Donald Trump is the logical outcome of America's fascination with irrationality
[Originally published on Oct. 1, 2017]
The epigram of Kurt Andersen's new book is from the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts."
That kind of thinking is so 18th Century — an intellectual relic from an era long before "alternative facts" and "post-truth politics."
Before Karl Rove, the brains behind former President George W. Bush, explained to a journalist that the "reality-based community" was no longer relevant in Washington.
The difference between fact and fantasy now seems less consequential than ever. According to The Washington Post, President Donald Trump made 1,145 false or misleading claims during his first 232 days in office. That's roughly five a day — more or less the same rate as an incorrigible eight-year-old.
Kurt Andersen doesn't see the Donald Trump presidency as an aberration.
In new book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, he makes the case that it is the logical culmination of America's long history of hyper-religiosity, indifference to verifiable facts, and ecstatic embrace of the supernatural, fantasy and uninformed opinions.
Three decades ago, he co-founded Spy, a magazine that satirized the excesses of 1980s politics, pop culture and finance in which Donald Trump figured prominently.
He has since written best-selling novels, and contributed to Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The New Yorker.
He's also the host of the award-winning public radio program Studio 360.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation, click 'listen' above.
Michael Enright: What fed the growth and development of fantasyland in America?
Kurt Andersen: The pilgrims were our founding Puritan forebears. And not only did they have a fervent belief in supernatural signs, the imminent end of the world, the return of Jesus Christ and all the rest, they created a theocracy where their version of Christianity ruled.
And then when religious freedom began springing up during the later 1600s and early 1700s, it was by and large freedom to believe other extreme and extravagant Christian versions.
America was created not just as a country by Protestants but as a Protestant country. And that became part of the American character: to say 'No, I can decide what's true and what is correct on my own, simply by interpreting Scripture as I will.' That became codified, for better or for worse in America.
This individualism and skepticism is not altogether a bad thing, but it was a very pronounced and extreme strain in our character. Fast forward several hundred years later, when the establishment stopped imposing a sense of order, rigour and fact checking on all of these factions, and it got out of control.
ME: But at the same time you had Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
KA: They were strange bedfellows — these men of the Enlightenment and these true believers in medieval Christianity. And that odd hybrid is key to understanding the American character.
ME: You refer to Americans as literal-minded fantasists. What do you mean by that?
KA: Mostly I mean our version of Protestantism — what is now called evangelical Protestantism but really has its various flavours. This peculiar American Protestantism which, instead of regarding the stories in the Bible as allegories or inspirational moral lessons, tries to see it as a guidebook.
It's trying to find a literal manual to history, science and the future in what is inherently this collage of some historical truth, a lot of fable, and a lot of poetic imagination.
KA: The end-time idea has become a dominant orthodoxy in American Protestantism in the last 50 years. An enormous fraction of Americans — almost half — believe that by 2050 Jesus Christ will have returned and it will be the beginning of the Armageddon and the millennium to come.
ME: What is the fantasy industrial complex?
KA: As I define it, it includes much of religion, and the merging of religion with show business. It was true in the 1700s but certainly truer than ever in the 20th century.
Once Hollywood, television and videogames and the rest all of that stuff got going — that is at the core of the fantasy industrial complex. Lucratively feeding all kinds of fantasies into the American mindscape.
More and more of our life is a form of entertainment, of fiction, of make-believe. And that's fine when people are aware of it — when they dress up in superhero costumes or gather in the desert for days to dress as extraterrestrials or angels.
But the way in which all that fiction and reality is a blur — and a lucrative blur — sort of softens up the distinctions that we all need to make between what is authentic and what is artificial, what is true and what is false. It began with show business but it has grown to subsume so much more.
ME: Why are Americans so prone to believe in things that are either unprovable or that are demonstrably false?
KA: The great Daniel Borstein once wrote about how, from the beginning, the American colonies were businesses — the investors had to attract English people to give up everything and come to this blank place to try to make a living. Borstein said it shaped American civilization. That we self-selected for people who believe in advertising.
And again it's the less heroic side of 'adventurers who sought a new world.' Yes all that's true, but also we are to some degree a nation of suckers.
