Jared Yates Sexton on American Democracy and Religion

In his book, American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People, Jared Yates Sexton writes that “The American Myth paints the process as divinely inspired and the result of a work of distinctly American genius, the Constitution itself an impeccable guide in all things and a means by which freedom and liberty might be bestowed upon every citizen.” This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with author and podcaster Jared Yates Sexton about his latest book, Midnight Kingdom, discuss the role of Christian Nationalism in the US, and look at the potential ascension of Ron DeSantis as the Republican heir apparent to Donald Trump.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:15 Jared Yates Sexton (JYS) – What is happening with Christian nationalism right now? You’re not taking rights away from women over their body. You’re fighting a holy war. You know, you’re literally battling Satan and those people who want rights over their bodies. They’re oppressing them to benefit them, so as a result it’s positive persecution. And what this does is it creates a story for the believer that makes them not feel bad about what they’re supporting.

00:44 Narrator – In his book, American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People, Jared Yates Sexton writes that “The American Myth paints the process as divinely inspired and the result of a work of distinctly American genius, the Constitution itself an impeccable guide in all things and a means by which freedom and liberty might be bestowed upon every citizen.” This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with author and podcaster Jared Yates Sexton about his latest book, Midnight Kingdom, discuss the role of Christian Nationalism in the US, and look at the potential ascension of Ron DeSantis as the Republican heir apparent to Donald Trump.

01:40 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by author and podcaster Jared Yates Sexton. His new book is called the Midnight Kingdom and his podcast is The Muckrake. Jared, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

01:52 Jared Yates Sexton (JYS) – Hey, I’m so glad to be here.

01:54 Alex Wise (AW) – So your new book is coming out and I want you to first layout the thesis to that and then we’ll use that as kind of a launching point for discussing where we are right now in American politics.

02:08 Jared Yates Sexton (JYS) – So the Midnight Kingdom is my retelling of modern history and the reason I did this. I went back from ancient Rome, where state power merged with Christianity all the way to the present. Basically, to get an understanding of what is happening right now and also the cycles of history that keep replaying themselves. You know they are very, very understandable they are very discernible and unfortunately we don’t get taught history in like a very conducive way. We don’t get you know. Basically filled in on how power has protected itself, how it’s expanded itself, and as a result we find ourselves at this very strange moment where it seems like things are happening that we can’t explain we’re surrounded by conspiracy theories, authoritarian energies and all. We keep getting told is that you know no one really knows what’s going on or how could anybody have any idea what’s going on and in truth, like looking at these historic. It becomes very, very clear how we’ve arrived at this moment, but I think more importantly how we get out of this moment.

03:15 Alex Wise (AW) – There’s a lot to be scared about, obviously, in this big crazy world and if you look through history, there’s a lot of cycles that we just keep repeating and I want to get into some of those. But what are some of the things that are making you most hopeful as we look towards the future?

03:31 JYS – Yeah, you know, I’ll be honest. I know that in in my reporting and my analysis I’m a little bit of a doomsayer. I know that and I know that that is hard stuff, but the reason that I get into the things I do is because I truly do believe that a better future is possible. I think that we are going to get past this crisis and we’re going to be better for it. The problem is that there’s going to be a lot of tumult. There’s going to be a pretty big clash of ideas and civilizations. Pretty soon, but what is giving me hope? First of all, is the fact that so many people are now having conversations about how our status quo and our systems do not work because they don’t. They’re wired for the wealthy and the powerful in order to, you know, continue gaining wealth and power. The fact that we’re recognizing that is important. The fact that we’re pushing back against hereditary wealth and hereditary power. But also you know we’re seeing around America. We’re seeing these young people who are engaging in labor actions. And here’s the thing, Alex, they’re beating some of the most historically powerful corporations in the history of the world – they’re beating Amazon, they’re beating Starbucks, they’re beating Apple over and over and over again. This stuff is actually winning and it’s incredibly inspiring. We’re also seeing in China, which is one of the most technologically advanced societies that we’ve ever seen in terms of like authoritarianism, the people are pushing back against that Iran, one of the most controlling fundamentalist societies that we’ve ever seen. It is reeling simply because the women of the country have stood up and said no more, we’re done. With this we see in Russia an authoritarian dictator who of course has started a world changing war. His grip on power is slipping. I think that humanity is pushing back and I think humanity is going to win this fight. But again I think it’s going to be a little difficult going forward. But I remain really optimistic.

