"After Trump comes others": Author Jeff Sharlet explains why "neofascists are not going to stop"

"It's worse post-Trump than it was during Trump's presidency"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 27, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

A supporter of President Trump holds a flag and gun outside the Arizona State Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Courtney Pedroza for the Washington Post/Getty Images)
A supporter of President Trump holds a flag and gun outside the Arizona State Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Courtney Pedroza for the Washington Post/Getty Images)

America is still trapped in the Age of Trump and its fascist fever dream nightmare.

The Republican fascists are escalating their nationwide campaign to end multiracial democracy and freedom. As seen on Jan. 6, these plans include terrorism and other acts of violence.

Donald Trump is the Republican frontrunner and polls show that he has a very real chance of returning to power where he will then, per his public promises and threats, engage in a "final battle" and campaign of revenge and retribution against he and his fascist MAGA movement's "enemies" – meaning Democrats, liberals, progressives, Black and brown people, the LGBTQ community, and anyone else who dares to defend real democracy and common decency.

The right-wing propaganda machine and echo chamber is amplifying the fascist assaults on democracy and a humane society.

"Right now, the American condition is to pretend that fascism isn't happening."

White Christofascists and other right-wing Christian evangelicals believe that Donald Trump is an emissary or prophet from their God – a MAGA fascist Jesus – and that it is their sacred duty to support the traitor president and to end secular pluralistic democracy.

For more than a decade in such books as "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power" and "C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy", author and journalist Jeff Sharlet has been warning the American people about the rise of American neofascism and the Age of Trump – what he describes as "the Trumpocene." Sharlet's new book, "The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War," is an invaluable field map and guide for an America that is sick with neofascism and other great societal sicknesses and troubles and how to navigate, survive, and perhaps even triumph over them.  

In a wide-ranging conversation, Sharlet explains how American neofascism in its various forms seduced wide swaths of (White) American society through permission to engage in violence, sexism, misogyny, white supremacy, and other antisocial and evil behavior. He warns that the country is still very much in crisis – despite what many Americans, both elites and everyday people would like to believe — and that a collapse into a fascist regime appears to be imminent. 

Sharlet also shares what he learned from his time with the late Harry Belafonte about righteous anger and how to transform such energy into art, activism, sacrifice, and radical democratic freedom dreaming and positive social change work.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length

Where are we in the story that is the Age of Trump, what you call the "Trumpocene"? Some days it feels like an endless book where one chapter just leads to another.

A book without an end? I do think that's the case – but not in the way you may be thinking of. It is not the Trumpocene that is unending but the struggle that is ongoing.

Today is a poignant day to explore that. "The Undertow" opens with Harry Belafonte, we learned of his death [Tuesday] at age 96. I got to spend time with him. I opened the book with him, even knowing that it would cost me readers and sales. Harry Belafonte? To start a book on the Trumpocene? Huh? I needed to start the book with some beauty and some hope. We needed to explore the beauty of the man and the beauty of his anger —and that endures.

The hope that Belafonte gives is not some type of cheap grace. We are not going to beat Trumpism at some appointed time that is close in the future. That is not how the real world works; the struggle is going to be long.

Harry Belafonte, 96 years old, on his death day, knew that he got defeated. Harry Belafonte knew and understood that more than most people, he was a man who was so essential to the Civil Rights Movement. He hated the Hollywoodization of the movement. He would tell me that we dreamed of some things, we fought, and they killed a lot of us. When I was talking to Mr. Belafonte, he would address Martin Luther King, in the present tense, like a ghost that was with him.

"It is not the Trumpocene that is unending but the struggle that is ongoing."

The struggle is long. Too many people want a happy ending.


After Trump comes others. I think the Never Trumpers have a much clearer sense of this reality than a lot of liberals and even leftists. And for them, it's more obvious because they lost their whole social world.

The Trumpocene is like the Age of Reagan. The Age of Reagan goes from 1980 to 2016. Reaganism became our American vernacular. Remember, Barack Obama would cite Ronald Reagan, the country's first black president was working in the Reaganesque vernacular. In the book, I profile a preacher who says that Donald Trump is coming back, whether that means the man himself or the spirit in the flesh of another. So many liberals are saying, "Oh, but DeSantis is down and out!" Do you really think this is over that quick? The damage done, the hurt we felt? What about grief? What about mourning? We've lost a lot. That's going to take years to process and heal.

I recently saw the new "Evil Dead" movie. I kept thinking about Trump and his speaking in demonic tongues. The people outside of the MAGAverse and Trumpworld, think that he is speaking nonsense because they do not understand him. They make fun of and mock Trump and his movement because they do not understand the language that is being spoken and the power of the Irrational and those mysteries. How do you decipher Trump's vernacular? What are he and the other neofascists saying to the congregation?

