It can happen here. It is
A conversation with Sarah Kendzior, scholar of authoritarianism and vindicated alarmist
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A May Day parade near Union Square, New York, in the early 1930s. Marchers hold up placards with satirical portraits of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. Getty/Heritage Images
When your time comes to speak out against the threat of authoritarianism, do not be overdue for a haircut.
On November 29, 2016, I went on “Morning Joe” to talk about the recent victory of Donald Trump. Thanksgiving had just passed, and I shared that, for the first time since my parents immigrated to America in the 1970s, our family felt profound fear simply to exist in the country as brown Americans. What unfolded was a pointed and memorable back-and-forth, mostly between Joe Scarborough and me, about whether I was being “irrational” to be afraid before Donald Trump had even been sworn in.
Had I known the segment would go viral, I would have first arranged a much-needed haircut, with or without a tax deduction. But here we are. A prominent moment on television, and I look like the Heat Miser.
But it was the discussion that mattered, right? Right? That’s what I try to tell myself. And the discussion, at its heart, was about vigilance in a democracy — in this case, in the context of a threat by Trump to strip the citizenship of Americans convicted of flag burning. What Joe and I were really debating was: When do you sound the alarm? How much do you trust the existing institutions? Do you jump at the first threat of demagoguery and authoritarian tendencies or wait for things to bloom?
I was, I say proudly now, an early alarmist about the coming of Trumpism. In my case, it might have had something to do with the new freedom I had gained two months earlier to say whatever I wanted, however I wanted, without worrying about consequences for colleagues, after an involuntary separation from The New York Times. And of course a lot of people were early alarmists alongside of me. Many were women; many were not white. Being on the wrong end of certain power equations perhaps trains you to be an early-warning system for tyranny. We didn’t need to wait for the hysterectomy concentration camps and the separated children and the Muslim ban and the plague deaths to call out Trump as a singular authoritarian menace.
And a dean of our early alarmist ranks was Sarah Kendzior, who stood out from Trumpism’s dawn for the force, bravery, detail, and prescience of her warnings.
A journalist and scholar of authoritarianism, Sarah quickly established herself as one of the few voices who could situate Trumpism in two distinct longer arcs: that of American institutional decay, and that of foreign experiences of the onset of autocracy.
Now, with the election just around the corner and Trump’s authoritarian, criminal, fascistic, kleptocratic, and buffoonish tendencies on fleek, I was eager to talk to Sarah, who is the author of, most recently, “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America” and co-host of the weekly podcast “Gaslit Nation.” I wanted to know how she sees this moment and what she thinks we can do to escape it.
But first: Join me for one of our chats today at 1 p.m. New York time, 10 a.m. San Francisco time, 6 p.m. London time — here on Crowdcast. Space is limited, so it will be first come, first served and for full subscribers. If you’ve already subscribed, look for a link and password in your inbox an hour beforehand. (Or by visiting The.Ink.)
It IS happening here
ANAND: To start at the end, you've been warning about the authoritarian threat of Donald Trump for years now. Given the president's comments in recent days, where do you think we stand?
SARAH: We've been living through what I've called a "deja news" cycle where the same stories appear again and again, but they are stripped of the context that reveals their full horror or impact. The latest iteration of this is Trump saying that he may not accept the election results and stoke violence if he doesn't win. This is literally the same thing that Trump — and Roger Stone — threatened in 2016, but the media is calling it "unprecedented" and making no reference to Trump's 2016 statements, despite that one of them was said at a debate and was widely covered at the time.
This bizarre selective amnesia is tremendously damaging. The American people need chronology and context to understand the threat. Also, the fact that he threatened this in 2016 should have made officials prepared with a response should he threaten it again in 2020. They should have assumed he'd do it, this time with the backing of the state, and should have come up with a plan to combat it. Instead, they feign shock to avoid accountability. So we stand at a dangerous precipice, but it's made far more dangerous by the refusal of so many people to admit how we got here.
ANAND: The new disclosures about Trump’s tax evasion and faux success are, on one level, same old, same old. And on another level, potentially a big deal. How do you understand them in the context of this moment? And do you worry that the more likely criminal prosecution gets in his post-presidency, the more desperate we can expect to see him, the more willing he will be to steal the election or incite violence, to avoid jail?
