The weekend Donald Trump wrongly claimed he’d be “arrested” within a few days, as his incitements to supporters to get violent kept coming, I found myself thinking about the best and most disturbing nonfiction book I’d recently read: Jeff Sharlet’s The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War. It’s both perfect and impossible to describe. As the Washington Post review put it: “At the time, the storming of the US Capitol felt unbelievable. Reading ‘The Undertow,’ it feels inevitable.” This amazing book makes all of it into tragic sense.
I reached out to Sharlet during that odd week of limbo, both to congratulate him on the book and to ask him how worried he was about pro-Trump violence in the event of an actual indictment and arrest, which unfolded in the last few days. He was prescient: He predicted plans for protest would fizzle. “The good news, I think, is that there’s no violent army coming to Trump’s defense,” he told me. “That’s distant now—those guys are so much more paranoid than they were. Any event that calls for attendance is automatically viewed as a trap.”
But Sharlet is still worried about the “slow civil war” he chronicled in The Undertow. We talked on Wednesday, after the Trump arrest, the non-protests and the disgraced, twice-impeached former president’s low-energy airing of grievances at Mar-a-Lago Tuesday night. Sharlet, I learned, happens to be a former Nation intern.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When I reached out to you, you reassured me that the pro-Trump warriors didn’t have the wherewithal to pull off something massive—and they’d see it as a trap. Now we know you were right. Walk me through how you predicted that, and what we’ll see next.
Well, that’s what I mean by a “slow civil war.” So good news: Not another January 6 in Manhattan. But I don’t think that was coming. I’ve been traveling around since January 6 talking to these folks, and they know that they were infiltrated, they know the feds are watching them. But they also see the battle as not only one of frontal assault.
So I’m glad there wasn’t violence—but I don’t know that I see that as reassuring, Joan [laughs]. Partly it’s that the violence has been institutionalized. We’ve got what’s happening in Tennessee, where we have the legislature actually kicking out Democrats…
Yes, a big story getting overshadowed by this circus…
Also in North Carolina, a Democrat switching over to become a Republican…
We’re celebrating the victory of a Supreme Court justice in Wisconsin, which is awesome, but now North Carolina is becoming Wisconsin! So I see the violence of January 6 has since been institutionalized. It’s gone into legislatures. Also, I’m hardly the only one looking at the so-called “lone wolf” attacks. If you read the manifestos as I do, they don’t see themselves as lone wolves; they see themselves as working one on another, and getting a lot of support online.
The good news this week was there was no frontal assault [after Trump’s arrest]. And that is good news! I’m one for counting all the victories we get. But I don’t think the slow civil war has ended. I think some progressives are going to look at Wisconsin, and look at Trump being indicted, and say: “The GOP should be terrified for 2024!” I’d say humans should be terrified for 2024.
What should we be terrified about? What do you see coming in 2024?
If Wisconsin is an indicator, then yeah, killing Roe has an electoral cost. But we’re talking about a movement that doesn’t see itself primarily in electoral terms. When I talk to these folks, they’re all ambivalent about voting anyway. I think of the militia church in Yuba City, California, Church of Glad Tidings, where [members say], “Why would anyone vote again after so much was stolen from us?” There are folks out there who say, “Ha ha, that’s great, you stay home.” Some people know [the Yuba City church] gifted Michael Flynn an AR-15, and he said he’d go hunting in Washington with it. They also have militia training on Tuesdays. So I wish these people would vote again! I don’t think they have the power to launch a big war, but they could be a spark…
What do you most think we should pay attention to in all of this chaos?
I want us to understand what’s at stake, and it boggles my mind watching 2024 horse race coverage right now. I remember publishing The Family [Sharlet’s book about the intersection of religion and right-wing politics] in 2008, and all these people saying, “Well, Obama’s gonna be elected, so that’s done.” And also: “We cured racism!” I’m still hearing some of that. That scares me. People need to understand the peculiar strength of what I do see as a fascist movement. I don’t use the term lightly. In fact, I write in the [The Undertow] about how [I’d thought that fascism] couldn’t contend for the control of the state in the US… well, I was wrong!
