America is a strange place right now. The weirdness has of course been exacerbated by our off-the-rails, crazy-train commander-in-chief, whose penchant for conspiracy theories and impulsive fits of self-expression have — hopefully temporarily — plunged the United States into the era of “alternative facts”: a dark age of false equivalencies between gut feelings and verifiable truths, a time when the country’s celebration of an individual’s sacrosanct right to believe whatever he or she wants has resulted in bizarre, are-we-actually-talking-about-this conversations wending their way into mainstream discourse.
Does the prevailing mood feel like an aberration? On a long enough timeline, it probably shouldn’t — or so argues Kurt Andersen, the novelist, cultural commentator, and, as a co-founder of now defunct New York magazine Spy, longtime Trump antagonist. Andersen’s latest book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (Random House), surveys the genesis and development of American ideas, charting our nation’s propensity for magical thinking to arrive at a sweeping diagnosis of the American psyche. “People tend to regard the Trump moment — this post-truth, alternative facts moment — as some inexplicable and crazy new American phenomenon,” Andersen writes. “In fact, what’s happening is just the ultimate extrapolation and expression of attitudes and instincts that have made America exceptional for its entire history — and really, from its prehistory.”
Beginning with the birth of Protestantism in Europe and the Old World’s colonization of the New, Fantasyland explores some of the more pronounced qualities of the American character — religious fervor, anti-intellectualism, the premium we place on self-invention — to provide a framework on which to hang a grand unifying theory of the United States. As the author describes, the country has been historically torn between the poles of rationality and delusion; lately, delusion appears to be winning. Andersen writes: “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 Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.”
Fantasyland deals with issues of race, intolerance, and the peculiarly American susceptibility to advertising, examining along the way many of the characters who shaped the culture. P.T. Barnum turns up, as do Joseph Smith, Walt Disney, and many of the Founding Fathers, as well as Henry David Thoreau, Oprah Winfrey, and, naturally, Donald Trump. Andersen began work on the book in 2013, back when Trump’s foreign policy was about bringing the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow. The author points to Trump’s ascent to the presidency as a kind of proof for his thesis.
In the 1980s, along with current Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, Andersen founded Spy, an influential monthly that spoke humor to power and mercilessly skewered well-known New Yorkers of the day, with Trump as a frequent target. Spy had a special relationship with the man who would become our 45th president, famously labeling him a “short-fingered vulgarian.” Trump has reportedly (and perhaps unsurprisingly) never been able to let the epithet go.
“Spy called him a clown and a bully and a liar, but we basically thought of him as a joke,” Andersen recalls. “He wasn’t going to hurt anybody. He was going to hurt some tenants and the Bonwit Teller building, but, like, eh, who cares? One of the reasons he got a pass for so long from the political news media was because they thought he was a joke too. I don’t think he’s changed very much. Apart from the Central Park Five ads, he never seemed a particularly political or fascistic person until 2011, when he became the birther poster boy. [In 1989, five teens, all of them black or Latino, were accused of assaulting and raping a white woman in Central Park; in response, Trump bought full-page ads in New York City’s daily papers calling for a return of the death penalty. The teens were later exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence and the confession of a serial rapist. — Ed.] He just wanted attention. He’s always wanted attention. He wants attention like I want food and water — to such an extreme degree. That’s what’s always amazed me. Now he’s got all the attention he could ever want, and yet he’s not happy, it seems.”
Andersen continues, “I spent a long time looking at tapes of him from the late Nineties and early Aughts — he’s calmer, maybe possibly happier, less desperate-seeming, speaks in more complete sentences. But in terms of the raging need for attention at any cost, that’s the same as it ever was. The combination of ignorance with at least the appearance of self-confidence, that’s the same.”
Trump’s comic-book-villain personality and flair for showmanship — along with his disturbing knack for muddying up the differences between reality and “reality” to tilt the playing field to his advantage — fits neatly within Andersen’s paradigm. But the current president plays only a small role in the book, which explores through a much wider lens how America came to be so American. The author cites big-top impresario Barnum and Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody as earlier examples of extreme personalities, men whose talent for self-invention both made them famous and led to the founding and mass-marketing of infotainment. Barnum’s circus acts and entrepreneurial spirit remain present in the popular consciousness, but the specifics of the latter’s nineteenth-century career have faded over time; it’s a surprise to discover that Buffalo Bill would have been at least conceptually at ease with contemporary notions of advertising, vertical integration, and the trappings of TV. As Andersen tells it, “At twenty-three, he featured as the title character in a highly fictionalized ‘true’ story, ‘Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men,’ published in a New York newspaper. And starting at twenty-six, the year he won the Congressional Medal of Honor for leading a squad of cavalry against some Sioux, Cody became a theatrical performer: he played himself in a play called Scouts of the Prairie — written by the author of the earlier newspaper story, who also published dime novels about Cody. Buffalo Bill had become a star. In his late twenties, he started publishing his own dime novels starring himself, and he toured the East in more theatrical productions playing Buffalo Bill — even as he continued working off and on in the far West as an Indian fighter.”
