Jeff Sharlet — Author, journalist, professor and producer of “The Family” on Netflix — joins us to to discuss his latest book, “The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War” and his experiences investigating and interviewing the religious right.
Jeff Sharlet is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and best-selling author or editor of seven books, including The Family, adapted into a Netflix documentary series. He is the winner of the National Magazine Award for Reporting, the Molly Ivins Prize, and the Outspoken Award, among other honors. He is the Frederick Sessions Beebe ’35 Professor in the Art of Writing at Dartmouth College and lives in Vermont.
In THE UNDERTOW: Scenes from a Slow Civil War [W.W. Norton & Company; on sale March 21, 2023; $28.95 hardcover and eBook] veteran journalist Jeff Sharlet reckons with the tumultuous changes of the last ten years, a decade that will likely be remembered as one of the new century’s most significant. An unmatched guide to the religious dimensions of American politics, 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.
“I wrote The Undertow because I’d been wrong,” notes Sharlet. “In The Family (2008), I wrote that despite the many brutalities of American power, full fascism, in the old sense, wasn’t possible in America. I was wrong. The Undertow is my attempt to reckon with that and to look across the last decade at how actual fascism has become a major threat in the United States.”
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. Framing this dangerous vision, Sharlet remembers and celebrates the courage of those who sing a different song of community, and of an America long dreamt of and yet to be fully born, dedicated to justice and freedom for all. 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.