Jeff Sharlet, The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War (New York: WW Norton, 2023)
Jeff Sharlet’s new book The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War is a distinctive, brilliant, and poetic study of Amerikaner fascism – here I might say fascisation – over the last three years of what a friend of his calls “The Trumpocene.”
Sharlet makes no bones abut using the big-scary F word, fascism, to describe what he sees as having taken over one of the nation’s two dominant parities and the minds of millions of US-Americans. “One by one in recent years,” he writes:
“objections to describing militant Trumpism as fascist have fallen away. In addition to ‘the personality’ of Trump, the movement his presidency quickened now cultivates paramilitaries and glorifies violence as a means of purification, thrives on othering its enemies, declares itself persecuted for ‘Whiteness,’ diagnoses the nation as decadent and embraces the revisionist myth of a MAGA past – as exemplified in its dream of adding Trump’s likeness to Mount Rushmore” (p.165).
The F-word rightly appears again and again through The Undertow, as in these examples:
“Why go on abut the barely sublimated eroticism and ecstasy of a congregation I’ve already let you know is in denial of death….stoking the return of a fascism not really gone?” (p. 222)
“The witnesses [before the US House Select Committee on January 6th in the summer of 2022]…were three Trump administration lawyers who had resisted the president’s would-be coup. I listened to their testimony, their graying voices, their account of the pressure building [from Trump to help him overthrow the 2020 presidential election], thinking This is the stress test of fascism. Trump, probing, prodding, feeling for weak links. Will this bend? Will this one break?” (271),
“Athena [a young far-right militia woman and expert AR-15 shot Sharlet met in rural Wisconsin last summer], for instance, embraced fascism and yet bridled at the name. ‘They call me a Nazi…just because of my German flag tattoo….Honor and Glory for Germany,’ she said, her voice in a low drone. Which was complicated because Rob [Athena’s father] considered himself Jewish. ‘I’m not,” Athena said” (279-80).
“The anger kept twisting. Rob and Peggy and Jerry and James [white Amerikaners Sharlet interviewed in Mountain, Wisconsin]. Abortion and guns and God and Whiteness and women and cities and borders and then guns again. The intersectionality of fascism: all perceived threats, across all time- ‘Indian war’ and new Cold War and critical race theory – brutally interconnected.”
“But for all its guns and Punisher skulls and actual killers, [US-Amerikaner] fascism is actually worse than a death cult: It’s an innocence cult, the belief that one might be as innocent of history – read, race – as a fetus is of the world. Perfect and pink (White), unbloody in the Dobbsian imagination of the womb. The gun, too, is made clean by the cult of innocence, born again not as a tool of aggression but of defense, as the protection of purity, inscribed by a growing number of manufacturers with Stars and Stripes and biblical verse; advertised as a form of evangelism, a means of spreading God’s goodness in the world. Like a baby. The fetus and the gun. Small wonder nobody’s yet put them together on a flag.”
Things You Won’t Get from The Undertow
I’m not sure when exactly (and correctly) Sharlet determined that Trumpism is fascism. He cops to having earlier believed that US Christian nationalism could never cross over into full on personality cultist “true fascism” because of its “ostensible commitment to some kind of idea of Christ.”
“I was wrong,” Sharlet writes. Good for him. A hardly band of left and liberal commentators and activists were on to Trumpism as fascism from the very beginning, but, well, better late – if it is in fact late in Sharlet’s case – than never, right? I know more than a few haughty academic and other fascism-deniers who still even now cling to their faith that fascism isn’t really happening and indeed can’t actually happen here in the United States.
Sharlet isn’t a radical Left analyst or activist inclined towards empirical social-scientific and historical inquiry or popular organizing. The Undertow won’t give you an explicit and precise definition of fascism beyond the passage I quoted in the second paragraph of this review (though that passage is very good and consistent with serious historical and sociopolitical definitions of the lethal pathology).
