AFTER THE FINANCIAL MELTDOWN, IN spite of our government’s actions to contain the damage and prevent a full-fledged depression—and because of those emergency actions—a rabid fraction of us, hysterical true believers as well as the merely pissed-off, could no longer be controlled. Some called themselves the Tea Party and even engaged in cosplay, appearing at protests and community meetings in eighteenth-century American military drag. Dozens were elected to Congress and became the convulsive tail wagging the Republican dog. They hate or think they hate the status quo, including government itself, so they’ve been delighted to make the federal government stop working when they couldn’t force it to give them total victory—for them government dysfunction is an end, not just a means. The reality-based Republican elite who’d kept the fantasy-based communities as their useful idiots had been playing with fire. The idiots finally understood that the people in charge considered them idiots—and grabbed the matches.
Consider the experience of one prominent Republican congressman from California’s Central Valley. When he arrived in 2003, at twenty-nine, he was among the most conservative elected officials in Washington. The right-wing Heritage Foundation now ranks him in the most “liberal” third of House Republicans. “I used to spend 90 percent of my constituent response time on people who call, e-mail, or send a letter” about some real issue, he told The New Yorker. His typical constituent back in the 2000s had an opinion about “actual legislation. Ten percent were about ‘Chemtrails from airplanes are poisoning me’ to every other conspiracy theory that’s out there. And that has essentially flipped on its head,” he said, during the last dozen years or so. Now only a small fraction of the messages from constituents are “based on something that is mostly true. It’s dramatically changed politics and politicians, and what they’re doing.” The congressman who sounded so sensible in 2015 was Devin Nunes, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee. By 2017, he was a stalwart defender of a president whose specialty is passing along untrue conspiracy theories, such as the one about having been wiretapped in Trump Tower.
During the two decades leading up to the financial and economic crash of 2008, the right and far right built out an unprecedented new multimedia infrastructure. There are now ten times as many talk radio stations as there were in the 1980s. Of the several shows with the largest audiences, all but one are about politics and government by and for right-wingers, with a combined daily audience of forty-five million. (The other show provides “biblically based” financial advice aimed at evangelicals, and directly behind those is Coast to Coast AM, the nightly conspiracy-and-magic-and-falsehood clearinghouse.)
In a decade, from 1996 through 2007, we got Fox News, the Drudge Report, Infowars, and Breitbart, with Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter as free global platforms for all of them, their followers and wannabes. At least until it fired its most popular anchor in 2017, Fox News’s audience has been not just bigger than that of the other news channels—more people watched it than any cable channel in 2016. During the month before the 2016 election, as many people “interacted” with Fox News stories on Facebook as they did with stories from CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal combined.
Skepticism of the press and of academic experts has been a paramount fetish on the right for years, which effectively trained two generations of Americans to disbelieve facts at odds with their opinions. “For years, as a conservative radio talk show host,” Charlie Sykes wrote in early 2017, “I played a role in that conditioning by hammering the mainstream media for its bias and double standards. But the price turned out to be far higher than I imagined. The cumulative effect of the attacks was to…destroy much of the right’s immunity to false information.” The conservative talk-radio host John Ziegler made a similar confession in 2016: “We’ve effectively brainwashed the core of our audience. And now it’s gone too far. Because the gatekeepers have lost all credibility in the minds of consumers, I don’t see how you reverse it.”
The loss of immunity to false information is the big problem. Fox News’s conservatism is fine, but the channel’s tendency to present fiction as news is definitely not. For instance, in 2012 a San Diego PR man self-published a book called “White Girl Bleed a Lot”: The Return of Racial Violence to America and How the Media Ignore It, positing an epidemic of young black people punching random white people on city streets, in what he called the “knockout game.” Over the next two years, the author wrote more than one hundred posts for the influential far-right site WND, aggregating reports of assaults by black people, especially when their victims were white; a typical headline was WHY DON’T BLACKS BEHAVE? In 2013, just after a pretend Florida police officer (George Zimmerman) was acquitted of murdering an unarmed black seventeen-year-old (Trayvon Martin) whom he imagined was a criminal, Sean Hannity was informed of the fantastical epidemic of black-on-white violence that the news media had failed to report. He put the author on the air, at which point all of Fox News (along with talk radio) flooded the zone with discussions of the “horrifying and deadly new trend sweeping the country.’ ”*1 The rest of the news media were obliged to cover this urban myth as if it might be real.
