Since April 2015, writer and editor Jared Yates Sexton has been reporting on the presidential campaign for Atticus Review in a regular column called Atticus on the Trail. Things were going at a pretty normal pace for an independent literary magazine and a writer of literary short fiction, and then in June, everything blew up when Jared’s live tweets from a particularly ugly Trump rally went viral. We sat down to talk with him about what it was like to be thrust into the center of the storm, this year’s bizarre election, Chrissy Teigen, and Neo-Nazis.
BARRELHOUSE: I think this all started with Atticus on the Trail. Is that right? If so, how did that get started? Did you pitch Atticus, or did they come to you with the idea?
JARED YATES SEXTON: So, to amuse myself in 2012, I wrote these little dispatches during the campaign that I'd spend a few minutes or hours on here and there. I've always been into politics and have occasionally found myself sliding into them from time to time. The writing, as most writers will tell you, is more about digesting what's happening in real time and it's through writing I understand the world. I never had any real ambition to do anything with these things but I kept finding myself writing them. In the summer of 2015, for whatever reason, I started getting itchy. I looked at the field, saw that it'd more than likely be Hillary Clinton versus Jeb Bush and I felt...supremely bored. I wanted to throw myself into an election I might've tuned out of otherwise and really get into the minutiae of the moment.
I approached Dan Cafaro, publisher of Atticus, right around that time and sent him some of the dispatches I'd written from '12. I told him I was planning on writing some analysis and maybe going to a campaign event or two. He said he'd be happy to give me a forum and that's how this thing began. I really never had any idea it'd gain the momentum it did or even that I'd find myself driving across the country to Iowa or the conventions or anything. I just wanted to make myself pay attention and somehow or another that got me into the situation I'm in now.
BH: I remember reading the announcement on the Atticus site (or in an email, or social media, or somewhere) and thinking what a great idea it was, and looking forward to what you were going to do. As somebody who takes part in running a literary magazine, I also remember thinking huh, that's not usually our lane, and maybe our little world should engage more in the larger world and especially politics. I also remember being a little (pleasantly) surprised that you were doing more or less "straight" journalism, that it wasn't a more personal essay kind of take on what was happening. I know you mostly as an editor and a fiction writer, so forgive me if this is heading off in the wrong direction, but I'm thinking about what kind of shift an Atticus on the Trail kind of beat would be for me and wondering: Did you have any trepidation about doing this different kind of writing, and especially on this particular topic, where everybody has an opinion and some of them are pretty strong?
JYS: I guess I didn't because I've always considered my fiction to be political in nature. I mean, without hitting readers over the head with it, I've been trying to write about politics in my stories and books for years. Whether we realize it or not, economics is absolutely political and it certainly affects us as people. I grew up extremely poor and have felt the pressure of national politics, and it's always been a topic of conversation for my family, which has always been a little more aware of those higher machinations than most, I'd have to guess.
The biggest fear I had, strangely enough, was that my students might begin to see me as a partisan. I've always worked extremely hard in the classroom not to let them know where I stand, or what I think politically, and this certainly tore that wall down. It's been good though. I've had good conversations and they've been incredibly supportive.
I will say, I didn't expect the abuse and harassment. I never, ever expected it to blow up in the way it has and couldn't have seen that part of the whole deal.
BH: That totally makes sense and I'm so glad that you did this -- I really think your coverage has been among the best throughout the entire campaign season. Which brings us to the whole way this blew up: can you walk us through that?
JYS: The Greensboro Trump rally was the second Trump rally I'd been to and third Trump event overall. I'd actually been there in December when he announced his proposed ban on Muslims and afterward when his supporters threatened to shoot protestors outside the venue. There'd been a little bit in the way of attention from that reportage, but nothing even approaching what happened in Greensboro, where I had no idea what was happening until after I left. While there I overheard a lot of stuff, real real upsetting things, and apparently it caught the eye of Chrissy Teigen, who, honestly, I had never heard of before. I got a text as I was leaving that said something like "Chrissy Teigen is retweeting you!" and I just thought, Who?
It blew up from there. In a matter of hours I went from 1,400 Twitter followers to over twenty thousand. The attention was...overwhelming. Dizzying, honestly. And I just had this weird feeling that nothing was really going to be the same after that. The harassment didn't come until the next day when there were these waves of trolls. The first was Trump supporters, regularly people, you know, who didn't want to believe what I'd reported. Then came these Men's Rights Advocates, misogynists, who started questioning my sexuality and basically mobilizing to harass me as a front. I thought that was bad and then came the Neo-Nazis. They were the worst, by far, and while the others went about trying to question my integrity or get me fired from my job, the Neo-Nazis were sending me all these awful, awful memes and then they started threatening my life. And then, I had somebody circling my house and some other...weird threats. I had to get a security system and really change the way I lived my life.
There were good things though, obviously. It was the summer so I had some time to indulge all these things. I ended up on TV and the radio and all these media requests. I was asked by The New Republic and The New York Times to contribute, which is kind of a giant thrill, but it really overwhelmed me for awhile. To think about that time period now it's almost enough to have a panic attack.
BH: That is insane. I wasn't sure if it was really that sudden, or if there had been a kind of build-up, but yeah, from 1,400 to over 20,000 Twitter followers in one night is a real explosion. I knew you were getting trolled by some crazy people, but had no idea about the Neo-Nazis. Holy shit that's crazy and scary.
What was that initial period of time like? There's a phrase they use in The Wire that I think of all the time: "how are you going to carry it?" Did you have a moment when you thought, how am I going to carry this? Because like you said, I could see some good things happening even at that time — the New Republic pieces, all those Twitter followers. Or was it more like, moment to moment how am I not going to get killed by some crazy troll Neo-Nazi?
