Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage by Jared Yates Sexton. (Counterpoint)
Much in the same way Hunter S. Thompson embedded himself in the campaign trail of 1972, Jared Yates Sexton accessed the 2016 election from the ground floor. His notoriety started when he began tweeting quotes from the core Trump base early in the campaign. He watched his Twitter followers rise exponentially in the weeks to come while celebrities retweeted him and major networks requested interviews with him. His original plan was to follow the election for a blog in his off time and suddenly he found himself an expert in the Trump following.
In our changing world, the news found a new tool in social media and campaigns followed. In this new book, Sexton takes the time to look at this evolution.
Sexton shows the divide with politicians trying to clean themselves up in an attempt to appeal to the independent voters who don’t toe the party lines. Early on, Sexton attended a Chris Christie rally where the New Jersey governor toned down the political persona he’d created. It showed that Christie was aware of how campaigning was traditionally run and “made the calculation that his bare-knuckled style would cost him the Republican base.” What he failed to see, which Trump was able to capitalize on—and Bernie Sanders too, to an extent—was how angry a large portion of Americans had become with the status quo.
What I enjoyed (and kind of dreaded) was how Sexton gave us an insider’s look—not at the Trump campaign, but at the movement and support that eventually pushed him to a successful presidential run. The biggest difference was voters on the right didn’t want an even-headed candidate. They wanted someone who mirrored their frustrations. After years of the GOP stoking this fire of distrust and anger, it was finally able to explode with Donald Trump. Even with his misguided crusade against political correctness, he was able to scoop up voters with hateful rhetoric.
This is partly why Sexton’s work is important for future generations: Trump didn’t run on policy or specific solutions for our country’s issues, but rather tapped into the anger and turmoil. These emotions existed long before Trump was a presidential hopeful, but it was what he used for his own benefit. He was able to match all the bad feelings, even in the midst of multiple gaffes, to garner the following needed to secure the GOP nomination, and eventually the presidency.
With the rise and prevalence of social media, we saw an election primarily fueled by feelings and assumptions. Similarly, in curating our friendships online, we create an echo chamber—basically never needing to question the beliefs we hold. Trump built his speeches (and improvised rants) around what a lot of people already believed with little or no evidence. When he strengthened these beliefs, he in turn strengthened his following because people believed he simply told it as it was.
Sexton takes a closer look at this “as a Columbia University and French National Institute study in 2016 showed, 59 percent of the links shared on social media are never actually clicked, meaning the headlines themselves are the main source of information-transfer.” People don’t seem to be interested in educating themselves as much as they are in being “right,” because “what they’re tuning in for has less to do with receiving the news of the day than reinforcing the preconceived notions of how the world operates.”
Not all the blame should be left to the viewers, either. Since Trump was so spontaneous and unpredictable, “major networks had relied on him to boost their ratings, and over the course of the campaign the cable news channels saw their numbers reach record highs. This resulted in exorbitant advertising fees, including a stretch during the Republican National Convention when CNN charged up to forty times its usual rate.” Again, the American people were left to the wayside so someone else could make a buck.
It would be disingenuous to say Jared Yates Sexton’s The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore is hopeful, because it is so matter of fact and aware of all the blemishes in our system. Paradoxically, I think that is why it is such a hopeful book. It shows that at least one person is paying attention and trying to spread the news of what’s happening. Sexton is a guy who started covering politics in his off time as an experiment, and he has grown to be an authority simply by showing up, paying attention, and not buying into the bullshit. The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore encapsulates what this election was and what it meant to be watching. It shows us how low our society is still capable of going and how a large portion is fighting back. This book is important for us now, but it will be imperative for the generations of the future.