Also: Look at the horrible imagination of the fascist movement. I think about this as I drive around the country and document the hundreds of different far-right and fascist flags, the folk art of this fascist movement, the silos painted with Trump art and other fascist symbols, trees carved into the likeness of fascist heroes! This is fascist folklore Americana. And it’s horrible. The good news is, there are more Pride flags, especially in the cities. But they’re mostly ordered on Amazon. Pay attention when a movement, well, folks don’t wanna fly the same old Trump flag. They wanna make their own. They wanna invest that time.
The center of The Undertow is the story of Ashli Babbitt, a January 6 rioter killed trying to climb through a window to reach the House floor. Your profile felt complete—she was neither innocent little girl nor evil neo-Nazi. How did you get into it?
On January 6, 2021. We watched her die, almost in real time. It was this white woman, we didn’t know who killed her, but we could see his hand…
We knew he was Black…
And we knew what the right was gonna do with that. It’s the old lynching story. I knew they had a martyr. And this is the age of martyrs. I knew Ashli had to be the center of [the book]. Bad news: We don’t get to choose who the martyrs of other movements are. So I’m gonna have to understand her.
But she was really just a placeholder, and yesterday we saw Trump push her aside and claim his place on the cross she kept warm for him.
This week you went off on a Twitter rant about Lesley Stahl’s interview with Marjorie Taylor Greene on 60 Minutes. Please share!
Oh! The other subtitle of my book could have been: “How do we tell stories about fascism?” Because the old ways don’t work. You can’t fact-check your way out of a myth…
“Hillary Clinton is not drinking the blood of children, sir…”
Right! “Thank you so much, I did not know that!” So when I see Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes, that could have been called “how not to tell stories about fascism”! I don’t think it was conscious on the part of Lesley Stahl. I think she still thinks she’s at the center of things and all she needs to do is arch an eyebrow and say “Wow,” and she thinks that everyone is with her. Well, all you need to do is see how happy Greene is with that interview. Franklin Graham is asking his followers to watch it and learn about this brave and vital woman. Plus you have B-roll of Lesley Stahl walking around happily with Greene saying, “How big is your estate? Ten acres? Woooh!” Her message is: You thought this person is dangerous, but she didn’t hurt me. So we can talk!
I think Stahl made a choice, like [former New York Times executive editor] Dean Baquet, like, “We missed this story of Trump’s election so we’re gonna interview a million bigots in Ohio diners.” In this case, well, “[Greene] is a rising star in the GOP and it’s my job to talk to the rising stars, so…I’m gonna go do what I do!”
That’s the thing: “I’m gonna go do what I do, which is talk to rising stars…” So let’s start questioning our metaphors. Rising stars suppose a fixed cosmos into which rising stars can enter.
So what is she… a black hole?
Yes! Fascism is a black hole. It has big gravity. We have to examine all the metaphors that lock in assumptions. Like “rising star.” Or “I’m gonna do what I do” as a journalist? I’m not saying Lesley Stahl is responsible for it. I’m responsible for it too!
So you start this unlikely set of stories with your amazing profile of Harry Belafonte, and end with a profile of lefty folksinger Lee Hays. I got it—eventually. Can you explain?
I knew starting that way would cost me sales! “Oh yeah, I wanna learn about the ‘slow civil war’—what’s this about Harry Belafonte?” Well, Harry’s life is about that slow civil war. I think Harry gives us the diagnosis of the book. The minstrel act. The language with which to understand the poisoned river of whiteness that runs through everything that’s grown to raging proportions in the Trumpocene.
Lee Hays [was] not a brave man. But he describes driving through an Arkansas night with some labor organizers. Violence is afoot, they start singing hymns and old labor songs, and he concludes: “For a while, it was possible not to be scared.”
That’s how The Undertow ends. “For a while, it was possible not to be scared.” I think Sharlet’s trip through the Belafonte and Hays years helps remind us American democracy has faced violence before. And it’s possible not to be scared. As we hung up, though, I did have one reservation: The right has so many more guns than they did back when they tried to shut down Paul Robeson, Hays, and the Weavers’ Peekskill concert back in 1949 (which of course Sharlet knows; he writes about it extensively in his book).
Belafonte helped lead us through proud moments for the 20th-century American left. We are going to need more proud moments in the 21st century. And we are going to need to be even more brave.