Jared Yates Sexton is a professor of creative writing at Georgia Southern University who had three short story collections under his belt when he started writing seriously about politics — especially the Trump rallies he attended during the 2016 campaign. Since then, he has published three books in which he attempts to understand the country and the time we live in. His latest, “American Rule: How A Nation Conquered the World and Failed Its People,” looks at the myth of American exceptionalism and the realities of our riven society.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
One of your book’s main points is that much of the political tension in this country revolves around who gets to define terms like “American exceptionalism” — who gets to define reality.
Yeah. I would make the argument that the American right really relies on that alternate reality. It’s the only one in which they can win elections anymore. It’s a situation where you have to define America as immaculate and perfect, and any discussions about trying to improve it or trying to find, I don’t know, liberty or equality or diversity or inclusivity, are actually veiled attacks on American exceptionalism. One of the things that you see throughout American history is that anyone who actually battled the idea that America is perfect, or that maybe it needs some sort of progress or reform, is instantaneously met with cries that they’re either part of a conspiracy or they’re inherently evil or anti-American.
Some of that feels like a reaction to the demographic shifts in this country.
I think one of the reasons why white supremacists, white terrorists, are so involved with Trump is because many of them see this as the last possible moment of holding power.
One of the things that you see throughout history is that dominant groups, when they realize suddenly that they are losing power, particularly from a democratic standpoint, they start destroying democratic institutions. This is one of the reasons why the American right has obviously disenfranchised people. And actually one of the weird things that we don’t understand about America is: We’ve seen this before. We actually see a very odd sort of mirror of what happened before the first Civil War and what is happening now.
I can’t help noticing you just said “the first Civil War.” Do you feel that we’re on the verge of a second one?
I think a lot of people are starting to come around on the possibility that it could happen. Obviously we’re not going to have big mobilized armies on a battlefield somewhere. I think what we’re seeing right now is growing sectarian violence. I think we’re really hesitant to connect the dots.
What do you think will happen if Trump loses — to all the people he emboldened, and all the people whose faith in the government he destroyed by telling them it’s all a deep-state con, and so on? Are those people lost forever?
The sad truth is that Trumpism will outlive Donald Trump and the Trump presidency. Like people who held out that Richard Nixon only got caught “doing what everyone else was doing,” there will be people who spend the rest of their lives either lionizing Trump or looking for someone to fill his shoes. Looking at the current Republican Party, there is a distinct possibility, win or lose, that some Republicans, say a Tom Cotton, will look to reverse-engineer Trumpism for political power and possibly carry out Trump-style campaigns that are dangerously more disciplined and composed of actual ideology.
Having written about other scary times, do you see a positive way forward?
The extraordinary thing is that the American people oftentimes can hold sway over the state. What you actually see throughout American history are these moments where power is concentrated in the hands of a very, very small minority and control is almost completely consolidated. In these moments, the American people feel completely powerless and they are racked with apathy and fear and dread and demoralization.
But then Americans remember that they have power, when they start remembering that they can organize, or they can find solidarity with one another, or that maybe they can fight against this. When you actually look at history with its warts and all, you start to realize that the people are capable of extraordinary things. And it’s actually a really patriotic thing to realize that the country can be better.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.