Jeff Sharlet has spent two decades covering the intersection of extreme Christian nationalism and the far-right. In his new book, Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, he gives snapshots of a country rapidly devolving into a Christian fascism state. He captures the rage, the despair, the dislocation, the alienation, the aesthetic of violence, and the magical thinking that are the foundations of all fascist movements—forces that are now coalescing around the Trump-led Republican Party. The bizarre conspiracy theories and buffoonish quality of many who lead and embrace this movement, such as Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert, make the use American fascists easy to ridicule and dismiss. But Sharlet implores us to take them seriously as an existential threat to what is left of our anemic democracy. Jeff Sharlet joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss his new book and the rising tide of Christofascism threatening our democracy.
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Chris Hedges: Jeff Sharlet has spent two decades covering the intersection of extreme Christian nationalism, what I have defined as Christian fascism, and the far right. In his new book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, he gives us snapshots of a country rapidly devolving into a Christianized fascist state. He captures the rage, the despair, the dislocation, the alienation, and the aesthetic of violence as well as the magical thinking that are the hallmarks of all fascist movements: a fascist movement that is coalesced around the Trump-led Republican Party.
The bizarre conspiracy theories and buffoonish qualities of many who lead and embrace this movement such as Republican representative Lauren Boebert make the term “American fascism” easy to ridicule and dismiss. But Sharlet implores us to take these Christian fascists seriously as an existential threat to what is left of our anemic democracy.
Joining me to discuss his new book is Jeff Sharlet. So, Jeff, I’m going to have to skip your first chapter, which is gorgeous. Everyone has to buy the book and read it on Harry Belafonte. Really moving and beautifully written, of course, Belafonte being this amazing figure. The book is really snapshots from around the country. I find your insights into Trump supporters extremely prescient. Because of your experience covering the Christian right, those I called Christian fascists over a decade ago in my book, and you do use the word “fascist” now in a way that perhaps you didn’t then.
But I want to begin with… You make a distinction between Trump’s first run and his second run which I found particularly fascinating. His first run was drawn from Norman Vincent Peale’s prosperity gospel. Norman Vincent Peale married him and Ivana Trump. For those who don’t know, this is the very well-known, unfortunately, Presbyterian preacher, who argued that if you are right with God, you would be blessed in material ways, extremely popular, especially with the rich like the Rockefellers. Let’s begin with the evolution because the evolution I thought was really sharp and of course, very frightening. But let’s talk about the first Trump and his congregants – You at one point may even call it the Church of Trump – And what’s happened the second time around and where we’re moving.
Jeff Sharlet: Yeah. The first rally I went to was in early 2016 in Youngstown, Ohio, which is, of course, a steel town decimated. There was a big crowd at the airplane hangar and the first thing I noticed and realized was a staple, was while the press was all penned up, they all agreed to stay in a little metal cage basically so that they could be used as like a prop in Trump’s passion play, was twiddling their thumbs. He was introduced by one of the most right-wing preachers I’d ever heard, a local preacher, but a very, very militant guy. And I’ve heard a lot of right-wing preachers. And in fact that this was a staple of this and it was a combination of that wrath of God but also – At this particular… No, it was a different rally – A Black preacher who often introduced him would say, I don’t see Black, I don’t see white. The only color I see is green.
And I would listen to the people around me talking while they waited for his plane, Trump Force One to come in – Remember, this is not a president, he’s coming in his own presence – And we talk about all the gold with it. The plane was literally heavy with gold. And I realized that what was happening here was this appeal to the prosperity gospel. When Trump says we’re going to win so much you’re going to get tired of winning. He wasn’t saying I’m like you. He was saying, like prosperity gospel preachers always do, look at my blessings. Look at my airplane, my riches, my beautiful suit. I am obviously more blessed than you. But by falling behind me, falling into my wake, you can partake in that blessing, too.
And you raised Norman Vincent Peale, whom he referred to as his preacher. We make a lot of Trump’s irreligiosity, but of course, we’re confusing religiosity with piety. He’s certainly impious. But he grew up really fascinated by Billy Graham on television as a charismatic figure and Norman Vincent Peale, the power of positive thinking. He described Norman Vincent Peale as part of his holy trinity of mentors: his father Fred, from when he learned toughness, Roy Cohn, the legendary Red Scare warrior from whom he learned cunning, and Norman Vincent Peale, you could argue from whom he learned bullshit that the point is the sale. Norman Vincent Peale boiled the gospel down to a salesman’s manual. And he carried that forth and that’s what was happening in 2016 he was saying vote for me and you’ll get a piece of the riches. You’re going to get some of the gold. You’re plane, too, will be heavy with this precious cargo.