Sharlet offers no empirical data on how many US-Americans now fit the fascist/neo-fascist/ “true fascist” profile – the prolific and quantitatively astute political scientist and Marcon Center researcher Anthony DiMaggio (author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here) tells me it’s about a quarter of the nation – or how those people are distributed across the country in regional, socioeconomic, and other demographic terms. He doesn’t tell you how and why the nation’s fascist minority has such lethally outsized political voice in the United States (the answer requires a harsh look at the institutional Minority Rule structure of US politics and governance and the long reach of the US slaveowners’ Constitution).
You won’t learn from The Undertow how and why capitalism and bourgeois democracy breed fascism or how fascism relates to the underlying capitalist-imperialist order.
You won’t find learned and deep empirical reflections on why fascism has broken through American politics to the lethal and chilling degree it has now in this particular, late neoliberal moment of US history. Or on how and why the dismal, dollar-drenched “hollow resistance” Democrats have helped grease the skids for the “return of a fascism not really gone.” Or, for that matter, on what’s different about Trump-era fascism as compared to earlier versions of the pathology in American and world history.
While The Undertow includes an inspiring vignette on some cool, mostly female Wisconsin teens who told their local women-hating fascists literally to “Fuck Off” after the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, you won’t learn much if anything about what should or even could be done to stop the fascist Amerikaner juggernaut in its tracks And you won’t find all that much in the way of hope for the future since this is a pessimistic book that seems to see US fascisation not as a crisis to be fought and averted than as our tragic “shared condition” – the long unavoidable, almost naturalized “undertow” of Amerikan racism and Whiteness (he capitalizes this word to emphasis the racist essence of Trumpism-fascism), patriarchy, fundamentalism, and violence.
A Travelogue of Terror
But other folks (including myself, the aforementioned DiMaggio, and members of the nearly seven-years-old organization Refuse Fascism) have tried their hands and are working on all that and more. Sharlet’s mission is neither academic nor activist. It is to tell a highly personal, moving and lyrical yet dark and trepidatious series of stories that grippingly warn his readers about a great menace stalking the land.
The Undertow is part travelogue, part prose poetry, part first person journalistic inquiry, part participant observation, part personal memoir, part history, and part horror story. Sharlet attends and reports on Trump’s campaign/hate rallies, driving across the country asking Trumpists about their world view. Presenting himself as a neutral, open-minded journalist investigating the meaning and legacy of the fascist January 6th “martyr” Ashli Babbitt – the Capitol Rioter shot dead as she burst though a Congressional door’s glass panel – he talks to Trumpist QAnoners, militia members, gun nuts, abortion haters, racists, women-loathing/-fearing incels, and far-right pastors and fantasists. The result is not pretty: a fasci[st]nating, patchwork of potentially genocidal derangement that makes Hillary Clinton’s term “deplorables” look like an understatement. In one case after another, from California to the upper Midwest, Sharlet approaches his right-wing subjects with a welcoming spirit, seeking their opinions on the state of the nation in the wake of Joe Biden’s ascendancy. He nods along as they tell him that: Democrats are sub- and/or super-human child eaters; Trump has strange mystical powers and speaks to his followers in code; Trump is God’s chosen instrument for human salvation and will lead a great Storm of retribution; Covid-19 and vaccines are Chinese conspiracies; women gang rape men; true Amerikans must be armed to the teeth with high capacity assault weapons to avert urban communist takeover; women have no right to control their own reproductive lives (cuz God says); abortion gives women too much power; civil war is around the corner and can’t come soon enough; city-dwelling socialists are taking down the Second Amendment; abortion is worse than murder and “a plot to replace American newborns with adopted foreign ones.”
“Soon,” a deranged old white man in Wisconsin told Sharlet, “they will try to make us all speak one language, a one-world government tongue, an evil Esperanto that will rob us of that which is particular to our lives, our places, our pasts. It’s coming, he said. No, he said, it’s here.”
Sharlet seems to depart from each of these encounters ever more hopeless and anxious, his already brittle mental and physical state – the product of high blood pressure, two previous heart attacks, mourning for his recently departed and beloved stepmother, and concern for his transgender child – put further at peril. I’ll be honest: the horror of these people he hung out with is hard to bear.
