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“The Undertow”: Author Jeff Sharlet on Trump, the Far Right & the Growing Threat of Fascism in U.S.

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We speak with award-winning journalist and author Jeff Sharlet, who has spent the last decade reporting on the growing threat of fascism across the United States. In his new book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, Sharlet says the language of “civil war” has become central to right-wing rhetoric, mainstreamed by former President Donald Trump, Congressmember Marjorie Taylor Greene and other Republicans.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

“Perhaps the Best Day in History” is what Donald Trump called his arraignment this week, when he became the first U.S. president ever charged with a crime. In a Truth Social post Wednesday night, he called those who indicted him “Radical Left Lunatics, Maniacs, and Perverts.” This comes after Judge Juan Merchan, who’s presiding over the case, asked Trump to tone down his attacks, when Merchan and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and their families face multiple threats. Trump went after both the judge, the DA, their wives, the judge’s daughter. As well, the staffs are getting death threats.

Well, our next guest spent the last decade reporting on how fascism has become the major threat in the United States, and writes about it in his new book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War. Jeff Sharlet is an award-winning journalist and author, professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College, contributing editor at Vanity Fair magazine. His book debuted on The New York Times best-seller list just three spots behind far-right Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a possible Republican presidential challenger to Trump in 2024.

Jeff, welcome back to Democracy Now! This is a powerful work. If you can put this aftermath of this historic moment, the first sitting or former president charged with a crime, in the context of the work you’ve been doing as you travel the country speaking to people deeply involved with the far right, supporters of Donald Trump?

JEFF SHARLET: I think the indictment, the arrest of Donald Trump, which I believe was the right thing to do, is also, unfortunately, the fulfillment of something that’s been coming for a long time. I think of the Trumpocene, a term I borrow from my friend Jeff Ruoff, a filmmaker, the Trumpocene, the age of Trump, in which his politics sort of defines a national conversation as having three stages: one, the prosperity gospel — get rich; two, a kind of dark, conspiratorial kind of theology; but, three, now, starting on January 6, 2021, the age of martyrs. And it began with Ashli Babbitt, the insurrectionist who was killed at the Capitol and quickly became a martyr for the right. And I kind of think of her as holding a spot on the cross, a placeholder, that Trump was keeping it warm until Trump could push her aside and heave himself up there. And he’s occupying the role of a martyr in the theology, in the dreampolitik of fascism now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Jeff, if you could talk about — first of all, explain the title of your book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, why you believe there is a slow civil war ongoing, and whether you think this trial, in fact, as you’ve have said — and we’ll go back to Ashli Babbitt, whom you write about in the book — if you think this trial will exacerbate the fissures that you think are responsible for this slow civil war.

JEFF SHARLET: Mm-hmm, yeah. I’ve been reporting about right-wing movements around the United States, around the globe for 20 years. And if you had asked me 10 years ago whether I thought civil war was possible in the United States, I would have said no, for all sorts of reasons. But what happened with the language, that was always there at the fringe of the right — there was always that kind of radical civil war talk at the fringe — it started moving into the center. And then, people who were at the fringe, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, carried it into the center with her language of the national divorce, and Trump himself, with his civil war language.

After January 6, 2021, I noticed that a lot of American historians, folks who understand that history usually does move slowly, were saying we’re closer to civil war than we have been in a long time. So I decided to start traveling the country talking to folks. And one indicator to me is that when I would — I didn’t even have to say a question. I would just say “civil war,” and the answer from so many people was — there were two answers: yes, and they were looking forward to it, or, yes, and it was a sad inevitability, but they expected it.

I don’t believe it is an inevitability at all, but I see people arming up. I see a steady drumbeat of what I think of as a slow civil war of violence, of pregnant people who are dying for lack of reproductive care. Those are casualties. Queer folks being criminalized in up to 20 states now, and all the kind of wreckage that comes from that, those are casualties. And really, we see, on a weekly basis now, armed men with AR-15s — Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Three Percenters — outside hospitals, libraries, schools. So, I think it’s a simmering. And there’s more violence going on now as I drove across the country, more guns than I’ve seen in 20 years of reporting. I think that it doesn’t do us any good to say, “Could there be violence?” Instead, we need to recognize that there is violence. And how are we going to respond?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Jeff, if you could now go back to Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was killed during the January 6th insurrection? As you point out, she used to be an Obama supporter.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, first, explain how you can convey — what is Trump’s political ideology? And what did you understand from her about how she went from supporting Obama to becoming such an ardent enthusiast for Trump?

