The idea that history is recurrent is one of the most powerful in Western society, from the halls of Harvard to characters on "Battlestar Galactica" reciting, "All this has happened before. All of this will happen again." It can feel like we're living in unprecedented times in the United States, with a rising fascist movement led by a reality TV star. But it's not so. (Well, the reality TV part is novel.) In his new book, "The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis," author Jared Yates Sexton roots the delusional thinking that drives Trumpism in a long history of the world, where people often sink into paranoid fantasies in order to justify their worldview.
Sexton spoke with Salon about how the toxic rejection of reality we're all witnessing now has long been an unpleasant feature of human societies, and how hopefully we can learn from this to do a better job in fighting back in our current moment. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You open this book with anecdotes about the power that paranoid Christian belief had over your family, especially your grandmother, when you were growing up. How much did your background inform your desire to write about the influence of conspiracy thinking on the American right?
I mean, completely. I grew up in a really problematic, radicalized environment. What we've watched over the past few years, not just QAnon, but with the rise of Christian nationalism and the conspiracy theories that they're telling themselves: It was very familiar. It was something that I used to think was contained within my family, or within my community, or within my church. What I had come to realize over the past couple of years is that extremist thinking has found purchase, not just with a political party, but with literally millions, if not tens of millions, of Americans and people around the world. It is, I'll be frank, scary as hell. The things that I had grown up with, that I had heard my family and community talk about — it's starting to hold sway over the political process and possibly over the future.
My family wasn't like that, but I grew up in a community with a lot of evangelical Christians who would talk about the end of the world, the Beast and 666, stuff like that. I barely believed that they believed it. Now it's mainstream.
My childhood was marked by incredible dysfunction and abuse. On top of that, a terror that is almost hard to communicate to people. When you take a look at these ideas and these conspiracy theories, one of the things you start to realize is if you believe these things, if these actually build the world around you or the way that you interact with politics or even your neighbors or your day-to-day life, you're living in literal terror. And when you feel that way, when you believe that you're in the middle of a supernatural battle, you literally will do anything in order to protect yourself and the people around you.
It isn't just the effect it has on individuals' mental health. When it becomes the political motivator, history has shown us it leads to incredible violence. It hurts democracy. It leads to everything from genocides to world wars. To watch that become the operating worldview of not just the major political party, but of a worldwide movement is really concerning. The more research I did about it, the more concerned I became.
A lot of people really grasped this on January 6, since it was based on the Big Lie. But I there's still a lack of understanding of how much apocalyptic Christianity fueled what happened that day.
"Extremist thinking has found purchase, not just with a political party, but with literally millions, if not tens of millions, of Americans and people around the world."
When you take a look at January 6, it's really easy to see the insurrection. I think a lot of people now, dangerously, think of it as if it was a one-time event. They want to believe we've moved beyond it. Joe Biden was inaugurated. Donald Trump seems to be losing some sway over the Republican party. They think everything will go back to normal. But when you start to take a look at what actually happened on the ground, you start to realize that the apocalyptic mindset is just Republican orthodoxy at this point. It literally says, this is a life-or-death struggle.
The right says there is a conspiracy against them — an incredibly powerful, well-resourced sadistic conspiracy. Unless they do everything in their power, it is going to mean the difference between living and dying. Or, if you want to take it down the supernatural route, they worry about actually losing their spiritual power or spiritual vitality. It creates a story that these people can use to carry out previously unthinkable actions, including assaulting people, breaking into public buildings. There's a willingness to carry out full-fledged violence or anti-democratic actions. And when you take a look at it from that standpoint, you start to understand that these stories and these mindsets are precursors to something larger, as opposed to being the end result of something.
You write in the book that American history is largely "the story of paranoia." What do you mean by that?
Even starting with the colonialists, they felt like anti-Christian conspiracies were coming after them. And as a result, they needed to leave and find some place for themselves. And then you take a look at the actual [American Revolutionary War]: Everybody wants to believe that the revolution is this spontaneous uprising of patriotism. But a lot of the appeals were based on conspiracy theories, like that England was going to stir up uprisings among the enslaved population, or they were going to use Native Americans as an army.
