Undertow copy

Trump’s Gospel: A Review of Jeff Sharlet’s The Undertow

Jeff Sharlet, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War
New York: W. W. Norton Company, 2023
363 pages; ISBN: 978-1-324-07451-9

Review by Jarrod Shanahan

So much has been already said about Donald J. Trump, Trumpism, and the amorphous mass known as his “base” that it hardly seems worth revisiting the topic almost eight years after his fateful descent down Trump Tower’s golden excavator. Just as the 2016 election seemed to confirm everything that virtually everyone had already been saying about US politics for years, so too does Donald Trump today seem self-explanatory. A living Rorschach test, Trump has made a career out of appearing exactly as people want him to be. The billionaire champion of the everyman; the hedonist defender of traditional values; the criminal warrior for law and order; the antichrist and the messiah rolled into one. Trump is all these things, but more fundamentally, Trump just is. What’s the point of even talking about it anymore?

Journalist Jeff Sharlet has been on the Trump beat since 2015, crisscrossing the country to attend Trump rallies, MAGA churches, men’s rights convergences, memorials for January 6th martyr Ashli Babbitt, and other symptoms of what he calls “a season of coming apart.” Sharlet’s new essay collection The Undertow (Norton, 2023) attempts to sketch in broad strokes, inlaid with baroque detail, the unstable social terrain he traversed, a society careening toward catastrophe, an apocalypse already underway, “the gravity drawing men with guns to the center.” The result is a poetic and deeply pessimistic assessment of the American present and near future, which manages the difficult feat of saying a few original things about Trump, Trumpism, and the zeitgeist in which this madness makes any sense to anyone.

A primary setting of The Undertow is the grotesque jubilee of the Trump rally. Shoulder to shoulder in the thronging crowds of 2015, Sharlet beheld a perverse kind of community in utero, rooted in Trump’s unique blend of “not just anger but rage; love and yes, hate; fear, a political commonplace, and also vengeance,” fused with a scarcely concealed erotic glee in communal transgression. “Liberals giggle over the innuendos of Trump,” writes Sharlet, “but the believers are more sophisticated, they embrace not just the manufactured hope of a political rally but also the lust, the envy, the anger of our bluntest selves,” transformed by Trump into “something greater.” Even in the painful ritual of waiting up to eight hours before the man appears, Sharlet found “deep pleasure… derived not just from the speech to come but from a budding sensation of togetherness, rolling vibrations of solidarity and giddiness and anticipation.”

The Trump rally has been the most prominent manifestation of Trumpism and a key site of investigation for those of us trying to figure out, as Trump would say, what the hell is going on. “For the most part, the crowd isn’t all that interested in what Trump thinks,” wrote John Garvey in 2019, “they’re more interested in what he represents—a rejection of all the ‘norms’ that the liberal media never tire of passionately embracing. He says things that you’re not supposed to say and they get to share in the excitement that goes along with getting away with something.” Sharlet provides much evidence of this communal sense of transgression, which Garvey deftly compares to the medieval carnival, a ritual through which hierarchies are jovially upended, albeit temporarily, in the name of preserving power relations in the long term. “We all want to punch somebody in the face,” one rally goer told Sharlet, “and he says it for us.” Beneath the pure negation of Trumpism, and beyond the spectacle of his rallies, however, run an important thread of continuity to the more orthodox politics of days past.

Sharlet’s most valuable contributions to understanding the long history of Trumpism traces its relationship to Christianity, through the mediation of “Trump’s gospel.” Here The Undertow benefits immensely from Sharlet’s experience chronicling religious fundamentalism in America, dating back to his work in The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper Collins, 2008). Whereas this earlier work chronicled the shady work of religious fundamentalists in the halls of power, The Undertow traces the diffusion of this theology throughout Anytown, USA, with an emphasis on its remarkable syncretism. After encountering Sharlet’s colorful litany of “MAGA pastors,” QAnon sermons, and Christian faithful discarding the cross (a symbol of weakness and defeat) for the sword (strength and victory), it seems absurd to call anything “fundamentalism” which adapts so readily to political and cultural expediency as does evangelical Christianity.