I think too that the religiosity has something to do with it. I think once you're committed to believing empirically unprovable supernatural things that it's a shorter step to believing unprovable things in the rest of life, like the 'belief' that climate change doesn't exist or that you need to have 28 semi-automatic rifles to protect against the hordes.
I think our American Protestant religiosity is a kind of entryway drug, if you will, to other kinds of untrue beliefs.
ME: Are there any fantasies on the Left?
KA: Of course there are. I mean '9/11 was an inside job' began more on the Left than the Right because it accused the George W. Bush Republican administration of being complicit. The idea that there is a great conspiracy among the U.S. government and the pharmaceutical industry to sell vaccines that cause autism — and that vaccines cause autism — was somewhat more on the Left than the Right originally. Now it's become a very bipartisan fantasy.
KA: So I'm not saying that liberals and people on the Left are immune to false information and false beliefs, but they are not — as it seems over the last few decades — as susceptible to them as people on the Right.
And more importantly, they haven't become this orthodoxy in one of our parties. The idea that 'I don't believe in climate change' is now required of Republican candidates for president and Republican politicians in general to say.
ME: How is President Donald Trump the embodiment of Fantasyland?
KA: In almost every way. I started writing this book before he was running for president and turned in the draft before he had the nomination. So he just appeared as a kind of miraculous embodiment of everything I've been writing about.
He promiscuously throws around conspiracies — whatever comes across his mindscape.
It's this absolute seeming indifference to the truth. And whether he is lying or not is sort of not the most salient question. It's that he believes anything that is convenient at that second for him to believe and say. That's how he embodies what I'm talking about.
He is not, God knows, a believing Christian. He's one of the least Christian presidents we've had in my lifetime. But oddly he has the overwhelming support of the most extravagant and flamboyant Christian believers in America. So there's an interesting synergy there.
ME: When you see Mr. Trump whip up a crowd of supporters, it's striking how they seem to believe whatever he says. Is it that they don't care, even when they know what he says isn't true?
KA: It's not unlike professional wrestling. Do the fans and the audiences of WWE wrestling know it's not true? Yeah, but they don't care. But they kind of think it's real.
And when it became more successful than it had ever been in the 1980s and 90s, it was because they started working real things from the wrestlers' lives into the ring and vice versa. They broke down the distinctions between the theatrical fakery of the wrestling and the real lives of the wrestlers.
That merger of the real and the fictional, that's Donald Trump.
Lying versus not lying is not the question, or the most appalling and terrifying thing to me. It's when he actually believes the untrue and dubious things that he does that concerns me. That he's not aware that he's telling untruths, that frankly concerns me more.
ME: Given the character of Donald Trump in the Oval Office and the general climate of Fantasyland, can you be optimistic that the United States can deal with issues like North Korea, or refugees, or climate change?
KA: No, I can't be very optimistic. And when I have talked to old-fashioned Republicans, military people, and leaders who deal with the administration, they say their basis for optimism and hope is that he has essentially abdicated all real governing to good people. The defence secretary, the secretary of state, the national security adviser — they're really running things.
Yet, of course he's the president. He can say, 'I want to nuke North Korea.' So the concern is that he is in charge. And so I don't see much reason for hope.
Beyond his fantasyland inclination to believe the untrue, I worry too about cognitive impairment.
The great hope is that at a certain point you can't keep the fantasy going and that reality will slap enough people in the face.
But what I also think is that once Donald Trump ends, it's not like, 'Oh good, everything's fine.' I wrote this book assuming Donald Trump wasn't going to be president. So he can go away but I think everything I believe about where the American mindset has gotten to — this believing in fantasy — is still going to be true.
ME: Is it conceivable that the biggest fantasy of all is that the United States is a functioning democracy?
KA: I'm not willing to go there yet. I try to be very narrow in what I call a fantasy. But that is a worrisome question.
People like the Koch brothers aren't fantasists at all. They are among the most reality-based people. They have this gigantic and successful fossil fuels company and they have spent a lot of money over the last 10-20 years casting doubt about the science of climate change because that will make it easier for the business to last longer.
They are cynics who understood how to exploit this easy belief in the untrue to their own ends. That's sort of adjacent to the worry about whether or not we have an operating democracy.