In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we examine the dark intersections of religion, nationalism, and right-wing politics with the award-winning author of the just-released The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War, Jeff Sharlet.
Sharlet uncovers the mythic foundations of American exceptionalism, the radicalization of various right-wing forces, and the growing allure of violent “solutions.” He navigates the lasting impact of Trumpism, and tells how democracy may emerge more vital and inclusive in the end.
Sharlet examines America’s origin myth, the intersection of this myth and history, and the role of religion in fueling political and social polarization. Sharlet shows how this dynamic causes people to revel in their violent selves and embrace their darker emotions.
As right-wing politics veer toward fascism, Sharlet notes the emergence of cult personalities, the perceived “enemy within,” and powerful martyr myths, such as Ashli Babbitt’s story.
Sharlet reveals how some churches are preparing for war, and touches upon the fetishizing of democracy, the urge to force crises, and the appeal of authoritarianism to those who feel scared or powerless.
In this era, he says, when even avant-garde artists are drawn to the transgressive nature of fascism, we must learn to live with the loss of counterfactual myths, moving beyond our cult of innocence to a worldview founded on hard truths.
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Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. In Israel, in Hungary, in Russia, in Turkey, in Brazil, and in the United States, fascism and authoritarianism is on the ascendancy. Like the history of all fascist movements, it has its idol worship, its martyrs, and its sense of politics as the new religion. Sure, we’ve seen the shoots of these forces before: labor riots at the turn of the century, the rise of McCarthyism, and opposition to communism.
But dare I say those four hated words: This time it’s different? We wonder why it’s so hard, for example, for traditional Republicans to quit Trump. The fact is that it’s easy to quit Trump, but Trumpism they can’t escape — a force that may be reaching critical mass, as so many groups from Christian nationalism to national conservatives to churches and militia groups, the MAGA right, talk radio, and even elements of traditional mainstream Republicanism are all coalescing around forces that have taken on a life of their own.
This is not in the traditional historical partisan sense a battle over marginal tax rates or military budgets or agricultural price supports. This is not the traditional political horse race that made politics a form of entertainment and fueled cable television and talk radio. This seems to be, to use the Biblical term, a battle for the soul of nations. We’re going to talk about this with my guest, Jeff Sharlet.
Jeff Sharlet is the bestselling author or editor of eight previous books, including The Family. His writing and photography have appeared in many publications, including Vanity Fair, for which he’s a contributing editor, and he is the Frederick Sessions Beebe professor in art of writing at Dartmouth College. It is my honor to welcome Jeff Sharlet here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast to talk about his newest work, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War. Jeff, thanks so much for joining us.
Hi, Jeff. Good to be with you.
Well, it’s great to have you here. One of the fundamental things that seems to be happening is that politics has become religion, and religion has become our politics. Talk about that notion first.
I think in trying to understand what I see as the undertow sort of pulling this out to fascism, these currents have always been there to under the surface but picking up speed. To me, it was a sense of the fall of the religiosity. I’ve been writing about right-wing movements for 20 years, and I’ve also been writing about religion for even longer than that. They’re not always the same thing, of course, but they sometimes do overlap, and they’re quite potent. I don’t think you can really understand any kind of politics, especially right now, right-wing politics, without paying attention to the power of religion, in particular, the myths that animate Christian nationalism. Because I think sometimes, when people hear religion, they think of churchgoers, and so they see numbers like, for instance, in fact, they’re quite startling numbers in the past 10, 20 years of just plummeting numbers of people who say religion is very important in their lives. That doesn’t mean that Christian nationalism isn’t.
And I think that the mythic, like when we go back to Reagan invoking, “the city on the hill,” which was, of course, religious language, we’re always engaged in that kind of magical thinking: Make America Great Again. And you can argue about, well, but it was never great. He’s not talking about something that was real. They’re talking about an imaginary place. And then there’s the explicit religion of the movement which Trumpism is very explicitly about redeeming America for Christianity. And as impious as he is in speaking to those groups, he’s always been quite explicit about his willingness to do that.
The other part about that mythic past is it’s not only the religious mythology; it’s as if the origin story of America itself in this case is hijacked and that mythology becomes woven into it.
Well, I mean, I think of the 1619 Project, which I admire. I don’t know that the origin story is hijacked. You don’t have to do a whole lot of twisting to find white supremacy baked in right from the beginning. Nor do you have to overstate the case to see the Great Awakening of the 18th century, Jonathan Edwards, sinners in the hands of an angry God as constitutional to a lot of the forces that that gave rise to American Revolution.
