Review: The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis

To observers reassured about the health of American democracy after the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, Jared Yates Sexton's blunt and provocative The Midnight Kingdom may come as an unwelcome splash of cold water. In this survey of the history of Western civilization that begins in first-century Rome and spans nearly 2,000 years, Sexton, a political analyst and podcaster, explores "the means by which power shields and hides itself." He argues that it does so chiefly through deceit and paranoia-inducing conspiracy theories that have remained remarkably consistent across cultures and historical eras, and that those tactics are flourishing with particular virulence today. 

Sexton, who chronicled the rise of Donald Trump in The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore, takes the title of this book from the work of Russian neofascist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. Dugin envisions a world in which liberal democracy and globalism will be overthrown and supplanted by the authoritarian nationalism promoted by men like Vladimir Putin, Hungary's Viktor Orbàn and, in the United States, Steve Bannon. In Sexton's eyes, the history of the West, for all its surface gleam, at its heart is largely one of "pure, unvarnished white patriarchal supremacy," a dominance that would be explicitly elevated in the world Dugin and his intellectual and political allies covet.

In the 20th century, Sexton's principal bogeyman is neoliberalism, a philosophy that in the United States has been "eating away at the authority of the state, systematically transferring power from the federal government to the domain of the market and corporations." The consequence of its dominance, he contends, has been to create a permanent underclass whose rage can be deflected from its true oppressors while providing the political support necessary to maintain those oppressors in power.

As evidenced by more than 1,000 endnotes, Sexton's research in both primary and secondary sources is prodigious. In crisp and efficient prose, he discourses on subjects as diverse as the power of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, the age of colonialism, or 20th-century American politics. His opinions will elicit enthusiastic assent from some readers and vigorous disagreement from others.

Sexton ends his story with a somber catalogue of recent events in the United States, including the murder of George Floyd, the Covid-19 pandemic and the January 6 insurrection. No one reading this book would ever accuse him of unwarranted optimism, but even as he recognizes the rise of the forces that are "hard at work to try to rewind time and reinstall theocratic, authoritarian rule based on weaponized faiths that once ruled the world," he does envision "a new faith that transcends the divisions of old and centers on a belief and trust in one another." The outcome of this clash will shape the next turn of history's wheel. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Shelf Talker: Jared Yates Sexton offers a sobering historical perspective on the forces pushing the West toward authoritarianism.

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