SARAH: We knew Trump hadn’t paid taxes. Hillary Clinton said this during one of the debates, but there was little follow-up to her claim. There was also little follow-up on a series of documents from the Czechoslovakian security services revealed in 2016 which stated that in 1977 Trump had entered a bizarre agreement with the federal government to not pay taxes until 2007. We do not know the terms of this arrangement, but the documents are indeed real. U.K. journalist Luke Harding investigated them, and I wrote about them and their ramifications in “Hiding in Plain Sight.” It’s a big untold part of this story, especially when you connect Trump to his four decades of dealing with transnational organized crime and corrupt U.S. government officials, which is what I did in my book.
As for the debt and other information revealed in the NYT piece, none of this is surprising, but people need to learn how to interpret it. People should review his mentor Roy Cohn — Trump’s tax-dodging, mobbed-up, media-savvy lawyer who was the biggest influence in his life. Cohn dreamed of dying owing the US government enormous amount of money, and in 1986, he did. Acquisition of wealth is not the goal for either Trump or Cohn; debt is not a problem for them. A luxurious lifestyle, powered by fraud and threat and untouchable by law, is the goal. People need to examine not only Cohn and Trump’s crimes but the complicit actors that enabled them, which in this case includes the I.R.S., the Department of the Treasury and other broken U.S. institutions. Trump and Cohn are symptoms of a broader disease.
Trump will continue to try to steal the election. That was always the goal, and the tax stories don’t change that. The revelations about his taxes also won’t affect his base in the way some pundits claim. Trump doesn’t care if they know that he doesn’t pay taxes because he thinks taxes are for suckers. His base will also see it this way. What I do wish his base (and everyone else) would understand is that the reason Trump doesn’t pay taxes is because he is a key part of the so-called “deep state” and “DC swamp” and “NYC elites” that his base claims to despise.
But in terms of the election, the focus should be on the mechanisms of rigging — domestic voter suppression, foreign interference, insecure machines, the destruction of the U.S. Postal Service, and so on — and what to do if he cheats and is caught or refuses to concede, both of which are likely. No one should ever compromise in holding him and his crime cult accountable.
ANAND: Now, to go back to the beginning, what was the training and thinking you'd done that shaped your way of seeing Trump when he arrived on the presidential scene?
SARAH: I have a Ph.D. in anthropology. My research was on authoritarian politics in post-Soviet independent states, particularly Uzbekistan. When Trump began campaigning in 2015, I immediately saw parallels between him and the flamboyant Central Asian kleptocrats I had long studied. The deeper I looked into Trump's past, I found that his connection to corrupt actors from the former Soviet Union was not only metaphorical but distressingly literal. This became particularly clear when he appointed Paul Manafort, long-time oligarch and Kremlin lackey, as his campaign manager.
I was also alarmed by how easy it would be for his campaign to exploit social media. As a graduate student studying Uzbekistan at a time when the internet was relatively new, I was interested in how digital media affected trust, and what I found was that it increased paranoia and fractured the fledgling bonds among Uzbek exiles scattered across the world who were, thanks to the internet, able to communicate regularly for the first time. This was a controversial observation when I was in grad school — between 2006 and 2011 — because conventional wisdom was that the internet was an inherently liberating technology that would further the spread of democracy. To say otherwise made you a heretic, but I've gotten used to being that. A heretic is just a person who tells the truth too early.
I was also watching how authoritarian rulers like Vladimir Putin or Ilham Aliyev were purposefully leaving the internet open just enough to bombard the population with propaganda instead of censoring it all together. This approach, which Rebecca MacKinnon called "networked authoritarianism," became the model not only for authoritarian states but for crumbling democracies over the past decade.
Trump's savvy use of digital media was aided by his skill at manipulating print and cable media, which he has successfully done for four decades, whether through tabloids, reality TV, or Twitter. My first job out of college was at the New York Daily News. I worked there from 2000-2003, so I got an inside view of how the media is made and what kind of narratives New York journalists swallow and spit out. I knew Trump's real backstory, and I knew how he would rewrite it.
