimate flyover guy living in New York says—
Sarah Kendzior: He went on our show—
Umar Lee: He went on your show?
Sarah Kendzior: He didn’t like it. [laughter]
Umar Lee: He didn’t like it? [laughter]
Sarah Kendzior: [laughter] Anyway, go on.
Umar Lee: Look, national media’s focus on New York, D.C., maybe California, you know L.A. and San Francisco, not a lot of focus on flyover country. Not a lot of focus on the heart of this country. We’re forgotten about. We only make the news for bad things. You know, St. Louis with the high murder rate, high STD rate.
Sarah Kendzior: Number one in vice now, too.
Umar Lee: Yeah, number one in vice, yeah. So, if you don’t get killed with a gun you’ll get killed with a sexual organ in St. Louis.
Sarah Kendzior: [laughter] I was waiting to see what euphemism you were gonna use.
Umar Lee: Yeah, yeah. [laughter] I didn’t know if this was an explicit podcast or not.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, if you’ve ever listened, you know I’ve said way worse than that. [laughter from both] This is a censored Umar Ali. Go on, go on.
Umar Lee: So, so yeah.
Sarah Kendzior: [laughter] Sexual organ.
Umar Lee: Yeah, I couldn’t remember the—
Sarah Kendzior: The actual…[laughter] Anyway.
Umar Lee: [laughter] Anyway, so.
Sarah Kendzior: We were talking, and you were giving a deep, social, political analysis. [laughter]
Umar Lee: Well, one of the things I said about Ferguson was, Ferguson’s in the suburbs. It’s next to Kinloch, a historically Black town, but Ferguson’s historically been an all-white town. The story of suburban poverty, that poverty in America and all the other problems, crime, violence, lack of infrastructure, that you’ve historically associated with the inner city, are increasingly becoming a suburban phenomenon. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in North St. Louis County, doesn’t matter if you’re in Prince George County, Maryland, or in the southern Cook County, southern suburbs of Chicago, or whether in the southern suburbs of Dallas, poverty is increasingly suburban. Because what’s happening in the city is the most deprived areas are hollowing out and no one’s living there anymore, and then you’re having gentrification. Another segment, one segment of white wealth is back in the city and gentrifying, and another segment is in the excerpts, way out, and so you’re leaving this path of huge suburban poverty. But our thinkers, our activists, our media types, even our academics have been so focused on the city, that poverty looks like The Wire, and we want to see these beautiful row homes, and we want to have this nostalgia for the city, it was such an urban fetish, like if you listen to NPR, there’s such an urban fetish on NPR, but it didn’t match the reality. The suburbs of 2014, of 2018, and the future, they’re increasingly places of diversity, increasingly places where immigrants land. If you go to suburbs of Dallas, every strip mall is just full of businesses, of restaurants from people all over the world. And here in St. Louis, it’s increasingly the same thing. And there are more African-Americans that live in the suburbs of St. Louis than live in the city of St. Louis. And Ferguson is indicative of that. And that was a story that was not getting told because the focus was just on the city.
Now, as far as the metropolitan area altogether is concerned, St. Louis is a place that was once the fourth largest city in the country, as late as, I believe, 1970 or ‘80, we were the 10th largest metropolitan area in the country. 1904, World’s Fair, 1904 Olympics, 1944 World Series were all held in St. Louis. 1958 NBA champions, St. Louis Hawks. St. Louis has more heavyweight champions of the world in boxing than any other city. We have a great history in St. Louis. We have Red Fox, and you can go on and on, the great names that came out of St. Louis. And you know, there’s very much a sense here we had a great past, but we have a bleak present and a bleak future. And that’s not just the story of St. Louis, it’s the story of a lot of other Rust Belt cities. There’s really nothing that’s been done to reverse that trend. And that’s why I believe that if you go throughout the Rust Belt, places like Ohio and Missouri, you know, they were prone to the fake populism of Trump because it was just so bleak.
You know, one of the things I said, and you know, I voted for Hillary Clinton and I supported Hillary Clinton and I’ve been a lifelong Democrat, and raised by blue-collar, working class, Roosevelt Democrats that were union members, UAW Local 2250. It was this talk from the Democrats of how well the economy was doing—
Sarah Kendzior: Mmhm.
