I can do no better in conveying the gist of Kurt Andersen’s book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire (Random House 2017), than by quoting a long passage from its first chapter:
America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, by hucksters and their suckers—which over the course of four centuries has made us susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem hunting witches to Joseph Smith creating Mormonism, from PT Barnum to Henry David Thoreau to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Donald Trump. In other words: mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled (11).
That gets to a major portion of what Andersen has assembled to focus our attention on: the idea that Donald Trump and his believers are not aberrations so much as the fulfillment of our long national aspiration to do our own thing, no matter how nutty. Where we Americans like to think of ourselves as sensible inheritors of Enlightenment rationalism and realism and pragmatism, there is a very powerful strain in the national mythos and character that just as powerfully rejects reason and opts instead for belief—belief in whatever we feel to be true, regardless of facts or logic or consensus reality. This is why, for instance, the man who is now President of the United States can justify anything he says, no matter how fantastical (that he lost the popular vote because millions of ‘illegals’ voted for Clinton; or that his offices in Trump Tower were bugged by the Obama administration), by asserting, and having his aides assert as ‘proof’ that he “does believe that,” and “has believed that for a while.” And when asked by a national news anchor about such fantasies—“Do you think that talking about millions of illegal votes is dangerous to this country without presenting the evidence?”—he replies “No, not at all! Not at all—because many people feel the same way I do” (426-7). In Trumpworld, that is, belief trumps fact every time. What Kurt Andersen does is assemble the history that leads logically to this sorry situation.
He begins, of course, with the nation’s founders, including the prospectors who were sure they would find gold in Virginia, the so-called “Pilgrims” for whom even the relaxed Protestantism of Holland was too constricting, and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, all of whom comprised highly radical wings of the not-very-old Protestant movement. These were people who could not stand any interference with their personal interpretation of the Bible. They felt that God himself had given them not just a new land where they could build their ‘theocracy,’ but essentially divine rights to the land over and above those who had lived there for millennia, the Natives. And they were quite clear that God had also given them the right to eliminate any who tried to block their settlement, as well as members of other less-pure sects like Quakers or Catholics. As Andersen notes, from 1675 through 1676, they did so with cold-blooded zeal, embarking on what he calls “the year of pitiless killing” (39) in their war against the ‘Satanic’ Indians. Believing devoutly that “Satan visibly and palpably reigns in America more than in any other known place of the world,” they were able to justify their slaughter as a religious war against “Satan’s soldiers” (38). And of course, in Salem, the outbreak of witchcraft was met with the well-known trials in which at least twenty witches and sorcerers were executed for alleged fealty to that same Satan. Yet the colonies survived and thrived, creating a place where the real opportunity, according to Andersen, was not so much economic as “the permission it gave to dream up new supernatural or otherwise untrue understandings of reality and believe them with passionate certainty” (42).
That auspicious beginning continued literally to the present-day with new sects sprouting like weeds, each nuttier than the last. So America got at least two Great Spiritual Awakenings where participants shook and rattled and spoke in tongues and dedicated themselves to a personal relationship with the Lord as they understood him; and new sects entirely like Baptists and Methodists; and then Pentecostals and Seventh-Day Adventists and fundamentalists and evangelicals and charismatics; and perhaps the craziest of all, Joseph Smith, who somehow convinced his Mormons that America really was the new Holy Land, literally visited by Jesus Christ as proved by the fact that Smith had met and talked with Him near Cleveland, OH. And millions believed him. Such willingness to believe whatever suits the believer made possible the Christian Science of a woman named Patterson who changed her name to Mary Baker Eddy and insisted in her book that neither pain nor disease were real: “there’s only belief in pain” and “what is termed disease does not exist” (79). It also enabled the founding of over one hundred utopian communities across America including one that Nathaniel Hawthorne toyed with, Brook Farm. As the discovery of gold in California in 1849 seemed to prove once and for all, America was the place where miracles actually happened.
