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Jeff Sharlet, author of ‘The Undertow,’ travels the disturbing backroads of right-wing America

Author Jeff Sharletjeff goodlin

HANOVER, N.H. — In late February, law enforcement officials around the country alerted the public about an impending “Day of Hate.” The Anti-Defamation League warned that white supremacist groups were planning unspecified actions against the Jewish community.

But the last Saturday of the month came and went without incident. A few days later, the author Jeff Sharlet sat down to dinner following an afternoon of teaching at Dartmouth College. The Day of Hate, he said, was an effective form of domestic terrorism.

“I think we got trolled,” said Sharlet, whose latest book, “The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War,” is a compendium of his reporting about the United States’s ongoing political turmoil and the rise of far-right activism.

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The phantom event, he said, was a textbook example of “stochastic” terrorism — the kind of subversive rhetoric intended to demonize others and perpetuate fear.

For more than two decades, Sharlet has covered the various forms of religious belief that converge in America. With the recent rise of hate groups, anti-immigration policies, and the “us vs. them” mentality, he’s been on the front lines of religious reporting. He’s a regular contributor to Vanity Fair and was an executive producer of the Netflix documentary series “The Family” (2019), based on his book about the fundamentalist influence on American politics.

“The Undertow,” his fifth book (he has edited or co-authored three more), is a foreboding drive through the backroads of the country’s rising militancy. From campy Trump rallies and a memorial service for the January 6 insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt to a televangelist’s church in Miami and a self-declared prophet in Omaha, Sharlet takes a hard, unwavering look at the nation’s guns-and-Bibles underbelly.

“Out on the back roads, there’s this drumbeat of really fascist flags,” said Sharlet, who lives with his family just over the Vermont state line. “I have on my phone about 200 variations of fascist flags that I’ve photographed.”

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Sharlet’s last book, “This Brilliant Darkness,” was an impressionistic portrait of people in psychological distress, as Sharlet was at the time, after he suffered a heart attack in his 40s. Out on long, late-night drives, he struck up conversations with lonely people. Reviewers compared his empathy for those living on the margins with James Agee’s.

“He does not go into any of this work blinkered by preconception,” says Sharlet’s friend Peter Manseau, a fellow author and a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “He goes into it with an intense interest toward the lives of the individuals.”

Manseau, a Massachusetts native, traveled the country with Sharlet for their first book, which they co-authored, “Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible” (2004).

“Whether you agree or disagree with the people [he interviews], he always has that respect for the human experience,” Manseau says. Sharlet’s work “always feels grounded in compassion and a sincere desire to understand.”

Yet as much as Sharlet challenges himself to meet his subjects on their own terms, he admits he’s grown increasingly alarmed by the prevalence of conspiracy theories and their advocates. Such beliefs are one way to feel in control of one’s destiny, he explained.

At Trump rallies and “militia churches,” he said, there’s a palpable feeling of collaboration, of belonging: “It’s a kind of call and response — ‘together we are creating this fiction.’”

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Sharlet has been fascinated with belief systems since childhood. His father was Jewish, his mother from a Pentecostal family. He earned an alternative education at Hampshire College, in Amherst. Now a professor teaching the Art of Writing at Dartmouth, he’s proud of the fact that he’s the only faculty member there without an advanced degree.

His writing is not exactly straight journalism, incorporating first-person observations, snapshots from his iPhone, and rabbit-hole diversions (such as the not-so-hidden messages in “The Big Lebowski,” Ashli Babbitt’s favorite movie). In conversation, he’s effusive.

“I’ve been writing about religion for so long, I have always loved the idea of being ‘in the word,’” he said.

It isn’t only political rancor that has reached a tipping point, Sharlet said. He’s fine-tuned to incidents of police brutality and the backlash against LGBTQ rights. And the climate crisis, he noted, is clearly affecting all of us — those who trust the science as well as those who don’t.

“Look at Winter Carnival,” he said of Dartmouth’s century-old tradition. “There used to be marching bands on the pond. We’re not gonna be able to do that again.

“I actually do have this very unjustified, optimistic view that maybe by 2060 we’re all going to be living in cities with buildings made of mushrooms. But we’re gonna have to go through fascism to get there.

“And a lot of us aren’t going to get there.”

Lest that sound depressing — and he’s well aware that it does — Sharlet feels compelled to describe how dire our circumstances have become, without giving up the pursuit of the occasional grace note.

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“You can’t go over or under it,” he said. “You have to go through it… This is not the greatest political violence we’ve had, not by a long shot. It’s been worse, and it may get worse.”

“The Undertow” is bookended by stories of perseverance. It ends with a reassessment of the Weavers, the folk group that was blacklisted during the “Red Scare” of the early 1950s.

It begins with a chapter on Harry Belafonte, the Civil Rights activist who couched his fierce radicalism in a mainstream music career that made him one of the biggest stars of the era. Sharlet interviewed Belafonte, who is now 96, for Rolling Stone when the singer published his memoir.

“He’s unbowed and unbroken,” Sharlet said. “But he’s very angry, still. Here’s this old man who’s filled with anger at what couldn’t be done.”

It’s a reminder, he said, that “this fight is long. Better souls than me have struggled, and at times been broken. And then you keep going.”

Elsewhere, he writes about his encounter with an enthusiastic Trump supporter named Diane. The two forge a connection over their shared stories of heart trouble.

“I really liked her, I have to say,” Sharlet recalled. “It’s amazing how much mileage I get out of a broken heart.”

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.