Things are complicated like that. It doesn’t mean that’s all they were, but it’s certainly always there, and you know, myth and history intersect, not usually through the whole cloth of fabrication but through the emphasis on certain threads, which then gives rise to some magical thoughts. I think back in 2016, Trump loved telling the story, and the press never reported on this because they just never pay attention to the myth work that he does. They pay attention to the insults, and they’re still looking, God, even now, the third campaign for policy statements. That’s not his thing. He would do these long set pieces, and one was called “The Bullet,” and it would be like a performance, and he would tell a story about General “Jack” Pershing in the Philippines in the 19th century fighting Muslims. And the story’s completely untrue. But there was, telling it in great detail, they captured 50 Muslim rebels. And so they soaked 50 bullets in pig blood. And they shoot 49 of the people and they give the last man the pig blood-covered bullet and says, “Take this to your people.” And Trump in 2016 says, “This is the presidency I’m going to have; this is what we’re going to do.” This is the way we have of thinking. It’s fake history. At the same time, he’s not wrong in sort of paying attention to the United States has done horrifically brutal things. What Trump is doing is saying, “Let’s not deny them; let’s revel in our violent selves. Let’s embrace our ugliest side.”
Talk about the violence, because so much of this rhetoric, it’s so much talk is about violence. It’s not a bug. It seems to be a feature here.
Oh, absolutely. So, in the book, it covers about a decade, and I look at some of the forces that were feeding into what I call the Trumpocene, the age of Trump, right. And by the way, the Trumpocene goes on with or without Trump as one pastor where I met in Omaha, NE, said, “You know, Trump is coming back, whether the man himself or the spirit and the flesh of another.” Right, it is an ethos of a kind of American politics. But the way that that happens in the Trumpocene and the embrace of violence is the very first rally I go to I’m standing — I don’t go with press because I want to experience what everyday people are experiencing — so I just go, and I stay in line for six hours and press in with this lovely old couple, very sweet, having a nice conversation. They’re sort of like old hippies. And then the husband starts talking about how he wants to get his hands on a protester. He’s happy. He’s not angry. He’s talking about how he’s going to beat the the hell out of them, and he’s going to get on CNN. His wife looks at him so, and she thinks this is just sort of charming. And then she leans in, and she whispers to me she’s been thinking about Hillary Clinton. And she whispers, she says that, “Don’t she just look like she’s been rode hard and put up wet?” It’s this grotesque misogyny coming from this sweet old grandmother. And I think part of the door that Trump opened was to take that violence that is a part of American life and to say, “Don’t be ashamed of it, take pleasure in it,” until it became, certainly it is now, a feature of his rallies. People get excited. They hope there’s protesters. They want protesters to be there; they love the moment when Trump says, you know, “Get him out of here, and I’ll pay your medical bills.” And that’s not just Trump, though. I mean, and I think that’s why I sort of want to emphasize that that is the ethos of the party now — that’s the January 6 choir. That’s all the people with guns. I encountered more guns in the last two years than all my years of reporting on the right. And there’s been a switch from claiming that your AR is for sport, which is ridiculous, to saying, speaking of defense, to now just stockpiling guns for the love of shooting guns that have no possible sport or defense application. Guns that are for hurting lots of people, and that is a kind of pleasure. That’s why I do say that we have turned from other kinds of right-wingism toward actual fascism and the European tradition of cult of personality, regeneration through violence, and a nationalism based on othering and an enemy within.
And martyrdom, as you talk about with Ashli Babbitt.
Yeah, Ashley is, I don’t want to say she’s the heart of the book, but she is sort of the center of it. On January 6th, Ashli Babbitt was a 35-year-old white woman Air Force veteran who’d been a Democrat her whole life. Vote for Obama twice. He was her second favorite president. But she fell in love with Trump, and she kind of stopped trying to be this other kind of person and just started indulging in all her kind of most ugly rhetoric. And at the same time, seeing herself as a hero because she was going to save the children. She was an adherent, like so many of QAnon, which believes that the Democratic Party is trafficking in children, and she went to the Capitol on January 6th, led a charge, climbed through a broken window and was shot and killed.
And I saw it happen that day. We saw it happen in real time, and the officer who killed her, Lt. Michael Byrd, was a Black man. And as soon as I saw that, being a student of American myth in history, I knew what was going to happen. And sure enough, it did. She was going to become an icon of innocent white womanhood struck down by a Black predator.
This is the lynching story. This is, you know, I mean, if you go back in American history, so many lynching stories. This is Emmett Till, and a good innocent white woman and a dangerous Black boy supposedly whistles at her, and somehow, that’s a threat. In fact, he didn’t even do that. As she’s since admitted that the woman who was whistled at was not, but that’s always the story, and it’s such an old story, it’s an already-made martyr. And they very quickly started sort of shaving off the rough edges. You don’t hear anybody talking about the fact that, for instance, that Ashli Babbitt was queer. She lived in what she called a throuple. She had a husband, and together, they had a girlfriend. We see that sort of taken away.