Chris Hedges: In that sense, he really replicates the role of a mega preacher completely who is idolized, who can’t be questioned on the root of physical prosperity. But the second time Trump runs, which you also cover, you say the whole landscape has changed in a much darker way. How did it change?
Jeff Sharlet: Well, by 2020, of course, we’re into the pandemic. You’re going to win so much you get tired of winning, we can’t really go with that. There was the aborted slogan tag “keep American great” but MAGA worked so well that he stuck with that. But it was darker in the sense that he had been using conspiracy theories. What’s fascinating with that narrative world that he was creating, was winking at, he’s a little bit like a drug dealer who starts using his own supply. And I write in the book of a particular interview with Laura Ingraham in 2019 actually. No, the summer of 2020. Laura Ingraham is doing what the right-wing press did for him which was always to take his words and broadcast them but also channel them for some reason.
He was resisting it, sitting on the edge of his chair, leaning forward, looking very uneasy, talking about dark forces, men in black uniforms circling in the planes above him. He’s using the present tense. And you could see Laura Ingraham trying to reel him back saying, by dark forces, you must mean Obama’s people. And he’s like, no, no, I mean people. You don’t know who they are. I can’t tell you the name. He’s no longer winking at the conspiracy theories he’s trafficked in. He’s fallen into the abyss. That conspiracy thought was so definitive of the rallies I would go to where there’s always a lot of blood and gore in the rhetoric of a Trump rally. That’s been one of the failings of the press in not really addressing that. They would ignore those stories.
But now, he would go on at length about decapitations and disembowelment and “bad ombres” as he put it, creeping in through windows. Lots of these horrible horror movie rape fantasies and things that he knew that he couldn’t even tell you about. And it struck me as a modernized, Americanized, bastardized gnostic gospel. Gnosticism. And I know that you’ve read deeply in this literature. To boil it down in the simplest sense, an idea that there’s an elect or a small group of initiates who have secret knowledge and what’s on the surface isn’t real and in fact the actual God you see isn’t real. There’s a deeper power behind that. And of course, Gnosticism even has its own variation of the deep state, the bureaucracy, that gets in the way of the truth. I don’t think Trump actually believed QAnon but he believed in this Gnosticism, this secret knowledge that you obtained not through rationalism but through a mystic connection. And of course, this starts to sound a lot like fascism, which it is.
Chris Hedges: Gnosticism is heretical, or was the early church to find it as heretical, these various gospels could get very fantastic but it was based on secret knowledge, and initiates had this secret knowledge that others didn’t have. You’re dead on when you describe this as a form of modern Gnosticism. And to go back to the earlier iteration of Trump is that he would say these outrageous things, particularly to the press – You write about this – Who are caged off. And he would call, in essence, for violence against the press but then say it was a joke. But he doesn’t do that the second time around. It changes.
Jeff Sharlet: No. He still does it. It’s the joking not joking method and he still does it and we encounter it all the time. A lot of our colleagues in the press are like Charlie Brown trying to kick that football Lucy keeps holding and they keep going up in the air every time. Even the second time around, there was a rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania – The so-called sweetest place on Earth, where the streetlights are actually shaped like Hershey’s kisses – And it was a very violent speech. But none of that was reported. The takeaway was he says four more years, maybe eight more years, 12 more years. Oh, I’m joking. Or maybe I’m not.
When you compared him before to a megachurch preacher, for a lot of secular folks, there’s an imagination of these preachers as pious and proper as opposed to the reality. You make this very good point about the mini cults of personality that a megachurch preacher can create in his own ecosystem in which outrageousness, lies, winks, funniness, and hypocrisies, all become a part of the performance. It becomes, in a way, sacralized so that if Trump says one thing at one rally and then contradicts himself at the next. And that happens and people will hear it.
