James Fallows: This is On the Media. I'm James Fallows.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm Brooke Gladstone. As we heard, this week after President Trump was indicted for the second time, the GOP defense consisted largely of whataboutism. There were more strident and more cryptic statements. Representative Clay Higgins from Louisiana tweeted that the summoning of President Trump to the Miami Federal Courthouse was a "perimeter probe from the oppressors. Hold. rPOTUS has this. Buckle up. 1/50K know your bridges. Rock steady calm. That is all."
Jeff Sharlet: After Representative Higgins tweeted that, a lot of people were delighted. They said this was words, salad, and look at these goofballs, and they're harmless.
Brooke Gladstone: Jeff Sharlet is the author of the new book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, and a professor in the art of writing at Dartmouth College. He crossed the country to trace the undertow. I asked him to translate Representative Higgins' malicious speak for me.
Jeff Sharlet: For a nation so steeped in war movies, I was surprised that more people couldn't figure out that a perimeter probe is testing the enemy. rPOTUS is real POTUS, the real President of the United States. Most importantly, 1/50K is 1 to 50000, it's the scale of military-grade maps and maps used by the US Geological Survey for areas mostly around military facilities.
Know your bridges. What he's referring to is a long-standing militia fantasy which rose out of a white supremacist movement that the highest legal authority in the United States is actually your county sheriff who has the right to nullify laws. The fantasy in militia world is that the feds are coming to take your guns, they're coming to invade the perimeter probe. It's an attack. They're getting ready for a big strike. Get ready to defend yourself.
Brooke Gladstone: I knew that there was something going on in his tweet that I didn't understand. Is it important? Is he important?
Jeff Sharlet: He is. Representative Clay Higgins, a longtime sheriff, in many ways a media creation, the result of years of positive coverage from so-called liberal media for his tough-on-crime viral videos. In the current Congress, he's chairman of border security on the subcommittee on the Homeland Security Department. Moreover, he has militia credibility. He doesn't say he supports militias. He says he is militia. He identifies as a three-percenter.
I've been driving back and forth across the country, and the first thing I notice is more guns than I've seen in 20 years. I'm not afraid of guns, I'm a gun owner, but this is really something different. Churches arming up militias. You take any one of these stories individually, yes, it seems fringe. The better way to understand this is there's a great mass of fringe which is making the fabric of what I think we can plausibly and without hyperbole argue is an American fascist movement now. I don't use that term lightly. In fact, I've argued against it in the past, but here we are.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm wondering how Trump's own reaction to this indictment reinforced and built on some of this. He tweeted that in the wake of the indictment, the seal was broken, and that went right over my head.
Jeff Sharlet: It's a seal on the indictment. A lot of people hear it as the seventh seal of the book of Revelation. It marks the coming of Jesus in this apocalyptic final battle, which Trump has been talking about for a while now. I've been writing about the broadcast and the reception of Trump, paying attention always to these stories since 2015. In Trump's speeches of past, you would have long segments describing in detail stabbings, rape, decapitation, disembowelment.
Donald Trump: These men took the 50 bullets, dropped them in the pigs, swished them around.
Brooke Gladstone: This is an old yarn about how General Jack Black Pershing killed Muslims a century ago.
Donald Trump: There was blood all over those bullets, had his men, instructed his men to put the bullets into the rifles, and they shot 49 men.
Jeff Sharlet: Really violent, gory horror movie rhetoric, but his post-indictment speech last Saturday--
Donald Trump: We have a record crowd here today, so that's--
Jeff Sharlet: Representative turning point in his rhetoric. He was talking about the final battle, which he's been doing.
Donald Trump: This is the final battle. This is the most important election we've ever had.
Jeff Sharlet: Then there was another element. He's speaking of obliteration. He's saying, "Not only is there a risk of World War III, there will absolutely be World War III unless I am returned to power."
Donald Trump: I will prevent World War III. I will prevent it, and now people believe it too.
Brooke Gladstone: He said the same thing in the speech that just preceded January 6th. He said, "You have to fight as hard as you can or you won't have a country."
Jeff Sharlet: Oh, no, that's not the same thing. When he means World War III, he's not talking about not having a country, he's talking about nuclear obliteration.
Donald Trump: This won't be a conventional war with army tanks going back and forth shooting each other. This will be nuclear war. This will be obliteration, perhaps obliteration of the entire world. I will prevent it. Nobody else can say that.
Jeff Sharlet: I alone can stop it, which is, of course, a classic of fascist rhetoric.
Brooke Gladstone: The Democrats are just going to fire off a nuke for no reason?
Jeff Sharlet: Yes, I think that is how it's being heard, that we are very close to nuclear war with Russia, that he alone can stop it. It's even more abstract than that. When he says--
Donald Trump: At the end of the day, either the communists win, destroy America, or we destroy the communists because that's what they are. They may go by a different name, fascists, Marxists.
Jeff Sharlet: He opens and closes the speech with some kind of classic anti-Semitism, talking about globalists and Marxists. He's expanding the potent conspiracism of anti-Semitism so that it applies to all of his enemies, but lest anyone be confused, he doubles down in the middle by talking about Jack Smith.
