Book review: The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore, by Jared Yates Sexton
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Jared Yates Sexton sprang to national prominence while attending a Donald Trump rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 2016. He was one of the first journalists to report on the blatant racism, violence, anger and frenetic energy being activated at these events. All of which contributed to the growing wave of alt-right nationalism, culminating with putting a populist orange dump in the White House. Sexton’s reportage was disseminated via Twitter, so the medium coupled with his observations of the shocking environment went viral.
He continued attending Trump and Clinton rallies, plus conventions of the smaller parties. This book is his collection of thoughts, observations, and straightforward political analysis on what happened. Yes, we’ve already read this thousands of times, both in the immediate election aftermath as we struggled to understand how polling data was so wrong, and as time passed in the form of think pieces and other books on campaign mismanagement and how the long time coming rise of far-right populism and discontent in America finally peaked in Trump’s election.
But Sexton still manages to make this material fresh, even if reading it does feel like some kind of wistful mourning. There’s still plenty to be said on these topics, and Sexton is in a unique position, having experienced so much firsthand and in real time as it unfolded, as moods shifted and divides grew wider and deeper. This is extremism as it catches fire and then burns out of control, and it’s terrifying. The right can scream about terrorism and extremism in the Middle East all they want on Fox News, but it happens at home, and Sexton has the proof.
He’s a beautiful writer, sensitive to surroundings and culture and deeply in touch with the subtle fluctuations of the political climate. Sometimes he writes as if he were a camera, panning through crowds and arenas, capturing the imagery of a venue and its location, allowing readers to be there as vividly as if watching on film. The feeling, the atmosphere, all of it becomes tangible.
The dramatic but fitting title is from a sign at a Democratic rally, a plea from the people to the upper political echelons to take heed of what’s happening on the ground. It was a distrust of Democratic leadership that helped propel Bernie Sanders voters towards Trump, as counter-intuitive as that seemed at the time.
Despite being on the liberal end of the spectrum, Sexton is about as fair as it’s possible to be in this situation, and at this messy, angry time in history. At the Green party’s national convention where attendees chant “Lock her up” and cheer on Julian Assange, piped in via video feed and spouting nonsensical rants, including “Google is like HIV”, Sexton observes, “It was there…I suddenly realized how little difference there was between the far-far-right and the far-far-left, particularly what lengths they would go to in order to gain power, the only real contrast being what they might do with that power should they ever attain it. “
His observational ire alights on the Clinton and Sanders camps as well, calling out blunders and misunderstandings in both campaigns and supporter bases.
Clinton World had made a miscalculation that would plague them through the general election. Voters in 2016 weren’t looking for a friend. And they most certainly weren’t in the market for a new product.
They wanted representatives decrying inequality.
They wanted angry candidates warring against culture as a whole.
What they wanted, and what they got, was rage.
Beyond party events, Sexton measured the national temperature in small towns and bars, including his hometown. This was an interesting peek at part of that “Real America” Conservatives are always referencing – their idea of it, at least, because America is wherever you are and whoever you’re asking. Of course, they have specific reasons for playing up the myth of the “Real America” :
The Republican Party…has always been a bizarre amalgamation of unrelated parts that resembles, in a way, the human mind, beginning with its Super Ego, a cast of intellectual stalwarts that have always guided the party’s course…a blueblood aristocracy in favor of free markets that help the rich and interventionism that requires working class soldiers. Of course, these men represent a minute portion of the United States and, in the interest of political power, have had to marry themselves to the type of citizens they might very well look down their nose at…the elites have always had to rely on the support of working and middle-class voters who have very little in common with the nobility at the heart of the Republican Party. This is why you so often see private school educated pundits on FOX News talking about “the Real America.”
I liked that he started conversations easily with anyone he could, even when aggressive Trump supporters called him out during rallies. But he tried to be unbiased and open-minded, and he lets the reader decide what we think about it all. His on-the-ground technique brings folksy sayings from interview subjects on both sides of party lines, like “I’ve always believed that when the devil’s at your door you have to tell him to get the fuck out,” from a photojournalist attending Trump rallies to provide a voice of opposition. That to me is what’s real – letting both sides speak for themselves, and Sexton manages that well.
Throughout the election cycle, voters and candidates alike got fired up repeatedly over current events. He places these in the context of the political machine, explaining how one or another party exploits national sentiment for its own benefit.
On Dylann Roof’s massacre in a black South Carolina church, and his disgusting explanation that he “had no choice,” Yates demonstrates how it fits perfectly into the far-right’s favorite narrative:
This kind of hatred, this back-against-the-wall mentality, is the feeling of raw panic that FOX News and their compatriots have sought to cultivate for the last forty some-odd years. Every election is one more opportunity to stop the growing fascist momentum of liberalism, a last chance to slow the rising tide of immigrants and moochers and enemies of the state before they finally kill off the Constitution and come for your family.
Some of his observations are spot-on and plain hilarious: “Donald Trump talked like he was afraid he’d never get the chance to talk again.”
He engineers some borderline gimmicky situations, but with the intention of opening dialogue, and to his credit, he really tries to facilitate conversation without aggression or accusation, even if some snark creeps in. Like when taking a road trip with a young conservative to attend a rally: “Dave was what you’d expect if you tried to clone Ronald Reagan but went a little heavy on the America.” But you can totally imagine Dave now, right?
Though critics will harshly criticize the working poor as “uneducated” and “ignorant,” there is at least one thing they are exceptionally talented at: detecting bullshit when a rich person is trying to manipulate them. Trump’s entire Blue-Collar Billionaire persona was fragile and could’ve been effectively dismantled had the Democrats even tried. Working class people are suspicious of outsiders, especially wealthy ones, but the moment they saw urban elites criticizing Trump for his political incorrectness, he was welcomed with open arms…If only they’d been given half a reason, the portion of Trump’s working class base that gave him the presidency would’ve evaporated and all the lies, exaggerations, internet manipulations, and cognitive dissonance in the world wouldn’t have saved his candidacy.
I’d say the above, which is part of a greater summing-up of Yates’ take on campaign mistakes made by both sides is slightly oversimplified, but it’s a big, well-put part of the problem. There were just so many problems.
What this book does remarkably well is show the heart and emotions of different sides of the country. Remember that excerpt from Warsan Shire’s poem, “What they did yesterday afternoon” that made the social media rounds after recent terror attacks?
I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
No one was a winner in this election. Those who think their agendas were met in Trump will be hurt by his policies just like the rest of us. Bad situations that caused the titular American rage are not going to be solved by him. Reading this book, I kept thinking you could replace “the whole world” in Shire’s lines with “America” and the resounding answer would be the same, no matter what these heavily divided groups would say about the other side.
The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore:
A Story of American Rage
by Jared Yates Sexton
published September 12, 2017 by Ingram Publisher Services (Counterpoint Press)
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.