THIS BOOK HAS BEEN GERMINATING for a long time. In the late 1990s I wrote a few articles pointing toward it—about American politics morphing into show business and baby boomers trying to stay forever young, about untrue conspiracy theories being mainstreamed and the explosion of talk radio as it became more and more about the hosts’ wild opinions. In 1999 I published a novel about a TV producer who created two groundbreaking shows—a police drama in which the fictional characters interact with real police arresting real criminals, and a news program featuring scenes of the anchors’ private lives.
But the ideas and arguments really started crystallizing in 2004 and 2005. First President George W. Bush’s political mastermind Karl Rove introduced the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People “in the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He said it with a sense of humor, but he was also deadly serious. A year later The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of his first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing populist character, performed a feature called The Word in which he riffed on a phrase. “Truthiness,” he said.
Now I’m sure some of the “word police,” the “wordinistas” over at Webster’s, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word!” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books—they’re all fact, no heart….Face it, folks, we are a divided nation…divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart….Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.
Whoa, yes, I thought: exactly. America had changed in this particular, peculiar way, I realized. Until the 2000s, truthiness and reality-based community wouldn’t have made much sense as jokes.
My understanding of how this change occurred became clearer a few years later, when I started work on a novel about a group of kids who in the early 1960s role-play James Bond stories, and then in 1968, as college students, undertake a real-life Bond-like antigovernment plot. During the 1960s, reality and fantasy blurred problematically, for my characters and for plenty of real Americans. In the course of researching and thinking through that story, I came to understand the era and its impacts in a new way. For all the fun, and all the various positive effects of the social and cultural upheavals, I saw that it was also the Big Bang moment for truthiness. And if the 1960s amounted to a national nervous breakdown, we are mistaken to consider ourselves over it, because what people say about recovery is true: you’re never really cured.
I realized too that this complicated American phenomenon I was trying to figure out had been not just decades but centuries in the making. In order to understand our weakness for fantasy of all kinds, I needed to follow the tendrils and branches and roots further back—all the way back, to America’s beginnings.
You’re not going to agree with me about all the various mental habits and beliefs and behaviors I classify here as imaginary or fantastical. You may find me too judgmental about matters of deep personal conviction. As I pass by fish in barrels, I will often shoot them. But I don’t consider all religion or all alternative belief systems or all conspiracy theories or all impossible dreams misguided. Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense.
What’s problematic is going overboard, letting the subjective entirely override the objective, people thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings were just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, each of us free to reinvent himself by imagination and will. In America those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.
Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the last half-century, Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation, small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become. The cliché would be the frog in the gradually warming pot, oblivious to its doom until too late.*1
Much more than the other billion or two people in the rich world, we Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and miraculous, in Satan on Earth now, reports of recent trips to and from Heaven, and a several-thousand-year-old story of life’s instantaneous creation several thousand years ago.
At the turn of the millennium, our financial industry fantasized that risky debt was no longer risky, so many tens of millions of Americans fantasized that they could live like rich people, given our fantasy that real estate would always and only increase in value.
We believe the government and its co-conspirators are hiding all sorts of monstrous truths from us—concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of AIDS, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.
We stockpile guns because we fantasize about our pioneer past, or in anticipation of imaginary shootouts with thugs and terrorists. We acquire military costumes and props in order to pretend we’re soldiers—or elves or zombies—fighting battles in which nobody dies, and enter fabulously realistic virtual worlds to do the same.
And that was all before we became familiar with the terms post-factual and post-truth, before we elected a president with an astoundingly open mind about conspiracy theories, what’s true and what’s false, the nature of reality.
We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.
HOW WIDESPREAD IS this promiscuous devotion to the untrue? How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of people’s beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think, but from reams of research, drilling down and cross-checking and distilling data from the last twenty years, a rough, useful census of American belief, credulity, and delusion does emerge.
By my reckoning, the more or less solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, believe with some certainty that CO2 emissions from cars and factories are the main cause of Earth’s warming. Only a third are sure the tale of creation in Genesis isn’t a literal, factual account. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts.
Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” At least half are absolutely certain Heaven exists, ruled over by a personal God—not some vague force or universal spirit but a guy. More than a third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of scientists, government, and journalists.
A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like humans today; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of “natural” cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have recently visited (or now reside on) Earth.
A quarter believe vaccines cause autism and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 general election. A quarter believe that our previous president was (or is?) the Antichrist. A quarter believe in witches. Remarkably, no more than one in five Americans believe the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—around the same number who believe that “the media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals” and that U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.*2
When I say that a third believe X or a quarter believe Y, it’s important to understand that those are different thirds and quarters of the U.S. population. Various fantasy constituencies overlap and feed each other—for instance, belief in extraterrestrial visitation and abduction can lead to belief in vast government cover-ups, which can lead to belief in still more wide-ranging plots and cabals, which can jibe with a belief in an impending Armageddon involving Jesus. Fantasyland operates like the European Union, a collection of disparate domains of various sizes overlaid with a Schengen Area that allows citizens of any of the dozens of lands to travel freely among the others, the way Hungarians and Maltese can visit France or Iceland at will.