05:29 AW – Yes, I mean you could just take something like technology as an example of how you view it. You can look at a technology as a vehicle for change in either direction I guess is the point.

05:35 JYS – Yeah, and you know one of the things I found writing the book is that there are these apocal moments, right? There are these crossroads that people come to where you know it feels like the world is almost like cement, right? It is immovable. It’s going to be the same way forever. We’ve arrived at the end of history and then there are these other moments where the world is very malleable and there’s so much opportunity for change. Technology always plays a role in that and one of the things I discovered was you know something like the arrival of the printing press, right? You have a world changing technology that comes around. Meanwhile it allows Martin Luther to, you know, create the Reformation and that leads to the 30 years. War and basically you know the ending of the feudal state down the line. You look at the radio which was absolutely used for good in certain cases, but also was like at the backbone of the Nazi regime, right? You get into TV the same thing with propaganda. Now we’re at this moment where we have seen that the Internet can not only spread disinformation, it can inspire genocides. But I have to tell you, I feel the exact same way. I think that we have arrived at a point where our ability to communicate and our ability to gather information can be used for good. And I think looking at that. How we harness those technologies and how we move forward whether or not? By the way, we’re just expecting technology to be a savior, which is what always happens. We get promised constantly, right? Oh don’t worry, the next invention is going to solve climate change. It’s going to solve authoritarianism. Everything will be fine, artificial intelligence, whatever, we cannot be passive about it, and that’s part of the problem is that we have more or less been conditioned to be passive within this situation and we have to be more proactive. And I think what we’re watching again in the labor movements. But in these democratic movements, I think we’re starting to see people realize that they can’t be passive anymore. And that they can’t just let politics and the world pass them by.

07:45 AW – You talk about the media and how technologies played a role and yet you mentioned in the book how Napoleon exploited the media very effectively and and you use him as kind of a a template for the this great man of history idea. Why don’t you expand on that if you can?

08:05 JYS – Yeah, you know one of the ways that we’re told history. You know I always call it conventional history. And before I wrote this book, like I sort of had an outline of how history worked, and you know, and it based, it was based a lot on like Walter Benjamin would say like stereotypes, right? And you see someone like a Napoleon who Hegel of course had considered the great man of history or history has tried a horse, and you know, I didn’t realize and I didn’t know until I did the research that like Napoleon was able to create himself by using media. In fact, Napoleon Bonaparte was kind of a precursor to a Donald Trump, right? He read every press clipping about himself, you know, and like if he didn’t like it, he was going to write to you and tell you about it. And then of course he started like spinning these stories. Himself creating a popular myth of a Napoleon Bonaparte to the point where when the French Revolution eventually spiraled out of control, as they do sometimes Napoleon had created in himself a savior in waiting right, a French Messiah who is going to come in and set things right. And so what we learn is that these people throughout history, they’re able to make themselves into a part of history through like control over media and control over stories, right? You take someone like an Adolf Hitler – he was a media creation. This was an intentional thing by the Nazi Party to create in Adolf Hitler a potential savior. It was a media operation that was carried out before eventually he was able to come in and take advantage of something like the Great Depression and political turmoil. So what we learn is that these stories are incredibly powerful. These mythologies are incredibly powerful and as a result, the way that we interact with the world and the way we see the world is informed by the stories that we’re absorbing and the stories that we believe. Which by the way is I think what is going to define where we go next? What stories we’re telling, what stories we end up believing, and there are a lot of really poisonous stories out there right now that have a lot of dangerous effects. But we need to create these new stories and these new mythologies that can deliver us into what I think should be a better future.

10:26 (music break)

11:24 AW – This is Alex Wise in Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to author and podcaster Jared Yates Sexton. His new book is called the Midnight Kingdom: A history of power, paranoia and the coming crisis. So Jared, one of the common threads through your historical breakdown in the Midnight Kingdom is the misuse of religiosity. Give us some of the bullet points if you will and then bring us up to date with the Christian nationalist movement here in the US.