It kept happening. In 2014 Fox News reported that Bowe Bergdahl, the army sergeant who went AWOL in Afghanistan, had “converted to Islam…and declared himself a ‘mujahid,’ or warrior for Islam” while he was imprisoned by the Taliban, according to “secret documents” created by a private security firm. Neither Fox nor any actual news organization discovered any further confirmation of this claim, but right-wing media has treated it ever since as established fact. For a week after the jihadists’ massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris, Fox News anchors and guests painted a portrait of urban Europe that spiraled beyond mere exaggeration and hyperbole into hysterical counterfactual fiction—a multinational parallel government with ISIS in charge! Days before the 2016 election, the channel’s ostensibly fair-and-square news anchor Bret Baier reported that FBI agents had evidence that five foreign intelligence agencies had hacked Hillary Clinton’s email server and also that she would be indicted soon for Clinton Foundation corruption. And then, whoops, forty-eight hours later he admitted he was mistaken—as Fox also finally did about its “regrettable errors on air regarding the Muslim population in Europe” in 2014. In 2017, for a week, Fox News promoted the conspiracy theory that Democrats had rubbed out a party functionary for leaking material to WikiLeaks. Fox finally retracted that story too.
Yet compared to the Breitbart News Network and Infowars, and leaving Sean Hannity aside, Fox News is fair, balanced, and reality-based. Once again, the residents of Fantasyland get graded on a curve. There are different degrees of egregious.
Until recently most of us were unaware of the new global cottage industry that knowingly concocts and publishes false news stories, each optimized to be clicked, shared, and viralized. Facebook had been the most important platform for this species of clickbait “news,” just as it is for genuine news. It’s a digital version of what the tabloid Weekly World News was doing just before the Internet took over, a curious sideshow that wasn’t worth worrying about—until it suddenly was, during the last presidential election campaign.
At the end of 2016, BuzzFeed analyzed the year’s political stories—the twenty most viral articles from publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, and the twenty most viral published by false-news peddlers. During the last three months of the presidential campaign, the top fictional articles—“Pope Francis Endorses Donald Trump,” “Wikileaks Confirms Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS”—were much more widely shared and commented on than the top genuine ones. The direct democracy of Internet search algorithms is a stark example of Gresham’s law, the bad driving out—or at least overrunning—the good.
DURING THE FIRST fifteen years of the twenty-first century, the GOP turned into the Fantasy Party, with a beleaguered reality-based wing. A far-right counterculture empowered millions of followers and took over the American right, as their extremist predecessors succeeded in doing to evangelicalism and the gun lobby three decades earlier.
This book had been under way for a couple of years when the 2016 presidential campaign began. The fact that Fantasyland candidates were the consistent front-runners for the Republican nomination (Donald Trump and Ben Carson at first, then Trump and Ted Cruz) was surprising and appalling but also, I have to admit, a little gratifying to me—empirical proof of my theory as it applies to politics. The day after the Republicans’ second primary debate in 2015, at the Reagan Library, before the debates became completely cartoonish, a shocked New York Times editorial called it
a collection of assertions so untrue, so bizarre, that they form a vision as surreal as the Ronald Reagan jet looming behind the candidates’ lecterns.
It felt at times as if the speakers were no longer living in a fact-based world where actions have consequences, programs take money and money has to come from somewhere. Where basic laws—like physics and the Constitution—constrain wishes. Where Congress and the public, allies and enemies, markets and militaries don’t just do what you want them to, just because you say they will.