I also had another unique vantage point: I live in St. Louis, a city that never recovered from the economic crash of 2008. This region was and remains in tremendous economic pain, and Trump was skilled at exploiting that pain in 2016, though, of course, he had no interest in remedying it. Many journalists missed this because they live in wealthy coastal enclaves and believed that the "recovery" was real. I strongly oppose the "real America" vs. "false America" dichotomy — or the "red state" vs. "blue state" dichotomy for that matter — because it's bullshit. Like I wrote in my book, America is purple — purple like a bruise. But it's true that media is an insular profession dominated by people who tend to be out of touch with everyday American life. However, they're just as out of touch with everyday people in New York City or D.C. as they are with everyday people in Missouri. The gulf isn't about geography so much as it is about wealth and networks, though obviously where you live reflects that somewhat. Anyway, I have no interest in being part of that world, and I think my aversion to it helped me tell the story of Trump honestly.
ANAND: There were obviously a lot of boorish and racist and pseudo-tyrant comments as far back as 2015. But when would you say you first sat up and felt that Trump represented a real, as opposed to a rhetorical, authoritarian threat?
SARAH: Immediately. Every country that becomes a dictatorship started with a chorus of people saying, "It can't happen here." It can happen anywhere. And in 2015, the U.S. was extremely vulnerable to autocracy. We had experienced fourteen years of eroded institutional trust due to 9/11 and the illegal wars in its aftermath, we had endured unremedied economic hardship, and we were also contending with hyper-partisanship, a rise in racist violence, and the upheaval of digital technology. Those are the conditions where demagogues emerge, and Trump launched his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers. It was obvious he was going to campaign as a demagogue to rule as an autocrat.
The history of the U.S. is the history of selective autocracy — Native American genocide, slavery, Jim Crow laws, internment camps, and so on. Not only could it happen here, it already had happened here, and Trump is an open racist who ran on an openly racist, xenophobic, hateful platform. That is deeply threatening to the body politic whether he wins or loses, but Trump had the full force of the G.O.P. and its goal of destroying government — which dates back to the Reagan era — behind him, in addition to having led a life immersed in organized crime, business, media, and entertainment. He was trained by Roy Cohn in blackmail, bribery, and other mobster tactics. He also was backed by sophisticated foreign autocrats and oligarchs who were using him as a vehicle for their own agendas. That adds up to an incredible threat.
And on top of that, you had Trump literally telling you what he was going to do. In 2014, he said he wanted economic collapse, riots, and everything to be a total disaster to make America great again. That kind of rhetoric from him is very consistent; it goes back to the mid-1980s. It reflects the corporate raider-mafia mindset he was raised in but is exacerbated by the sadism and fatalism that is unique to his personality. And, again, none of this was hidden. Officials and media didn't want to call it what it was, either because of their own tolerance for racism and xenophobia or because they didn't want to admit how rotted and vulnerable the institutions they led had become.
ANAND: Alarmism is underrated. Discuss.
SARAH: It is bizarre to me that people critique "alarmism" without defining it. If you describe a threat and give evidence to support why you believe there is a threat, you are not an alarmist in a pejorative sense. You are a realist sounding the alarm. If you keep insisting that everything is fine or that things will magically work out in the face of evidence that it is not fine and it will likely not work out, you are not a realist, and you are not rational. You are a fool.
ANAND: Can you talk about how you were portrayed by people who felt you were being alarmist or extrapolating too much? Have any of them come around and told you you were right?
SARAH: I've gotten some apology letters, but no apologies or retractions for the hit pieces that ran on me in major publications, some of which fabricated things I said or wrote. It was harder for people to label me "alarmist" — or the misogynist version of that, "hysterical" — than to label others because of my credentials and my track record, but they tried anyway. And they failed.
I don't care much about how I'm portrayed because my work speaks for itself, and I speak for myself. I've never had to retract anything or apologize for a bad prediction. I'm a careful researcher, and I only present information or hypotheses when I'm reasonably confident that I'm right.
I think the fact that I got every major thing right is less interesting than the question of why all the people who got nearly everything wrong still have jobs.
I encourage people to simply stop watching those people or reading them, because they're giving out bad information, and there are so many good scholars and analysts who got it right from the start and continue to get it right now. I was not at all alone in seeing the threat of Trump and the demise of democracy coming. Your time is better spent reading them or reading history books.