You’d meet people who’d gone to 50, 60, 100 rallies. They were like Deadheads traveling around the country. There are little sex cults that have their own ideas about what happens at the rally that travels around. They would hear those differences and yet they would not hear it as evidence of falsehood but as evidence of truth. They would say there’s something deep here. This is a signal. This is an invitation for me to consider. This is really hard for anyone who after Trump to really reckon with is to say they’re experiencing that as an intellectually stimulating encounter. They’re being asked to participate in meaning-making as they understand it. Meaning-making that is submissive to the great man, the great leader, but they are not passive receivers. They experience themselves as more engaged than they do otherwise in politics. That is in no way… I don’t want anyone to hear that as like oh, you’re saying that Trump has something of value? No, no. The meaning that he’s making is horrific but it is a collective project.
Chris Hedges: Well, Hannah Arendt makes this point that it’s not about truth or reality or consistency. It’s about catering to the emotional needs of the moment. So, you can completely contradict what you said even the day before, as long as you’re catering to those emotional needs. We’re going to get into fascism which of course I agree with you is the right word and people have to begin to use it. But first I want to talk about… I know this again was extremely thoughtful, you talk about the call, the snake, and the bullet. So explain.
Jeff Sharlet: One of the things again that I feel like you hear this phrase sometimes, pundits use this, they’ll say it’s just theater. And I always get very confused by that as a person who loves the arts. What do you mean, just theater? Theater is powerful. Theater, there’s no such thing as just theater. It’s theater. And yes, Trump did theater, he did performances, yet so often, these bits, these skits that he would do – Sometimes there’d be comedy skits, he’d do multiple voices moving around the stage – And the first campaign, three that would show up pretty reliably were the call, the snake, and the bullet.
The call was he would do both sides of a phone call with a company that he was going to call when he became president. This is how we’re going to handle sending jobs overseas. He’ll call them up and he would play out the whole phone call and the crowded cheering because he’s telling off the boss the way they wish they could. The snake, he takes a song originally written by a Black civil rights activist. It’s a little poem. He would take it out and very elaborately unfold the paper – Although he didn’t need it, he had it memorized – And it’s about inviting a snake and a woman who picks up a snake who cries for help. She picks up the snake and the snake bites her and the snake scolds her and says, you knew what I was. To him, this is a metaphor for what is happening to immigrants coming to the US. We let immigrants in and then they bite us. And that would always be accompanied by a litany of martyrs. He would name these individuals, usually white individuals who had been killed by undocumented people of color, and a fair number of people in the crowd knew those names. Although we talk about it later, the age of martyrs really came post-January 6.
Then the bullet is an astonishing piece of work. He’s talking about the Muslims and they chop off heads and he’s imitating chopping off the heads and he’s imitating putting people in cages and lighting them on fire. But he’s got a solution: General “Black Jack” Pershing in the Philippines in the 19th century. Now, the history here is it’s not history. This didn’t happen but what he says happened, and he acts it out, he plays it out, is that he had 50 Muslim rebels, prisoners of war. And he takes 50 bullets and he dips them in blood and Trump mimes it out, swishing it around in pig blood. Pig blood. They’re going to shoot the Muslims with pig blood-soaked bullets and then he shoots 49 of the prisoners. Kills them. Trump acts it out. The crowd is cheering, they’re ecstatic. And it’s not righteous violence, it’s ecstatic lustful violence. It’s pleasure.
And you say, caters to emotional needs. That’s one of the really key things is he works across a lot of emotions that politicians don’t normally address. He leads one bullet and he gives it to the last prisoner and he says, take that back to your people and tell them that that’s what I’ll do. And this was a whole performance and the crowd would like it so much he’d say, you want to hear it again? And they’d say yes and he would perform it again. And the press meanwhile would be sitting there saying, well, let’s see, did he say anything about policy, or did he indicate anything about appointments? And so on. Because they’re dismissing all that as just theater. That’s not just theater. That is the substance of Trumpism.
Chris Hedges: I want to ask about martyrs. You write quite a bit. In fact, you go in search of the history of Babbitt, who was killed on January 6. Talk a little bit about Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power writes about the importance of martyrs to a new movement like Hassell was to the Nazi party. You were writing about how they reinvented her. Particularly, she was in her 30s but then her age kept dropping until she was 16. But also Canetti said that these martyrs… It’s a fictional narrative. They have to be the most innocent, the most pure, and these movements need these martyrs to essentially initiate their followers into these campaigns of violence. Talk about that and then I want to begin to talk about Christian fascism.