We see, she must be unarmed to be a martyr, which is why I put her on the cover of the book. I think it’s a fascinating photograph. It’s an evidence photo of the knife she was carrying. It’s dated 1/6/21. You can see it between two rulers. It’s a nasty little knife. Even seeing that knife, some of the believers insist, “Well, she was Anon. That’s just a, you know, a little handy knife that you carry.” Try carrying it on a plane and see how far you get. [Jeff Schechtman laughs]
People start having dreams that they saw her. People start saying, “We are Ashli Babbitt.” They make paintings of her. T-shirts. Her mother becomes the mother of the movement. Her mother, Micki Witthoeft, just met with, has met with Trump and just met with Rep. Kevin McCarthy. Remember Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who had no time for the Capitol police officers, [Jeff Schechtman laughs] Sergeant Pennon, so injured. No time for the mother of Brian Sicknick, the officer killed that day, died that day. But for Ashley Babbitt’s mother, he understands where the power is, and he understands the power of that martyr myth. So that’s where we’re at now. We’ve entered the age of martyrs in this right-wing movement, and that is an escalation.
The other part of it that you talk about is the coming together of so many forces right now. That it’s not just one or two, but it seems that everything is coalescing around these forces right now.
Yeah, I think that’s a good way of saying it. I think that, you know, again, to borrow that metaphor of the undertow, you know, it sort of sweeps everything out in one direction. The metaphor, by the way, came from as I was driving across the country, following the ghost of Ashli Babbitt, driving up into the mountains in Colorado and listening to a right-wing preacher on the radio. And he’s telling the story of his three sons being swept out to sea by the undertow, and he goes to try and rescue them, but he’s still wearing his clothes, and he starts getting dragged down. And the moral of the story? He doesn’t even tell us if he rescues his three sons. The moral of the story is don’t let your love for your own children even distract you from your obedience to authority, to God.
And there’s a way, he kept speaking about undertows. The undertow is this sort of thing that give up everything; just let yourself be carried by this authority. And I think that’s what happens when why we have a fascist moment right now, there is a movement. And so this is good news and bad news. The bad news is all kinds of different right-wing forces are converging. People who would not have talked to one another even five years ago are now finding common cause and radicalizing each other. That’s the bad news. The good news is it’s not a monolith. There are fault lines. These are groups that have different views, different ideas. They are filled with people, like Ashli Babbitt, who, seven years ago, weren’t even right-wingers. And that means that there’s no inevitability to this undertow. Inevitability is one of the lies of fascism that, you know, the civil war is coming and there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s always something we can do about it. We can always resist that current.
Where is the nexus between what we’ve been talking about that’s going on in America right now and the ascendancy of fascism in other places in the world.
I’m glad you asked that because I think a lot of Americans who are concerned about this situation nonetheless subscribed to a kind of American exceptionalism. You know, Trump loves to say the world is laughing at us because of Joe Biden. And then I hear, you know, a group of friends saying, well, the world is laughing at us because of this buffoon Trump. Well, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the Trump of Hungary, isn’t laughing at us. Erdogan in Turkey, the Trump of Turkey, the recently defeated and that’s good news Bolsonaro in Brazil, but we’ll see if he comes back. There is a Buddhist monk in Myanmar, a leader of the genocide against Royhinga people there, who calls themself the Trump of Myanmar. And then of course, there’s Russia and China, which I think for all practical purposes are functioning like fascist states right now.
One of the other undercurrents in this book, and I think it’s really important, we have the grief of the pandemic, and then we have the grief of climate — that’s hurting us all. So even those who deny that it exists, I went to so many churches where they were talk about the drought on the land. Churches where you know, outside the sky was filled with smoke, out West, you know America burning. That grief is there, and grief that is not dealt with curdles, right? The refusal to mourn, the refusal to say, “We have lost something in that climate.” I think that is shaping part of this global fascist moment everywhere. And the recognition that certain old systems did not do what they needed to do to hold on. So I think that’s real.
But I think here’s where I think again; I resist inevitability. We speak of a climate crisis; we speak of a crisis of democracy globally, as well as locally. I think crisis is the wrong word. I think it’s a dangerous word. I think that’s the kind of word fascists, whether it’s Putin or it’s Trump, they love that language. Trump just this weekend was saying this election is the final battle between good and evil; a crisis demands a resolution. Instead, I opened my book with a section called, “Our Condition.” Our condition, you know what, a crisis, we’re not going to solve the climate crisis. We’re going to learn to live with the way things have become. We’re not going to go back to the way democracy was, which had a lot of problems anyway. We can’t roll back Trump. Some damage has been done, so then, the question is how do we live with that condition? How do we go forward?