We are NOT “All the Same Underneath”
Sharlet pulls this off without conveying any sense of superiority towards or contempt for his subjects. He leaves moral judgement up to the reader. The Trumpist Amerikaners of the early 2020s United States’ “heartland” simply exist for Sharlet. They just are, and they scare the Hell out of him. They are part of our “condition” now.
Sharlet manages to retain a sense of his God and Guns subjects’ underlying if lethally alienated humanity while pulling no punches about the existential menace they pose to what’s left of democracy and decency in the world’s most powerful nation. His approach is far superior to that of the sociologist Arlie “Strangers in Their Own Land” Hochschild, who decided that the proper response to the rise of the white nationalist right was to descend from her liberal ivory tower, bond with Trumpsters, and make Christo-fascists part of her extended family. Hochschild’s exercise was dedicated to a silly notion that Sharlet explicitly rejects – that “we’re really all the same underneath”… “No,” Sharlet rightly says, “we really are not. We’ve made different choices” (p. 222). Oh, indeed.
Oh, indeed. Do not tell me that I’m the same underneath as the Christian fascists who want to bring the women-hating, eco-cidal neo-Nazi pig Donald Trump back into the world’s most powerful and dangerous office in 2025 or, if Trump is unavailable, the fascist zealot Ron DeSantis. Don’t tell me I’m the same underneath as the vicious red- (try brown-) state legislators and governors who sign bills that send women into septic shock when they are denied proper miscarriage and abortion treatment, bills that ban books, suppress votes, and criminalize the accurate teaching of American history with racism, sexism, and genocide included. Don’t tell me I’m the same underneath as the people who applaud all that fascism.
The Christianity and Diversity of Trumpism-Fascism
Married to a historian, Sharlet finds the “Trumpocene” (I wish I’d come up with that term!) all too richly consistent with longstanding ugly undercurrents of violence-imposed Amerikan racism, nativism, ethnic cleansing, patriarchy and Christian fundamentalism – currents that (as he notes) inspired Adolph Hitler’s vision for the Third Reich. Consistent with his previous two books on American right-wing Christianity, The Undertow repeatedly weaves into its collage the strongly religious dimensions of Trumpism-fascism. He refers again and again to the Trumpist-fascists’ distrust of scientific and academic knowledge, their division of the world into believers and nonbelievers, and their strong resemblance to “Gnosticism” – a Christian tradition that speaks of “paradoxical wisdom,” secret and esoteric vision, and the dance between fantasy and illumination. The neo-Gnosticism of the Trumpers, Sharlet suggests, helps explains how millions of evangelical Christians have been able to embrace an epic philanderer and likely rapist like Herr Donald, who was just held liable by a jury for sexually abusing and defaming the New York journalist E. Jean Carroll.
Another key contribution of The Undertow merits special mention. The fascist base Sharlet finds in his trek across Trump terrain is less uniformly Caucasian and aged than many of us think. He runs across Black, “LatinX” (he used that PC word that no Latinos or Latinas I’ve ever met want anything do with), and even Native American Trumpsters, suggesting that the revanchist power of neofascist Whiteness reaches into the hearts and minds of more than a few nonwhites. That is certainly suggested by the examples of the recently convicted Proud Boy chief Enrique Tarrio and Mauricio Garcia, the fascist pig who murdered nine people mostly of Korean and Indian descent with an AR-15 outside an outlet mall in a Dallas suburb last Saturday. Garcia wore the same “Right Wing Death Squad” patch donned by Proud Boys in Washington DC after Joe Biden’s election.
Four Points of Difference
This is an at once beautiful and terrifying book. I do have four criticisms, or points of difference.
First, I think Sharlet should have added the words “for me” to his statement that “one by one, in recent years, objections to describing militant Trumpism as fascist have fallen away.” The objections have faded for him, which is excellent, but many others still pathetically refuse to identify, much less resist the Amerikaner fascism that is staring us in the face. Fascism denial and related fascism normalization remain alive and well in the nation’s dominant media-politics and intellectual cultures. (And Sharlet should see the denialist emails I get from those I at first jokingly designated “the Trumpenleft.” There’s a bunch of them still hanging around even at this late date.)
