With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Jeff Sharlet on the Intersectional Erotics of Fascism

In The Family (now also a Netflix series), journalist and author Jeff Sharlet wrote about his experience of going undercover as a young man in a secret, elitist organization of the American Christian Right. It was, in many ways, the opposite of his latest book, The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War.

Whereas The Family took us into dark-paneled rooms at the heart of American wealth and political power, The Undertow examines the ordinary in a quest to try and understand why fascism has become appealing to millions of Americans and why this country is seemingly coming apart.

We tag along as he learns about the violent symbolism of the all-black American flag; visits Lauren Boebert’s infamous “Shooters” restaurant (where waitstaff carry guns); speaks to people who’ve turned their unprocessed grief into anger and violence; and listens to sermons that speak of a coming war. 

Having met Jeff in person for the first time a year ago when we sat on a panel at a conference on White Christian nationalism at Yale University, I was curious to get a sense of what it was like to spend months traveling the country searching for the ghost of an insurrectionist, chasing down fascist flags, and knocking on the doors of the people displaying them in an effort to understand what lies beneath.  

The following has been edited and condensed from a pair of conversations that took place over a two-week period.

When did this meditation on a brewing civil war begin to take shape in your mind? And how does one choose the best travel route when following an insurrectionist’s ghost?

This broad movement that we might describe as Christian nationalism is very complex and filled with many tributaries. That was the backdrop. So some of the early pieces in the book are from that work in its different forms—and when Trumpism comes down that golden escalator in 2015, he is a figure that I recognize instantly as the “Strongman” of the sort that American fundamentalism has exported: The dictators that we’ve propped up in the Philippines and Somalia and Indonesia. 

And here it was. We’ve had extreme right-wing politicians. But not that kind of figure who combines buffoonery and menace. That’s an alert that now we’re moving into what I understand as fascist aesthetics. 

So I started paying attention to that, because I was frightened and fascinated. I think I started understanding that this was going to be a book in 2018, and that I was going to bring these strands together, through that metaphor of “the undertow.” People are saying, “Where has Trump come from?” Well, we’ve been headed there for a while. 

Much of the book takes place after January 6th, 2021. I had a destination—Sacramento, California—to attend a rally for Ashley Babbitt [who was killed by a capitol police officer during the January 6 insurrection and who has since become a martyr on the Right]. And then I drove east. I think of the ways in which some people say: Why did you choose to speak to all these people? Because they were [right] there. We don’t have to go looking under rocks. This is the mainstream now.


Look, fascism has always been present in the United States. We know that the Nazis drew on the American example. There were elements of it, but it was impossible as the reigning full-on paradigm. The experience of so many communities of color was one of living under fascist control. So many sheriffs in their counties ruled with fascist power, but a full-on fascist government? No, we weren’t going to get that. And the reason was the same thing that makes the United States unusual amongst developed nations. Our particular devotion to God. 

And some people may ask, oh, isn’t that super Christian nationalist stuff just fascist? Well, it used to get in the way of actual fascism. As I understand it from the scholarship that I read, one of the hallmarks of fascism is a cult of personality. And that cult of personality isn’t just a figurehead, it’s a license. You need that earthly avatar of this absolute power—that Übermensch, I guess, if you will—in order to license all the Hitlers, all the little Trumps, a million little Trumps. And so that was my argument; I said they would not switch out father for the führer. And I was wrong.

Read entire article at Religion Dispatches