Andersen then shows how all these initial predilections were given a “quantum” boost by several inventions: the movies, then TV, and then the Internet. Andersen calls them “a powerful and unprecedented solvent of the mental barriers between real and unreal” (138). That is, moving images enwrap the viewer in such a powerful feeling of participation that people who watch TV (many almost constantly) begin to think that’s what reality is. Or can no longer tell the difference between what they’ve seen on screen and what has actually happened (Donald Trump seems to be one of these people). Add to this the burgeoning of another American fantasy—the nostalgia of living in suburbs that appear to be embodiments of a pastoral past we all dream of, or see on screen—and you have a nation of people bred on make-believe and brainwashed by commercials that feed even more into that make-believe. In this regard, Andersen makes the notable point that the word suburbia seems to be a conflation of suburb and utopia, the apotheosis of which is the Disney-built town of Celebration, in Florida near Disneyworld. It is total fantasy of a town, fake to the point that each evening in the Fall, every hour on the hour, “tissue-paper leaves fall in the town center,” while in December, “snowlike soap flakes drift from the sky” (405). No need for actual trees or clouds or cold weather here.
There is more about Americans’ astonishing credulity in this key text, but you get the idea. From belief in UFO abductions to the fake hysteria over satanic abuse in the 1980s and 90s; from the craziness over the “right” to possess mass-murdering guns to the Republican Party’s paranoia over the UN’s Agenda 21 (a 1990 resolution about sustainable development that the GOP sees as a plan to coerce us all into a one-world order characterized by “socialist/communist redistribution of wealth”); from the Prosperity Gospel of Oral Robers and Ken Copeland and Joel Osteen, which says that praying to God can make you rich because Jesus himself was a millionaire and wants you to be rich; to the Hollywood TV Star Fantasy Camp where you can literally pretend to be a star with sets and star trailer etc. for only $10,000—what Andersen calls the fantasy-industrial complex keeps going into higher gear and seems set to get even more fantastic as the technology of virtual reality becomes ever more convincing. The net result, of course, is the increasing inability (or unwillingness) of Americans to distinguish between fact and fiction, fake and real. And what’s worse is that since the United States has become the world’s greatest exporter of fantasy and fantasy religion, our disease is spreading to the Third World where more than half a billion Christians, according to Andersen, now subscribe to Pentecostal or charismatic Christianity, speaking in tongues and “hearing personally from God” (289). Not to mention the numbers addicted to our films and video gaming.
And, of course, it has all come back to haunt us with the election of that most preposterous of salesmen for fantasyland, Donald Trump. Andersen calls him “a pure Fantasyland being, its apotheosis” (417). And it is true. He is the great white hope of fantasyland, the one who can, so he promised, bring Americans back to their imagined era of greatness (and whiteness). And while those of us in the “reality community” have a hard time understanding his appeal, Andersen’s history helps make sense of it. Indeed, it makes sense of what sometimes seems a contradiction—the combination, in Trump’s followers, of belief in the preposterous on the one hand, and cynical dismissal of things like science and facts on the other. Andersen quotes from Hannah Arendt’s masterwork, On Totalitarianism, here, and it is worth repeating part of that quote:
A mixture of gullibility and cynicism have been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true (436).
I think that very nearly describes Trump’s true believers, those supporters who seem deaf to his faults, his lies, his idiotic statements and retractions in almost the same breath (such as the one he recently made about having “misspoke” in his disastrous news conference in Helsinki). Completely unsettled and disoriented by the ‘incomprehensible world’ in which they find themselves, in which their jobs have vanished and their certainties have been upended, they take refuge, many of them, in preposterous beliefs about the bible, and in the obvious lies of a huckster who promises them relief, improbable though it may be, as well as in cynicism about ‘elites’ and science and global warming. They can thus think simultaneously that nothing the ‘elites’ say is true (it’s all fake news), and that everything Trump promises is both true and possible. And what Kurt Andersen shows us in Fantasyland is that they, this tribe of dreamers and believers, have been prepared for just this apotheosis by centuries of American training in and celebration of what can only be called a childlike way of being. Everything is possible. Nothing is true except what you believe. You can make anything come true simply by believing it. Intuitions are equal to facts. And, as Trump’s Witch of Endor said early on, there may be facts that contradict us, but there are also alternative facts that support us. The question is, are there enough Americans who care about the difference to save the ship before it sinks?