Our National Scream: On Jared Yates Sexton’s “The People Are Going to Rise Like Waters Upon Your Shore”

Maybe it’s just a few hours after a rally to sit and talk with the people in a more involved fashion than simply getting quotes. Yet in 2016, a European-style socialist and an ethnic nationalist became the dominant forces in the United States’s two major political parties. Talk radio and Fox News created a market that wanted something specific from their party, and the party wasn’t listening. If only I’d kept my eyes open. He never bothered to ask. The sections on the progressive love affair with Bernie Sanders are less salacious and upsetting, but also problematic. Sexton covers a race that was more of a national upheaval than political campaign. He did. There’s a great example about halfway through the book. Sexton had that pegged in December 2015 while traditional reporters were still running the numbers that had always worked before. The internet has so bladed and graded the journalistic hierarchy that anyone with wi-fi and a snappy point of view can get into the conversation. But I wasn’t going to just sit there and listen to outright intolerance.”
Sexton can’t get out of his own way long enough to listen to Dave’s point. That’s how reporters do their job. Next to that, asking a rabid Trump voter “What’s up?” is really nothing. Jared Yates Sexton, previously a minor-league pundit, is now making an outsider’s case for having penned one of the important books of the 2016 presidential race. It must be emphasized once more:   Sexton is not a traditional journalist. He’s an English professor. But that becomes its biggest flaw: it is so full of fear and loathing that Sexton missed the real story of what fueled American rage. “Trump hadn’t dragged anybody anywhere,” he writes. Trump was, as of that moment, the heartbeat of an America with which many of us were unaccustomed. So there is an avowed liberal Sexton listening to “Dave” explain his opposition to the Civil Rights Act’s public accommodation requirement — the same portion of the law that tackled the vile “Open For Business — No Coloreds” signs of the mid-20th   century. While attending the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, he details the outrage of Sanders’s supporters who concluded neoliberal Hillary was enough of a menace to treat the Trump threat in lukewarm terms — a tradeoff that appalls Sexton. Free to mock women about rape and harass the homeless side-by-side with Nazi flags, they did just that unshackled from common decency. Digging isn’t his specialty. Then Trump won and Sexton realizes the degree to which he had inhaled the establishment view. He drives to a Trump rally thinking the surge is about to ebb. “I’d told myself, before picking Dave up that I wasn’t looking to argue issues,” he writes. Is he arguing in favor of racism? His column “What the Devil Won’t Tell You,” appears regularly at the Tucsonsentinel.com. During ordinary campaigns, such ground-level detail is simply referred to as “color,” meant to add flourish to a story. “I was hoping to listen and find common ground. Sexton seemed satisfied to judge the radicals rather than listen to them. More seriously, Sexton found himself stalked by Trump supporters after criticizing their worst instincts at a Trump event in North Carolina. How much of Dave’s argument is just basic libertarianism and property rights? I just wish he had tried to get to the story that no one really covered: what the hell happened to a country radicalize it so much   in eight years   and what are the terms of assuaging it? Then write the story, drink happily, and shoot pool. Despite this tendency toward self-pity, Sexton’s approach does give him the ability to drop a truth bomb right down the stovepipe. That’s how Sexton, a creative writing teacher and author in Georgia, passed from the online journal   Atticus Review   into the pages of   The New York Times   without so much as covering a city council meeting. When   talking heads on cable TV ruminate that Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP was a surprise, Sexton points out Trump just planted his seed on what had become fertile topsoil. His was not a proactive candidacy but a pure, unadulterated reaction to what a slice of the American people wanted. If only he’d asked more questions. That’s not new. It mixes personal accounts with broad campaign context and the pages flip. OCTOBER 20, 2017
THE CAMPAIGN BOOK is its own genre, which you either eat up like cherry Pez or you shun entirely. His security system revealed that one day, someone had tried to break into his bedroom. Sexton stood among the people destined to rise and he chose moral superiority over deeper understanding. The national press had very little influence on the outcome and traditional opinion makers found their jobs obsolete. The author discusses a road trip he took with a Trump supporter he calls “Dave.” Together they drove from Georgia to Ohio to see Hillary Clinton give a speech with opening act Elizabeth Warren. The Bernie Sanders figure in 2004 was Dennis Kucinich, and he limped through the Iowa Caucus before poofing into oblivion by New Hampshire. What changed to make it crazy? His book is entertaining in the manner of Hunter S. “And how could they not look at Donald Trump and see him as an existential threat to all of their stated beliefs and principles?” Unfortunately, those are the last words of the chapter. He never had to knock on the door of a family whose kid just died to ask for a fifth-grade photograph. A car circling his neighborhood one night parked repeatedly in his driveway with the engine running. Does that make him necessarily intolerant for questioning federal