I've spent a lot of time thinking about Donald Trump and the performance of what it means to be "Donald Trump." And considering all of the coverage that Trump gets, the media still doesn't get some of the most important aspects of him and his appeal. Trump is a performer. That is why people go to the rallies. Not the politics, but for the performance. The school board meetings where the Trumpists and MAGA types show up or are members are also a mini-Trump rally too. By that measure, there are Trump rallies all over the country right now.  

When secular folks hear or see someone speaking in tongues they inevitably ask, is this real? That is the wrong question. What matters is that it is happening. Is this person who is speaking strange syllables, seemingly in a language I don't understand, are they just doing gobbledygook? Or are they possessed by the spirit? Wrong question. The question is the power of the performance. When you say that Trump is speaking in tongues, that's the difference.

The Age of Reagan moved our common vernacular towards a more right-wing language. But that language was still something recognizable. Reaganism is a profoundly violent ethos — yet it never openly celebrated that violence. The movie "Red Dawn" informs so many of the folks that I talked to for "The Undertow" about a new American civil war. What they're imagining is Patrick Swayze in the mountains. These right-wing militia types think that they are the Wolverines in "Red Dawn" playing tricks on the Russians. Patrick Swayze's violence in "Red Dawn" is righteous violence. He takes no pleasure in it; he's trying to restore the high school. He's trying to restore the football game. Whereas speaking in tongues, the ecstatic carnivalesque language of Trumpism is pleasure in violence.

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In 2016, it's the first Trump rally in the book, and I go to Youngstown, Ohio. There's a nice, sweet, grandparent-like couple. So, I go to the Trump rally just like anybody else. I am waiting in line for six hours. I am not using a press pass. I am out there with the people. It's hot, and you're waiting for the big plane to come in. There's no place to go. I'm pressed against this couple. The old guy says, "I'm gonna get a protester and I'm gonna beat the crap out of him and I'm gonna get on CNN." His wife, decked out in all kinds of turquoise jewelry, sort of looks like a hippie. She scolds him playfully. Then she smiles at him. What I am seeing there is militant eroticism, the sexuality of violence. And then she leans into me, this old grandmotherly lady, and whispers in my ear. "Don't she look like she'd been rode hard and put up wet?" That is the pleasure of transgression. She's talking about Hillary Clinton. That's not what Reagan was offering.

I say, to my fellow lefties, true, it's always been bad, and now it's worse. This is a new damn thing.

I think some of the worse writing and reporting and analysis about the Age of Trump is by these "good liberal" centrist normal establishment politics types who, even after seven years, keep saying, "I can't understand why anyone would like this! It's shocking! It's unimaginable!" What world do they live in? Violence is fun. Trump and his foul charisma and norm-shattering is exciting for his people and too many others. Trumpism, like other forms of fascism and fake populism, is thrilling and visceral. Are the mainstream media types just in extreme denial? Are they lying to themselves? Or do they know better and are pretending otherwise?

Violence—or at least, the imagination of violence—can be fun. Sex is fun too. Trump is promising you the pleasure and freedom of transgression and ugliness. Horror is fun. Be it the Trump rallies or the militia churches that I ended up visiting, they indulge in white supremacism, even as they draw some people of color in with their gravitational power. Part of America's culture is violence, horror, gross sexuality, misogyny and so on. This is part of what "The Undertow" in the title of the book is. Part of what Trumpism or fascism is saying is, "Instead of swimming against the current, what if you just fell back into it?" So many of the people who end up supporting Trump were swimming against the current before.

"I say, to my fellow lefties, true, it's always been bad, and now it's worse. This is a new damn thing."

Ashli Babbitt is the central figure in the book's narrative. She is a two-time Obama voter. She is also a domestic terrorist who ended up dying during the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol. But before that in her life, she tried to be a smarter person. After she died, because she was a domestic terrorist and insurrectionist, a lot of people made a lot of the fact that although 14 years in the Air Force and the Air Force Reserve, she did not advance far. Why didn't she advance far? Because when officers messed with people, she would stand up for them. She was swimming against the current for a long time, and then at a certain point, that whiteness whispered to her and said, "Just give in." In 2016, she sends out her first Tweet and its #love. And it's for Trump. This two-time Obama voter, a white working-class woman, goes all in so quickly for Trump. I saw that again and again and again.

To understand Trumpism and neofascism and this disastrous moment, you have to be willing to walk with the evil and look it in the eye. You have to become familiar if not comfortable in its presence in order to defeat it. Looking away guarantees defeat. I am working class. I grew up with people who were and are right-wing reactionary types that likely now support Trump – or worse. I am of that milieu. 