I read that and said out loud, “Welcome to Fantasyland.” After his election, another Times editorial granted that “Trump understood at least one thing better than almost everybody,” that the “breakdown of a shared public reality built upon widely accepted facts represented not a hazard, but an opportunity.”
I started paying close attention to Donald Trump a long time ago. In Spy magazine, which I cofounded in 1986 and edited until 1993, we devoted many hundreds of hours to reporting and researching and writing three cover stories and countless other articles about him, dozens of pages exposing and satirizing his lies, brutishness, egomania, and absurdity. Now everybody knows what we knew then. In the pre-Twitter age, whenever he sent threatening letters and called us names in public—“It’s a piece of garbage,” he said of the magazine—it was amazing, trippy, as if Daffy Duck or Roger Rabbit had turned from the onscreen cartoon universe and replied. It was kind of providential that he came along just as we were creating a magazine to chronicle America’s rich and powerful jerks. And I guess it’s sort of providence redux that Trump became the center of all attention as I was in the middle of writing a history of America jumping the shark.
Donald Trump is a pure Fantasyland being, its apotheosis. If he hadn’t run for president, I might not have mentioned him at all. But here he is, a stupendous Exhibit A. To describe him is practically to summarize this book.
He’s driven by resentment of the Establishment. He doesn’t like experts because they interfere with his right as an American to believe or pretend that fictions are facts, to feel the truth. He sees conspiracies everywhere. He exploits the myths of white racial victimhood. His case of Kids “R” Us Syndrome—spoiled, impulsive, moody, a seventy-year-old brat—is extreme.
And he is first and last a creature of the fantasy-industrial complex. “He is P. T. Barnum,” his sister, a federal judge, said to his biographer Tim O’Brien in 2005. Even as a teenager in the early 1960s, Trump himself told O’Brien, he understood that any racket in America could be turned into an entertainment racket. “I said, ‘You know what I’ll do? I am going to go into real estate, and I am going to put show business into real estate. I’ll have the best of both worlds.’ ” Back then, in 1961, the historian Daniel Boorstin already saw what was coming in politics, what would make Trump president. “Our national politics has become a competition for images or between images, rather than between ideals,” because we live in a “world where fantasy is more real than reality,” Boorstin wrote. “Strictly speaking, there is no way to unmask an image. An image, like any other pseudo-event, becomes all the more interesting with our every effort to debunk it.”
Although the fantasy-industrial complex had been annexing presidential politics for more than half a century when candidate Trump came along, his campaign and presidency are its ultimate expression, like nothing we’d witnessed in real life or imagined we ever would. From 1967 through 2011, California was governed by former movie stars more than a third of the time, and one of them became president of the United States. But Trump’s need for any and all public attention always seemed to me more ravenous and insatiable than any other public figure’s ever, similar to an addict’s for drugs. Unlike Reagan or Schwarzenegger (but like Barnum, who also entered politics in middle age, between the two halves of his show business career), Trump was as much or more of an impresario as a performer, and not just in his real estate hucksterism and his deals with the WWE. Before the full emergence of Fantasyland, Trump’s various enterprises would have seemed an embarrassing, ridiculous, incoherent jumble for a businessman, let alone a serious candidate for president. What connects a Muslim-mausoleum-themed casino in New Jersey to a short-lived sham professional football league to an autobiography he didn’t write to hotels and buildings he didn’t build to a mail-order meat business to a beauty pageant to an airline that lasted three years to a sham “university” to repeatedly welshing on giant loans to selling deodorant and mattresses and a vodka and toilet waters called Empire and Success to a board game named after himself to a TV show about pretending to fire people?
What connects them all, of course, is the new, total American embrace of admixtures of the fictional and real and of fame for fame’s sake. Trump’s reality was a reality show before that genre or term existed. His home in Palm Beach, a Mediterranean-fantasy castle built at the height of the first Florida real estate bubble, is also a private club that costs $200,000 to join. “It’s like going to Disneyland and knowing Mickey Mouse will be there all day long,” says one of the members, a local billionaire. Trump has always played the character Donald Trump, the way William Cody played the character Buffalo Bill, but more so, because now there is no offstage.