11:54 JYS – Yeah, so I was raised in an evangelical background where I was absolutely surrounded by so much paranoia, so many conspiracy theories. The idea at all times, Alex, was that I, personally, as a saved Christian was doing battle with like the actual devil constantly right? And by the way like the devil could show up in your house. Or he could get you through movies through music through your friends through popular culture, which by the way, for anybody listening. And they’re like that sounds like an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. You are not wrong, right? Like it’s the exact same things, but that’s like a lot of people like myself were raised in that environment. Well, it turns out that from the moment that Christianity was merged into state power with ancient Rome, there are these parts of Christianity that, when weaponized, are incredibly useful for oppression and incredibly useful for authoritarians.

12:47 AW – So you’re saying we can expand the family dynamic of using the devil for a parent to get what they want out of their kid, and then transmogrify that into a government using the same?

13:03 JYS – That’s a really perfect way of putting it. So one thing is apocalypticism, for instance, I was raised up in a church where basically every Sunday you only read from the Book of Revelation. You know you weren’t reading a lot about Jesus going out and helping lepers, and you know the prostitutes, right? You weren’t talking about those things. You were talking about a coming apocalypse that could happen at any given moment, right? And what’s even more, it meant that you were at war with evil. It meant that you were a participant in an invisible war, and everything that you did and everything that happened around you was part of that. Which meant that you know, as the government was, I don’t know. Moving forward civil rights, it was allowing you know, gay people more rights and protections. As women were being treated better, these were schemes by the devil to destroy the world right? So every single issue at every given moment was a life or death struggle if you didn’t oppress other people right? If you didn’t ensure that like those people were put in their place because they were evil, it wasn’t that they wanted more rights. It’s not that they wanted a better world, it was that they were part of a larger conspiracy.If you didn’t do something about it, the world could end it. It literally was capital G, Good, versus capital E, Evil. That apocalypticism of course we still see that today the second is the idea of what you would call holy persecution or positive persecution, and this was an idea that Saint Augustine. Came up with this is the idea that if you have God on your side right, if you are doing something on behalf of the Almighty power, you know in the heavens then there’s nothing you could do that was wrong. So you could persecute people who were not true believers, right? You could persecute people outside of the church because you were doing it out of love. Because you were doing it out of protection of the church, and so as a result it legitimized terrorizing people oppressing people, hurting people and and to go ahead and bring it forward to. Where we are now. What is happening with Christian nationalism right now? Which is again the merging of politics and state power along with the ideas of Christianity that I’m talking about here. In this case, you’re not taking rights away from women over their body. You’re fighting a holy war. You’re literally battling Satan. And those people who want rights over their bodies, well, you know you’re doing something in their own good. You know you’re doing, you’re you’re oppressing them to benefit them. So as a result, it’s positive persecution. And what this does is it creates a story for the believer that makes them not feel bad about what they’re supporting. They don’t feel bad about oppressing people because they have a story that tells them that not only is this necessary, but this is wholly. This is good. You are actually benefiting the universe. You’re benefiting your soul and you’re benefiting God and those aspects when they’re combined, I mean they they create everything from wars, coups, genocides, you name it.

16:02 AW – And when we saw the January 6th committee – the breaking down some of these characters who are storming the capitol, it speaks to what you’re talking about here in terms of these people really had tethered themselves to this idea of Trump in a divine sort of way. And they had given themselves, I mean, I think we all like to think that we are doing something for a greater good, but when you bring God into the mix then it becomes zealotry and things can get ugly very.

16:34 JYS – They really can, and I think January 6th is a really good example of this because more and more people we’re talking millions of people in the Republican Party now believe queue and on principles and don’t even know it’s queue. And on they don’t even have the label to attach to it, right? Christian nationalism is the exact same thing Trump is preaching. All this same stuff, they are also coming around to believing just like these paramilitary groups that maybe democracy needs to be done away with maybe violence is necessary in order to you know, square the circle in American. As a result, what we’re actually looking at here is who believes these stories, right? Who is it that is actually convinced by them and lives through them?

