Feedback Loop: On Jeff Sharlet’s “The Undertow”

May 21, 2023   •   By L. Benjamin Rolsky

The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War

Jeff Sharlet

SCHOLARS AND JOURNALISTS have long sought to analyze the Right in all its guises. One of the first attempts, which featured essays by influential historians and professors such as Richard Hofstadter and Seymour Martin Lipset, was the collection The Radical Right, published in 1955 and edited by sociologist Daniel Bell. Chapters included studies of the John Birch Society and the “discontented classes.” Now, nearly 70 years later, we are still talking about the same mysteries of hard-right motivations.

Jeff Sharlet’s new book The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War aims to illustrate the latest chapter of American conservatism in a travel narrative. Sharlet goes in search of the most vulgar examples he can find of Christian nationalists, insurrectionists, and conspiracy theorists, some of which have been repackaged from stories previously published in places like Vanity Fair. In Sharlet’s accounting, Donald Trump channels everything from the prosperity gospel to American evangelicalism to Christian nationalism to QAnon to the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas to the reality-television stage. Trump is all things to all people: especially journalists.

“The joy of a Trump rally wasn’t partisan,” Sharlet reminds us. “[I]t was the convert’s conviction that they have entered the light, undiluted and pure.”

Whether or not this is actually the case, Sharlet’s description resonates more with 19th-century anthropological ethnography than it does with anything from the 21st century. “Don’t be fooled by his fractured syntax,” Sharlet warns his readers. “His sentences were not so much broken as syncretic, fusing with the thoughts of his followers.” Reading The Undertow, one comes away wondering if Sharlet himself has fallen under the charismatic sway of his subject. How could he not? He was chasing a ghost, after all.

The third act of The Undertow, titled “Goodnight,Irene: On Survival,” foregrounds the life and death of Ashli Babbitt, the insurrectionist killed by a police officer on January 6, 2021. “Martyrdom is a magic trick, a sleight of hand and soul by which the dead, who have no say in the matter, substitute as the center of the story for those who survive to tell it,” he writes. Sharlet asks of his readers: “Imagine you’re Ashli Babbitt, inclined toward knowledge of the world, alert to the way such knowing can shape your life.”

Since the mid-1970s, a particular type of feedback loop has emerged that reflects not only the study of Christian nationalism in particular but also the study of the Christian Right more broadly. This is not to say that Christian nationalism doesn’t exist; it does, however, mean that the emotive power ascribed to such theo-political formations reflects their authors as much as they reflect their respective subjects. This is why very little has changed since the 1950s when it comes to the study of American conservatism itself, academic and otherwise. If anything, the journalistic accounting of such a movement has begun to reflect the hyperbole and grandiosity of its subject matter.

Although the ideology and style of the hard Right have remained relatively stable for over half a century, it has taken on additional connotations since January 6, 2021. Sharlet’s reckoning with the events of that day remains unparalleled, but it also reminds us that we are still trying to understand the motivations of the same delusional inhabitants of the public square. Knowing that The Big Lebowski (1998) was Babbitt’s favorite movie may indeed add something to the ongoing conversation about conservative politics in the United States. But it also suggests that we have to understand such subjects differently from other subjects, while understanding them in a longer interpolative tradition dating back to the mid-20th century.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Sharlet admitted that he’s particularly concerned about what he calls a “global fascist moment.” “My new therapist is trying to figure out why I do the work I do,” Sharlet explains. “She thinks it must be so bad for me. But no, it’s fucking sustained me! It gives me agency. States everywhere, the forces of darkness, are moving against you. You are not imagining it, they are real. And I do not have any power.”

Without the necessary context, Sharlet’s words resonate eerily with most of the subjects in The Undertow. A mysterious force occupies an even hazier horizon, moving about in unpredictable ways and means. Many have channeled their resentment and anger into unhealthy online habits and the pursuit of Babbitt’s ghost out of a sense of lost power—or lost status, if one reads the magazines of record. Sharlet says his own power resides in his narrative voice. “But this is my little piece of power: I can go tell the story,” he concludes the interview.

Projection is a powerful force; if not careful, Sharlet and others will metastasize an otherwise provincial development into an international global menace. It has happened before. Hard to believe that it won’t happen again.


L. Benjamin Rolsky is an affiliated fellow at the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University and a history teacher at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, New Jersey. His work has appeared in a variety of academic and popular venues, including the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, The Marginalia Review of Books, CNN Opinion, and the Religion and Cultural Forum at the University of Chicago.