But it's important for some people to pretend my work doesn't exist because, as I said before, they need to feign shock to dodge accountability. And I destroy the plausibility of shock. They can never say "no one could have seen this coming" because I saw it coming and documented it ceaselessly.
And, again, I was not alone — other people did the same thing, often approaching it from different angles reflecting their expertise. It's important to note that most people who predicted our political direction accurately were women and/or not white, which played a major role in why their theories were dismissed. As much hell as I've had to go through, I did not have to face what journalists who aren't white face. Media as an institution is very racist, and they are now uncomfortable that Black and brown people were much better at anticipating what Trump would do than white people. And media racism kills — their failure to portray Trump and those around him — Stephen Miller, Jared Kushner, and others — as a threat helped streamline brutal policies predominantly aimed at Black and brown Americans. White elitist journalists need to reckon with their role in causing mass death and suffering.
ANAND: I think one of the things that has been challenging in persuading people of the immediacy of the Trumpist authoritarian threat is how incapable and laughable and buffoonish he is. Despite all the historical examples of dangerous leaders who were, or were seen, that way, it has seemed hard for many people to process the idea that a man so incompetent could ever achieve something like authoritarian rule. Can you talk about that perception as you see it and the relationship between authoritarianism and (in)competence?
SARAH: The Trump administration covers crime with scandal and covers malice with incompetence. I describe this tactic in-depth in "Hiding in Plain Sight," but it's one that you see throughout Trump's whole life, from his days as a protégé of Roy Cohn up to today. It's intertwined with his ability to manipulate the media. He has no shame, so he doesn't care if people are mocking him or if he's mired in a scandal that has no legal consequences. He cares about three things: money, power, and immunity from prosecution. If you threaten any of those things, you have leverage. But people would rather talk about how he wrote "covfefe" in a tweet.
I don't think Trump is some geopolitical mastermind; he only learns what he needs to know and leaves the rest to the lawyers. But he's skilled at spin and propaganda. He played a fictional version of himself on television for over a decade and spent decades before that playing "Donald Trump" in tabloid media. This is part of what made him such an appealing target for the Kremlin and transnational criminal actors: he is an ideal frontman.
But to sum up: when people say that Trump is incompetent, the follow-up question needs to be "incompetent at what?" Is he incompetent at governing, navigating bureaucracy, and strengthening America's position in the world? Yeah, he probably would be, if he ever tried to do those things. But that's not why he's there. He's in office to destroy this country and enrich himself, and he's very good at that. He's very skilled at that, and he's spent his life building up those skills. The problem is that the U.S. political establishment insists on seeing everything through a lens that dismisses the idea that Trump genuinely has no interest in serving this country and, in fact, enjoys hurting this country. With Covid-19, for example, they kept insisting he was unqualified, he was making errors, and that's why he let the virus spread. Whereas I saw the situation and said he's doing this intentionally, he wants to kill people and make money off the crisis. He is absolutely willing to let Americans die; he gets off on it. And I was right.
Trump also doesn't mind if people know this about him. He likes to get caught; he doesn't want to be punished. And since no one will punish him, since no one will set boundaries and contain him for the sake of this republic and its people, we are in a lot of trouble.
ANAND: If Trump is indeed trying to straight-up steal the election, what do other countries' experiences reveal to be the most effective checks on that before, during, and after?
SARAH: Telling the truth is the most important thing. No matter how horrifying the truth is, you have to tell it, and not worry about being labeled an alarmist. You will probably have to worry about threats to your life, but that's unfortunately what happens when your country is becoming a mafia state. The full story of this operation and its goals need to be documented and exposed. I did my part with "Hiding in Plain Sight," and on “Gaslit Nation”, and there are many other scholars and analysts who did their part by following the money, looking at the culture of corruption around him, analyzing intelligence and criminal operations, and so forth.
The U.S. is in a different situation than a typical country that is transforming from democracy to autocracy, at least historically speaking. We may not be in a unique situation now because other countries, like the U.K., are subject to the same forces, but it is different from the fascist takeovers of the past. First, let me say that I am fine with Trump being called a fascist because he is using fascist tactics, and it's a word that resonates with the public. We need a wide, inclusive, and resolute American opposition movement, and this word conveys the necessary urgency.