Where many secular commentators, myself included, were stumped by the seeming contradiction of the profane Trump’s sacred status among so many Christians, Sharlet invites us to look closer. “What Trump is describing” in his unhinged rants about his many enemies in the Deep State and throughout the social fabric, argues Sharlet, ”is no more nor less exotic than the evangelical concept of spiritual war, the conflict thought to be raging always, around us and within, between believers and ‘principalities’ and ‘powers,’ according to Ephesians; or demons, in the contemporary vernacular.” In short, Trump “fused his penchant for self-pity with the paranoia that runs like a third rail through Christian conservatism, the thrilling promise of ‘spiritual war’ with dark and hidden powers,” forces both real and plucked from the highly-imaginative demonology of QAnon. Trump, who grew up studying pioneering televangelist Billy Graham, might not be such an unlikely religious leader after all.

“Trump’s gospel revolves around the worship of power, the denial of responsibility to others, the denial of history, and above all, the denial of any objective standard of truth.”

It is certainly a role he has stepped into with great aptitude since 2015. In the process, Sharlet argues, what began as a kind of modern day Crusades, the quest to return American “greatness” in 2016, shifted in 2020 to a much darker battle with shadowy Deep State, and stands today as nothing short of a looming Armageddon, secularized in the phrase, recurring throughout the book, of a coming “civil war.” How did a man so famously averse to watching a film start to finish, much less reading a book, pull this off? It is tempting to recall C.L.R. James’s description of the Marcus Garvey movement: “It was pitiable rubbish,” James writes, “but the Negroes wanted a leader and they took the first that was offered them… desperate men often hear, not the actual words of an orator but their own thoughts.” But just as there was likely more to Garvey than James would concede, so too, Sharlet illustrates, can we sell Trump short.

Here Sharlet makes considerable use of a little-known fact about Donald J. Trump: his veneration of the “applied Christianity” of Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking (Prentice Hall, 1952) and friend of the Trump family. Peale’s theology inverted the relationship between humanity and God found in most faiths: the point of Christianity, he argued, is to serve the believer. And how can this be measured? Through material success. Transmitted orally to the young Trump, who is famously averse to reading, Peale’s philosophy has gained popularity around the “prosperity gospel” of Joel Osteen and other megachurch pastors who flaunt the wealth they accrue from their flocks as both a testament to their own righteousness and a portent of the affluence coming to those who give. At the same time, applied Christianity sanctifies the world as it presently exists, beatifying the wealth and power of capitalist society in the eyes of the Lord.

In the present, Sharlet argues, the “prosperity gospel, secularized” that Trump offers presents a double incentive to his flock. First, they are free to pursue their own deep desires: the lust for power, status, conquests, sexual and otherwise, flaunted by Trump, who liberates them by allowing them to let go of their shame in the name of “greatness.” At the same time, he also frees them from the guilt of inhabiting a world divided by class and race. In the world of Trump’s gospel, anyone can be saved, through their own initiative; the small group of non-white MAGA influencers who ride Trump’s coattails are case in point. Trump’s gospel is bootstraps ideology sacralized and then re-secularized. It enables the kind of deniability found at Trump rallies: when Trump speaks of bad Mexicans, he of course does not mean the Latinos who migrated “legally,” started businesses, and today support Trump — any more than his remarks about “black crime” refer to law-abiding African Americans who seek law and order. In fact, anyone who tells you any differently is the real racist!

A far cry from the socialist hippiedom of the New Testament, Trump’s gospel revolves around the worship of power (winners are holy, losers are profane), the denial of responsibility to others, the denial of history, and above all, the denial of any objective standard of truth. Here again, in Trump’s oft-mocked penchant for outrageous hyperbole and outright fabrication, Sharlet finds a more profound continuity that eludes secular observers. Trump, he argues, speaks “spiritual truths,” a modern heir to Gnosticism, “a form of exclusive knowledge reserved for the faithful, a ‘truth’ you must have the eyes to see.” This way of knowing is at odds with the vulgar earthly methodology of experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, so reviled by the Trump faithful. It is an epistemology in which “doing your own research” means watching homemade YouTube videos full of wild, unsubstantiated assertions, and finding them to reflect reality satisfactorily enough to risk one’s life in their name. As philosopher Martin Heidegger might say, the Trumper is “in the truth” by virtue of their social being, and has no need for empirical standards beyond this.

