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They Knew, by Sarah Kendzior

If you’re expecting to simply kick back and cackle to yourself over the insane conspiracy ravings of MAGA and QAnon adherents, Sarah Kendzior’s They Knew: How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent will disappoint. Oh, there’s plenty of that rightwing insanity dissected in the book, to be sure, but Kendzior takes a much deeper dive into the history and practice of conspiracy theories in America, and at some point you're sure to be set to squirming about something you believe no matter where you lie on the political spectrum.

She sets the scene early in the book with an example undercutting the liberal tendency to blame vaccine mistrust primarily on voter partisanship, an oversimplification that ignores the fact that there are nearly as many voters identifying as ‘Independent’ as there are ‘Republican,’ and that the most-vaccinated segment of the population—White Boomers—is also one of the top Trump-supporting segments. Indeed, the whole idea of ‘Red States’ is a misdirection: she calls them “gerrymandered hostage states run by hard-right Republican legislatures that disregard the public will.” So what is going on, if not a purely partisan divide? “[A]n epidemic of disillusionment and distrust so vast it stretches into paralysis.”

What is happening in Missouri is the result of having been lied to so many times about matters of life or death that the desire to die on your own terms outweighs the desire to get tricked into choosing it. What is happening here is the aftermath of predatory big pharma dynasties like the Sacklers swooping into your state and promising you relief in the form of opioids, assuring you they are safe, and leaving your community addicted and decimated while they laugh and profit off your pain and seek permanent immunity in the courts. What is happening here is recognition that if something were indeed wrong with a new and experimental vaccine, there would be no recourse and no justice, because political officials do not care if you die. What is happening here is abandonment as a way of life, from the streets of St. Louis to the hills of the Ozarks, and the knowledge that making a wrong move in a broken healthcare system is a gamble too expensive to take. What is happening here is not only people falling for conspiracies but remembering the times their loved ones had faith in the system and faith made a fool of them, at the cost of their survival.

In short, “of course people will flock to conspiracy theories when nearly every powerful actor is lying, obfuscating, or profiteering off pain.”

To be clear, Kendzior’s primary target is the blatant authoritarian criminality of the Trump regime, whose dangerous election she had predicted as early as the Fall of 2015. In her previous book, 2020’s Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America, she called it “a reality show featuring villains from every major political scandal of the past 40 years—Watergate, Iran-Contra, 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 financial collapse—in recurring roles and revivals...a Celebrity Apprentice of federal felons and disgraced operatives dragged out of the shadows and thrust back into the spotlight.”

But her intent with this book is to show the deeper current of mistrust in the American psyche, something which Trump manipulated to dangerous levels. Just because there are crazy conspiracy theories spread by malevolent actors for dangerous ends does not mean there are no conspiracies.


Where I may depart from other scholars and journalists is that I believe an equal danger lies in dismissing what are deemed “conspiracy theories” out of hand, instead of interrogating the power dynamics and motivations behind them and parsing out the grains of truth. The old adage that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” holds up all too well for our time.

In one example, she delves into the story of a secretive man who nevertheless managed to ingratiate himself with the upper echelons of business and politics, who fell under investigation for the sexual trafficking of minors, who entrapped business and government officials by secretly recording them in compromising situations and using it for blackmail, who seemed to have links to foreign intelligence, and who died by a highly suspicious ‘suicide’ before a full reckoning could be reached. Actually, she writes about two such men. One is Jeffrey Epstein. The other is Craig Spence in the 1980s. (Or is it three she writes about: notorious lawyer Roy Cohn was rumored to have a sexual blackmail operation dating back to the 1950s, using a suite at New York City’s Plaza Hotel to record politicians sexually abusing trafficked children.)

Like with Epstein, early news media stories about Craig Spence were fluff pieces, and as intimations of his dark side began to come to light, major media outlets were hesitant to touch them. It was the conservative and Moonie-backed Washington Times that printed numerous investigations which other national media did not follow up on. In 1989, Spence was found dead in the Boston Ritz-Carlton, dressed in a tuxedo, three dollars in his pocket, a newspaper clipping at his side about legislation to protect CIA agents called to testify before Congress, and a message in black marker written on the room’s mirror: “Chief, consider this my resignation, effective immediately. As you always said, you can’t ask others to make a sacrifice if you are not willing to do the same. Life is Duty. God bless America. To the Ritz, please forgive this inconvenience.”

The life and death of Craig Spence was disappeared through a near-uniform media and political blackout. There were no mainstream books, few follow-up articles, and no congressional hearings. Much of the coverage from the time is not easy to find today. The Washington Times’ 1980s articles, for example, are not in its publicly available archives. Spence is a ghost of history, a specter at the edges of a storm. I was a child when Spence carried out his operation, and I was in my thirties when I first heard about it, despite studying government corruption for my entire life.

Will Jeffrey Epstein by similarly disappeared down the memory hole? Despite the story being what would seem irresistible to news media interested in attracting audiences—illicit sex, corruption, spycraft, celebrities, blackmail—the story was largely ignored for too long. It was the Miami Herald that finally published a series of investigations about Epstein in 2018, helped in part by the ‘me too’ movement that made coverage of the sexual behavior of the powerful a bit more acceptable to the media gatekeepers. (In 2015, the website Gawker had published Epstein’s black book; within a year, right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel sued them out of existence.)