And like intra-European antipathies, the mutual contempt among Fantasyland regions can be as intense as their contempt for the reality-based. To many evangelicals, Pentecostals are heretics, and to evangelicals and Pentecostals, Mormons are heretics; Pat Robertson has called Scientology satanic; the Vatican considers Oprah’s apostles misguided fools; different kinds of truthers regard each other as deluded. A lot of the people certain that GMOs are unsafe to eat, despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary, deride deniers of climate science. Indeed, the history of Fantasyland could be rendered bracketologically, like college basketball, centuries of continuous playoffs, with particular teams losing (Puritans) and winning (Mormons) along the way and continuing to fight it out today.
Why are we like this?
That’s what this book will explore. The short answer is because we’re Americans, because being American means we can believe any damn thing we want, that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.
The word mainstream has recently become a pejorative, shorthand for bias, lies, oppression by the elites. Yet that hated Establishment, the institutions and forces that once kept us from overdoing the flagrantly untrue or absurd—media, academia, politics, government, corporate America, professional associations, respectable opinion in the aggregate—has enabled and encouraged every species of fantasy over the last few decades.
A senior physician at one of America’s most prestigious university hospitals promotes miracle cures on his daily TV show. Major cable channels air documentaries treating mermaids, monsters, ghosts, and angels as real. A CNN anchor speculated on the air that the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner was a supernatural event. State legislatures and one of our two big political parties pass resolutions to resist the imaginary impositions of a New World Order and Islamic law. When a political scientist attacks the idea that “there is some ‘public’ that shares a notion of reality, a concept of reason, and a set of criteria by which claims to reason and rationality are judged,” colleagues just nod and grant tenure. A white woman felt black, pretended to be, and under those fantasy auspices became an NAACP official—and then, busted, said, “It’s not a costume…not something that I can put on and take off anymore. I wouldn’t say I’m African American, but I would say I’m black.” Bill Gates’s foundation has funded an institute devoted to creationist pseudoscience. Despite his nonstop lies and obvious fantasies—rather, because of them—Donald Trump was elected president. The old fringes have been folded into the new center. The irrational has become respectable and often unstoppable. As particular fantasies get traction and become contagious, other fantasists are encouraged by a cascade of out-of-control tolerance. It’s a kind of twisted Golden Rule unconsciously followed: If those people believe that, then certainly we can believe this.
Our whole social environment and each of its overlapping parts—cultural, religious, political, intellectual, psychological—have become conducive to spectacular fallacy and make-believe. There are many slippery slopes, leading in various directions to other exciting nonsense. During the last several decades, those naturally slippery slopes have been turned into a colossal and permanent complex of interconnected, crisscrossing bobsled tracks with no easy exit. Voilà: Fantasyland.
THE SCOPE OF this book extends way beyond the contagion of clear-cut, fact-checkable untruths. America’s transformation finally clicked into focus for me when I stepped back and broadened my field of vision. I saw that the proliferation of delusions and illusions concerning the large subjects that people have always debated—politics, religion, even science—is connected to the proliferation and glut of the fictional and quasi-fictional coursing through everyday American life.
What I’m calling Fantasyland isn’t only a matter of falsehoods fervently believed but of people assembling make-believe lifestyles as well. Both kinds of fantasy—conspiracy theories and belief in magic on one hand and fantasy football and virtual reality on the other—make everyday existence more exciting and dramatic. And the modern tipping points for both kinds were the result of the same two momentous changes.
The first was that profound shift in thinking that swelled up in the 1960s, whereby Americans ever since have had a new rule set in their mental operating systems, even if they’re certain they possess the real truth: Do your own thing, find your own reality, it’s all relative. The paradigm can be explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious, but it’s the way we are now.
The second big enabling change was the new era of information and communications. Digital technology empowers real-seeming fictions of both types, the lifestyle and entertainment kinds as well as the ideological and religious and pseudoscientific kinds, in subtypes bright and dark. Among the one billion websites, believers in anything and everything can find thousands of fellow fantasists who share their beliefs, with collages of facts and “facts” to back them up. Before the Internet, crackpots were mostly isolated and surely had a harder time remaining convinced of their alternate realities. Now their devoutly believed opinions are all over the airwaves and the Web, just like actual news. Now all the fantasies look real.
Computers make fantasies that we (mostly) understand to be fantasies seem much more authentic as well. We can pretend we’re anybody or anything from any time or galaxy. But online fantasy doesn’t end when we exit the CGI realms of Dr. Ludvig Maxis and Lady Jaina Proudmoore. There’s an immense gray zone outside the obvious fictions of games. Because we are anonymous online, we can become fictionalized versions of ourselves in real life, real people interacting with other real people in ways that not long ago we’d never dream or dare to do.
