Jeff Sharlet’s “The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War” is an intelligent exploration of the undercurrents of American society, a society teetering on the precipice of political, moral, and ideological tumult.
It is an invaluable contribution to understanding the contemporary sociopolitical milieu in the United States, a country haunted by internal strife and discord.
Sharlet delves into the disintegration of the United States, focusing on the rise of anti-democratic extremism. His work reveals a country caught in the whirlwind of political divisions brought about by potent figures such as Donald Trump, attempted election overturns, and the Supreme Court’s actions on Roe v Wade. Intertwined with extremism on the right-wing political spectrum, these complex factors have led to an intensification of strategies aiming to dismantle the Democratic Party and criminalize abortions. The book is an unflinching look at the face of the current state of American politics and its stark division.
The author’s use of a ‘mythic-religious’ approach to exploring this landscape offers a unique and valuable perspective, uncovering elements often missed in standard journalistic pieces. Sharlet skillfully delves into the infusion of personal faith into political action, a phenomenon particularly visible in the rise of Trump and his movement. The book examines these dynamics not merely at the echelons of power. Still, it takes a grassroots view of the populace—the physical and virtual crowds that these tumultuous political dynamics have influenced.
“The Undertow” captures the atmosphere surrounding the crowds rallying in the context of right-wing politics, showcasing the deep-rooted belief in an imminent civil war. Sharlet’s deft exploration of the intersection between religion and politics paints a vivid picture of these gatherings. His extensive coverage ranges from prosperity-focused hipster megachurches in Miami to men’s rights conferences near Detroit, exposing the motivations and beliefs that fuel these crowds.
Sharlet’s narrative compels readers to pay attention to these gatherings and their potential to stir tangible consequences, as demonstrated by the U.S. Capitol storming incident on January 6, 2021.
The narrative offered by Sharlet in “The Undertow” weaves together seemingly disparate issues, forming a comprehensive and nuanced picture of the MAGA landscape. By intertwining connections between guns and abortion, Trump, and Gnosticism, Sharlet creates a panoramic view of the American political landscape and its socio-cultural implications. The narrative is not confined to contemporary issues. Still, it includes references to historical figures and movements, such as Harry Belafonte and the Occupy movement, creating a richer understanding of the context of the current political climate.
What’s particularly striking is Sharlet’s ability to traverse the contours of a disintegrating society without losing the narrative thread. He maintains a steady, insightful gaze upon the mundane, the extraordinary, and everything in between. However, it should be noted that “The Undertow” lacks a comprehensive view of the economic landscape that significantly influences these socio-political issues. Despite this gap, the book provides a much-needed exploration of the convoluted intertwining of political extremism, faith, and societal divisions.
“The Undertow” is a searing exploration of the fissures in American society and the forces that amplify them. It casts a harrowing, often heartbreaking, and at times darkly humorous light on the precarious state of democracy in the era of Trump.
The reader is taken on a journalistic journey, examining evangelical churches, the men’s rights movement, the January 6 crowd, and the rural west’s ideological landscape, revealing the depths of America’s political and personal reactions. Its riveting narrative and immersive reportage take readers into uncomfortable territories while maintaining a balance between heartbreak and quiet hope. It’s a mood-altering, mind-altering, and essential read for those seeking to understand the country’s current state.
Research Scholar and Academic; Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Pisa, Italy. Dr. Usman has participated in various national and international conferences and published 30 research articles in international journals.