Second, I understand the pessimism but find it problematic. Antonio Gramsci’s oft-cited phrase “pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will,” has long struck me as self-cancelling. Without being Panglossian, we can and must always struggle to keep our minds attuned to possibilities for radical popular change and even revolution – not of the darkly reactionary “death trip” sort advanced by the Christo-fascists that Sharlet portrays but of the proletarian sort that revolutionary communists advance.
Fascism need not be our “condition.” It reflects a very real crisis of class rule and new divisions within both the US capitalist class and the broader population – a crisis that will be resolved either through something truly terrible (fascist consolidation, a very real possibility) or something beautiful and liberating (popular rebellion and socialist transformation). Can we steer the crisis towards the better, liberating outcome? Si, se puede. And, indeed, we must.
I respectfully dissent from Sharlet’s belief that “the return of a fascism not really gone” is our naturalized “condition” and from his related rejection of the notion that the country is in a crisis. Behold this passage on p. 238:
“There were other investigations stemming from January 6, many hundreds, but I do not believe they will ever, in a true sense, be ‘resolved.’ This isn’t that kind of a story. The crisis kind. The kind in which the outcome is yet to be determined. It isn’t a ‘crisis,’ January 6, any more than the fire and heat I’d been driving through all these miles. It’s a condition [like a bad heart – P.S.]. Our condition. The one we share” (emphasis added).
No, I disagree. Sorry for the repetition, but, as Bob Avakian notes, there’s a crisis of previously normative bourgeois-democratic rule underway within and beyond the United States right now. It’s a crisis, not a condition, and it’s resolution is a matter of individual and collective human agency. Historical contingency and human intervention in social and political life have not been rendered extinct. We had better and can in fact get our shit together and act to avert fascist consolidation. The pessimism of much of the intelligentsia – including most of the Left-identified people I know – is a mental and emotional and even physical condition that is getting in the way of a decent, democratic, and human resolution of the, well, crisis.
Third, listen to this interesting passage from p. 301: “Some friends, rural Wisconsinites, queer, left, and armed, wanted me to stop talking to angry people. ‘Why talk to Nazis?’ asked one of their children, a six-year-old of strong common sense. Well, they’re not exactly Nazis,’ I said but I knew that wasn’t a real response.”
Well, yes, and it was not a good response because, well, they’re pretty much Nazis. As the brilliant Marxist historian Alan Kulikoff recently wrote me:
“We should use the term ‘Nazi’ more often to describe our fascist anti-conservative far right-wing Republican ‘party.’ Its trajectory certainly resembles the early Nazi Party, complete with demonization of humans they consider savages: Gay folk (loathed by Nazis), Jews, people of African descent. And they add the Nazis’ deeply misogynist views of women. We need…to stop viewing them as laughable characters. They are dangerous to humankind and could be our rulers come January 2025, given the extraordinary incompetence of the Democratic Party, still fully beholden to capitalists, striving mightily to ignore young voters, among other absurdities. (Push comes to shove, our capitalist ruling class will go with our Nazi/Fascists, just as the German capitalists did with the Nazis. My former Princeton colleague, David Abraham, proved this in his first book, for which sin he was chased out of the profession).”
Exactly right. The conclusion I get from that is this: thank you, Jeff Sharlet for talking to Amerika’s 21st Century version of the Nazis and helping us get our minds around their world view. We can stop talking to them now. Let’s talk to each other about how to defeat them once and for all.
Fourth, and this is directed at WW. Norton and the publishing industry, not the author, I am militantly opposed to the growing abolition of the index and think it belongs at the end even of non-academic books like The Undertow. Why should a reviewer not be able to easily look at an index to find every page on which Sharlet discusses Ashli Babbitt or mentions the F-word or Gnosticism, or the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, or Nazis? I realized after reading this wonderful book that I had not entirely grasped entirely what he meant by “the undertow.” What would be wrong with me being able to access an index with an entry for “undertow, meaning of” at the end of the volume? Plus, indexers need work.