The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War
September 21, 2023 2:06 PM - Subscribe

"An unmatched guide to the religious dimensions of American politics, Jeff Sharlet journeys into corners of our national psyche where others fear to tread. The Undertow is both inquiry and meditation, an attempt to understand how, over the last decade, reaction has morphed into delusion, social division into distrust, distrust into paranoia, and hatred into fantasies--sometimes realities--of violence" (from the book jacket, via

"Across the country, men "of God" glorify materialism, a gluttony of the soul, while citing Scripture and preparing for civil war--a firestorm they long for as an absolution and exaltation. Lies, greed, and glorification of war boom through microphones at hipster megachurches that once upon a time might have preached peace and understanding. Political rallies are as aflame with need and giddy expectation as religious revivals. At a conference for incels, lonely single men come together to rage against women. On the Far Right, everything is heightened--love into adulation, fear into vengeance, anger into white-hot rage. Here, in the undertow, our forty-fifth president, a vessel of conspiratorial fears and fantasies, continues to rise to sainthood, and the insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt, killed on January 6 at the Capitol, is beatified as a martyr of white womanhood. ... Exploring a geography of grief and uncertainty in the midst of plague and rising fascism, The Undertow is a necessary reckoning with our precarious present that brings to light a decade of American failures as well as a vision for American possibility."

Kirkus: "A frightening, wholly believable vision of an American cataclysm to come—possibly soon."

LARB: "Although the ideology and style of the hard Right have remained relatively stable for over half a century, it has taken on additional connotations since January 6, 2021. Sharlet’s reckoning with the events of that day remains unparalleled, but it also reminds us that we are still trying to understand the motivations of the same delusional inhabitants of the public square."

Guardian author interview: "The writing is explicit and expansive, almost cinematic, like looking at a battlefield from above. Altogether, it’s a rare achievement, a cultural-political book that is literary."
posted by MonkeyToes (6 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for posting this, I just checked it out from my library and I’m already captivated by the excellent writing in the book’s Prelude.
posted by edithkeeler at 5:22 AM on September 23, 2023 [1 favorite]

Yes, same here, edithkeeler. It's documentary but the writing itself somehow captures the hallucinatory madness of its subjects. I hope you'll come back and let us know what you thought about the rest of it.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:14 AM on September 23, 2023 [2 favorites]

Wow: "That is the great truth of our paranoia now: Not knowing. Not needing to. Not knowing as its own dim, dreaming certainty." I think this book is both a terrifying snapshot of its time, but also ahead of its time. No fly-by diner interviews with locals here, but a deep, unflinching dive into American dreaming gone wrong. Sharlet is not interested in the prevalent myths of MAGA World, he's compelled to understand the actual damage done to real individuals. He's less interested in the source of this dark dreaming--dreams are embedded in the American past--than in its concrete manifestations and its spread and its bedrock of feelings-filled determination not to know, which is the perfect state in which to receive and discern messages from Trumpworld and its fellow grifters. Logic and proof are metrics to be rejected; there's a widening and warm embrace of Not Knowing as being enough of a basis for opinions, and Sharlet is very observant about just how much the individuals he meets are imbued with this spirit. It's disturbing, but also not new: the belief that fuels movements is also discussed in the chapters about Harry Belafonte and The Weavers, which bookend The Undertow. But...the difference between being empowered by idealism and a song versus by zealotry and firearms is stark and scary, and Sharlet has done a service to readers by illuminating the divide. It's not the near future: it's here, and the dark dream is rising.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:47 AM on October 21, 2023

One more great line from the book: 'We've got to go through it. The whiteness, this stolen land. Into the smoky, copper-bright uncertain reckoning with the haunted past, which is hard, learning to love the smouldering days ahead, which is harder." This book has been on my mind a lot lately, and I have been urging people to read it so they are not surprised by the convergent streams in the pro-Trump undertow.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:37 PM on December 6, 2023

It’s rare that a work of reportage/non-fiction/whatever feels “literary” to me, but goddamn this guy can write.

The beginning with Harry Belafonte felt revelatory. The OWS stuff reminded me of Hunter Thompson when he still had love in his heart.

More thoughts to follow, I suppose.
posted by hototogisu at 1:51 AM on March 8 [2 favorites]

Also, from the Prelude:

“Babbitt, shot for her trouble, was a fool who pursued her own death.”

This is such an all-time savage line it supersedes my own personal anger towards the current American political situation. It’s so shockingly brutal it has a calming effect.
posted by hototogisu at 2:34 AM on March 8

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