JEFF SHARLET: I think we can understand Trump’s ideology — there’s a short word for it, which is “fascism,” and really in the classical sense, not in the way that we might want to describe various right-wing figures, but the true — the cult of personality and the pleasure in violence, along with the sort of description of the rest of the world around him as decadent.

I think, though, that the way we understand the undertow, that pulls people like Ashli Babbitt or so many of the other figures I encountered in my travels into that sort of black hole of fascism, is to recognize that it’s not so much about any particular issue, but rather it is an aesthetic, as fascism is, but also a theology. And that’s why I said the prosperity gospel is — it comes from evangelicals, from the idea that God wants you to be rich. And the way that you know that is because he’s made your pastor so rich. Trump’s golden plane is evidence of God’s intention.

The next stage of that, which I refer to as a kind of Americanized Gnostic gospel, a gospel of conspiracies, of initiate — secret initiates and of what Gnosticism calls waterless canals, but what Trump calls the deep state, this is sort of an appealing, the idea that you have this inside track of knowledge.

And then we come to martyrdom, which, of course, we know has always had this kind of pull, the victimization of white grievance, which is the sort of the current that pulls white supremacy along.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Sharlet, I wanted to turn to the far-right Georgia Republican Congressmember Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was just in New York to rally for Donald Trump for a few minutes before he was arrested, where she was drowned out by whistles. But she was heard loud and clear this past Sunday in an interview that you were extremely critical of on CBS’s 60 Minutes with Leslie Stahl. This is a clip.

LESLEY STAHL: “The Democrats are a party of pedophiles.”

REP. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: I would definitely say so. They support grooming children.

LESLEY STAHL: They are not pedophiles. Why would you say that?

REP. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: Democrats — Democrats support — even Joe Biden, the president himself, supports children being sexualized and having transgender surgeries. Sexualizing children is what pedophiles do to children.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s Leslie Stahl saying, “Wow. OK,” to Marjorie Taylor Greene. Jeff Sharlet, you tweeted, “As a journalist w/ 20 years on the far right beat, I’m going to close-read @60minutes’ MTG segment. To start: 'MTG'” — Marjorie Taylor Greene — “'is as famous as they get.' That’s their justification: fame. AKA popularity. AKA the fundamental currency of fascism,” you said. And then you continue with 30 more tweets. Lay out your critique of this interview.

JEFF SHARLET: It really was. I think of The Undertow as sort of my inquiry into how to tell stories about fascism, with the understanding that a lot of the ways that we’ve used in the past, they don’t work anymore. They haven’t worked. Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes gave us a master class on how not to tell stories about fascism.

In that clip that you show, that “wow,” the arched eyebrow, part of the problem is our — I think Lesley Stahl’s imagination that she still occupies a center, that she can dispatch that which she finds distasteful with an arched eyebrow. She has failed to recognize that Marjorie Taylor Greene is not a rising star in the old vernacular of politics, because she’s not trying to enter the same cosmos. They’re trying to redesign the worldview to create a kind of — I think of fascism as a kind of lucid dreaming in which you can make these seemingly absurd assertions. Lesley Stahl can’t really contend with that using the frame that they have where we’re going to have a polite conversation and we’re going to — she’s going to rely on what she sees as the evident absurdity of that to debunk what Marjorie Taylor Greene is saying.

I think, too, it’s worth saying, just simply saying, “But they are not pedophiles.” This sexual mythology of the right right now, it is a mythology. And I think to understand it, you can’t fact-check a myth. The myth is not based on a claim to reality. Marjorie Taylor Greene knows that. She knows that her power is in spectacle, as fascism is always understood. It’s an aesthetic politics.

So, what she did — and it really, in some ways, amounted to a defense of Marjorie Taylor Greene. When you show B-roll of Lesley Stahl strolling along with Marjorie Taylor Greene and marveling at her beautifully kept lawn, it’s saying, “Oh, see, you thought this person was dangerous, but here I am walking safely along with them.” Marjorie Taylor Greene is dangerous. We need understand the danger. It’s not that she’s going to go feral and attack Lesley Stahl. It’s that she’s going to remake this country in a fascist image.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Jeff, if we could just go back? I’m sorry. I’m not sure you had an opportunity to answer the question about Ashli Babbitt and how she moved from supporting Obama to supporting Trump. And then also talk about — you say that the rise of fascism in the U.S. is part of a global fascist moment. If you could explain what you mean by that?

