The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War (2023)

A knife sits next to a ruler and a lone building displays a cross
Cover art for the 2023 book The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War, by Jeff Sharlet.
About the book

This was a book that, despite effectively not reading books anymore, I was always going to read. I have found Jeff Sharlet’s work to be indispensable in today’s America. It strikes me as the type of work that people think is overblown in its conclusions.

The picture Jeff paints of the movement that is happening basically in broad daylight at this point, but still appears to be mysterious or maybe mythical. In my own experience, I sound like the crazy person when I explain some of the more basic characteristics of the movement Jeff is covering. For instance, the Christianity doesn’t look like the Christianity we might remember from the rest of our lives. I think that’s why there’s a tendency (I certainly had it) to discount how far these people are willing to go to “win,“I guess.

His trip across I-80 in a couple of chapters hit home—literally. The trip’s purpose, at least in terms of the book, was to gauge where the country was in terms of sentiment surrounding Ashli Babbitt. His start in Yuba City showed me what I suspected existed in that part of the region. There is a major Christian Nationalist movement in those parts. He spent time in Reno talking to a guy who I can very much see around here. Beyond here along the highway he meets similar characters, all of whom had an opinion about Babbitt.

At the risk of sounding like a fool, I won’t begin to lay out my own interpretation of these stories other than to say it’s time we start listening to them. I often sound like the scold among friends because when someone makes an offhand comment about religion and some seemingly far out belief I’m starting to find it not funny anymore. It’s real, and it’s in my town. I’m sure it’s in yours. The uptick in Punisher stickers, coupled with the racist Blue Lives flag, or the all-too-common version of the flag I see here: the black and grey stripes. This is a group that is signaling their intent on violence. They back the authoritarianism that is brought by the police state, and I think they intend to act out on those beliefs if they don’t get everything they want in the coming years. We better be prepared.