Is the unknown here that that we can’t find examples of fascism in a kind of world we live in today where information moves so quickly, where there’s so much speed, where there’s social media, etc., that those things are such an accelerant that it’s unclear how this moment plays out. We don’t necessarily have a clear historical context.
No, no, and I’m glad you said, “accelerant.” The penultimate chapter of the book is called “The Great Acceleration,” and I found myself in Wisconsin after Roe fell, and Wisconsin became, you know, ostensibly, a blue state, but they reverted to 1849 law — no abortion, no exceptions for anything. And so I traveled around the state talking. I was in rural areas, and I was talking to people about this, and they were very excited. They thought things were speeding up and Black River Falls I met a preacher’s wife. The preacher, who had all his kids out with anti-abortion signs, and they were celebrating. He thought this was a great victory, but the wife thought it was even better. She said, “The churches have been unleashed. There’s nothing holding us back now, but this isn’t, doesn’t mean we’re done. Now we get started.” And she says the churches have been unleashed for war, and she did not mean it metaphorically, and indeed, I encountered a lot of churches across the country that are literally arming up.
It’s a form of acceleration. Well, there’s an idea called accelerationism, and it began on the left with actually these sort of radical left intellectuals who have a critique of neoliberalism and democracy, and I share some of that critique. But they then say, “You know what? We have to stop fetishizing the process of democracy.” They can see all that doesn’t work in it, right? And fascist intellectuals said, “Yeah, that sounds great. Let’s take that accelerationist idea, and let’s speed it up.” And so now you see in right-wing intellectual circles the idea of it’s almost an old Marxist idea: How do we heighten the contradictions? How do we make things worse, to blow things up? How do we force the crisis? And I think that that accelerationism makes the future absolutely impossible to predict, but of course, if it’s impossible to predict, that tells us that we cannot give into despair. We do not know what’s going to happen.
But what it does in in a way, it seems self-perpetuating, because what that does is it creates that uncertainty, creates anxiety, which ultimately creates fear, which creates more people falling into the movement as a way to handle that fear and causes it to grow further.
Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And that’s another meaning of the title of the book, The Undertow, is I found people like Ashli Babbitt, you know, as I said, was a Democrat, most of her life; there’s all these people who somehow found in this growing fascism, a license for their worst selves. People who didn’t always speak in such misogynist or racist terms, and somehow it seemed easier to give in.
You know, just to fall back into it, people who are scared. I think of the grief of COVID, you know, more than a million dead in America, and yet it’s almost as if they disappeared. We don’t speak of it. It’s a failure to mourn, and grief unattended, as I say, it curdles, and it can turn to anger. And here is this movement that is ready and ready with a dream. I think fascism is a dream politics. It is a utopian politics, literally, in the sense of what utopia means. Nowhere; Make America Great Again is about a country that never existed. It’s a dream state. When they speak about the way things were, they’re not describing anything real. They’re describing movies. Even when they talk about the civil war that they think is coming. They’re not talking all the little horrible ways in which that will play out. They’re imagining themselves in Red Dawn. They’re imagining themselves as Patrick Swayze up in the mountains. [Jeff Schechtman laughs]
And, you know, I spent actually a lot of time talking about movies in the book because I see them — Trump, who watches Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ great movie, over and over. A couple of years ago, New York Times had a profile of a sort of a rank and file neo Nazi. A lot of people got upset with it because they thought he was being platformed, and it included the fact that the Nazi’s favorite television show was Seinfeld, and he loved the films of Guillermo del Toro, great filmmaker. And people said, “You know, who cares? What, is this supposed to make them more human? I don’t care. I don’t need to know that.” I disagree. I think we do need to know that. We need to know how they’re taking stories.
It’s why I spent so long in the book, several pages, Ashli Babbitt, the insurrectionist, the martyr of the movement, her favorite movie around where she models her life was the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski. I love that movie too. How is that a fascist movie? I watched it again, and I studied it, and I tried to see it with her eyes. I think that’s very important. I think we need to have empathy. Not sympathy. Empathy for the devil. Empathy is misunderstood lately. It’s seen as a virtue, and it’s not a virtue. Empathy is simply the act of trying to understand how one thinks, how it makes sense to break into the Capitol and climb into a window. Not so that I can do it, too, but so that we can chart another course, so that we can intervene in time. There are ways of telling stories more beautifully, more brilliantly so that they become more compelling than the conspiracy theories that they just consume — people like Ashli Babbitt and now the people who believe in her as an almost spiritual figure.