JEFF SHARLET: Yeah, that’s sort of the microscope and the telescope. And Ashli Babbitt, and why I sort of focus so much on her story is, when I saw her killed on January 6, 2021, and it was a Capitol Police officer who shot her as she was climbing through the window, said to be that she was unarmed — she wasn’t. She was carrying a knife. It’s on the cover of the book. The officer was a Black man. And as a student of American history and American mythology, I knew what the right would do with that right away. That’s the old story. That’s the lynching story. That’s the justification. And they would take Ashli, and they would age her backwards. They started saying — she was 35. They said she was in her twenties. No, she was in her — 16. They made her smaller, an innocent white girl.

So I was interested in who was this person, really, and discovered that she joined the Air Force at 17, motivated by 9/11. She was two wars deep, you might say, two war generations deep. She served eight deployments, both theaters of combat. And she was a Democrat. She wasn’t who we imagined. She modeled her life on the Coen brothers’ movie The Big Lebowski. She lived by the beach.

And yet, something about Trump in 2016 — her first tweet on October, hashtag #LoveTrump — gave her license to indulge in that which she had been resisting her whole life. She was deep in debt by that point in her company. It gave her the license to say, instead of trying to be a better person, what if I indulge myself? What if I let myself go into this undertow, give in to the racist feelings I have in me? She lived close to the border. Give in to the misogynist feelings? And it felt, to her — she experienced it. She described it as a liberation. She felt free, giving in to her worst impulses. And I saw that play out again and again in the lives of people who you wouldn’t expect — they weren’t the usual suspects — you wouldn’t suspect would be drawn into that, that undertow.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And the global — 

JEFF SHARLET: And you said the global fascist moment. Yeah, I think it’s worth understanding, because the temptation is sort of the American exceptionalism of Trump, this sort of unique figure who was able to open the door to change that vernacular. And, you know, as Democracy Now! does such a wonderful job doing, is there’s fascism around — there always has been, but there has been around the globe now. So, we have Erdoğan in Turkey, the Trump of Turkey. We had recently the Trump of Brazil. There is a Buddhist monk in Myanmar who calls himself the Trump of Myanmar, who has led a kind of genocidal campaign.

It is a global fascist moment that is coming out of all kinds of forces, of the failure of neoliberalism, of the pandemic. And I think to take it back to the intimate of these individual lives, of grief unprocessed, the grief at loss — she thinks her place as a white person is being lost. That’s not a legitimate grief, but it’s there. But also the grief of the pandemic, the grief of climate change. But she doesn’t process it. She turns it into rage. And she calls that rage “love.” And that is what you see with all the January 6ers I spoke to. It is driving them into the Capitol, and driving them now out into a more dispersed kind of simmering conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, this week, the Hungarian prime minister, the far-right Orbán, tweeted his support for President Trump. And you have Marjorie Taylor Greene comparing Trump being arrested to Nelson Mandela, to Jesus.


AMY GOODMAN: But, finally, you start the book with Harry Belafonte. You end with The Weavers — of course, Pete Seeger, a part. Why?

JEFF SHARLET: Partly because I couldn’t stand to take my readers on this dark tour without some hope. But the hope I’m looking for is not the cheap grace of “We can do it.” I spent a lot of time with the great Harry Belafonte. Lee Hays, a part of The Weavers, you know him from “If I Had a Hammer” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” You know Harry Belafonte from “Day-O,” the “Banana Boat” song. I sang these songs in elementary school. I didn’t know they were radical songs. I didn’t know they were freedom songs.

I wanted to understand the deeper struggle, the long struggle, to give us some hope, because Harry Belafonte, in his nineties now, he’s an angry man. He’s still angry. He knows that the civil rights movement, in which he was absolutely instrumental, it did not succeed at nearly all that he hoped. The struggle is long. “So what do you do?” he says. He says, “It’s not so much where your anger comes from. It’s what you do with it. And what do you do? You sing your song, and then you give it away. You take it from the top, and you keep singing.”

This is his call to an imagination, a thread of beauty that I try to run through this dark story, because I think if we’re going to find our way through the Trumpocene, it’s not going to be by returning to some normal that was never that great, but by following the model of these long-ago singers, in many ways, unfortunately, forgotten, but had a vision of a liberationist — a liberationist politics, which can meet fascism in a way that Chuck Schumer, say, cannot.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Sharlet, we want to thank you so much. The book, The Undertow. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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