A kaleidoscopic journey through a divided country…The river of bile on which Sharlet fights to stay afloat courses from one end of the country to the other.
The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War by Jeff Sharlet
Jeff Sharlet’s new book, The Undertow, plunged me into a vertiginous fever-dream. It induced a physiological response similar to the one I experienced while reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Both books are mood-altering, mind-altering odysseys; both set forth visions of a weird and roiling body politic. Didion’s title invokes an earlier account of disintegration, W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” to frame its anatomy of American chaos in the 1960s. “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” Yeats wrote in 1919. “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,” he wonders in the poem’s final lines, “Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” This is the question hovering behind Sharlet’s essay collection, which spans a period of approximately 10 years, ending in 2021—an era he describes, borrowing filmmaker Jeffrey Ruoff’s coinage, as “the Trumpocene.”
On finishing The Undertow, I realized the degree to which the revelatory terrors of Didion’s American surreal are mercifully muted for me because I am not old enough to have known them at first hand. But I live in Sharlet’s America, a world of apocalyptic pulsings and unnatural peril made all the more visceral by the author’s capacity for ventriloquizing the grief, rage, delusion, racism, misogyny, and bad-faith histrionics that he encounters on his journeys across the United States. The river of bile on which Sharlet fights to stay afloat courses from one end of the country to the other. He ushers us into the front yards and houses of radicalized private citizens, draws us into a conference for angry members of the “manosphere,” sweeps us from the violence of the Capitol steps on January 6 to the conspiratorial depths of QAnon. He immerses us in political rallies and megachurch services, which often sound very much the same in their embrace of a prosperity gospel derived from Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). The same association between faith and material success that makes the “church of Trump” appealing to so many infuses some of the actual churches Sharlet visits….
Donald Trump’s gift to America: Realizing we’ve never been a liberal democracy. By Paul Rosenberg
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