Gnosis, Sharlet argues, thrives on paradox, which adherents believe contains deeper truths than formal language can convey. The gnostic devotee gains access to a world beneath the one seen, and to debate the world of appearances on its own merit denotes a shallow spiritual understanding. Considered gnostically, then, Trump’s immorality on display alongside his professed righteousness is no cause for alarm; reconciling the two, however artificially, is a sign of enlightenment and denotes status above those who cannot move beyond the obvious fact that this foul-mouthed, philandering huckster seems to claim to be the voice of God. This is equally true of the forces of darkness. “Secret murders everywhere,” one of the book’s many enterprising MAGA pastors tells Sharlet, speaking in ominous shorthand. “Pedophiles, and evil.” One need not prove these claims empirically, and attempts to do so, such as the popular conflation of the amount of children who are reported missing each year (often for a very short time) with the number who vanish permanently at the hands of a stranger (a puny fraction of the former) cannot be fact-checked. It is true on the spiritual level, even if some egghead wants to tell you that Comet Ping Pong, the Washington D.C. pizza parlor widely believed to harbor a Democrat-run child sex dungeon in its basement, does not, in fact, have a basement. Such is the theology of QAnon.

After the failure of QAnon’s main prophecies — including the arrest of Trump’s enemies in a day of judgment called the “Storm” — and the apparent removal of Trump from office, most nonbelievers would be happy to consign this crowd-sourced demonology to the historical dustbin. But while the so-called “Q drops” on 4chan and other seedy corners of the Internet have since gone silent, Sharlet demonstrates that much of the movement’s paranoid cosmology remains alive and well in a stunning fusion of QAnon, Trumpism, and evangelical Christianity. This goes for core beliefs of the Q movement—wildly exaggerated figures of child abduction and trafficking, Satanic pedophile rings run by Democrats, and a subterranean battle between light and darkness at the center of the American state. More importantly, however, the paranoid “research” practices, free-associational construction of complex narratives, and breathless fabrication out of whole cloth that constitute the methodology of QAnon, which most closely resembles a collective descent into schizophrenia, have instead been almost completely normalized in rightist politics.

For example, at one rally Sharlet notices a smattering of t-shirts bearing the phrase “Trump’s Tweets Matter,” and speaks to the ringleader. He learns they are not simply an effort to own the libs—in fact, this slogan’s overlap with Black Lives Matter seems to be the only coincidence conceded by any of Sharlet’s Q-addled informants. The deeper meaning, the shirt’s maker insists, points to the obsessive hermeneutic popularized by QAnon, the notion that Trump is a “a five-dimensional chess player,” and that his every malapropism, typographical error, and errant capitalization (especially this) is in fact a profound expression of hidden truth knowable by the elect. In the distinctly occult practice of numerology, these followers cull Trump’s tweets, counting capital letters, searching for patterns.

Even known facts can be turned into cryptic questions. “Who killed Ashli Babbit?” runs a popular Trumpist meme. Never mind that the answer, Lieutenant Michael Byrd of the Capitol Police Department, has long been known. The question itself, suggesting the intrigue of a deep state coverup, persists, even posed by Trump himself. Sharlet argues it is a mistake to dismiss such practices. Reflecting on one such believer, he writes: “Diane was not fringe. She might have been closer to the new center of American life than you are.”

“The liberal democracy that Sharlet mourns is inseparable from the white supremacy and settler colonialism he rightfully decries…. But the present crisis is, as Sharlet correctly diagnoses, a time of great danger, when an alternative must be posed to the fascist barbarism represented by Trumpism and its ilk.”

While Sharlet chronicles a wide variety of conspiracy theories in the so-called Trumpocene, the people he speaks to are unified by a sense that “civil war” is either imminent, or already underway. The subtitle of The Undertow is “Scenes from a Slow Civil War,” the case for which is not made directly but impressionistically, through a series of grim narratives punctuated with the testimony of others. In more explicit moments, Sharlet cites vigilante killer Kyle Rittenhouse’s first lawyer, who claimed the young gunman would go down in history as having fired the first shot in “A Second American Revolution.” Some people he speaks to believe that the shuttering of churches in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic was an effective declaration of civil war, which has, again, already begun. But most of his informants believe the civil war is coming, just around the corner, and they will be forced to draw upon their ample supply of guns to defeat the forces of darkness.

Many of those who desire “another 1776,” of course, recently had their chance, and it didn’t go so well. Sharlet captures the sense of demoralization among those who were flummoxed by January 6th. “All the good, the patriots, the people who really care,” another MAGA pastor tells him, “they made a huge surge to do the right thing. And then we were told to all go home. It’s over.” In response, Sharlet finds, some have created a world in which it is not over, in a double sense. The first is the creation of a fantasy world where Hillary Clinton has already been executed, Trump is in fact still president, and all will be revealed in an orgy of violence not unlike the “Day of the Rope” in the white revolutionary call to arms The Turner Diaries (National Vanguard Books, 1978). The second, and more widespread, is the amassing of material force sufficient to make this day happen, regardless of whether the rest of it proves to be true.

