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A Failure to Communicate

Jeff Sharlet’s new book is a stark and dispiriting dispatch from Trump country.

· 6 min read
A Failure to Communicate
Photo by Laura Seaman / Unsplash

A review of The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War by Jeff Sharlet, 352 pages, WW Norton (March 2023)

Jeff Sharlet’s most recent book The Undertow provides a timely election-year dispatch from the MAGA heartlands, and an immersive, boots-on-the-ground record of America’s turbulent political and cultural moment. Like two of his previous books, Sweet Heaven When I Die (2011) and This Brilliant Darkness (2020), Sharlet reports his firsthand encounters with a variety of people in an effort to identify the forces threatening to pull America apart. He attends a Trump rally, sits in at a “prosperity gospel” church, chats to militia members, and investigates the life and death of Ashli Babbitt, who was fatally shot during the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th, 2o21.

Sharlet is not really a conventional reporter adhering to the five Ws of journalism. His approach is more novelistic: he tries (successfully, on the whole) to convey the atmosphere of an event, the personalities he finds there, and his own sensory impressions; he is interested in the looks on people’s faces, how they talk, and how they gesture when they’re speaking. His goal is to evoke a feeling rather than to formulate a political diagnosis, and his approach is well suited to the free-floating quality of the roiling discontent out there. He consistently tries to be compassionate and non-judgmental, but he’s plainly biting his tongue much of the time.

On Instagram @quillette