But I've largely called him an authoritarian or autocrat instead of a fascist because "fascist" implies loyalty to the state. A fascist wants to embody and expand the state and usually has imperial ambitions. Whereas Trump wants to destroy the U.S.: he wants to strip it down and sell it off for parts to both domestic and foreign backers. His cohort's ambitions are similar to what oligarchs and other hyper-capitalists did to the U.S.S.R. after its collapse — which is not surprising because the Kremlin and an associated network of plutocrats and oligarchs are the prime backers of this operation.
You also see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's influence, the head of an apartheid state, on Kushner, who is far more influential at devising policy than Trump. Looking at what has happened to Russia and Israel under their brutal leaders is a good guide for predicting what may happen to America, at least in terms of policies. But the difference is that Trump truly doesn't care if the U.S. survives. This makes him different from dictators like Hitler or Stalin, who wanted to conquer, and who were deeply wedded to the idea of the nation-state. It makes him different from Netanyahu and Putin as well, because they want to expand their territory and preserve their nations. The Trump administration is simply a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government.
That is why those who seek to keep our democracy and sovereignty need to understand that Trump does not even respect the traditional limitations of fascism: he doesn't care if the country itself is defeated, as long as he is not defeated. So Americans who are standing up for our country need to assess their leverage in that context. We are dealing with a new kind of threat, and we need to come up with new measures to combat it. I encourage people to be very creative in their approach. Open your mind to the darkest possibilities of what they would do and then consider what mechanisms you would need to stop them. Don't be hesitant or shy. Know that you're not fighting alone and that there is not one simple solution to this, because we are not just battling Trump, we are battling a coalition of corruption amidst deeply broken institutions. Be resolute and flexible and strategic.
That may sound like vague advice, but that's because this a long-haul fight, and your mindset going into this fight matters. If you expect a quick win, you will be disappointed. Americans tend to blame themselves for systemic problems. They do that with the economy, and now they're doing that with protest. But the problem is not them — it's this disgusting, broken system. Your job is to fight back and stand up for others, but, understandably, it's not an easy process when you're contending with this level of rot.
ANAND: Which of our institutions — media, courts, civil service, universities, and everything else — have held up well to the authoritarian threat in your view, and which have not?
SARAH: That's a tough question to answer because, first, all of those institutions were already rotting before Trump got in — that's in part how he got in — but also because Covid-19 has accelerated the damage so profoundly. I would say it's more a matter of the individuals within those institutions. Some have done a very good job despite their industries themselves being corrupt. The saddest thing to see is what has happened to the courts because they are usually the last bulwark against autocracy. That's why the G.O.P. has tried for so many decades to control them and take us from a representative democracy to an autocracy run by the decrees of lackeys. People need to look more deeply at why the courts have failed. There have been so many threats against judges, juries, lawyers, and others in this system — the issue is not just complicity and incompetence, but fear of threats. We are living in a mafia state.
ANAND: In a country this high on the idea of how free it is, I think it's hard for people to visualize what authoritarianism even means in the American context. Let's say Trump steals the election and goes full-blown tyrant in the second term, but within the kind of systemic constraints you'd still expect to hold, can you help me visualize what you think that would look like?
SARAH: Domestically, we will lose many of our constitutional rights, especially since Trump will have the Supreme Court backing him. Protest will increasingly be criminalized, and we will likely lose our freedom of speech and media to some degree. I don't think this will be done in a straightforward way, like a repeal of the First Amendment, but through excessive litigation and increasing government control over social media monopolies.
We will continue to see racist and xenophobic policies and extreme abuse of migrants. The economy will continue to deteriorate, and Trump and his lackeys will see this as an opportunity to strip the country for parts, buy up public lands and landmarks, and privatize and destroy them. I'm also worried about public education, which they have long sought to destroy, and which is already suffering during the Covid-19 crisis. The Trump crime cult will see this as an opportunity to finish public education off. They also will do nothing to the climate crisis. They believe in climate change, but they are accelerationists — they see a depopulated earth as easier to control. Those are just some of the nightmares we will face on a domestic level.