From one vantage, we can say Sharlet chronicles the fusion of Christianity with a psychotic culture of white settler violence, armed to the teeth with high-tech weaponry and the Biblical verses sufficient to justify its indiscriminate use against the forces of darkness, literal and figurative. On the other hand, we can say that he simply shows that American Christianity always was this. The same goes for white supremacy; the presence of armed white racists all across the US is not new, nor would this be news to most people who suffer their oppressive presence in public space. But Sharlet has proven the unmistakable novelty of ideological and organizational forms around the increasing hybridization of rightist subcultures, and their redoubled presence in the American mainstream.

In either case, in the words of revolutionary scholar Dave Ranney, who recommended The Undertow, Sharlet “focuses on people who could well become a mass base for a real fascist movement.” Sharlet largely abstains from judgment on whether his subjects are “fascist,” opting instead to let them speak for themselves. What emerges from his account, nonetheless, is a distinctly American brand of rightism that is purportedly anti-establishment but not anti-capitalist, opposes liberal democracy not for its exclusion but its inclusion, and craves “autonomy,” understood as the freedom from responsibilities to others and the freedom to perpetuate existing dynamics of race, class, and gender with force. Add a strongman leader and a whole lot of guns, and it is difficult to not reach Ranney’s conclusion.

But as Ranney would insist, we cannot simply slap the label “fascist” on these people and act as if we already know everything we need to about them, as many social media pundits argued against the need to theorize the “alt-right” as a new historical emergence. Instead, for those who can stomach it, attention is due to the peculiar blend of ideologies and practices which constitute Trump’s base, with an eye to both understanding the enemy, and crafting a leftist praxis that can spare as many people as possible from joining their ranks. This is especially important for the left as so much of Trumpism hinges on the appearance of being anti-system. This terrain cannot be ceded to the right. For serious leftists, the rise and continuing appeal of Trumpism calls not for defense of liberal democracy but the articulation of a coherent anti-system leftism, that speaks to the widespread disgust people feel with their society and offers solutions that point toward actual human liberation. Surely many Trumpers will die on the hill of white supremacy and settler colonialism, unable or unwilling to move beyond it. But just as QAnon sometimes appears as a kind of vulgar Marxism on LSD, so too must leftists imagine that many anti-system rightists can be won over to liberatory anti-state politics, and a vision of inclusive autonomy, for all.

Sharlet’s fidelity to the stories his informants tell about themselves is the book’s strength as well as its weakness. He offers the book as a promising reflection on “grief and its distortions, how loss sometimes curdles into fury and hate, or denial, or delusion.” But, amid conspiracy theories and sermons of bloody deliverance, the actual object of grief, a central motif of The Undertow, remains woefully undefined. “Just as White people took the land from Indigenous people and then named themselves their victims,” writes Sharlet, “so, too, has Whiteness always been a means of claiming the suffering it inflicts on others as its own.” Sharlet heaps scorn on such “White grievance,” but is careful to spend little time enumerating any grievances that aren’t easily laughed off by his readers. It is a dangerous wager, and one that has not worked well for liberals of recent decades, who have virtually forfeited the terrain outside major cities. Leftists, for their part, who offer no anti-system alternative to these grievances, have done the same.

Meanwhile, a coherent anti-system rightism is coming into focus. Trumpers, Sharlet writes, are “drawn together not by Whiteness but by that of which it is made. By their belief in a strongman and their desire for an iron-fisted God and their love of the way guns make them feel inside and their grief over Covid-19 and their denial of Covid-19 and their loathing of ‘systemic’ as a descriptive of that which they can’t see, can’t hold in their hands and weigh, and their certainty that countless children are being taken, stolen and raped, or if not in body then in spirit, ‘indoctrinated’ to ‘hate themselves.’” This is a poignant observation. But why, at this moment in time, are these people compelled to act this way? And what is the alternative being offered to them?

“This is a deeply honest book, but this comes at the expense of emphasizing promising developments in the present that countervail the rise of the radical right of which Sharlet is correctly afraid…. Roughly 1.4 million people attended Trump rallies during the 2016 campaign, but upwards of 26 million people took to the streets in George Floyd’s name four years later.”