Jeff Sharlet: Yeah. That’s well put. If we understand Trumpism theologically, we can see the first campaign as the prosperity gospel, and the second as the gnostic gospel. And what we’re in now, and I would argue since January 6, we’re in the age of martyrs. And that’s a big step as you said, for initiating people into that violence. Trump had been trying to cultivate that beforehand but none of these victims of undocumented people were well known enough to work. And then on January 6, Ashli Babbitt, this 30-something-year-old white woman, blonde hair, southern California, military veteran wearing a Trump flag, like a cape, and an American flag backpack tries to lead a charge through a broken window. And they would famously say she was unarmed, she was not. There’s the evidence photo of her knife on the cover of the book. She was very clearly there for combat and her own writing and what she understood she was going to do to storm the capitol.
And we see the hands of a police officer, a Capitol Hill police officer, shoot her. And they’re the hands of a Black man. And as soon as I saw that, I said well, that’s one of the oldest stories in American history. That’s the lynching story. A Black man who kills an innocent white woman. That’s the story of Birth of a Nation, the first movie ever screened in the White House, 1915, a white woman fleeing a Black man who leaps to her death. Thus, the heroes in the movie literally are the Ku Klux Klan, who ride into action. It starts happening that day. I’d had one idea for the book, but on January 6 I had to throw out a lot of stuff and make room. Because I said I’m going to watch this martyr to myth in form and in action and we start to see flags, the black flag, a white silhouette of Ashli, a drop of red on her neck where the white woman has been killed. Actually, she was shot in the shoulder. Proud boys give these out as challenge coins. Who shot Ashli Babbitt? Trump finally starts using,… Even though he knows. He knew who shot Ashli Babbitt but the idea was everyone who was his enemy shot Ashli Babbitt. And so she becomes a martyr.
I like what you say very much about initiating into violence. Now, I think of one man who was arrested, I think his name is Garret Miller, and he’s a comic story. When the FBI shows up at his house he’s wearing a T-shirt that has a picture of the capitol and it says “January 6, I was there.” And he seems like a doofus. But what they were arresting him for was he had been planning, online, a vengeance killing for Ashli, who he imagined as a little girl. And not only would they say she was younger than she was, they’d say she was smaller than she was. At the same time, she did double duty because she was a military veteran. So, she’s therefore stabbed in the back… Which is an old fascist ploy, too. They were stabbed in the back. We would righteously win. But traitors in our midst, a cop mowed her down. I don’t think she’s the end-stage martyr of Trump. There’s a way in which you can understand her and him understanding her as keeping the cross warm until he can hoist himself up there, which he now has, which is what we saw on display in the courtroom.
Chris Hedges: Well, he hasn’t done it. We’ve done it for him.
Jeff Sharlet: That’s true. That’s true. He knew we would do it. Yeah.
Chris Hedges: It’s a terrible conundrum because he should have been charged for crimes probably from the first day of his presidency under the emolument clause. But as you point out, it plays completely into his own martyrdom or his own sense of martyrdom and the sense of martyrdom of his supporters. We watch now in the trial in New York, it’s a big campaign event.
Jeff Sharlet: Yeah. It was the eve of which of the indictments? I can’t remember. It’s now become so regular. Once you go to a Trump rally, it’s a little bit like Hotel California; You can never leave. You can never get off the email list, or the text list. You can cancel as much as you want. They’ll keep coming 5, 10 a day. But on the eve of the first or second indictment, he sends this fundraising email and says, dear friend, this may be the last time I’m able to write to you. And it’s got this air of it’s a noble thing I do, and I couldn’t help but think of … Some listeners will remember from their high school reading A Tale of Two Cities and Sydney Carton bravely going off to the gallows. It’s a Christ move, right? He emphasizes that, right? I’m the only thing standing between them and you. They’re doing this to me because they’re coming after you. He got a slow pitch and he knew how to hit it.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about fascism. Both you and I feel that that’s an appropriate word to describe this movement. Trump has embraced what I would call the fascistic ideology of the Christian nationalists or the Christian right. But of course, its face doesn’t look like past iterations of fascism. Fascism always cloaks itself in national symbols, venerated national symbols, and venerated national mythology.
