Who would want to read a book about the 2016 campaign?
It’s a question Jared Yates Sexton — author of The People Are Going to Rise Like Waters on Your Shore: A Story of American Rage — has likely pondered himself, although he has had some takers.
“I’ve been hearing from people who take the book to the beach,” the author says, with a slightly perplexed laugh. “And I’m like ‘I’m not sure why you’re doing that.’ It seems a little masochistic.”
Indeed, if you slept through that nightmare, Sexton replays the spectacle from the beginning. It’s all here. Blood coming out of her whatever, basket of deplorables, I moved on her like a bitch, our children are watching — check, check, check, check. The brain recoils, groaning “Too soon.”
Once you get past your flashbacks, the book also offers an illuminating take on the election from a reporter who not only stuck with it all the way through — dodging death threats in the process — but felt as if he had something more than just a dog in this hunt.
Sexton, 36, who will be speaking at the University of South Carolina next Wednesday, Oct. 11, heard something very familiar when he attended rallies for Donald Trump.
It felt like sitting around the dinner table with his own working class family, him playing the usual role of oddball professor with the liberal views. Sexton had been hearing this “racist, misogynistic, homophobic, Islamophobic stuff” for years. Ditto Deep State and New World Order.
In Trump, all that anger found its voice.
“Here was a guy who was speaking directly for them, and was also uncapping for them a lot of things that I believe were capped by political correctness and progressivism.”
Before 2015, Sexton made his bones as a creative writing teacher at Georgia Southern University, writing both “dirty realist” short fiction and one crime novel. The 2016 campaign was his first stab at punditry, a break from writing a novel that wasn’t going anywhere. It looked like dull but easy work. Jeb and Hillary, see who bores the other into a coma first.
Once he heard Trump, he knew it was a whole new ground game. He would write about the campaign for a series of publications — including The New York Times and The New Republic — and would get more than his share of blowback once he started describing the uncontrolled madness from inside the rallies. There would be calls for him to be fired, suspicious cars scoping him out from the driveway, and the kind of calls that make you keep a gun handy.
Now that the dust has settled, Sexton looks back on the campaign as a season where anger that had been rising for years finally boiled over. President Nixon’s 1968 “Southern Strategy,” which made subtle racial appeals to angry working-class whites, lit the fuse; the end of the Fairness Doctrine under Reagan in 1987, which had required that media outlets give equal time to opposing views, supplied the ammo.
But while Trump’s followers heard his message and assorted underlying dog whistles, Hillary Clinton was deaf.
“When you say ‘Donald Trump can’t be president because he’s vulgar,’ that works for people who are against vulgarity, but it doesn’t work for people who are miners or factory workers who curse,” Sexton said. “My family is very fond of cursing, and my family is not afraid to throw four-letter words out there.”
That leads to a mystery that Sexton doesn’t address in his book — the fact that there were deeply religious evangelicals who were very offended by Trump, many of whom not only wound up voting for him but have to come to see the president in messianic terms.
Part of the justification may come from a belief in prosperity gospel, he suggests; people may look at his wealth and privilege and see God’s chosen vessel.
“As a person who came from an evangelical background,” he said, “I think I expected at some point for things to kind of turn in that regard, but they never did.”
There will be room to puzzle over that question in books to come, as Life Under Trump has now become a continuing narrative. Sexton is not sure he wants to know the ending — dangerous if he stays, civil uprising if he’s booted out — but he plans to be there to witness it.
“I realized that 30 or 40 years from now I’m going to have kids or grandkids who are going to want to ask me about what I did in this time, and I didn’t want to give them an unsatisfactory answer,” he said. “This felt like a moment of calling.”