JYS: That's the thing, at first you're pretty overwhelmed by it and then, after a day or so, it's just reality. I remember walking out of a radio studio, after taping a thing for NPR, where I was standing in the parking lot and thinking, what the hell is going on? I got on my phone and the updates just kept renewing and I couldn't focus on any of them they were moving so fast. I had to drive back from Savannah, which is an hour, and over the course of the drive I sort of had to have a come-to-terms moment with what had happened. I was going to have to either accept it or run away from it, and once I decided it was the former I was in. It took a reordering of my life, honestly, but I was willing to do it, especially considering I got to be a voice against Donald Trump, who is basically the existential threat of our generation.
The threats were a little different. For the first month or so there wasn't a time I walked into a room or a building without taking stock of who was around or what my surroundings were. I'd go into the bathroom and have to keep watch out of the corner of my eye. It changed the way I lived my life, and it still does. I don't leave without arming the security system, don't come home without checking every room to make sure everything's copacetic. Honestly, it's a lot, but again, in the face of all this bs, it's worth it.
BH: Let me just say a quick and really honest thank you for your work on this election. The fact that you have to arm your system and check all the rooms in your house, because of something you've written (and tweeted) is positively insane.
You're a writer and I'm a writer and probably most of the people who read this in Barrelhouse will be writers, so I want to shift over and talk about the writing part of this a bit. For some reason, my wife and I are kind of obsessed with the movie Shattered Glass, about New Republic writer Stephen Glass, who was caught fabricating stories. We watched it again last week and I was really struck at how tame most of the things he made up were, and how the people around him (in the movie) seemed to think they were so wild. The stuff you're writing for New Republic is so much crazier than anything Glass made up for them. What has it been like as a writer to be in this position? Are you thinking, oh my god this is the greatest/craziest material? Or are you thinking, oh my god this is the existential threat of our generation?
JYS: Sorry if I'm responding too quick, but I'm kind of procrastinating this chapter I'm writing. Anyway, thank you for that. It's totally fine and I shouldn't complain, honestly. I mean, everybody writing about this is stuff is getting harassed. But thank you, seriously.
That Shattered Glass movie's pretty good, actually. I love Hayden Christensen in that and think that guy gets a bad rap because of Star Wars. Anyway, the first Trump event I went to was a question and answer thing with Tim Scott in South Carolina and though there were some problems, some heated debates, it was relatively mild. I kind of thought Trump, who was already saying all this really messed up stuff, was just a bloviator, you know? Then I went to South Carolina for the speech aboard the USS Yorktown where he called for the Muslim ban and...something had transformed. I think it was because San Bernandino, honestly, and the gathering wave of Islamophobia. All of a sudden people were pissed off and saying these awful, racist things. That's when Trump stopped being funny for me and I saw this growing threat.
In Greensboro it hit another level. It wasn't just the awful things they were saying, it was the glee with which they were saying them. And though that was the thing that got the most attention, the next couple of rallies were the worst. In Raleigh I heard all these people calling for Hillary Clinton to be hung, all these people talking about wanting to kill her for treason, and in the middle of it I thought, Holy shit, there's something happening here. Every rally I went to after that had a different sort of focus, whether it was just straight racism or misogyny. In Tampa I watched two separate incidents where supporters were using Confederate flags to intimidate people. At the Convention it was just straight harassment and abuse everywhere you looked. Sometimes it dawned on me what I was watching, but most of the time I was just busy trying to document it.
BH: What's the most disturbing thing you've seen in this whole process?
JYS: Well, the calls for Clinton to be lynched were pretty bad. To stand there among the people and just listen to everyone saying it without any fear of reprisal. Including a guy who was giving an interview where he was talking about wanting to shoot her personally for the crime of treason. That and the constant slurs you hear at all these things. It gets to you after awhile, because how couldn't it? Oh. And at the rally in South Carolina, the night of the Muslim Ban, a guy came up to me while I was watching protestors and pointed at this big gun, this decorative gun, and then he nodded at the protestors and said he wished the gun was operational so he could mow the crowd down.
There was also this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xc0UGp9KAuk which is just about the most disgusting thing I've ever watched in realtime out in the open.
BH: Have you been writing any fiction during this process? I can't imagine you have time, but I'm curious how being part of this crazy outsized thing might affect or play into your writing.
JYS: As for my own writing, I was working on a novel when this whole thing boiled over. I was probably two-thirds of the way done and this has definitely slowed that down. I'm down to maybe the last two chapters, but since getting the book deal and finding out the political book is due in February, I've had to shift every waking moment into this project.
BH: Excellent transition! Congratulations on the book deal! Can you tell us a little about that?
JYS: Thanks, man. I appreciate that.
It's called The People Are Going To Rise Like The Waters Upon Your Shore and it's going to be published by Counterpoint Press next fall. It'll use my in-person reportage to frame the election and go in-depth into how Donald Trump won the nomination, why Clinton had so much trouble with Bernie Sanders, and how in the hell we got into the mess we're in currently in regards to politics and polarization. I just finished the chapter about Fox News and the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine. Bleak, bleak stuff.
BH: Congratulations on that! I can't wait to read it. Let's pray there's not a chapter about President Trump!
Okay, I think only one last question and it's the standard Barrelhouse question: What's your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?
JYS: Good lord. I'm so afraid I'll be going to DC for Trump's inauguration. It's just...awful to think about.
Oh. My favorite Swayze movie is Road House. I know that's the boring, standard answer, but it's true. Swayze's a warrior-poet in that movie. And I don't know what world it's set in, this world with these knockdown-dragout fights - or weird stripping dances that set off bar brawls - but I'm so glad it exists in that movie.
Jared Yates Sexton is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University. He's the author of three collections, a crime-novel, and the upcoming political book The People Are Going To Rise Like The Waters Upon Your Shore.