By Ian Tyrrell
In these days of the 24-hour news cycle, one can never know in advance, but Donald J. Trump seems likely to be the Republican Party candidate for president of the United States in 2024.
With Trump facing four indictments in American courts, the outcome is uncertain. Would the American people vote for an indicted person, or even for a felon? They might, and to understand the persistence of Trump’s loyal following, we need to get behind the headlines and assess the roots of Trump’s power.
Thankfully, The Undertow is not another book on America’s most accomplished attention-seeker. Nor is its author, Jeff Sharlet, focused only on the ominous events of January 6, 2021, at the US Capitol.
Instead, The Undertow tells how the cultural divisions in American society could allow such a thing as the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters to happen. (And how, despite everything that’s happened since, he remains the Republican frontrunner for the 2024 presidential race.) Sharlet believes that event is part of a “slow civil war” that threatens the future of the American republic.
Review: The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, by Jeff Sharlet (W.W. Norton)
Sharlet begins with a moving portrayal of singer and actor Harry Belafonte, best known for Day-O (The Banana Boat Song), “a protest song”. He was also a civil rights activist: one of the biggest donors to the cause and a close friend of Martin Luther King. Actor Sidney Poitier described their bond as “almost mystical”.
Sharlet documents Belafonte’s lifelong struggle against racism, through a series of conversations. Belafonte’s inclusion proved timely: he died just a month after The Undertow was published.
Sharlet uses Belafonte to argue racism is at the heart of the American political and social malady. Belafonte, a mainstream performer with cross-race appeal who still suffered intense discrimination, is Sharlet’s bearer of the bad news that racism resides in the core of American identity. Behind the mask of the mainstream entertainer, there was pain – and a struggle for equality, never forgotten and never achieved.
Sharlet captures Belafonte’s late-life reflection:
it’s been more than four decades now, and the movement he helped make he believes has been stolen, turned into an uplifting story, a Hollywood fable with a happy ending that isn’t yet real.
Trump embodies the racial underpinning’s of Bellefonte’s lament, the persistent undertow of Whiteness manifest in the phenomenon that is Trumpism. Trump stands for capital “W” Whiteness, Sharlet writes, but Whiteness as a concept must be unpacked. To write this book, Sharlet must enter what he calls “the Trumpocene”: the mental world of cause and effect that Trump’s acolytes operate in.
In practice, Sharlet vacillates over whether Whiteness is truly the determining factor among Trump followers: religion and masculine power also get substantial attention. At various points, he also speculates about whether the subterranean unrest he uncovers reflects military trauma, the effects of “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the global financial crisis and its impact on the middle class. But he does not go far enough on these latter points.
‘The American religion of winning’
While race may be at the heart of a contested American identity, Sharlet believes evangelical religion is propelling the narrative of discontent and rebellion.
Or rather, a distorted branch within evangelical religion: the prosperity gospel, which teaches that faith and positive thinking attract health, wealth and happiness. Sharlet covers this aspect of his grand narrative with amusing anecdotes and withering analysis.
For prosperity gospellers such as Pastor Rich Wilkerson Jr of Vous (short for Rendevous) megachurch, doctrine means nothing and religious discourse becomes virtually indistinguishable from show business, celebrity culture and commerce.
In fact, Sharlet writes, the church itself was born from a reality television show, Rich in Faith, starring Pastor Rich – who “loves talking about Leo [DiCaprio], because he looks like Leo”. Vous was financed by Wilkerson’s father, pastor of Trinity Church, one of the largest megachurches in suburban Miami (where Wilkerson Jr worked until he launched Vous).
Wilkerson is portrayed as a very “cool” Christian, with a talent for grabbing headlines and fraternising with celebrity friends. He famously officiated at Kim Kardashian’s 2014 wedding to rapper Kanye West.
Sharlet sat in on a session of Wilkerson’s regular Saturday meeting with his inner circle, “the Vous Crew”, to plan the coming week.
It’s part logistics meeting, part Bible study. But the Bible is hard, its stories old, so this week they were starting what would be an immersion into one of Rich’s favourites, the bestselling Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.
For Vous and like-minded megachurches, success is both evidence of being saved and the reason for it. With the Vous Crew, Wilkerson recites a favourite psalm from memory:
“I love this line,” he said, shaking his head and grinning: “‘Whatever he does’” – a righteous man, that is – “‘prospers’. Prosperity follows him.”
The American prosperity gospel is a materialist practice full of (sometimes unaware) poseurs, a bit like Trump himself. It is not a matter of faith or morality.
Here, Sharlet is on strong ground. Trump’s self-portrayal is one of “amazing” successes and “tremendous” achievements. His braggadocio at rallies appeals to his acolytes because it operates within “the American religion of winning”.
I would add that the prosperity gospel also washed over President Ronald Reagan, under the spell of Reverend Norman Vincent Peale and his bestselling The Power of Positive Thinking.
Reagan gave the self-critical, 17th-century Puritan concept of a “City on a Hill” a self-satisfying gloss. Meant as an exhortation for a Christian community in 17th century Massachusetts to be true to its spiritual purpose, Reagan applied it to America’s material and moral place on the world stage, labelling the nation he led “the shining city”, in which the nation’s exceptionalism was inherent and self-evident rather than provisional.
Evangelical religion and QAnon
The explanation of Trump’s appeal must also reckon with the role of conspiracy theories. Historically speaking, evangelicalism has had a part to play here in the interpretation of Biblical prophecy concerning the End Times, or Second Coming of Christ.
Prophetic Christianity interprets historical events as signifiers of trans-historical narratives. The surface meaning of events obscures their deeper symbolic meaning, which can be inferred only by believers. As the apostle Paul wrote: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (KJV, 2 Corinthians 5:7).