17:17 AW – Which is religion! What are the stories supposed to mean to you? And we can see that these stories from a Bible, a Jesus, who’s preaching peace and love can somehow be altered to fit an agenda, no matter how draconian it may be, and this has been through history, getting back to your book. You look at these rising authoritarian elements, but were you following the Demar Hamlin story at all? This Buffalo Bills player who had a heart attack on the field?

17:48 JYS – Yes

17:54 AW – This is a man who was near death on the field, but then modern medicine saved him. They knew what happened to him and they got him incredible help quickly and he’s OK now. But I saw people like Tony Dungy and ex coach who’s got a big platform and NBC has been associated with a lot of anti LGBTQ issues through the years and I forget the other reporter from like the USA TODAY. They just the message was echoed throughout the Internet that this proves that the power of prayer is that it works and I felt like that was such a wrong message and that this is not a time for you to be proselytizing or evangelizing, and it’s dismissive not only of modern medicine, but of non-believers. And yet it’s acceptable on mainstream platforms, which I find really head scratching and frustrating.

18:42 JYS – Well, the United States is really bizarre. I mean, the amount of people who still believe in supernatural beings and and supernatural forces. You know at play every day is, it’s incredible, but I will go ahead and I think this is an important thing to get into the psychological aspect of religion. And by the way, I want to make very clear what we’re talking about. Here it is weaponized. We’re talking about what I would actually refer to as heretical religion.

19:09 AW – So antithetical to the teachings of almost any religion.

19:13 JYS – Absolutely and the amazing thing is how these things are usable. I think we’re all aware of that, but what it does is it takes care of cognitive dissonance, right? Because so for instance. My family has similar situations, so if somebody you know I’ll  even take Damar Hamlin out of it. Like if somebody in the family has like a massive heart attack. They will sit there and they’ll pray for the health of the person, right? If the person’s health improves, then the prayer helped. If the prayers didn’t work, it was God’s plan, right? And what it does is it creates sort of a a shortcut to get around sort of more complex problems, right? It takes the moral ambiguity of the world and sort of melts it down and turns it into something fungible, and I think that’s the really important thing in all. Of this, when we’re talking about life, death but also with politics and actual, very hard issues, right? Like complicated issues, what we do is is we take these stories and we can go ahead and package them. However we want to go ahead and prove whatever it is that we already believe. And it sort of again squares that circle. It is the quickest way to go ahead and take these morally ambiguous and or complicated ideas and to go ahead and just package them up and to move them out. And it’s a real problem that this is still how we view the world and how we’re still operating within the world.

21:24 (music break)

21:26 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to author and podcaster Jared Yates Sexton. His podcast is the Muckrake and his latest book is entitled The Midnight Kingdom, a History of Power, Paranoia and the Coming Crisis. So speaking of paranoia, let’s turn to Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, who has been dubbed by many as as the heir apparent to leading the Republican Party. I don’t see DeSantis as being analogous to Trump in that I don’t think he’s very charming or magnetic. If you’ve seen the guy speak, he’s obviously crafty. He’s not a dummy. He seems to have taken the meanness from Trump, and he decided that’s the brand. Will that sell on a national scale, in your opinion, Jared?

22:15 JYS – Whenever I talk about De Santis, there’s a couple of things I want to make very clear. One, he is a more competent, intelligent, disciplined person than Donald Trump. You know Trump one of the problems with Trump in terms of like getting things done. And by the way he you know everybody looks at like what Trump did is he was running for president and all of the antics or whatever. When he was elected president, he basically looked at the Heritage Foundation, which is a, you know, a conservative right wing think tank. They just handed him, you know, a list of things to do. He’s like, yeah, absolutely let’s do that.

22:48 AW – He didn’t care, he was not a political animal. DeSantis is obviously a political animal, so I think he’s more dangerous in many ways. I guess the question though is will it play outside of Florida? I mean when we look at his landslide victory in Florida, people are like “Oh well, he’s obviously very popular, but you know he ran against Charlie Crist, who was not a very formidable challenger, I thought.

