"I’ve been writing about the right for a long time," he told the newspaper. "I’m always interested in the margins of things that tell us about what’s happening at the center. An undertow is a metaphor for that, for the force that’s been pulling us to this place for a long time. If you’d asked me 10 years ago if I ever thought another civil war would be possible in the United States, I would have said no. But to think so [now] is to not understand that the right in America is as dangerous as it is."
He cited a "nice-looking" family he met near Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who seemed like "ordinary" conservatives, as the newspaper described them, but harbored bloodthirsty fantasies rooted in extreme conservative politics.
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"[The father said] he had a 'Let’s go Brandon' sticker because he didn’t want to swear around his son," Sharlet said. "They’re a middle-class dad and mom. They were always gun people, but not a lot of guns. Now they’re up to 36, now they are arming up. The father had always been anti-abortion. But now it was like a dream had moved into his and his wife’s mind. He described, in incredibly violent detail, the process of abortion. Then he described, in incredibly violent detail, the punishment he thought he and others were going to give to abortion doctors. They were ready for executions."
The current political moment was rooted in a decades-old struggle against fascism, and Sharlet said Donald Trump, intentionally or instinctively, used its "dream logic" to spellbind his followers, who fill in the unfinished thoughts in his pronouncements with their own beliefs -- and that creates the illusion that he's speaking their truth into existence.
"The free association that happens at Trump’s rallies, the ways people make connections that make no sense – it has dream logic," Sharlet said. "One minute, a scary man is crawling into the window to rape your wife, and then the next minute we’re laughing at windmills, and then the next minute we’re sad for the birds that were killed by windmills. And then, in the next minute, we’re yelling, 'Lock her up.'"
"This is dream logic, and there’s vanity in it, right?" Sharlet added. “'I will interpret what they’re saying and I will bend it.' It’s the vanity of the base, the vanity of the mob, the aggregate grotesque imagination of power. It becomes a spinning whirlpool that pulls more and more people in. These are people for whom reality is not enough."
The illusion that's created for Trump and his followers feels interactive and very real to them, Sharlet said, and that's where the twice-impeached former president gains his power.
"This is why the right feels they are more democratic than the left," he said. "The intellectual rightwingers are like, 'F*ck democracy, we don’t need it.' But the everyday people, they’re like, 'This is the most democratic I’ve ever felt. I am not only receiving – I receive, I interpret and then I transmit back.'"
Sharlet sees a similar dynamic at work within the anti-abortion movement, which the left sees as an effort to control women's bodies, but the right sees as a cause so righteous that violence is necessary.
"Yes, the project is misogynist to the core," he said. "But it is not experienced as such by many on the right. Once you make that move, that we’re talking about children, what kind of person are you if you don’t want to save that child?"
"It’s astonishing there hasn’t been more violence," Sharlet added. "I think we’ve had a shield from that violence for a long time and now that shield … I sound like Jerry Falwell saying the hand of God is being removed from America."