And one of the things that you point out in the book, I’m going to read a little passage, because, of course, it can’t embrace the race purity that was very much a part, particularly, of German fascism. You write, “The purification project of the old fascism has also ‘been proved’ too extreme to be practical for a nation in which the Rightest ascendancy can contend for the loyalty of a third of Latinx voters. This time, white supremacy welcomes all. Or, at least, a sufficient veneer of ‘all’ to reassure its more timid adherents that border walls and ‘Muslim bans’ and ‘Kung flu’ and ‘Black crime’ and ‘replacement theory’ somehow do not add up to the dreaded r-word, which anyway these days, in the new authoritarian imagination, only happens in ‘reverse,’ against white people.”
So, let’s begin to talk about what this new fascism looks like. I certainly saw its genesis within Christian fascism, the Christian right, but the full-blown flower of fascism in Trump does have differences with the traditional Christian right. You know the Christian right very well. And your book, The Family is a great work on it. So, I’ll let you go from there.
Jeff Sharlet: Chris, I want to give you credit for that early book, American Fascist. And around the same time I was writing The Family, there’s actually a chapter in The Family called “The F Word.” The F word is fascism. I’m writing about this… The Family is this very elite Christian nationalist group based in Washington but is international and they hold something called the National Prayer Breakfast. On the surface, they’re quite banal. Within, they’re quite extreme. In the post-World War II years, they actually went around and recruited former Nazi war criminals, senior war criminals. That’s about as close to fascism as you can get. But what they would say to those guys is essentially, you have to switch out your loyalty to the fuhrer and give it over to the father. I argued then, and I was wrong and I wrote this in the new book, I was wrong to argue against the word “fascism.” I wasn’t saying it’s not as bad, I said there’s more than one baton in the sun.
But I said fundamentalism I thought then was a break on fascism because in American Christian right, Christian national, and whatever you want to call it, they weren’t ever going to go for that cult of personality. They wouldn’t switch out Jesus. And you rightly argued, no, the cult of personality was there, and every significant church around the pastor adopted that power, and Trump’s move was to consolidate it nationally. And to strip away some of the respectability politics that still lingered around it. The idea of American political life has always been noble but now we have the open celebration of violence. You go to a Trump rally in ’16 or ’20 or now, and as you say, there’s that moment where he points to the press and the pen and he says, they’re the enemy of the people. They’re scum. And the whole crowd turns around and they fly bulk birds in the air and they’re screaming and they’re having this pleasure thinking about the violence they’re going to commit.
At the first Trump rally I went to, one of the very first people I met there was a nice old hippie grandparent couple; A lot of turquoise jewelry, nice people. They’re talking and then Gene, the husband says, I want to get a hold of a protester and beat the crap out of him so I can get on TV. His wife looks at him as if she’s going to rebuke him, this is too much. She says, oh, Gene. And she melts into him and then she leans over to me and uses language I don’t think she used often like this. She’s whispering because she knew she was being naughty and smiling and she was speaking about Hillary Clinton and she says, doesn’t she look like she’d been rode hard and put up wet. And that combination… I think of it as, there’s a great German historian of the right, Annika Brockschmidt. We had a discussion about this, about militant eroticism. This idea of violence as a sexual pleasure, lust, authenticity, and truth. You know you want to do it. You know you want to hit them. Trump says, wait. One of the things he says is you know you want to hit him and I want you to hit them. It’ll feel good. This changes things. It’s worth talking about, I know you’ve thought a lot about this, that fascism in 2023 is not fascism in 1936. America is not Germany and that was a regime. This is still right now a movement. It doesn’t have anywhere near full control but it’s mutating, it’s changing rapidly, and that’s one of the things.
Another historian I’d refer people to is Anthea Butler, a great short book called White Evangelical Racism. She’s a church historian and she writes about the promise of whiteness and the promise of whiteness and the way it can seduce even Black folks into thinking, I can be part of this power. And every time I go to some far-right event, whether it’s a Trump rally or a militia meeting, I come back and my nice liberal friends assume that it was all white and it never is. And I try and tell them. There’s a church, a militia church in Omaha, Nebraska in the book, more diverse than any church around here where I live in Vermont, about a third of people of color, and a full-on civil war church. They look forward to civil war. They are armed. They are ready. Bring it on. They are fairly openly white supremacists. They preach relentlessly against Black Lives Matter as a metaphor for Blackness itself. And yet, they’ve drawn in. Fascism has gravity. Fascism has power. And if we recognize it as such, it shouldn’t be that surprising to us that this iteration in America in 2023 is not quite the same racial purity project as happened in Germany in 1933.