This formulation opens religious prophecy to manipulation by secular forces. Through QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory provides secular breadcrumbs for those seeking answers for the strange condition of the modern American nation-state.
The modern-day version in Gnosticism contends that cryptic messages – intelligible only to the initiated – conceal reality. A pattern of signs, symbols and number sequences, open to fantastical interpretation, magically transforms biblical prophecies and revelation into paranoiac belief and action.
QAnon adherents believe that, with the addition of the conspiracy theories supplied by QAnon, menacing forces and hopeful signs can be effortlessly revealed. Trump, though clearly not a godly man, can be interpreted as the vehicle through which the mysterious and sacred works of creation and redemption may be understood and fulfilled.
At a Trump rally, one supporter, “Dave”, tells Sharlet the message replicated on many T-shirts, “Trump’s Tweets Matter”, is serious, that the tweets are clues:
“Like Scripture.” Every tweet, every misspelling, every typo, every strange capitalization – especially the capitalizations, said Dave – had meaning. “The truth is right there in what the media think are his mistakes. He doesn’t make mistakes.”
In its third section, the book begins to resemble a literary equivalent of the 1969 film, Easy Rider, with Peter Fonda’s Captain America and Dennis Hopper on a cross-country motorbike quest, looking for America – and never finding it.
Sharlet tells the story of his own journey home to Vermont from California, where he had attended a memorial for Ashli Babbitt – the insurrectionist, small businesswoman and army veteran who died in the assault on the Capitol.
He then travels East, attempting to plumb the sinister sentiments of those Americans who backed Trump and still think the election was “stolen”. They mourn Babbitt’s “assassination” – she was shot by a black policeman in the Capitol struggle – more than they do the passing of George Floyd.
Sharlet takes us into the dark minds of the gun lovers and militiamen ready to overthrow the deep state and “save” America. En route, we meet the “church of Trump”, exemplified among the adoring followers at his rallies.
Addressing the reader, Sharlet says of one QAnon adherent he meets at a rally, a woman who believes God put Trump in power, the Clintons “eat the children” and that a 2017 Las Vegas massacre by a lone gunman was part of a plan to kill Trump:
Diane was not fringe. She might have been closer to the new center of American life than you think.
Sharlet also encounters the spokesmen for the “manosphere”. That is, the products of a challenged traditional masculinity that breeds anti-feminism. Then we discover QAnon’s weird interpretations, in which the real and the unreal become hopelessly intertwined.
A slow civil war
Hope cannot easily spring eternal, so grim are the signs of a slow civil war. Sharlet hints mass protest may be a democratic antidote to the American proto-fascism he fears.
This is presumably why the second chapter of the book, titled “On the side of possibility”, documents Occupy Wall Street, the 2011 activist movement for economic justice.
He calls the protesters “fools – but in the holy tradition, the one that speaks not truth to power, but imagination to things as they are”.
In the end, Sharlet can only offer the slender hope that democratic practice, one small step at a time, might prevail through the will of sensible people. This is the existential optimism of cultural despair, an unsettling conclusion.
But what if the problem went deeper than an internal culture war?
The biggest disappointment in The Undertow is its inward-looking perspective. Sharlet is seemingly unwilling to consider whether America’s flaws are shared with similar countries, or whether they lie deeper: in American political and economic structures.
If Trump cannot exist without his following, he also draws upon, exploits and even shapes his followers. His capacity to do that can be better understood in international and comparative perspective.
The cultural discontent charted by Sharlet is not unique to America, but is found to varying degrees in comparable societies. The differences are institutional.
Not unique to America
I personally know people in Australia like Sharlet’s prosperity gospellers, Trump supporters and conspiracy theorists. Not one of them is anything like an insurrectionist, in temperament or potential.
Of course, others may have the potential for collective violence. Certainly, Australia has experienced white racism – and violent, organised attacks on non-whites.
Anyone who doubts this potential for further violence here need only listen to the powerful podcast documenting the attacks on Chinese people in Western Australia by the Australian National Movement in the late 1980s.
Alternatively, follow the unfolding story of the two policemen and a neighbour, gunned down in an ambush in Southern Queensland in 2022. They were inspired and instructed by an American advocate of “end of days ideology”.
But it is harder to channel racist and religious fanaticism into an attack on the political state in Australia. That may be because evangelical religion is more marginalised in Australia than in the US.
The roots of the American problem lie not in evangelical religion itself but in flawed political institutions that provide an opening for quasi-religious extremism and enhance the ability of ideologically motivated and unscrupulous political aspirants to benefit from those flaws.
These flaws include voluntary enrolment, discriminatory electoral laws, first-past-the-post voting and the electoral college system of tallying votes in a presidential election. These and other US institutional circumstances favour special (cashed-up) interests and highly motivated minorities.
Trump’s fervent followers are the most prominent, highly motivated minority. They have a disproportionate influence in American political discourse.
A small fraction of these Trump supporters can achieve exaggerated media exposure far more easily in the US than in Australia. But many of their discontents cannot be assuaged within the existing political and economic structures of their society. Older, less educated, rural, white, downwardly mobile: they are among the losers in the global economic system.
Whether the causes are cultural, political or both, the culture wars continue. The two-party standoff of Republicans and Democrats in the struggle over Trump’s presidential legacy endures. The inward-looking agenda of both Trump’s supporters and his critics – including Sharlet – has international implications.
Foreign observers will not be reassured by the compelling stories Sharlet tells. They will not be assured of America’s future role as a reliable world bastion of liberal democracy. Nor can they be assured the United States will remain the politically stable centre of an increasingly unstable global economic system.
Ian Tyrrell is Emeritus Professor of History at UNSW Sydney.
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