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On January 6, 2021, a 35-year-old white woman and United States Air Force veteran named Ashli Babbitt was shot and killed at the U.S. Capitol as she tried to force her way into the Speaker’s Lobby during the mob assault seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Babbitt became an instant martyr to the sympathizers of a January 6 lost cause narrative, for whom the violence of that day was just the opening battle in an ongoing war.
In his new book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, journalist Jeff Sharlet traverses the country, following Babbitt’s ghost. In rare immersive reporting, he attends rallies in California dedicated to the new mythology of Babbitt and her fellow insurrectionists; probes the meaning of the fascist flags he finds flying outside strangers’ houses in Wisconsin; and faces threats from gun-toting bouncers in a church in Nebraska, as well as in the gun-worshiping bar owned by Colorado Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert.
Throughout, he uncovers not only how we, as a country, ended up with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, but how we, as a country, remain hostage to the ideologies that accelerated his ascent. He shows how far-right mythmaking — about guns, abortion, power and the meaning of the Bible — promotes violence, threatens communities and imperils democracy. More than any book about Trump or Trumpism, The Undertow takes us on an extraordinary journey inside the fascist imagination, from the grifters and con artists who profit from commodifying far-right propaganda and memes, to the seemingly ordinary people who have embraced it as an expression of what it means to truly be American. Jeff Sharlet spoke with In These Times about his book this March. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Sarah Posner: I want to focus on what you call the Church of Trump, in which the “ecstasy of confidence itself was the ultimate win.” We’re talking March 31, the day after the public learned that Trump was indicted in New York. Help us understand why his followers won’t be swayed against him because of his indictment.
Jeff Sharlet: I think before the indictment we had already entered what I see as the third theological stage in the Church of Trump: the age of martyrs. In 2016, it was the prosperity gospel, that was the campaign. Prosperity gospel presented itself as optimistic. By 2020 — inflected by the pandemic, inflected by grief that was not registered — it turned darker. That’s important to understand.
The 2020 campaign, as I write in the book, turned toward a bastardized American Gnosticism, which is to say, a theology very much like QAnon. It emphasizes secrecy, paranoia and the idea of the “deep state.” There are secrets within secrets, and you have to be one of the initiated.
On January 6, when a Capitol Hill police officer shot and killed Ashli Babbitt, they immediately began forming a martyr cult. So that’s a new stage of the theology. Ashli Babbitt’s a pretty good martyr, but she was a placeholder until Trump could assume his place on the cross, as he has.
SP: How do you report on this mythmaking, or the idea that Trump is talking to his followers in code, how his tweets become scripture? As you write in the book, you can’t fact check a myth because, to the person receiving and absorbing and perpetuating the myth, the fact check doesn’t matter.
JS: We need to know the shape of this movement and how it is experienced. Even if you’re a daily news reporter, if you are not struggling with that question, you’re not doing your job. This is the story. The old ways don’t work. Just hearing CNN today, they’re saying Trump is calling this a political persecution. And they stop. Instead of saying Trump’s believers see it as a persecution, they’re encoding this within a kind of modern mythology. It is not a political persecution. This is how the law works. Even if he’s innocent, this is how the law works.
SP: You write that these myths and conspiracy theories seem unhinged, but it’s also mainstream: that one source you talked to, who held these very complicated conspiracy theories, might be closer to the new center of American life than you are.
JS: That was an interview with a woman after a Trump rally in Sunrise, Florida — actually a smart woman, but completely down the rabbit hole, explaining all her numerology and so on. We have to let go of the idea that we’re the center of things. I don’t mean centrist politically, but as if the rational ground holds. We’re not. We are the fringe.
At another point, I was at a militia church in Yuba City, California, with a sovereign citizen speaker who claimed that Hillary Clinton has already been executed and if you’ve seen her since, it’s green screens. And he says that Trump is still president. That’s fairly widely believed. They’re in the dream politics of fascism.