23:11 JYS – So there’s two ways to look at him, So what concerns me is this one I am seeing a lot of so-called liberals and Never Trumpers who are absolutely flocking to Ron DeSantis. I’m seeing Democratic voters who are talking themselves into Ron DeSantis really, and I’ll tell you why, because he is disciplined and he is serious and a lot of the things that he’s doing authoritarian things. They’re either under the radar or there are a lot of liberals out there who are a little bit uncomfortable with things like trans and gay people, and they don’t like to admit it, right? This is one of the reasons why like Ronald Reagan was able to get the votes that he did like because a lot of people have espoused principles that aren’t really their principles they’re tired of “wokeness” or the “Left,” even though there is no left in the United States of America, and so I think actually, the closer that we get to what’s getting ready to happen. I think you’re going to see people cross over who would have been horrified to have been told they would vote for a Republican a few years ago, particularly if our economy crumbles. Which is looking more and more likely that we’re going to have some economic tremors in the next couple of years, which I think is going to possibly open things up for DeSantis. It’s worrisome, it’s really, really worrisome also to think about. There’s an aspect of DeSantis that I think and, I always hesitate to talk about this because I don’t want to give these people ideas – there is one missing component of this right wing authoritarian movement. We have Christian nationalism right? We have that libertarian streak in there. We have the paranoid streak in there. What we’re missing is militarism and DeSantis is a veteran and DeSantis likes to lean on that stuff whenever he’s making his videos or his fundraisers or any of those things. If we are looking at a potential second Cold War, this one with China, which by the way has already animated both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. You know it’s already leading to a change in policy. A change in how we fund things, how we’re moving forward. You add in militarism on that side. That’s a really dangerous. Cocktail and you’re exactly right. DeSantis is not as magnetic as Trump. He doesn’t have the charisma that Trump has as ugly as that charisma is, right?

25:24 AW – And certainly not as charismatic as a Reagan.

25:27 JYS – Exactly so you start adding in the elements of military. And America is a militaristic country and all of these problems that we’re talking about they can be, quote UN quote, solved through militarism. You know, even though they can’t be, I think that’s the missing component. I pray to God that that doesn’t end up coming online and it doesn’t end up combining with some sort of a DeSantis move, but I have to tell you that if it happens like, things are going to get really weird, really fast.

25:54 AW – Yes, he’s a worrisome character, no doubt, and I think if it’s not him, there’s somebody else who will emerge. And I’m no Nostradamus. I completely underestimated Donald Trump’s chances to ascend to the White House, but I just I tend to think of people wanting to feel good when they go to the ballot box. They can’t see them being purely motivated by hate in a mass way in this country. We’re just so heterogeneous that I can’t see us. All getting in lockstep to be against things which we’ve seen with DeSantis’s brand of authoritarianism.

26:30 JYS – So that’s part of it I think is I think that DeSantis’s message has been we’re tired of all of the fighting and all of the wokeness. And by the way, a lot of liberals are a lot of them. You know, we’ve seen this in the past couple of years where it’s like, oh the woke left is too far, cancel culture. There is an aspect to it where you know, I think Biden. Biden basically promised that he was going to get things back to normal and first of all I want to point something out normal before Donald Trump was not normal. It was not OK, it was still bad. Donald Trump was a symptom of the disease. He wasn’t the disease. The fear that I have is that DeSantis will offer order. I think in a way it can be the idea of oh, we can just return to normal, but it’s not going to be a return to normal because normal itself is is problematic.  So I those are the fears I have. And DeSantis has gotten not just the support of the MAGA world, he’s gotten the support of the people who were never Trumpers. He’s gotten the support of like all of the donors who have just moved away from Trump and moved to him. I think that he is a really, really potent candidate for that party moving forward. But that being said. It’s almost impossible to predict this political environment anymore, you know. I mean, like this is just a wild moment.

27:54 AW – Well, I always appreciate your insights. Jared Yates Sexton, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

27:59 JYS – Thank you. It’s my pleasure.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Problem Child, Monty Python, and The Blind Boys of Alabama. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com. To stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.