Even if you move forward just a couple of years, to the first really contested presidential election of 1800: The Federalists said Thomas Jefferson is an Illuminati conspiratorial agent who's trying to destroy Christendom. The paranoid roots of this country run very, very deep.
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Paranoia is far more associated with the right than the left. Why do you think that is?
From the very beginning of conservatism, it was based on the idea of natural hierarchies, that there is a natural elite that rises to the top of society, and as a result, they should be the ones who run the world in political affairs. This is a leftover from monarchical thinking. Edmund Burke and others looked at these revolutions, they saw an unnatural leveling. They believed democratic energies were very destructive. So conservatives ascribed these movements to the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and the Jews, supposedly overthrowing society as it should be.
Nowadays, never-Trumpers blame all of this conspiracy thinking on Donald Trump, right? That everything was fine before Donald Trump came along. In truth, the origins of that movement are hierarchical thinking that is bolstered and founded or founded in conspiratorial worldviews. They've always couched hierarchical thinking in an ideology that there is a conspiracy that has to be protected against. Conservative thinking always relies on those stories.
There's this widespread misconception out there that there's this meaningful difference between Christian nationalism and white identity politics. How should we understand the relationship between the two?
They are inextricable from one another. I ended up going back to when Christianity merged with state power, with the Roman Empire. There are really important parts of Christian mythology that are used by the powerful. It starts with a Roman empire, where there's a difference between citizens and barbarians, and later on between Christians and pagans.
Christianity is what provides the story: I have God on my side, I have the universe on my side, I have good on my side, and as a result, I should be able to do whatever I need to do to carry out God's vision. That has been inextricable with white supremacy from the very beginning. White supremacists say that they hold possession of so-called Western civilization or the progress of humanity. They've been able to say, listen, this is why I need to enslave people. This is why I need to colonize people. It allows them to carry out the processes that otherwise are indefensible. But because they have that story on their side, they can defend it and tell themselves the story.
So Trump's out of office. But as many of us predicted, Trumpism only seems to be metastasizing.
Trump was a symptom and not the disease. The problems that we are facing right now are the consequences of a cataclysmic crisis, in terms of both capitalism and this neoliberal era that it feels like we're reaching the end point of. Trump was an opportunist. He never meant anything that he said. He recognized the opportunity to go out and create this faux populist movement of Trumpism or MAGA or whatever we want to call it. It's merely an expression of something that is taking place within the political and social body that was always going to take place.
Trump was the type of person who could take advantage of it and also turn it into a consumer identity. Trump basically gave people products that they could wear and identities that they take on. It prepares people for a more concrete ideology. It's something that's happening all over the world. He created an opportunity for some really wealthy, dangerous people to recognize that the defenses and liberal democracy weren't there anymore. Trump was the right figure at the right time, the one a lot of people were looking for.
I'm assuming you wrote this book mostly when things were looking pretty bleak. But, in the past few months — I'm sure after it was edited and sent to the printer — there have been promising signs that people are turning against authoritarianism. The Ukrainian resistance seems to be holding its own. Brazil's kicked out Bolsonaro. The American midterms shut down a bunch of election deniers and damaged Trump's path to a coup in 2024. What do you make of all this? How are you feeling about everything these days?
You know, I'm actually really optimistic and I have been for a while. Sometimes when you take a large look at history, it can feel very crushing. It makes you feel very small and powerless. But the more that I looked at things, the more that I came to realize that there are an incredible number of things that are about to take place and synthesize into what I think is going to be a generational moment. There's gonna be some struggle. There's going to be some ugliness. But I will tell you, I'm very optimistic for a lot of the reasons you just brought up. Not just Ukrainian resistance. Look at how the regime in China is being challenged. You look at the protestors in Iran. I think Vladimir Putin is reaching a terminal point in his regime.
You have workers who are piling on victories against the largest corporations in the history of the world through organizing and labor actions. The illusion of the meritocracy, the illusion of American exceptionalism, I think those things are falling apart.
The difference maker here is whether or not we realize that the window is opening to change the world for the better. Or will the authoritarian right wing persuade people they have the solutions. And their solutions are terrible. Their solutions are making people work for cents on the dollar, relegating women to second-class birthing machines. But I think the window is open for a positive, generational change. And I think that's where we're going to go. I don't think it's going to be easy, but I do think that that is the direction we're heading in.
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