I'm concerned that term two of Trump will involve his cohort fulfilling long-held violent ambitions abroad. I'm particularly worried about the potential genocide of Palestinians and the deals that Netanyahu's Israel is making with autocratic Gulf states. Kushner is a lifelong friend of Netanyahu, subservient to him; the U.S. will aid him in these endeavors, no matter how corrupt. Kushner also is close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also incredibly dangerous, and his relationships should be monitored closely. I am worried that the U.S. will go to war with Iran, which is a long-held goal of many Trump advisors both in the U.S. and abroad. Meanwhile, Putin has his own imperialist ambitions, which is one of the main reasons he wanted Trump in office. He wanted to ease sanctions and destroy the Western alliance that stood as a bulwark against him doing things like invading Ukraine and other former Soviet states. That Western alliance is much weaker now, and Trump is his willing accomplice along with other dictators and mafiosos, so we should expect more invasions from Russia.
ANAND: In a post-Trump era, how do you think we should deal with those who were complicit in the Trumpist nightmare? Answer with regard to different levels of complicity: merely voting for him, giving him significant money, working for him, enabling him in Congress. How do you think about creating accountability for what happened versus healing and giving people a face-saving way out if they genuinely want one?
SARAH: I believe in redemption, but redemption needs to be earned. Right now, we have corrupt actors working for this administration or Trump's crime syndicate being rewarded by the publishing or media industries with lucrative deals. The officials who failed to stop Trump are similarly rewarded. Meanwhile, you have people like whistleblower Reality Winner in prison banned from telling her own story. So we need to reverse these incentives. I encourage people to boycott books from confirmed bad actors, the same way I encourage people to stop reading the publications of the journalists who downplayed the threat and lied about what was really happening.
The people who committed crimes in this administration need to be prosecuted. Some of the crimes are so severe that they are violations of the Geneva Convention. They are crimes against humanity. We need Nuremberg-style trials. We also need the U.S. government to come clean about the transnational crime syndicate that has existed since the 1980s (albeit with precursors beforehand), featuring Semion Mogilevich, Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell, and other extremely dangerous criminals. We need answers as to why these extremely dangerous criminals were not only allowed to remain free by officials but were feted by elites and whitewashed by the media. There is a giant, largely buried story here. I tell a great deal of it in "Hiding in Plain Sight" and other authors, like Craig Unger and Julie K. Brown, have told parts of it as well. No one should be let off the hook here; no institution or individual should be viewed as beyond reproach.
In terms of ordinary Americans, I think minds may change if people learn the full truth about what's been done to this country. I have heard from Trump supporters who read my work and changed their minds because they learned about ties to Epstein, Mogilevich, and other parts of his criminal history. Some of the things they were most surprised about were direct quotes from Trump himself. They had never heard them because most media won't cover them — not just Fox, but "liberal" outlets like The New York Times.
In most cases, these former Trump supporters were given a copy of my book by a relative or friend who disliked Trump and wanted them to understand the full story. Personal trust relationships play a big role in changing perception; it's not like my book is some magic bullet. But I think everyone appreciates knowing that they are not hallucinating this level of institutional failure, which crosses party lines. It is corruption so vast and horrifying that it's difficult to process. It has structured the last forty years of American life, which means it has structured my entire life and the lives of many people who are feeling lost and hurt and abandoned.
I don't excuse people who back bigots. Everyone who voted for Trump was, at the least, willing to overlook overt racism and cruelty, and they should reckon with that. But I think getting the truth goes a long way to changing perception. This is not to say that people are not responsible for their terrible decisions, and I consider voting for Trump to be a terrible, hurtful decision. But I am curious what will happen if we fully confront all these broken institutions and their sins — corruption, systemic racism, exploitation, and so on — instead of keeping up a façade of pride or normality or even of ignorance, which is a façade that officials cling to so they can avoid having to remedy these crises.
People are always asking me where I find hope, and I tell them I don't think of things that way — I don't believe in hope, but I don't believe in hopelessness. I believe in the truth and in doing the right thing because it's the right thing to do, let the chips fall where they may.
Sarah Kendzior is a journalist and scholar and the author of, most recently, “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America.” She is the co-host of the weekly podcast “Gaslit Nation.” This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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