Umar Lee: —how well everyone was doing. And Hillary did not, you know, anytime Trump would say or Bernie would say the economy was bad, she’d say, you know, well it’s the best economy ever. Yeah, on paper it was a great economy, but it was leaving a lot of people behind. And it was leaving a lot of people behind like people I grew up with in North St. Louis County, that was hustling and bustling in factories. And my father, who graduated from Riverview High School in 1970, could walk out of high school, walk onto the factory floor, and provide a good life for himself and his children just off that factory work that he did his whole career. And many, many, many other families. You know, I very seldom met anyone with a college education growing up. The only people with a college education growing up was school teachers. But I lived around people that owned homes, you know, simple homes, but you know, we were able to play Little League sports, and the dads were able to get beers, you know what I’m trying to say? I mean, the basic trappings of, you know, working class life in America. And you know, we didn’t eat out a lot, but we could go out and, you know, get some Charlie’s Chicken every now and then, or go to Dairy Queen, or Pantera’s Pizza, or whatever the things we wanted to do, and the was based of the hard work, the factory work, the factory floor. The skilled trades. You know, my grandfather, who had left home at 12 years old, working, and then went off to serve in World War Two in the first Marine division, Battle of Okinawa, and came back as a factory worker, as a pipefitter. My grandmother, who sadly came from Southeastern Missouri in the Great Depression to North St. Louis, during the War, she went to work at the St. Louis Dairy. You know, all these jobs that were available, and then, I’m 44, and by the time I was coming out of school, these jobs were vanishing. These jobs were disappearing.
Sarah Kendzior: Right, during the Reagan Era.
Umar Lee: My, well, Bush the Elder Era.
Sarah Kendzior: Bush the Elder Era, too. It kept getting worse.
Umar Lee: Well, it started in Reagan, because my dad originally worked in Combustion Engineering, which was a factory in North St. Louis. My dad worked there, my uncle worked there. Combustion Engineering closed, so my dad was out of work for a long time, and my grandfather was a pipefitter at GM and got him on. But when it came time for my dad to get me on, there were no jobs to get on. You see what I’m trying to say? And so, then my sister’s working out there now, but that’s a whole other story, because it was years later, and she didn’t need the hookup. My point is that—
Sarah Kendzior: They weren’t representing the economy correctly. I agree with you, I’ve written about that, too, and when you put that kind of optimism out, it comes across as insensitivity. It comes across as kind of cruel, because then people think, “Well if everything’s so great, if the unemployment rate is so low, then, like, what’s wrong with me? Like why can’t I get a job? Who’s going to help me if they won’t even recognize the problem?”
Umar Lee: I mean, if you’re from North County, you grew up with Ford Motor Company. Well, you drive by it every day, it’s empty. You grew up with McDonald Douglas Federal Headquarters. They got bought by Boeing, laid off 30 thousand people. You grew up with TWA World Headquarters. TWA no longer exists. The airport wanted to expand, they tore down entire neighborhoods that have sat vacant for the past 25 years. Just tore down houses. We remember when those were vibrant neighborhoods. You’re driving by shopping malls that are empty, that are abandoned, that you went to watch Ghostbusters in, you watched Star Wars in, you watched Teen Wolf in, you watched Back to the Future, you know, those classic eighties movies. You watched those, and now these malls are empty. You know what I’m trying to say? Your childhood memory of a prosperous place, you know, is boarded up houses everywhere. You know what I’m trying to say? There’s empty retail everywhere. When they open up a store, it’s a dollar store, a check-cashing place. You know what I’m trying to say? So you don’t have the sense that you’re in something positive. You know what I’m trying to say? You don’t have the sense that good things are happening. And the jobs that are available are at Wal-Mart! They’re eight bucks and hour! You know what I’m trying to say? Maybe 10 bucks an hour. Drugs are everywhere, opioid addiction, hard. Heroin has hit St. Louis hard. Heroin and lean—I don’t know if you listen and know what lean is—it’s cough syrup they drink, like meclizine, codeine, all that stuff like that, they drink and get high. But all kind of painkillers, you know. Heroin, lean, are big in St. Louis. Man, I know so many people that have ODed. Died. You know, I know a couple gas stations that they had to close