SP: That reminds me of another figure you met: the militia leader in Wisconsin who participated in January 6, but nonetheless says it was a false flag — an action taken to deflect responsibility or blame for an often violent event. You write that we’re dealing with people who are living with this cognitive dissonance, and we have to get inside their cognitive dissonance to understand what’s going on.
JS: They’re looking for the language that expresses something about their lives, and they often come to believe it. At the house of that Wisconsin militia leader, Rob Brumm, all the windows are blacked out with fascist flags, there are AR-15s, and his little three-year-old running around, who’s already learned how to shoot an assault rifle. In the corner of his arsenal he had a big TV that was looping footage that he filmed on January 6. And yet here’s this guy saying it was a false flag and that it’s just bullshit what they say about people carrying weapons at the Capitol.
Where we get stuck is if we say, well, that’s not true. We think we’ve won the argument. But it keeps growing, it keeps metastasizing.
There are variants. That’s what fascism is; it’s not monolithic. It’s all these different ideas coming into convergence. That’s why we have to understand this: where are the fault lines in this movement and how do we exploit them?
SP: One of the main throughlines in your book, across these sub-variants, is the concept of spiritual warfare: the people you meet conceive of themselves as being on a God-ordained mission. Many of them cite this verse from the Book of Joshua: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” This is very tied up with guns, too.
JS: Some people may have seen the video of Trump’s former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn being gifted an AR-15 by a church. A member of that church makes these high-end rifles. They also gifted the pastor, Dave Bryan, who I met with, an AR-15. His was inscribed with “Joshua 1:9,” which is referred to as a battle verse. And I had come to it from an Ashli Babbitt rally where the “patriot pastor” who spoke was a militia guy wearing a Joshua 1:9 T-shirt. Shooter’s Grill, which is Lauren Boebert’s Hooters-with-guns restaurant in Colorado, sells merch with Joshua 1:9 on it too.
It’s like code, because people say it means “be strong.” And for some people that’s all it means. But look at what happens next in the Bible after God says that. He says to Joshua, go into Jericho, march around, and then kill everything. It’s a genocide. And when you’re using it like that, what is a gun inscribed with Joshua for? Killing everything.
That was a big church, and they were so enthusiastic to talk about hangings. They were so excited about the hangings that were coming.
SP: “Hang Mike Pence.”
JS: Yeah, they were sad that hadn’t happened. Their spirits had fallen because they thought January 6 had failed. They said, “We worked so hard and we didn’t take the castle.” But then good news came: Trump is coming back, either the man himself or the spirit. And Mike Pence will dangle.
I think of this family I met near Tomah, Wisconsin, at a gas station. The man started telling me about what happens in abortion, blood and gore, and then dreams he had about what he would do to the abortion doctors. This is the dream life of fascism: he was vividly imagining that the gun and the abortion go together. It’s the tool. It’s the retribution.
There’s three stages of the theology of Trump. I think there’s also three stages in the cult of guns. There’s the sporting idea. Then there’s “home defense.” Now we’re in the third stage, which is the offensive stage. That family in Tomah used to be regular gun owners. Now they have 36 guns. And it’s not just for defense. Think about the men standing with the AR-15s outside of libraries and schools and other peoples’ churches.
SP: And drag shows.
JS: Yes. We’re now in the civil war dream. I think we are in a slow civil war. But what do Americans not born in another country or who haven’t been war correspondents really know of civil war? This is true on the Left, too. I see folks like, I’m going to get a gun and I’ll be fine. What are you going to do? Go to the hills and be like Patrick Swayze in Red Dawn? It’s not going to work like that.
The slow civil war is not going to be The Hunger Games, it is not going to be Red Dawn. And if it speeds up, God help us, it’s going to be something else entirely. Nobody wins a civil war. Nobody has ever won a civil war.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Sarah Posner is an investigative journalist, MSNBC columnist and author of Unholy: How White Christian Nationalists Powered the Trump Presidency,and the Devastating Legacy They Left Behind and God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. She has been a reporting fellow with Type Investigations and her work has appeared in numerous outlets, includingThe Washington Post, Talking Points Memo, The New York Times, Politico, Insider, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, The Nation, The New Republic and many others.