Chris Hedges: You made the point that it’s defined more by feelings or the embrace of what they describe as “white victimization.” So, as long as you embrace that, it doesn’t matter what color you are.
Jeff Sharlet: Yeah. And in fact, actually, in the martyr role that Trump uses of people killed by undocumented folks, he often talks about a young, very promising Black football player. And in a sense, bringing this guy in under the umbrella of whiteness. But this is the same guy who’s telling a story. He likes to tell a story of this is the twisted rape fantasy that I spoke of. Imagine you’re a traveling salesman, he says. And you’re thinking, traveling salesman? Is there such a thing who goes around knocking on doors selling Bibles anymore? But imagine you’re a traveling salesman on your way and your pretty blonde wife is at home asleep and a bad ombre comes up and he opens a window and he crawls in.
And the crowd is, they’re thrilling to it the way you do to a horror movie, but it’s charged with a perverse sexuality, which is the rape of the white woman, which is a fantasy being twisted into the mind of white supremacy and yet he’s making that available to a broader sense. I’m not going to go out there and argue the absurd that Trump is going to win a significant number of Black votes. He’s not going to win the majority. He doesn’t need to. And I feel a lot of liberals are leaning on this idea that diversity will save us. And I’ve been hearing that as long as I’ve been hearing that the young will save us. I’ve been hearing that since I was young, 30 some years ago. There’s this passivity. We’re waiting for Godot to come and solve the situation as opposed to embracing radical politics of organizing and real vital democracy that we have to do ourselves. Every one of us.
Chris Hedges: I want to throw in there that of course, especially in the South, all through slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, the women who were raped were Black. Mary Chesnut in her diary, even writes about visiting plantations where there were some two dozen mulatto children because of course the chief slaveholder was raping the Black women. That gets into the paranoid style of American politics.
Let’s talk about civil war. I’ve covered civil wars. In some ways from my perspective, it’s even more frightening. It’s less a civil war because it’s not like Weimar Germany where you had armed communist militias battling brown shirts in the streets. It’s more the uninterrupted rise of heavily armed fascists, proto-fascists, Trump supporters with small arsenals in their homes, and those who don’t have any violent counterparts.
Jeff Sharlet: Yeah. You’ve covered civil wars. I accidentally, as a younger person, stumbled through one in Algeria. And I know that this is not that. I am aware of the risk of hyperbole using this phrase I use in my subtitle, Scenes from a Slow Civil War, and it’s my way of thinking about it. In 2021, what I started noticing was academic historians are very cautious, and rightly so. They understand that history moves slowly. I’m married to an academic historian. I understand this and it’s the right way. Starting to say, oh, some of the conditions of an actual civil war here and that language had always been there mostly on the fringe of the right, but now, it was moving as a rhetorical ploy more centrally. And I started thinking about the ways, how could we understand slow civil war as an institutionalization of violence.
The laws, for instance. I write about this in the book. I was in Wisconsin when Roe fell, which became the only blue state in which abortion was completely outlawed. It reverted to the 1849 law. And you would hear these stories in the press of a woman who nearly bled out, bled out, or something else horrible happened because she couldn’t get access to reproductive care. And as journalists, we know for every story like that we hear, there’s a lot that don’t go reported. And I said there’s a way in which more harm now is being done than all the abortion clinic bombers. It’s very easy to see an abortion clinic bomber and there was a lot more of that than people realize at least as a desire to spark a civil war. And yet here it is. And I thought of the ways that you have these armed militias, these groups of men who line up outside school libraries and churches and bars having drag shows and so on. There have been a few shots fired, but not many.