power? His chapters are full of often keen, always judgmental personal observations available to a guy free from the pack. Sexton is among the new breed of pundits whose online presence leaves them a tweet away from getting launched into the national conversation. The system, they argue, is out to prevent a reality TV host and oft-failed businessman from reaching the rank of commander-in-chief. This question gets skipped over. He also recounts just the kind of cognitive contortions Trump supporters twist themselves into to prove their own victimhood. Maybe it affords him an overnight stay and a night at the bar, or dare I say morning at the church, talking to voters. And he didn’t have impressive poll numbers because he’d somehow or another convinced anybody of anything. This was   frustrating because his go-it-alone approach afforded him time, and beat reporters on the bus or jet never have time. The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage   gets outside the iron ring of microphones that surround, suffocate, and trivialize campaign journalism. He gets there to find Trump’s crowds as indulgent in The Donald as ever and then eavesdrops on some off-color conversation outside the hall. He could have had a hell of a story. ¤
Blake Morlock is an award-winning journalist and free-lance writer in Tucson and has covered politics for more than 20 years. When Dave said he questioned the government’s role in legislating what’s in someone’s heart, Sexton concluded he “could not have been more wrong.” But wait a minute: didn’t liberals spend almost half a century arguing the Christian Right can’t “legislate morality”? Add the 30 percent on the far right and the 25 percent on the far left equal 55 percent of the country is out there hugs the edge. And he bought it, despite everything he had chronicled in the book he was still writing. They were certain Clinton would win big, and that Trump was an ugly stain of barbecue sauce that would be washed away like Pat Buchanan. Then they seemed to show up at his house. Think about it. Unlike the twists and turns of previous campaign chronicles like the   “Making of the President”   series pioneered by Theodore White, Sexton’s stories follow a depressing pattern. Then the event, itself, appalls him and he leaves disgusted, often to fortify himself at a local bar, where he may eavesdrop more on poisonous banter until his will to continue seems in doubt. Half the country has always seemed drawn to the apocalyptic fringe, on every side. Can they be united toward constructive goals or are they determined to pull the fabric of community apart? He admits that he bought into the worldview offered by those who elevated him to national stature. What parts of the anger are tribal, racial, aspirant, regional, nihilistic, nationalistic, xenophobic, nostalgic, or just frustration from many realizing their government has ignored them long enough? CNN doesn’t have that luxury. The last election the key players were the radicals on fire, who think the system is failing us all and is, perhaps, irredeemable. He tweeted what the supporters were actually saying from the floor of a June 2016 rally, and Trump supporters immediately set about threatening his life. Speaking as one who worked as a political journalist for more than 20 years, I can tell you that’s just a day in the life. It’s not a hard conversation to have if you just sit and listen without judgment. “There’s a cloistered community once you reach a certain point of visibility, and everybody gets to know one another,” he writes,
There are inside jokes, rumors that never make it in print, a sort of high-school-clique mentality if high school were only full of nerdy writers wearing button-down shirts and slacks from Banana Republic. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, in that it contains one man’s quirky observations. A particularly priceless episode involves some rallygoers who convince themselves that Clinton was using a body double during her bout with pneumonia. It was intoxicating to get a glimpse into that world, and when they told me, to a person, that election night would be over early, I believed them. “I’d crossed over into the media and started looking at politics as a game of chess instead of a process by which real people were affected in real and lasting ways.”
His   descriptions of Trump supporters horrify the reader. Or is he arguing that a business owner has a right to be a jerk? Never mind the dirty language or failure to comply with political correctness — the author’s description of the Republican National Convention shows Trump   supporters suddenly liberated from constraints of elitist propriety, with full license to uncork together the ugliness bubbling deep inside them. In 2016, the color was the real story because the only conversations that   seemed to inform the voters were the words they shared among themselves. Every presidential campaign seems to send a media-branded demographic into the spotlight: Reagan Democrats, soccer moms, NASCAR Dads, Security Moms, White Evangelicals, and the Latino. Four years earlier, in 2000, the character of “Donald Trump” was played by Pat Buchanan and — aside from a few bombastic lines reported with disdain — he barely registered on the national scene. The same Sexton who complained of judgmental listening from the national media then sports the same short fuse when it came to outrageous statements. I would amend that last sentence. To his credit, he ultimately realized he had been part of the bubble that “always pissed him off.” On election day, he smacked down a TV host who had problems with Clinton’s trustworthiness by declaring the race over and Trump a burned English muffin.