In They Knew, we take a tour of other juicy stories that for mysterious reasons the mainstream media was reluctant to pick up. The Keating Five scandal, which ensnared corrupt financier Charles Keating and five senators, including John McCain, who protected him, was at first ignored by the mainstream press; the story was first broken by the trade journal National Thrift News. An Associated Press reporter, Robert Parry, broke the story of what was to become the Iran-Contra scandal, but his editor was an Oliver North associate, who killed the investigation.

We also are taken through a variety of odd deaths. Aside from Epstein and Spence, we hear of Senator John Heinz and former Senator John Tower, who had both investigated Reagan-era government crimes and who both died in separate plane crashes within 48 hours of one another in 1991. Heinz’s widow later married Senator John Kerry, who had earlier led an investigation into drug-running in the Iran-Contra scandal. That report, issued in 1991, was largely buried until a journalist named Gary Webb picked up the trail in the mid-1990s. His investigation into the story ended in 2004 when he was found dead from two gunshot wounds to the head in his apartment, a death labeled a suicide. We are reminded that Robert Maxwell, father of Epstein’s associate in sex trafficking Ghislaine Maxwell, and who reportedly worked with Israeli intelligence and also helped the Russian Mafia set up global operations, died mysteriously by falling off his yacht in 1991. And we hear of Danny Casolaro, an independent journalist who had spent years investigating what he called “The Octopus” The threads of the story encompassed the CIA, the Department of Justice, the FBI, numerous law firms and tech companies. It included PROMIS, a compromised computer software that, once installed, could allow the computers to be hacked. One of the people involved in selling this compromised software to the US Government was...Robert Maxwell. Casolaro’s investigation came to an end in 1991, when he was found in a Sheraton Hotel bathtub with a dozen slashes to his wrists. His death was ruled a suicide.

And we are taken through what Kendzior calls occasional “anomalous eras of American accountability, glimmers of hope that light the way to a better future.” The 1970s was one such period. In 1971, the activist group Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, broke into FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania and obtained a thousand documents describing what would become known as COINTELPRO: surveillance, infiltration and covert attacks on antiwar activists and civil rights leaders. The news media covered the story. Also in 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, which published extensive articles based on them revealing how the government manipulated the facts surrounding the Vietnam War.

In 1972, CIA officer Victor Marchetti and State Department official John Marks wrote The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, an expose of what they called government corruption before and during the Vietnam War. It was the first book to be censored by the US government. It was a fight to get the book published, and to narrow down the deletions insisted upon by the CIA. In the end, the book, with restored deletions highlighted in boldface and still-censored sections marked by blank space, was an instant bestseller. Also in 1972 came the Watergate break-in and subsequent reporting in the Washington Post, followed by actual Congressional hearings that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. This wave of revelations about government corruption and secrecy in turn led to the Senate Church Committee, the House Pike Committee, and the White House Rockefeller Commission, investigating abuses by the CIA, FBI, National Intelligence Agency and the IRS. (John Tower, one of the two Senators who died in plane crashes, was on the Church Committee.)

How to distinguish between conspiracy theories and actual conspiracies? Liberals certainly hold up their own cabal of evil entities that exert covert control over public policy: the Koch brothers, the Federalist Society, the Council for National Policy and many others. We believe if the evidence showing these links, even as we mock the MAGA delusions about George Soros and stolen elections. In 1988, gay rights activist Larry Kramer wrote to Anthony Fauci: “You are a murderer...Your refusal to hear the screams of AIDS activists early in the crisis resulted in the deaths of thousands of Queers.” Today, it is the QAnon crowd calling Fauci a murderer (and Kramer has publicly forgiven him). Robert Mueller was a US Attorney and FBI Director in a time when Trump, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort and others were left to engage in the early phases of their criminal careers with impunity, yet we applauded when years later he was assigned to investigate the crimes of the Trump administration.

The dangerous curse of the Trump years is that “the fringes have been pulled to the center, with the result that the center no longer holds. Trump created a template for elite criminal impunity that aspiring successors seek to emulate.”

Conspiracies are woven into the landscape of American life. They are how Americans reckon with hypocrisy and betrayal, how they feel around the edges of subjects they are not supposed to touch, how they navigate the twilight zone between principles and practice. Conspiracies structure American politics, but they are not called conspiracies when they are wrapped in the flag or stamped with bureaucracy or printed piecemeal in the papers. They are called plans or policies or “just the way things are….”

In a country this corrupt, the line between a plan and a plot is blurred to the point where you do not know if your interpretation is rooted in insight or paranoia, but you know it is worth pursuing. What the criminal elite want, above all, is for people to stop analyzing these crises, to accept them as normal and leave them alone. This motive is not based in fear of being found out. Instead, it is an attempt at psychic control and retaining the political culture that allows them to operate with impunity. They want you to abandon moral inquiry even more than they want you to abandon the truth.