And so, people can say, well, come on now. Nothing’s really happening. And I’m like, well, this is like we’re striking matches and flicking them into dry grass and so far the flames haven’t caught. So we think everything’s fine. How many times can you line up a group of men with guns? To what you say though about there not being this counterforce like in Weimar, Germany, there is a scene in the book where in Sacramento they had a rally for Ashli Babbitt. Antifa and Proud Boys show up to battle and they all know each other and it’s a ridiculous fight, although I wouldn’t have wanted to have one of those blows land on me. I’m a nonviolent person, but I’m also an all-hands-on-deck person. Anyone who says, here’s how we beat fascism, we don’t know yet because we haven’t done it. We haven’t done it yet. So, I’m like, wherever you feel called, do that. That said, I do hear on the left this idea of the John Brown Gun Club and these right-wingers think they’re the only ones with guns. I’m a gun owner myself. There are 400 million guns in civilian hands in the US and all you need to do is drive outside your blue bubble to understand very quickly the disparity of those guns.
I don’t think there’s ever going to be a militia marching. And I spent time with those militias and I know you have as well. They’re not going to march. That’s not the threat. The threat is the simmer of violence, the drumbeat of mass shootings, and I would argue the epidemic of queer and trans youth suicide, which has many causes, but one of the big ones is an ongoing campaign of criminalization. You can’t tell your child anymore, you’re being paranoid. You’re not. The state, if you’re in Florida, if you’re in Texas, if you’re here in New Hampshire, the state is out to get you. That is what we look at as a slow civil war simmering violence. And we fool ourselves if we say, like with the matches, if we say, well, surely that could never get worse. It could. It doesn’t have to. Fascism’s big lies are an inevitability. Fascism wants us to believe something’s inevitable. Nothing is.
Chris Hedges: Well, fascism also uses channels of official violence, but always militias brown. That’s a component of fascism. It was a component of Stalinism. And I’m wondering if the historical analogy isn’t better than the 1920s in Soviet Russia because we forget that there was resistance to the rise of Stalinism. Certainly from 1933 to 1938, there was pretty significant resistance within the institutions against the rise of fascism. It took Hitler several years in order to gain control. I’m asking you, but my fear if Trump is reelected is that it won’t look like anything like the former Trump presidency, but it will come back with an open vindictiveness and viciousness. And so, I am curious as to whether rather than civil war, what we’re seeing is the last gasp perhaps of very ineffectual liberal institutions and liberal elite trying to stave off a group that rules through open fear, intimidation, and violence. Both through official channels and through these rogue militias, the Proud Boys and Three Percenters, you can separate yourself the way Hitler separated himself from the brown shirts.
Jeff Sharlet: Yeah. Oh, yeah, certainly, stand back, stand by was such a moment. And in the book, I write about a militia in Marinette. The leader claimed 6,000 – I think that’s not true – But there were clearly massive arms and massive equipment. And the presence of a militia like that, they’re not doing anything. They do lots of training exercises. And so, who’s going to stick their head up at that moment? So maybe there’s no civil war because people say, it’s too far gone. I met folks on the right who felt like that as well. They said I’ll never need to bring the guns out because the new world order has already won and is controlling us with radio waves or whatever it is. All those little fringe conspiracy theories. By the way, this is important, another way that a lot of people… They dismiss someone’s ideas because they’re kooky.
When I was driving around Wisconsin talking to people who were celebrating the downfall of Roe, everybody, every man, especially that I spoke to had a profoundly bizarre theory of human reproductive biology. They really didn’t know how bodies worked. And so it was easy to dismiss them as kooks instead of saying, wait a minute. All these kooky ideas, all these little strange theories put together make this movement. Which yeah, then maybe suppresses that made the slow civil war is one for the right. I doubt that because look, I don’t have to defend liberalism to point out that it’s not that gentle. I keep wondering what’s going to happen when we already know there are a number of underground abortion providers working in some of these red states.
What’s going to happen when one of them is arrested and tried for murder and they’re from New York and New York says no, no, no. You are not putting our citizens on trial. What’s going to happen when these performative stunts like Ron DeSantis with his white alligator guard, his militia that is answerable only to him, or North Carolina Republicans who have created their own semi-secret police? What’s going to happen? Again, it’s a little bit like you keep lining up men with guns, and at a certain point, the bluff gets called. One of the things I don’t write about in the book – Because I try to stay close to the ground, folks, but it’s important in having written about the military before – We imagine, a lot of people imagine the military is monolithic. Maybe they like the military, maybe they don’t, but they imagine it as a uniform because they wear uniforms.