When I talk to our fellow travelers in the news media, liberal and lefty types too, centrist Democrats, I tell them what Trump and the Republican fascists, and the larger white right are doing is exactly what I would be doing to defeat them. I go even farther, and I tell them they are lucky I am not on the other side because what I would do – and what the neofascists are going to do – is only going to get far worse. They are only getting started. There are so many vulnerabilities and pain points in this system and among the liberal consensus and normal politics types to be exploited. It is actually very easy. I'm not psychic. I just understand the strategy and tactics. What do you and I understand that many of our peers in this business do not?

I think what we understand is that these neofascists are not going to stop, because why would they stop? The pleasure is in transgression. The pleasure is in going further. There is no ideological position to which they are loyal. There is no policy to which they're loyal. They're going to keep going. There is no movement per se but transgression. And as soon as something becomes normal, they'll go further. The folks who imagine "Handmaid's Tale" as the end zone, no, whatever it is, you have to go further. Now, this is the good news too, because a movement of ultimate transgression is going to burn out. As a society and country, America is going to experience and have to go through fascism. We're not in it now. There's a fascist movement now. It drives me crazy. People say, "Well, it's not like the Hitler regime." No, it's not. That was a regime. We don't have a fascist regime. We could with a fascist movement. It's worse post-Trump than it was during Trump's presidency.

The Republican-fascists and the larger white right are so much better than the left and Democrats at storytelling and creating compelling characters. They understand how to use storytelling and emotions in a way that the American political mainstream, especially the Democrats, do not. As a professor of creative writing, how do you explain this?

Publishers complain about how people don't buy books anymore, yet those same publishers spent enormous sums on a book by Nancy Pelosi. How did they imagine that would sell? That is not a claim based on misogyny or sexism. What's the damn story there with Pelosi? Many years crafting small incremental changes? That's not a compelling tale. Marjorie Taylor Greene? That's a good story. Bad person. Good story. A villain. Compelling. Marjorie Taylor Greene comes into politics a few years ago and gets kicked out of all these committees. It's amazing how long it took people to realize that she was going to run the Republican Party. And they really thought that Kevin McCarthy was going to do it. And they thought Kevin McCarthy was going to do it because Mitch McConnell pulled it off. Mitch McConnell is a good villain. Kevin McCarthy is not a good villain; Mitch McConnell is Mr. Burns. He's so cynical. Marjorie Taylor Greene is so damn crazy and that is what makes her good as a character. Thank God, there's enough people who still said, "Okay, wait a minute. I don't want to go to a Biden rally, but I'm going to vote for him". Too many people who just want a return to normalcy celebrated Biden's victory as some type of permanent victory. Okay. Seven more million people voted for Biden but there were still a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump.

What about Donald Trump as a character?

I recognized him when he came down that golden escalator because I've been writing about the elite and polite American Christian nationalist right for years. They support figures like Trump overseas and have been for decades. By that I mean the dictators in Indonesia, Somalia, all the little generals and colonels in South America. So, when Trump comes riding down the golden escalator in 2015, I'm like, oh, that's the guy they've been supporting for a long time overseas and here it is coming back to the United States.

"This two-time Obama voter, a white working-class woman, goes all in so quickly for Trump. I saw that again and again and again."

For a long time, the elites, the political class, have been saying that "the establishment" will hold here. Trump understood that it wouldn't. He understood the premise. I don't know that he understood intellectually, but I think people who call Trump stupid are fools. People who call Trump incompetent are wrong. Trump is competent at what he values -- he just doesn't care about the things that we, good small "d" democrats, care about. Trump is supremely competent at getting attention and that's what he cares about most. How would I describe Trump, the character? I don't know. Moreover, I don't care as much about the character of Trump as I care about the people who follow him and identify with him. 

In my travels, I keep encountering these guys flying the all-black flag of "no prisoners, no mercy, no quarter." The flag that says in a coming Civil War they hope for, kill them all. That black flag is a genocide flag. That's who I think Trump is. Trump is the assemblage of it all, the violence, conspiracy theories, the neofascism, the hatred.

Can you elaborate on these militia churches? Militant White Christianity is central to America neofascism. We saw its power on Jan. 6.

I went to this rally in Sacramento. I am invited to a church a little bit north in Yuba City, the Church of Glad Tidings, which is a church on the Trump circuit. I go up there, and it's a militia church. They don't have a cross anymore, because they think the cross is kind of sissy. Instead, they have a pulpit made of swords, and they speak of hangings and executions. They host "new militia recruitment night" every Tuesday and that becomes the tenor of the religiosity that I encounter as I drive eastward across the United States. There is a pastor in Omaha, his name is Hank Kunneman, at the Lord of Hosts Church in Omaha, Nebraska. It is a nice suburban, semi-mega church and it is absolutely pro-Civil War. They are armed to the teeth. He takes Psalm 23, which is a really gentle psalm. You know? "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." Pastor Hank says, "thy rod, that is the gun." And there are men in the back of the church with guns, and those men with guns ended up telling me to leave because I am a journalist and they think I am of the devil.

