Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Thunder on the Right

Jared Yates Sexton rides the election storm surge in The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore

In The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore, Jared Yates Sexton dives deep into the troubled waters of the 2016 presidential election, covering the Clinton, Sanders, and Trump campaigns—not from behind a press rope line or in the pool-containment area but from inside the crowds. Sexton talked to people and heard their anger and fear and angst. The raw fury of the Trump base caused Sexton to suffer online harassment, death threats, and demands that he be fired from his professorship in creative writing at Georgia Southern University. In response, he bought his first gun and installed a security system, which more than once reported an attempted break-in.

A series of Sexton’s tweets from the floor of an early Trump rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, went viral, and within days he had eighteen thousand followers, over a million views, and requests from publications ranging from Mother Jones to The New York Times for his unique take on the fractures in the American body politic. For the rest of the campaign season he reported from the belly of the political beast.

After Trump’s nomination, the candidate was expected to pivot to a more mainstream campaign style, reading his speeches from a teleprompter. Trump himself had no such expectations, one night wandering over and casually dismantling the teleprompter screens, to the delight of the crowd:

He riffed on his philosophy of when to stiff workers of their hard-earned wages and how the media was rigging the election, all the while basking in the adulation of his followers. If he was a rock star, he’d be playing his greatest hits, coasting through another set in another one-stoplight town. He didn’t seem like a politician fighting off a career-threatening scandal, and he didn’t sound like a politician worried about hitting the right notes or weaving the right story. Those screens had long since served their purposes, and he didn’t need them anymore. He had the people right where he wanted them.

Sexton’s view of this broad streak of resentment and desperation in American society is an intimate one. He was raised in a blue-collar, Southern Baptist family in Ohio, most of whom supported Trump. He describes his family as belonging to an America where vulgar, politically incorrect language is routine and anger with political and social elites is deep and strong: “I first saw this when an opening speaker referred to ‘Crooked Hillary Clinton’ and a man yelled, ‘Bitch!’” Sexton writes. “At first, he seemed almost as surprised as anybody that the word had escaped his mouth, but when he took stock of the crowd and heard the others cheering and laughing, a smile broke across his face. Somebody clapped him on the back.”

The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore “sometimes feels like a leftist counterweight to Hillbilly Elegy, laced with shots of Hunter S. Thompson,” according to Kirkus Reviews. “Though it lacks the stinging punch of Thompson, the book is a useful snapshot of a tumultuous presidential race.”

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