Which raises the question of what kind of leaders do we need to be able to conjure up and tell those alternative stories.
Well, I love the great civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who famously said, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” So I don’t know that; I’m not inclined to be looking at leaders in that sense. I begin and end the book, and I know this is going to puzzle some readers, the book about the Trumpcene, but it begins with Harry Belafonte, and it ends with an even more forgotten singer named Lee Hays, although probably listeners, Lee Hays, if you know “Goodnight, Irene,” if you know “If I Had a Hammer,” if you know “On Top of Old Smokey,” if you know “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” well, then you know the work of Lee Hays — Pete Seeger’s longtime partner, and work with Woody Guthrie, and The Weavers, right.
Now, these were two lifelong activists, musicians, and they understood their music as a kind of subversive act. Harry Belafonte’s famous banana boat song; he understood that as a radical work song. Harry Belafonte, meanwhile, bankrolled the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King’s right-hand man and a brilliant man. Still alive today. And still angry today in his late 90s. He knows his civil rights movement didn’t succeed. He knows that we’re in terrible conditions, and that’s why they’re there. The hope that these men offer isn’t the saccharine, you know, “We can do it. Well, it’ll all work out.” Harry Belafonte is a greater soul than me, and he didn’t win.
The struggle is long, so I don’t think it’s so much a question of what kind of leaders do we need to tell the stories. I think we need to, we need greater imagination. I’ll say this, and I think this is upsetting to some people. Having been writing about social movements for 20 years, the imaginative force right now is on the right. And here’s a way you can see that. Driving across the country, as I say, I’ve photographed about maybe 200 different variations of right-wing flags, all sorts of Trump flags. I’ve photographed so much Americana, folk art, people painting silos and mowing their yards, lawns in the shape of these symbols. A friend of mine, a curator for Smithsonian, says, “I have to collect this, it’s fascist folklore.”
The good news is there are just as many progressive flags. There are a lot of rainbow flags. Get into the cities and towns, there’s a lot of rainbow flags. It’s pretty much all the same flags that you can buy for $14.99 on Amazon, which is where a lot of people get it. It’s a good flag. But you don’t see that colorful variation right now, and meanwhile, we see much of the arts flipping rightwards. We see avant-garde movements and downtown New York hipsters who find fascism transgressive and exciting. So I think it’s not the leaders that we need, it’s the imagination that we need. I think we need, as I say in the book, I’m not the one to write the new songs. I’m the one to sort of map the menace and think about how we can get through it so that more imaginative people than me — other Harry Belafontes, other Lee Hays — can write these songs that we can sing — these freedom songs.
And finally, Jeff, you talked earlier about democracy, if we come out of this moment, democracy doesn’t look the same, that it will be irrevocably changed. How do you think that it will be changed?
Well, my fondest hope is that we may actually achieve it. That would be due. We haven’t done it before. I don’t like some of the language that we see around, and I am an all-hands-on-deck guy. Anyone who is struggling against fascism, anywhere on the political spectrum, you know, my energy is going to be focused on resisting fascism, not, you know, picking apart your strategy. What I’m not crazy about is that people say, “You know, we have to preserve democracy.” It’s like putting we’re going to put in a jam jar? What do you mean preserve democracy? Or you know, “We used to have a democracy.” Wrong term: “Have a democracy.” Democracy is something you do. Democracy is something you make, right?
I think it is, part of what’s happening is, I am a parent of a queer nonbinary child. And on the one hand I’m terrified my child is being criminalized in 20 states of the Union right now. There are all kind of threats to their very school. On the other hand, my kid is an out queer kid and very comfortably so and has lots of friends who are out and so on. You know that’s very different than I think that when you and I were kids. There is a radical expansion of inclusiveness now, and there is a radical contraction. It’s happening at the same time. We need to push for the expansion. I think the democracy that comes on the other side of the fascism that I think we got to go through, you know, that’s a part of the book. We can’t go over. We can’t go under. We got to go through it. I think that democracy is going to be more vital, more inclusive and also more mature because we’re going to be living with a lot of loss because we’re not all going to make it through. We’re going to be living in a different climate and we’re going to be adapting to that. I think maybe we can finally get beyond our cult of innocence, our imagination of ourselves as innocent. All the purity narratives that make so many Americans vulnerable to the ultimate purity narrative, which is the nationalism of fascism.
Jeff Sharlet. The book is The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War. Jeff, I thank you so very much for spending time with us today.
Thank you, Jeff.
Thank you, and thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.