Donald Trump is telling his followers that he is some type of "Jesus Christ"-like martyr who is being "persecuted" by Biden and the Democrats because he is finally being held accountable for decades of law breaking. White Christian right-wing evangelicals are among Trump's strongest backers because they see him as a tool of their God. Across the right-wing alternate universe there is a whole narrative of Trump as Jesus, or being anointed by Jesus, or that he is some type of prophet and savior. This is an example of fascism as a type of religious politics. How do we better explain to the public and the mainstream news media and political class that these people are deadly serious in their beliefs? That this is not funny or some type of joke?

The fault in this reasoning and this logic is the assumption that fascism begins and ends with a Third Reich, or with Mussolini, or with Europe. If we want to understand fascism, we should be looking at examples all around the world. Then we start to see all the many different ways in which it works with religiosity, and that includes Christianity.

"I have a queer nonbinary trans child, and that kid is being criminalized in 20 states now. How do I tell them don't be afraid?"

But what fascism does is to supplant the supremacy of God in the believer's mind and intermingle that with a supremacy of a great leader. Now, people get caught up because of the short time that Hitler and the Third Reich were in power. Too many people have convinced themselves that once the great leader Trump is gone that it is over. Not necessarily, because when we start to see the long-term authoritarian fascist regimes in other countries, we see that they're able to supplant leader after leader after leader. Once you've made that bait and switch where this earthly person represents the divine, and moreover, represents the divine that takes pleasure in violence, you can keep that system going for a long time. I don't think American fascism will. I don't like the word "optimistic". But on that score, I'm actually optimistic. I don't think it will do that. How many of us will be on the other side to see what comes?

Consider that there are pregnant people dying for lack of reproductive rights. They're not getting through it. I think of the surges and waves of trans and queer suicides, especially among young people. They're not getting through it. They're gone. They're casualties. I have a queer nonbinary trans child, and that kid is being criminalized in 20 states now. How do I tell them don't be afraid? This is a privilege of whiteness because I think there's no parent of color in the country who has not had to struggle with that. Fascism is expanding and it comes after everybody.

How did your encounter with death, your two heart attacks, influence your vision and thinking about American democracy and this society's overall health? What did a threat to your mortality "gift" you with in terms of privileged insight?

"The Undertow" is a chronicle of a death trip on multiple scales. I take the term, "death trip," from a book by mentor, Michael Lesy, "Wisconsin Death Trip." And there's a way in which this book is a death trip on multiple scales when I'm traveling across the country. Along the way, I picked up a portion of my stepmother's ashes. I'm carrying Michael's book with me. And I've got my own kind of broken heart, which has been a way of opening doors for me in talking to other people for a long time. My own child is ill. The death trip is a memento mori, that old medieval art tradition, which reminds us that we all die. We live with the knowledge that we die. That seems obvious and simple and banal. Yet we know that it's not obvious and simple or banal because if it was we wouldn't have horse race coverage of our politics in the Trumpocene. We wouldn't be playing the same tune over and over and over.

My encounter with death enabled me to say, one, I've got to tell the story, because I'm trying to keep my kid alive. I'm living surrounded by death, as are we all. I don't doubt for a second that the nature of fascism in the United States has not been massively accelerated by the million-plus dead from COVID that we did not mourn. We didn't acknowledge it, we declared the pandemic over, and the dead keep dying. There was real loss and there's ongoing loss. This is our national condition. The dead are gone. They're dead. They're not coming back. You can either take the nihilistic approach and just focus on the loss or you can learn to live with the loss and confront the reality of what has happened. Right now, the American condition is to pretend that fascism isn't happening. Not all of us, but enough of us to make it dangerous. We're never going to go back in our lives to that notion that a great crisis will bring us all together as a people. We know from the pandemic that it won't. We know that we'll turn on each other here in America. It didn't have to be that way, but that is what we did. We must live with that fact, that failure. That failure does not have to be definitive for all time. But it's there for us. What do we do with it? And the same is true with fascism. The same is true with Trump. What do we do with that failure?

How would you compare brother Harry Belafonte to Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump?

What I like about Harry Belafonte and what he says, toward the end of that first chapter of the book, is that it doesn't matter where your anger comes from so much as what you do with it. He was a very angry man, all of his days. What did he do with it? Mr. Belafonte made beauty. He turned the anger into beautiful songs. Trump and Tucker? They stay right there with the anger. It comes from their sense of white loss, and they don't do anything good with the anger. Yes, they build power. But that's just replicating the anger. That's like cancer. Trump and Tucker, they make no beauty. Their dream is punishment, sadism, pain. They set no one free of the pain and anger and hatred. Why would they ever set anyone free? If they did so they would lose their demographic and their grift. Harry Belafonte represented the opposite of what Tucker and Trump did. Still does. He's gone, but he left us with songs. 

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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