Elsewhere, Andersen focuses on the public’s cleaving to religion as a core trait of the American personality, especially for members of those sects that “emphasized not just the ancient miracles but miracles right now, feeling the supernatural by believing in it strongly enough.” Among the many historical figures he addresses are Anne Hutchinson, whose beliefs ran contrary to Puritan religious authorities and resulted in her exile from Massachusetts in the 1630s; George Whitefield, co-founder of the Methodist movement, whose sermons in the 1730s produced the sort of youthquake reaction we more commonly associate with events like Dylan going electric; and Joseph Smith, the visionary behind the Book of Mormon, whose authorship of a third biblical testament (as Andersen notes, the most popular piece of fan fiction ever, ahead in sales of Fifty Shades of Grey) speaks to the quintessential multitudinousness of the American character. “As we let a hundred dogmatic iterations of reality bloom, the eventual result was an anything-goes relativism that extends beyond religion to almost every kind of passionate belief,” Andersen writes. “If I think it’s true, no matter why or how I think it’s true, then it’s true, and nobody can tell me otherwise. That’s the real-life reductio ad absurdum of American individualism.”
“People say, ‘But isn’t there a good side to this? Dream the impossible dream?’ ” Andersen says. “Of course there is. But do I need to restate that? We all think that we’re pretty great. I’m just saying, here’s a slightly alternate history that says not that we’re horrible, but that we have this history and set and pattern of predilections that worked out well along the way. Smart people go, ‘But this is how we got Steve Jobs.’ Yes, yes, but I think we’ve gotten it out of whack.”
Born and raised in a middle-class household in Nebraska, Andersen attended Harvard, where he edited the Lampoon, and then moved to New York City, working his way to become well-known as one of the country’s media luminaries. In addition to Spy (and among many other credits), Andersen did a stint as editor of New York magazine, wrote columns for the New York Times and the New Yorker, and has published a number of books, including three novels, one of which, Heyday, is set in the mid–nineteenth century. (Researching that book helped inform Fantasyland.) He also hosts Studio 360, the Peabody Award–winning arts and culture radio show, whose recent episodes have dealt with topics as varied as The Great Gatsby, alternate universes, and the influences on and of Radiohead’s OK Computer.
Fantasyland explores a similarly eclectic diversity of subject matter, with examples from U.S. history employed to describe how we got to where we are today, and where it all went wrong. It’s a staggering amount of research that’s both compelling and totally unnerving.
Andersen argues that the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s provided the catalyst for the mass green-lighting of new levels of personal relativism, and he devotes a sizable section of the book to the particulars of those decades — hippies, government conspiracies, crackpot intellectuals, and the evolution of views on religion — to illustrate how we entered the phase. “The 1960s gave license to everyone in America to let their freak flags fly — superselfish Ayn Randians as well as New Age shamans, fundamentalists and evangelicals and charismatics; Scientologists, homeopaths, spiritual cultists, and academic relativists; left-wing and right-wing conspiracists; war reenactors and those abducted by Satan or extraterrestrials; compulsive pornhounds and gamblers and gun-lovers. Do your own thing. Our epistemological and ontological levees were blasted apart and never repaired thereafter. Mistrust authority. Nonfiction fantasies were no longer held back or filtered out from the mainstream as they used to be.”
In Andersen’s assessment, Trump and his taste for the fantastic is only a symptom of this particular American strain of crazy. “Donald Trump didn’t come out of nothing,” Andersen says. “He exploited ground that had already been softened up — climate-change denial and the idea that there’s more prejudice against white people than black people in America, all that stuff. It was already there….I can be hopeful that we’ll learn our lesson, [that] even the people who voted for him will think it’s a big mistake. But we will still be this place. If Hillary Clinton had been elected president, we would be the same country with the same predisposition for believing untrue crazy shit that we are now. Who is or isn’t president doesn’t change the facts or our national character.”
Whether or not America is strong enough to withstand, say, Twitter or Facebook’s newsfeed remains to be seen. “Part of the argument of my book is conservative in the old-school sense,” Andersen says. “There’s a little too much egalitarian discourse if I can say Obama is born in Kenya and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s an opinion, you’ve got to hear him out.’ ”
So can America still return to a more empirical experience of the universe? “That’ll be my sequel,” Andersen quips. “People who think this is a problem and it’s gone too far shouldn’t just say [to themselves], ‘Ah, whatever, crazy brother-in-law, if you want to say George Soros created this climate change hoax, go ahead.’ I think it’s incumbent upon the reality-based among us to not necessarily write books about it, or go to the barricades about it, but in any and every way you can, in the public sphere, in your private family sphere, do what you can to stand up for rationality and reasonableness.”
“Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History”
By Kurt Andersen