down because people kept on ODing and dying in the bathroom. That’s what you’re living with in St. Louis. It’s not a positive, upbeat place. You know, and the only thing it’s positive and upbeat for is if you go into the city, like these kind of hipster neighborhoods, where people were born on third base, think they hit a triple. They’re able to grow up in the wealthy suburbs, go to good schools, and then take their money and say, “You know what? I think I want to live in the city.” And then live in a nice apartment, condo, loft, rehab, or whatever. That’s the story all over the country. If you go to New York City, you know, I used to live in Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy, and it was the hood. It was the Bed-Stuy Biggie Smalls. It was the Bed-Stuy with Fulton Street full of Muslims - Sunni Muslims and Mashiematakwa that be up and down the street selling merchandise. It was very much an impoverished African-American community with a strong black middle class living well in houses, and it’s become a depository for rich kids from all over America and Europe who can just go and shell out a million bucks or whatever and live there. Same thing in D.C. You know what I’m saying? When I was going to school in the D.C. Area, it was Chocolate City. It was the D.C. of Marion Barry, where Marion Barry was loved. When I was there, Marion Barry’d walk into the Shrimp Boat on Benning Road and get mobbed with adoring fans. I mean, Marion Berry was a man that was loved, you know? It ain’t Marion Barry’s D.C. no more. You know what I’m trying to say? That Chocolate City, the chocolate has fallen out to PeeGee County, Maryland, and it’s being replaced by wealth. So, we have a lot of people that are being left behind in this economy. And look, the average American is listening to music, is watching sports, and is not nuanced in certain economic debates and policy, so when Donald Trump gets up there and says all this shit that number one he doesn’t mean, number two he doesn’t even understand even if he did mean it, just preying on emotions and stuff like that, you know a lot of people are vulnerable to that kind of message, and particularly here in the state of Missouri where you have a big rural-urban divide anyway, and people…for whatever reason and I still don’t quite understand it that this guy from New York is very popular with these—
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, I remember both of us were predicting it would probably be Cruz, because they would look at him and as this slick, out-of-towner, in the same way that they would look at any out-of-towner, but instead, you know, there was some acceptance, I mean even with the evangelicals, which was another thing that was surprising.
Umar Lee: Yes, I mean look, as much as, I mean I’ve read the same things you have, and I still don’t get it. I mean, at the end of the day, this guy is not evangelical. He’s not a religious man. He’s a public sinner. Of course, I am sympathetic to the argument that in the age of secularism I think a lot of secular people don’t necessarily understand religion. It’s not that because you’re religious you never sin or stuff like that. Because everyone has the same struggles, and it doesn’t mean you’re the perfect embodiment of your faith just because you’re Jew, or a Muslim, or a Christian. It means that, you know, you’re aspiring to certain things. You’re, right, you’re on a path—
Sarah Kendzior: Right.
Umar Lee: —you may fall off that path, but Trump doesn’t seem to be on any type of path. You know what I’m trying to say? He’s like, that’s just who he is. You know what I’m trying to say? He’s just, as my grandmother would say, a nasty heathen, an animalistic dog, you know?
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, he’s the type that you start believing in Hell for comfort, and then the devil because of what you witness, you know?
Umar Lee: Right. I mean, so how the evangelicals…it tells you that evangelical [inaudible] in America, there is a strong White Nationalist sentiment, of White Christian Nationalism, and Trump is representing that White Christian Nationalism, that we don’t like immigration, we don’t like religious diversity, we don’t like secularism, and this man is going to embody that. I personally think Donald Trump doesn’t give a shit about any of these issues. He’s hired immigrants at all of his businesses. He’s hired undocumented immigrants. He’s married immigrants. I think he doesn’t give a shit about religion. He has shown no concern for religion his entire life. I think, I don’t think he cares about the War on Christmas, you know what I’m trying to say?
Sarah Kendzior: [laughter] Yeah, I think Melania might be fighting the War on Christmas, if you’ve seen those decorations, but yeah.
Umar Lee: But I think it’s all an act! I think he’s smarter than people give him credit for.