Brooke Gladstone: The special counsel who indicted him.
Donald Trump: Jack Smith. What do you think his name used to be? I don't know [unintelligible 00:19:10] anybody-- Jackson. Sounds so innocent.
Jeff Sharlet: What is his original name? What's his real name? It's Jack Smith. It couldn't be. That sounds so innocent, by which he means it sounds so all-American white. Then at the end, and this was new, he said--
Donald Trump: We will drive out the globalists. We will cast out the communists. We will throw off the sick political class that hates our country and wants to destroy our country.
Jeff Sharlet: This is a reference to driving out the money changers. Jesus driving out the money changers. To make sure you don't miss it, the speechwriter, I should say, refers to both the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Matthew. The money changers, historically in anti-Semitism, are understood as the Jews, but in this moment, it's understood as the enemy. The enemy, it's Jack Smith, it's whoever is on the other side.
Brooke Gladstone: That's interesting. Rather than cast the Jew as the enemy, that's the tradition. Here, that's already assumed and so you cast the enemy, whoever that may be, as Jews.
Jeff Sharlet: Yes, the Jew becomes metaphor and he's got plausible deniability, because, of course, there are enough right-wing Jews. Maybe Stephen Miller, who is Jewish, wrote that speech for him and has not been shy of using that language before, so he can say, "This isn't about Jews." In a way, for Trump, it's really not. His enemy is whoever is against him in his power. Then since he's become proxy, when I go out and I speak to everyday people, they see him as a martyr.
Brooke Gladstone: You say that Trump has always strived to create martyrs. Back in 2017 when he was president, he said that the wounded GOP Congressman, Steve Scalise, took a bullet for all of us when he was shot in the hip by someone who professed to be a Trump hater at a congressional baseball practice. You say that Ashli Babbitt, who was killed as she stormed the US Capitol on January 6th, was, "Processed, made productive almost immediately after her death. Transformed right away into yet another flag, like a new tarot card in the deck of fascism, where it joined Gadsden, the coiled snake on yellow and the Blue Lives Matter flag."
Jeff Sharlet: When I saw Ashli Babbitt, white woman who led a mob, climbed up through a broken window and a Capitol Hill police officer shot her and killed her. We saw only the hands of the officer, and he's a Black man. I understood immediately as a student of American mythology and history, this is the lynching story. Innocent white womanhood killed by a Black man. This is the template of Hollywood. You go back to the Birth of a Nation, one of the most influential movies of all time, 1915, based on a novel called The Klansmen.
It's a positive story about the Ku Klux Klan and a white woman flees from a dangerous Black man and jumps over a cliff and dies and thus the Klan must ride to avenge her. Ashli Babbitt was such a productive martyr because she's wearing an American flag outfit, kind of. She's the only woman in this crowd, but she's really fierce and tough. She's also a veteran. I started traveling around the country watching the myth in formation, who Ashli Babbitt was, doesn't matter to them.
Brooke Gladstone: Given all the myth-making about Ashli, you looked into her life, and what did you find?
Jeff Sharlet: She documented her life very extensively. 8,000 tweets. She made a lot of videos. I found someone I think would surprise a lot of people. Ashli Babbitt from deep blue Southern California, kind of a beach person, votes for Obama twice, thinks he's the best president ever.
Brooke Gladstone: How did she get from there to here? What was the turning point?
Jeff Sharlet: She talks about a houseless man in Southern California defecating on her front lawn. The compassion she's tried to have in her life, she just says to hell with it. Trump is right there with this story. You know what? That anger you feel, it's not anger. It's love for your country. You don't have to swim against the current, give into the undertow, let it take you out. Here's white supremacy, it's ready to carry you. Now she's got a leader and she's got a mythology, and it's so easy to go with it.
Brooke Gladstone: You call what's going on a cult of militant eroticism. Can you talk about that?
Jeff Sharlet: Part of the aesthetics of fascism has always been titillation and the thrill, because the eroticism is of transgression. Think of Steve [unintelligible 00:23:48] Not an attractive man. Yet, here is a man. He does what he wants. He eats what he wants to eat, he smokes what he wants to smoke. If he was a truck driver, he'd be driving a coal roller spewing out black. He lives fully.
Brooke Gladstone: They're bad boys.
Jeff Sharlet: Yes. The same thing you see with so many of these right-wing politicians doing ads where they're firing guns. For some people, that's sexy. It's also saying, "You know what, I'm free." Free is exciting.
Brooke Gladstone: After reporting your book, you concluded that we're in the midst of something you call a slow civil war. That is, we're in the undertow.
Jeff Sharlet: In spring of 2021, I started noticing academic historians talking about civil war. I'm married to a historian. Historians are necessarily cautious. They know that history usually moves slow. I came to the term slow civil war as I started to think, "Well, wait a minute. There already are casualties." When we look at the wave of queer and trans suicide, the ways in which many people are now criminalized in 20 states and counting. All the pregnant people dying or are in trouble for lack of reproductive rights, and so many of the victims of mass shootings. What I do is I read the manifestos and I see how each one builds on another.