One very conspicuous absence in Sharlet’s view of Trumper grievances is America’s economic decline, the notorious “economic insecurity” thesis so successfully attacked in 2016 by partisans of the Clintonite view that “America is Already Great.” The denial that anything is wrong with American capitalism that cannot be fixed by diversity initiatives, applied to the advancement of a small set of select individuals, has subsequently become an important plank of Bidenism’s prophets of a new Gilded Age. While Sharlet (perhaps wisely) stays away from this hornet’s nest, a notable exception comes when a white man drinking at a bar near a Trump rally expresses his ambivalence about Trump’s racist views, before a few more drinks give him the courage to shout: “I don’t care if you’re racist! If you’ll just bring back one fucking steel mill!”

Sharlet might be correct to wager that the world does not need another printed sentence about how deindustrialization or the downward slope of wages, benefits, and quality of life for most Americans contributed to Trumpism. But the absence of this material dimension relegates the malaise he documents to a spiritual plane, where it risks getting lost in the haze of ideological abstractions, or worse yet, winds up bespeaking something like the innate characteristics of the people who Sharlet meets.

When Sharlet does attempt to engage with the materiality of the movement he chronicles so deftly, he succumbs to the very eschatology he has ridiculed for hundreds of pages, albeit in secular form. “We say we are in crisis,” Sharlet drones ominously. “The crisis of democracy—the gun—the crisis of climate—the fire, the water, the rain—the crises of our own little lives—debt and Twitter and rage, and most of all the ordinary losses of love and loved ones that feel too vast. But that word, crisis, supposes we can act. It supposes the outcome to be determined. The binary yet to be toggled, a happy ending or a sad one, victory or defeat. As if we have not already entered the aftermath.”

Similarly, The Undertow decries the violent and suicidal project of whiteness, and adorns its travel narrative with indigenous tribe names land acknowledgments in a good faith gesture toward reckoning with settler colonialism, though neither is neatly integrated into the book’s analysis. In fairness, they really can’t be. It is impossible to take white supremacy and settler colonialism seriously, as enduring historical phenomena as well as important contours of the present, while still defending the sanctity of American liberal democracy. And this is what The Undertow is really up to, even if Sharlet can only muster a eulogy.

All the while, Sharlet risks succumbing to the very notion he critiques with such fervor: nostalgia for a return to the underlying oneness that is America—the thing Sharlet believes is “coming apart,” rather than a myth that never really existed at all. Plumbing the quasi-supernatural metaphor that gives the book its title, Sharlet ponders: “And if we make it to the shore?” But who are we? When has there ever been a unified America? And what is the shore? The politics of the early twenty-first century? And while Sharlet is correct that the apocalypse might be upon the US, this doesn’t change the fact that for many people in the US and the nations it plunders, it never hasn’t been.

The hopelessness that emerges from The Undertow is an honest testament to an author grappling with the terrifying terrain of American politics, while watching his own political paradigm become a thing of the past. It is to Sharlet’s great credit that he has embraced this vulnerability, rather than staging a hollow performance of hope or determination. This is a deeply honest book, and ought to be taken seriously as such. But this also comes at the expense of emphasizing promising developments in the present that countervail the rise of the radical right of which Sharlet is correctly afraid. Just as one can read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book-length meditation on the death of Michael Brown, Between the World and Me (Spiegel and Grau, 2015), without learning that Brown became a household name due to the courageous rebellion waged in his name, which forever transformed the political landscape in the United States, so too does the death of George Floyd, which catalyzed the largest multi-racial movement in US history, characterized by countless acts of heroism and solidarity across the lines of so-called races, only emerge as a reflection of white ignorance and black victimization in Sharlet’s pages.

The unfortunate chasm between Sharlet’s incisive political observations and The Undertow’s prophecies of doom serve as yet another reminder that grief and mourning are not the basis for a positive political vision. They can only tell us what we already know, distorted through a lens of pain and helplessness, and keep us trapped in an unending loop of what we have already suffered. This is an inherently reactionary political orientation, which must be overcome. Consider an alternative narrative: roughly 1.4 million people attended Trump rallies during the 2016 campaign—a staggering figure for sure. But this figure pales in comparison to the upwards of 26 million people who took to the streets in George Floyd’s name four years later.

“The rise of Trumpism calls not for defense of liberal democracy but the articulation of a coherent anti-system leftism, that speaks to the widespread disgust people feel with their society and offers solutions that point toward actual human liberation.”