Sarah Kendzior: Oh yeah. They don’t understand in the media–
Umar Lee: Yeah, I mean he’s smarter…I’ve got a friend of mine, and he’s never read a book in his life. And he’s like almost 50 now. But he’s made a lot of money. So he can’t talk to you about political theory, he can’t talk to you about history, he can’t talk to you about some nerdy independent film that just came out, or you know a Terry Gross interview or something like that, but he can make money. You know what I’m trying to say? And I think Trump is the same way. He’s not an intellectual, but he’s smart when it comes to achieving what he wants to achieve, whether it’s making money, whether it’s politics. And I think part of that intelligence is, he’s a sociopath. He has no conscience, shame, no conscience, and he’ll do whatever, say whatever, to achieve his objectives. And that’s a very dangerous person. That’s the type of person—Sonny the Pimp, you know what I’m trying to say? At the Greyhound bus station. “Hey girl, you in the big city, you all alone?” You know what I’m trying to say? “You know, I just want to take care of you.” You know what I’m trying to say?
Sarah Kendzior: [laughter] How long are you gonna keep going?
Umar Lee: Hey. [laughter]
Sarah Kendzior: We’re all acquainted with Sonny the Pimp. [laughter]
Umar Lee: Well I’ve been watching The Deuce on HBO, and my man George Pelecanos, and David Simon, great show on HBO. You know, I love George Pelecanos, my favorite current American novelist. Read George Pelecanos. You can read my stuff, too, you know what I’m saying. Umar Ali.
Sarah Kendzior: You should promote your stuff before we sign off here.
Umar Lee: St. Louis Speaks podcast. I am the host of the St. Louis Speaks podcast. You can subscribe to the St. Louis podcast wherever you get your podcasts. St. Louis Speak podcast. St. Louis Speaks. Number two, you can follow me on Twitter, UmarLeeIII, like I I I, Roman numerals 3. Sarah’s gonna tweet that, put that out.
Sarah Kendzior: I will.
Umar Lee: And actually I had an old verified Twitter account with a lot of followers. I got pissed off at Twitter because of all the trolls and deleted it, and I came back. And so I’m just kind of now getting back into things. But St. Louis Speaks podcast, you can definitely follow, and you know, I’m single, so if you want to mingle, you can follow me on Instagram, because it goes down in the DMs. You know what I’m trying to say? And also my books, you know. I write fiction and nonfiction. Go to Amazon.com. Just put in Umar Ali, U-M-A-R L-E-E. Ferguson book, Dunya Dust—I like Dunya Dust—
Sarah Kendzior: Umar is also someone who gets regarded as prescient, or prescient? This is the problem whenever we have conversations, neither of us—it means you can see things in advance. We both like to read, neither of us knows how to speak in these terms. [laughter] Anyway, he’s been regarded as someone who saw a lot of these social and political trends coming in advance, and when you read his novels, you definitely see that. You know, particularly the one Dunya Dust, which came out before the Ferguson protests. You see all the kind of prototypes of individuals playing a big role in that controversy. So I recommend his work. We also co-wrote some notable things. Umar is the only person, I think, to write an article for Politico, and cash his check at the corner stores [laughter], so we need a celebration of that.
Umar Lee: That was Bassem’s dad’s corner store.
Sarah Kendzior: See, we went full circle. That was Bassem’s dad’s, yeah. Alright, well, on that note, anything you want to add before we depart? Anything that I should have asked you that I forgot?
Umar Lee: If you hear the sounds in the background, that is the sounds of the massive expansion of Washington University, which will soon encompass half the city of St. Louis.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, but we got the trolley, though, so it’s all good. Loop trolley’s here. Loop trolley’s here, so. [Umar speaks inaudibly in background] Thank you, Umar, my friend and again. And I highly recommend you check out his work.
Sarah Kendzior: We want to encourage our listeners to join us in donating to help climate refugees in California impacted by the fires. One way you can help is by donating to the North Valley Community Foundation, a local organization coordinating relief efforts on the ground.
Andrea Chalupa: Gaslit Nation is produced by Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa. If you like what we do, leave us a review on iTunes. It helps us reach more listeners. And check out our Patreon; it keeps us going.
Sarah Kendzior: Our editors are Karlyn Daigle and Nicholas Torres. This episode was edited by Nicholas Torres.
Andrea Chalupa: Original music in Gaslit Nation produced by David Whitehead, Martin Disenburg, Nick Farr, Damien Arriaga and Karlyn Daigle.
Sarah Kendzior: Our logo design was donated to us by Hamish Smith of the New York-based firm Order. Thank you so much, Hamish.
Andrea Chalupa: Gaslit Nation would like to thank our supporters at the producer level on Patreon: [names]. Thank you so much. We could not produce this show without you.