Literally, they cut and paste from the last one, and then they say, "Here's how I did it and I'm probably going to die. In fact, that's my plan, but I hope the next man can learn from what I did and can carry this forward." When I look at the men who line up with AR-15s outside of hospitals and libraries and schools and bars--
Brooke Gladstone: Isn't that just performative?
Jeff Sharlet: Oh, that's my favorite question, Brooke. For so long, the political press, which was built to report on a fairly stable establishment, wants to dismiss anything outside of that as just theater. That works really well for the growth of fascism. Fascism is theater. No just about it.
Brooke Gladstone: You say that the mainstream media is reluctant to use the word fascism to describe the movement Trump fueled and rode to power. Why is fascism a better characterization than the much more often-used crisis of democracy?
Jeff Sharlet: I'm actually against the term, the crisis of democracy, and I'm against calling it crisis. I understand why people use them. Crisis is narratively a word that supposes this is a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's going to have a happy ending or a sad ending. That's not the nature of the situation we face. Some things were lost. Fascism is understood in the press as an F-word.
As opposed to describing a political movement, look at these elements, the cult of personality, the idea that a strong man leader alone can fix it, that he transcends the normal rule of law, they're persecuted in group, a mysterious outgroup that can take any form, but most importantly, and I think this is also, this goes back to the militant eroticism, not just a rhetoric of violence, but of pleasure and violence. That's a key part of fascism. I think in as much as we resist it, and I'm sympathetic to that resistance, but what if we don't see it as a crisis, as a final battle, but say, "Hey, that's the condition. How do we get through this?"
Brooke Gladstone: Do you think this is a Coast versus Midwest, rural versus urban divide?
Jeff Sharlet: Both sides in this conflict want to believe that. I know it's not because I've been driving around the country and I can cross the front lines, the battle lines in any given county in the United States.
Brooke Gladstone: If you set out looking for fascists, you're going to find them. How widespread is it really?
Jeff Sharlet: I think it's a powerful minority. There's all kinds of arguments. Don't worry, they're just a minority. We're the majority. Don't worry, the country is diversifying. Don't worry, they're aging out. I'm 51. Since I was a teenager, I've been hearing that don't worry, conservatism is dead. Your generation's going to save us. Well, we didn't save squat. The diversification story is ignoring the latest American contribution to fascism. What scholar Anthea Butler, author of White Evangelical Racism, calls the promise of whiteness. It brings in increasing numbers of people of color who believe that they can be part of this. That's not going to get us out. I don't think you can just sit there and let a current carry you out of fascism.
Democracy is not something you have. You have to actually go and do it. I think about that group, The Three Percenters, a militia movement with which Congressman Higgins identifies, and they believe that the American Revolution was fought only by 3%. From their perspective, it only takes 3% to overthrow an empire, the British Empire. This isn't true. Scholars say the number is closer to maybe 25%, 26%, but what matters is what 3% can do in terms of disrupting things. The reality is fascism, it's a minority, but it has a hold of more than 3%. I live in deep, deep blue Vermont. I go up the road, I see the flag of Trump as Rambo. I go the other direction, I can see Confederate flag that ripples across the state.
Brooke Gladstone: I don't see it in Brooklyn.
Jeff Sharlet: You don't see it in Brooklyn. The reality is, you want to know what, there are more pride flags in America than there are fascist flags. There are. If you say, "Well, that settles it. I guess we win." I think a better way to understand it in terms of crisis, which is narratively a word that supposes this is a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, is a little bit like we're striking matches. None of them are flaring. Thank God.
Brooke Gladstone: Well, January 6th was a flare.
Jeff Sharlet: January, it was a flare, but the flame didn't last since that left a lot of them brokenhearted for a while until they saw, "Oh wait, we're not going to show up to be arrested by the FBI. That's a trap. We're going to work in different ways."
Brooke Gladstone: You say that's why they didn't show up in droves at Trump's arraignment. He called for a bigger show than he got. Does this mean Trump's not at the center of this anymore?
Jeff Sharlet: No, I don't think he's been in the center of it for a while. I think we need to speak of Trumpism. The speech Trump gave on Saturday after the indictment, there's a key moment there where he's talking about cutting taxes and he gets cheers, and then he starts talking about what he calls transgender craziness, and he gets huge cheers. He steps back, and I've seen this moment in so many Trump rallies. He steps back and he says, "Look at that."
Donald Trump: You see, I'm talking about cutting taxes, people go like that.
Jeff Sharlet: He mimes moderate applause.
Donald Trump: I talk about transgender, everyone goes crazy. Who would've thought? Five years ago you didn't know what the hell it was.
Jeff Sharlet: This is how Trump uses rallies. He is not a leader. He's riding this undertow. He's the one saying, "Is this where we're going"? He says, "Five years ago nobody talked about it. Who'd have thought?" Not him, but he'll follow now.
Brooke Gladstone: Jeff, thank you very much.
Jeff Sharlet: Thank you, Brooke.
Brooke Gladstone: Jeff Sharlet is the author of the book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War. He's also a professor in the Art of Writing at Dartmouth College.
James Fallows: Coming up, the looping light motifs of political campaigns.
Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media.