Toward the end of his travels, Sharlet winds up keeping company with a quartet of high school age girls who organize an ad hoc demonstration against the overturning of Roe in their small Wisconsin town. Protests like this, in red counties where everybody knows everybody, abounded in 2020, and were actually more remarkable—and one might argue, courageous—than the familiar sight of looting and black blocs in large blue cities. But having already denied the honorific to Ashli Babbit, Sharlet struggles with whether these young women deserve to be called “heroes,” noting their lack of “unalloyed virtue.” Sharlet is never forthcoming about his strange unease with the zoomers. Perhaps the reasons are political. Note the following exchange between three white teenagers in suburban Wisconsin:

“Personally,” said Theta, “I am for some kind of revolution. I think people should be prepared to arm themselves, because it’s been shown to women that we can’t trust our government to protect us.”

“Not at all,” said Karsen.

“Sometimes I take a Malcolm X approach to it,” said Theta.

“I heart Malcolm X,” agreed Karsen.

“Like,” said Theta, “if they’re showing violence to us, or not caring about violence that’s happening to us, why not reciprocate that?”

“My take,” said Karsen, who was Navy-bound, “is I plan on using the government to my full advantage. If we do get into a civil war.” …

Katie, Theta’s mother, clarified that, to her, ‘arming’ meant with knowledge. Peyton clarified that to her it meant guns. Her family had them and she’d known how to shoot since she was a girl…

“‘It’s not that I’m I’m like ‘Oooh, yeah, war,’ said Theta. “It’s like, we need a different system. As soon as possible. Because the planet is literally dying.”

At this, Sharlet reminds the girls of the armed men who stalk the pages of his book, sweaty palms pawing justificatory Bible passages, ready for just this moment, their excuse to at last visit sadistic wrath on the forces of darkness. Their response?

“The kids said they weren’t scared of them,” he reports. “Climate? That’s scary. Trump is scary. The Supreme Court, they agreed, is very scary.” As for the soldiers of Christ? “‘You know,’” said Theta, ‘it’s either we fight against them, we possibly get killed in a civil war—or we suffer like this, our rights stripped away from us by the minute. And I don’t know if that’s a life worth living.’”

I have as little interest in the kind of macho posturing that downplays the threats posed by Sharlet’s “men with guns who said they might ‘have no choice’ but to draw them soon,” as I do arguing with people who are afraid of them. I was standing in the direct line of fire of Kenosha vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse and witnessed firsthand the horrors these people are capable of. Throughout my reading of The Undertow, I often reflected on this traumatic memory, and couldn’t help but wonder if some of Sharlet’s informants, or thousands just like them, were the future executioners of myself or my loved ones. I refuse to believe, however, that all is lost, just because American society seems to be “coming apart.”

American flag with Trump's face and "Make America Great Again! Donald Trump" superimposed

Built on slavery and genocide, sustained by ruthless imperialism, and riven by intrinsic antagonism that constantly erupts into seemingly senseless violence, American society was always going to come apart; the wondrous thing is how long it has lasted. The liberal democracy that Sharlet mourns is inseparable from the white supremacy and settler colonialism he rightfully decries. The end of America is nothing to be sad about; the indefinite perpetuation of the American state as it has existed for two and a half centuries would simply be a continuing humanitarian and ecological disaster, on a global scale. This is not a hot take, it is an indelible fact from which politics must proceed. But the present crisis is, as Sharlet correctly diagnoses, a time of great danger, when an alternative must be posed to the fascist barbarism represented by Trumpism and its ilk. But despair is not a serious option. In fact, Trumpism thrives on its opponents’ sense of hopelessness, while salving that of its devotees. “Despair,” argues Werner Herzog “must be kept private and brief.” Politics imagines victory in the future or it concedes defeat in advance.

Ultimately, Sharlet’s tale of terror is not simply an American story; liberal democracies around the world are buckling under the irreconcilable contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, class society, and the violent hierarchies they require. In response, the weird ideologies and clumsy political experiments seen in recent decades represent a grappling toward articulation of a new politics adequate to the future. In response, the present conjuncture calls for people who can imagine it not as the end, but as the prehistory of a new society. Anybody who smugly pretends to have all the answers is probably best ignored. But those who claim that all is lost risk being even more dangerous—they offer what might just become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Jarrod Shanahan is the author of Captives (Verso, 2022), co-author of States of Incarceration (Reaktion/Field Notes, 2022), an editor of Treason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity (Verso, 2022) and an editor of the publication Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life.

Photo credit

Flag at rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Phoenix, Arizona, 18 June 2016. Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed), via Wikimedia Commons.

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