“They Knew” is a volume of improbable and seemingly impossible tales of hidden connections in the worlds of politics, government and public affairs.
By Dale Singer
In 2020, Sarah Kendzior’s 9-year-old son asked, “Who is the MyPillow Guy?”
After told he’s “a guy who sells pillows, but who is also working for Donald Trump to violently overthrow the government,” the child was unconvinced. He turned to his father “for a more reasonable explanation, the way he did when I insisted on the existence of Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, but my husband shook his head and said, ‘Your mother’s not messing with you, kid.’”
“‘Oh my God,’ my son said, laughing maniacally. ‘Oh my God, the government, oh my God!’”
That’s the kind of reaction many readers may have if they follow Kendzior down the rabbit hole in “They Knew,” a volume of improbable and seemingly impossible tales of hidden connections in the worlds of politics, government and public affairs — what she terms “a panorama of paranoia.” Her two-word title packs a punch beyond its brevity, throwing a bright light on the book’s subtitle: “How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent.”
What is a conspiracy theory? From the outset, Kendzior takes pains to define what she has studied and written about in depth. A conspiracy theory, she writes, is not a conspiracy, not “an agreement of powerful actors to secretly carry out a plan that protects their own interests, often to the detriment of the public good.”
“When the agendas of elite actors get pushed underground,” she adds, “and you have to dig for them — that is when those agendas are called conspiracies, and facts are called theories, and you are called insane for noticing.”
Theories arise and flourish when true conspiracies provide them the necessary breeding ground.
“Conspiracy theories are the midway point to truth,” Kendzior writes, “the fork in the road between enlightenment and delusion. Conspiracy theories are what you end up with when people bury past sins and build over the graves and one day somebody finds bones in the earth.”
The upshot: “The collapse of democracy, rule of law, and climate at once leaves us with one lesson: The truth may hurt, but the lies will kill you.”
“They Knew,” a wide-ranging, thought-provoking analysis of such theories in modern America, was written during COVID lockdown, a time that she says “revealed actual conspiracies by malicious actors, spurred conspiracy theories by a frightened population bereft of reliable data, and was weaponized by propagandists seeking to use conspiracy theories to annihilate compassion.”
It was a time, she says, when “‘we the people’ had been left on our own. There were still medical researchers trying to provide evidence and advice — as well as doctors and nurses saving lives and decent state and local actors struggling to keep their communities safe — but the bottom had dropped out on institutional trust, and deservedly so. The top levels of authority had long been seeded with profiteers, perverts, and professional propagandists.”
To advance her case, Kendzior casts a wide net, discussing situations ranging from Oliver North to Jeffrey Epstein and a roster of notorious headline makers in between. But no one will be surprised that the uber villain in Kendzior’s thesis is Donald Trump, whom she brands “a self-described fatalist who has long expressed his desire for destruction.”
Surveying his notorious past, leading up to his tenure in the White House, she writes that the drumbeat of Trump scandals and irresponsible policies are easy to track for anyone who wants to find them, because “the most damning truth about the Trump crime world is that very little of its illicit activity was hidden.”
Kendzior, who lives in St. Louis and has a Ph.D. in anthropology from Washington University, has written of these issues before and has discussed them on her podcast, “Gaslit Nation.” She doesn’t always hold the state of Missouri or her adopted hometown in high regard, noting at one point that, because of “decades of abandonment,” drivers here face little in the way of traffic compared with big cities such as Dallas.
At times, Kendzior proves her point about conspiracies and conspiracy theories in a way that she may not have intended. Some of the cases she cites to bolster her thesis are so convoluted, with so many characters and subplots, that the discussion may leave some readers behind, losing the thread because of complexity or lack of interest. So a culture of conspiracy can make Americans complacent for other reasons, like the fact that too much is going on for them to even keep track.