Each of the small fantasies and simulations we insert into our lives is harmless enough, replacing a small piece of the authentic but mundane here, another over there. The world looks a little more like a movie set and seems a little more exciting and glamorous, like Hitchcock’s definition of drama—life with the dull bits cut out. Each of us can feel like a sexier hero in a cooler story, younger than we actually are if we’re old or older if we’re young. Over time the patches of unreality take up more and more space in our lives. Eventually the whole lawn becomes AstroTurf. We stop registering the differences between simulated and authentic, real and unreal.
In the old days, if you wanted a shot at becoming instantly rich, you had to travel to Las Vegas. In order to spend time walking around a razzle-dazzling fictional realm, if you weren’t psychotic, you had to go to Disneyland. Theme was not a verb. Pornography was not ubiquitous. Cosmetic surgery was rare; breasts were not preternaturally large and firm, faces artificially smooth and tight. We didn’t reenact military battles with realistic props for days on end. We hadn’t yet fabricated the mongrel of melodrama and pseudodocumentary called reality TV.
Of course, having fake boobs or playing League of Legends probably doesn’t make any individual more inclined to believe that she needs a dozen semiautomatic rifles for self-protection or that vaccines cause autism or that the Earth is six thousand years old. But we are freer than ever to custom-make reality, to believe whatever or to pretend to be whomever we wish. Which makes all the lines between actual and fictional blur and disappear more easily. Truth in general becomes flexible, a matter of personal preference. There is a functioning synergy among our multiplying fantasies, the large and small ones, the toxic and the individually entertaining ones, the ones we know to be fiction, the ones we kinda sorta believe, and the religious and political and scientific ones we’re convinced aren’t fantasies at all. Scientists warn about the “cocktail effect” concerning chemicals in the environment and drugs in the brain, where various substances “potentiate” other substances. I think it’s like that. We’ve been drinking bottomless American cocktails mixed from all the different fantasy ingredients, and those various fantasies, conscious and semiconscious and unconscious, intensify the effects of the others.
We like this new ultrafreedom to binge, we insist on it, even as we fear and loathe the ways so many of our wrong-headed fellow Americans abuse it. When John Adams said in the 1700s that “facts are stubborn things,” the overriding American principle of personal freedom was not yet enshrined in the Declaration or the Constitution, and the United States of America was itself still a dream. Two and a half centuries later the nation Adams cofounded has become a majority-rule de facto refutation of his truism: “our wishes, our inclinations” and “the dictates of our passions” now apparently do “alter the state of facts and evidence,” because extreme cognitive liberty and the pursuit of happiness rule.
THIS IS NOT unique to America, people treating real life as fantasy and vice versa, and taking preposterous ideas seriously. We’re just uniquely immersed. In the developed world, our predilection is extreme, distinctly different in the breadth and depth of our embrace of fantasies of many different kinds. Sure, the physician whose fraudulent research launched the antivaccine movement was a Brit, and young Japanese otaku invented cosplay, dressing up as fantasy characters. And while there are believers in flamboyant supernaturalism and prophecy and religious pseudoscience in other developed countries, nowhere else in the rich world are such beliefs central to the self-identities of so many people. We are Fantasyland’s global crucible and epicenter.
This is American exceptionalism in the twenty-first century. America has always been a one-of-a-kind place. Our singularity is different now. We’re still rich and free, still more influential and powerful than any nation, practically a synonym for developed country. But at the same time, our drift toward credulity, doing our own thing, and having an altogether uncertain grip on reality has overwhelmed our other exceptional national traits and turned us into a less-developed country as well.
People tend to regard the Trump moment—this post-truth, alternative facts moment—as some inexplicable and crazy new American phenomenon. 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. What I’m trying to do with this book is define and pin down our condition, to portray its scale and scope, to offer some fresh explanations of how our national journey deposited us here.
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 P. T. 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.
I hope we’re only on a long temporary detour, that we’ll manage somehow to get back on track. If we’re on a bender, suffering the effects of guzzling too much fantasy cocktail for too long, if that’s why we’re stumbling, manic and hysterical, mightn’t we somehow sober up and recover? You would think. But first you need to understand how deeply this tendency has been encoded in our national DNA.
*1 In real life, frogs jump out before the water gets too hot. In the nineteenth-century experiment that apparently generated the idea, however, a frog was boiled to death—but its brain had been removed beforehand. Which was humane and, in the present context, makes the metaphor more apt.
*2 In this chapter, I’ve relied on survey data collected between 2000 and 2017 by the Pew Research Center, NORC at the University of Chicago (General Social Survey), the International Social Survey Programme, Gallup, Ipsos, YouGov, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, Qualtrics, Public Policy Polling, Opinion Research Corporation, Scripps, Harris, and the Project on Climate Change Communication.