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Vermont journalist Jeff Sharlet warns of America’s current 'slow civil war'

A photo of people cheering and holding up cell phones behind a barricade.
Charles Krupa
Associated Press
People cheer as former President Donald Trump arrives at a campaign rally, Thursday, April 27, 2023, in Manchester, New Hampshire. Vermont journalist Jeff Sharlet reported from Trump rallies for his latest book.

The second civil war in America's history has already started. If that seems like an alarmist point of view, Vermont-based journalist and professor of English at Dartmouth College, Jeff Sharlet urges you to read the stories of the people he's encountered in his new book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War. The reporting takes the reader to some dark places. 

Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with journalist Jeff Sharlet.  Their conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity. Wertlieb starts the interview by asking Sharlet why he begins the book on a note of optimism, with a chapter on the entertainer and civil rights legend Harry Belafonte, who recently died at the age of 96.

Jeff Sharlet: 'Cause I needed to open with hope, but it couldn't be cheap grace, it couldn't be the kind of narrow-minded optimism, "everything's going to be okay." Harry Belafonte reminds us of the long struggle, and takes us out of that language that Trump and Trumpism — and I will use the “F” word, ”fascism” — wants us to believe in.

Trump has recently been campaigning on the idea of a "final battle." That's apocalyptic language. Ninety-six years in the struggle, Harry Belafonte — and I'll have to say, angry, every one of them — he didn't rest on his laurels. At the end of his days, he'd say, "Where your anger comes from doesn't matter as what you do with it."

And that gave me a kind of a hope that I wanted to fuel the reader through the very dark journey that follows.

More from Vermont Public: 'A Nightshift Book': Jeff Sharlet On Finding Empathy In Unexpected Places

Mitch Wertlieb: Now, your book is not based on theory or some kind of analysis from above-the-fray. You report from Donald Trump rallies that you attended, from evangelical churches, speaking to the people that you say are embracing things like book-burning, legislation targeting transgender and nonbinary Americans. What's one example of some people you spoke with who left you nervous about the state of democracy as we know it in America?

One example — I pulled into a church on Sunday morning in Omaha, Nebraska. They ended up taking me out of the church with gunmen, they had their own militia. I've been on the wrong side of a gun as a reporter before, but never in a church.

What happened in that church that prompted them to say, "You've gotta leave now?"

Because I had already encountered more guns on this journey than I'd seen in my 20 years of reporting — and I'm not squeamish about guns, I mean, Vermont is a very well-armed state, I'm a gun owner, a responsible gun owner, I hope — so once I realized I was gonna go to that church, I called and I walked in, and I said, "I'm a journalist," identified myself and "hope I can talk to Pastor Hank Kunneman afterwards" and sit through the service.

It's a very diverse church, as so many of these far-right churches are. That's complicated, right? And the preaching is very dynamic. But at a certain point, Pastor Hank Kunneman, I guess alerted that I'd been there, starts saying, "I sense that there's a reporter in this room." And he starts preaching against me, and he says, "Report on, lie on."

Afterwards, I wanted to talk further. They said no. I went out in the parking lot, and an usher and a gunman in full militia gear come out. And I keep sort of going back and forth with them saying, "But I've brought a pencil, and you've brought a gun." And at one point, the usher who's just wearing a blue blazer, leans into me and says, "How do you know I don't have a gun?"

And this to me is an American question right now. "What are you packing? What are you carrying?" This is the sort of simmering-approaching-boiling-point that we're at.

"[T]his to me is an American question right now. 'What are you packing? What are you carrying?' This is the sort of simmering-approaching-boiling-point that we're at."
Jeff Sharlet, author

You live in Vermont, Jeff, a state that in 2016, heavily favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But more than 100,000 people in this state of a little over 600,000 also voted for Trump that year. The percentage wasn't a lot different in the 2020 election, a minority to be sure. But what does that indicate to you about the overall direction towards authoritarianism?

The penultimate chapter of the book is in Wisconsin, because I was in Wisconsin right after the Dobbs ruling, Roe v. Wade fell. And some Wisconsin booster said, "Well, why did you write about Wisconsin instead of Vermont?" And my answer was, "Because I was there."

Had I been in Vermont, I can drive — I'm in Norwich, Vermont — I can drive a couple miles and I can find a flag of Trump holding a machine gun like Rambo. I can go up towards Strafford and I can find a Confederate flag. I can go the other direction and I can find the scariest flag that's out there right now, like if you see an all-black flag — an American flag, but the stars and stripes are just varieties of blackness — it's a flag that stands for taking no prisoners in a coming conflict. There will be no surrender. You kill them all. It is a genocide flag. And that's flying in Vermont, too.

It's obviously not dominant here. But it's here. We do ourselves no favor by imagining that the bubble is safe even in Vermont.

Well, I know you've gotten some pushback, even from people who would never be mistaken for being hard-right conservatives, that using the word "fascism," as you've mentioned already in this interview, to describe supporters of say, Trump or Ron DeSantis, that it's a kind of hyperbole that dilutes the meaning of the term, overstating the problem perhaps. What are those critics missing in your point of view?

They’re a cult of personality. There's always been violence in American life. And I think the distinction that we have to make, and why we can speak now of a fascist movement, is a celebration and pleasure in violence. And this is a signal feature of Trump rallies. And if that's being echoed right from the top, from Trump, now we have cult of personality, we have the othering — the demonic othering — we have a nationalist myth, and we have pleasure in violence. That's what fascism is.

It's not a fascist regime. And let's recognize the threat now, so we can stop it from becoming one.

More from Vermont Public: Netflix's 'The Family' Explores Secretive Christian Group, Drawing From Work Of Dartmouth Prof

Here's my biggest question for you, though, Jeff Sharlet, because I know that you believe words matter. And the subtitle of your book is Scenes from a Slow Civil War. This country has been through an actual civil war in the 1860s, as you well know, that left hundreds of thousands of Americans dead. In that conflict, though there were identifiable combatants, the South versus the North, the Confederate versus the Union Army.

What would a civil war in the 21st century look like? When even in deep-red states, there are plenty of people who identify as Democratic or liberal, vice versa, as we've talked about, and states like Vermont that are considered blue, but still have many people sympathetic to Trump's kind of messaging? How could there be a civil war in America in the 21st century, given the way the country looks and lives now?

The slow civil war is this: I'm in Vermont, and with the Vermont/New Hampshire School District. Our school district is already facing legal challenge by folks who want — they'd like some clarification on where the queer kids and the trans kids are in our schools, and what teachers are helping them. Schools in New Hampshire taking down rainbows, getting rid of the idea of safe space, and the surge in queer and trans suicide. Those are casualties of the slow civil war.

It's a little bit right now, like we're striking matches, and they're not quite catching. So we think it's OK to keep striking them. We've got to cool it down.

How do we cool it down?

I'm not a strategist, I don't have a political campaign. I'm all hands on deck. Whatever you want to do to help cool it down, whether it's get involved in electoral politics or go out on the streets, or make beautiful art.

I respect the views of others. I'm not going to try and convert you. Instead of arguing you back to shore, let me build something that you want to swim to. That's, I think, the way forward.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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