It’s not at all, of course. You know this and I know this. In the past, there have always been people like General Mike Flynn, the Trump advisor who had crazy conspiracy theories, but the military mostly contained them. Maybe your job is to get the Jeeps there on time. All right. And you think the Jews secretly control all the banks but you get the Jeeps there on time and no one pays attention. That fragmentation, which has been developing for years of these fault lines, especially through Christian-right organizations in the military, is really dangerous. There were a number of state National Guard commanders who decided that they were not going to follow the vaccination orders so this put them in a low-level mutiny against the Biden administration. Biden could have, I’m not a great fan, but I’ll say he could have said, all right. No, no, no, you’re complying. I’m nationalizing you and you’re going to do this. Seven states let it ride. Again, I don’t like to get that far off the ground, but was the right thing to do in that case. That wasn’t worth the fight. It’s only a matter of time until someone picks a fight.
Chris Hedges: Jeff, you know even better than I do, that the Christian right, the Christian fascists have essentially seized the chaplaincies within the military, heavy recruitment, and what a lot of people don’t know is that the military is a large organization, but among combat units. Believers in the ideology of the Christian right are quite high, I don’t remember the percentages, but they are frighteningly high. There’s been a huge infusion, prayer services at the Pentagon, et cetera. There’s been a huge infusion, a huge effort on the part of the Christian right to co-op huge segments, not just of the military, but law enforcement as well.
Jeff Sharlet: Yeah. They’ve had the chaplaincy for 15 years and nobody noticed that. Your Presbyterian is no longer welcome –
Chris Hedges: That’s right.
Jeff Sharlet: – To serve there or even a conservative, traditional, mainline guy. Forget it. Do not apply.
Chris Hedges: You’re coming out of Liberty University or Oral Roberts or wherever. I want to close. You end the book. It’s very pointy. You end with the peak skill, and I don’t have time to go into it, but this wonderful or incredibly powerful scene with Paul Robeson and he’s attacked by the townspeople. He’s almost killed. It’s quite dangerous.
Jeff Sharlet: Yeah. A mob of 5,000 people backed up by a New York State Police helicopter.
Chris Hedges: Yeah. I know, I know, I know.
Jeff Sharlet: 1949.
Chris Hedges: But that’s how you end the book and it’s wistful, it struck me, that in a way, you said where – And I’m paraphrasing – But I thought the question you raised is where are these people now when we need them? The people like the Robesons, you talk about Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and all of these great radical artists, writers, and musicians. And it’s not in the book but let’s talk about the Communist Party. The Communist Party was an important bulwark against the rise of our own version of fascism in the 1930s, so that’s even completely erased and written out of history. I’m not a communist but they were important.
Jeff Sharlet: Oh, yeah. This is one of the most frightening things. This is a moment of global fascism. It’s not only the US. It’s all around the globe but there’s not a countervailing force. But my idea of ending with that and the mighty Lee Hays, who wrote all the lyrics to those people.
Chris Hedges: I know, you go find him. That was amazing.
Jeff Sharlet: Yeah. And it’s the same. We skipped over Harry Belafonte in the beginning. The reason I bookend this very dark journey with Harry Belafonte, who was in the struggle every one of his days, died angry at 96, and good anger, he was in the fight, was because fascism wants us to embrace this language of hysterical crisis, that either we’re going to win or we’re going to lose. Now, the struggle’s going to happen. What happens if Trump wins in 2024? Man, I had a heart attack at a very young age a few days before Trump won in 2016. I remember waking up thinking, well, fascism is here, but at least I’m alive to see it. And what happens if he wins in ’24? We go on. I bookend it with those old heroes, those mostly forgotten, smoothed-over, sharp edges. The radical edges smooth down to remind us that the struggle is long. That’s the hope. The struggle is long. Trump could win in ’24. That’s not the end. We keep going. We keep going. We keep going.
Chris Hedges: Well, that’s the moral imperative of keeping going, whether you’re winning or not. As I’ve often said, we don’t fight fascists because we’re going to win. We fight fascists because they’re fascists.
Jeff Sharlet: The good fight. The good fight. The last chapter is called “The Good Fight Is The One You Lose.”
Chris Hedges: Yes, that’s right.
Jeff Sharlet: The one that you undertake, not because you’re going to win, but because of the thing you do.
Chris Hedges: Yeah. Beautiful. Thank you. That was Jeff Sharlet on his new book, Undertow. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.