When he entered political show business, after threatening to do so for most of his adult life, his portrayal of that character was an unprecedented performance—presidential candidate as insult comic with a ridiculous artificial tan. And the hair—colored gold like a clown’s in a farce, shamelessly unreal and whipped into shape as if by a pâtissier. Successful presidents and candidates have had to be entertainers for a while, but Trump went all the way. He used the pieces of the fantasy-industrial complex as nobody had before. He hired actors to play enthusiastic supporters at the kickoff of his candidacy. And unlike the other candidates, he was an exciting star, so TV shows wanted him on their air as much as possible—and as people who worked on those shows told me, they were expected to be careful not to make the candidate so unhappy he might not return.
As he began his campaign, a nine-year-old in Iowa he’d brought aboard his helicopter asked, “Are you Batman?” and Trump replied: “I am Batman.” Before any votes were cast, he bragged compulsively about his polling numbers—not even ratings, like on TV, but hypothetical votes, virtual votes. The campaign turned from a Batman subplot to a new postmodern genre that broke the fourth wall. Like no candidate ever before, Trump riffed in campaign speeches about the campaign, about his performances and box office. When a longtime PR man for tyrants took over, he followed suit, commenting on the Trump character and script and show as part of the show. “When he’s out on the stage,” Paul Manafort said, “he’s projecting an image that’s for that purpose. The part that he’s been playing is evolving into the part that now you’ve been expecting, but he wasn’t ready for, because he had first to complete the first phase.” Act one had finished, he said, and during act two, “the image is going to change.” It did not then and has not since. “We’re in more of a WWE brawl stage as a nation right now,” Ben Carson explained. “This is the ultimate reality show,” Manafort said before the national convention, a show where the prize would be “the presidency of the United States.” Then, as on a reality show, Manafort was abruptly asked to leave the tribal council area, chopped, fired. For two months between the election and the inauguration, contestants competing to win cabinet seats paraded past a bank of cameras in the shiny pink lobby of Trump Tower one at a time, past displays of Trump-themed merchandise. One of them was the cofounder of the WWE, Linda McMahon, who won her cabinet-level position. And then his administration put out word that the two finalists for the open Supreme Court seat were coming to Washington for the finale, exactly as on a reality show.
Before Trump won their nomination and the presidency, when he was still “a cancer on conservatism” that “must be…discarded” (Governor Rick Perry) and an “utterly amoral” “narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen” (Senator Ted Cruz), what upset and bewildered Republicans was his performance style, like that of a villain in a bad movie. Back then they were genuinely shocked not by his racism but by the shameless ways he indicated he was a fellow traveler of the straight-ahead racists who cheered him on. Serious Republicans also hated Trump’s ideological incoherence—they didn’t yet understand that his campaign logic was a new kind, the consistency of exciting tales and showmanship that transcends ideology. Super Bowl halftimes and Disneyland are crazily eclectic too, but they’re entertaining.
Serious Republicans followed the unwritten rule that candidates were to let the right-wing media entertainers savage the rest of the news media, not do it themselves—but in 2016 Trump made his lying-press shtick a theatrical campaign staple, shocking Republicans twice, when he kept doing it and when it worked. It’s telling that the only important institutional piece of the Republican coalition that never distanced itself from him was its most recklessly fantastical one, the NRA. They and he were in sync on more than just the Second Amendment; both called out the reality-based enemies of the people. “One of America’s greatest threats is a national news media,” the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre said at CPAC back in 2014, because the press’s “intentional corruption of the truth is an abomination.”
Fantasyland medicine? Trump touched that base too. During the campaign he regularly repeated the falsehood that vaccines cause autism. And instead of undergoing a normal medical exam from a normal doctor and issuing a press release, the way nominees always have, Trump went on The Dr. Oz Show and handed him a sheet of test results that his own wacky doctor had performed. “If a patient of mine had these records,” Dr. Oz obligingly said, “I’d be very happy, and I’d send them on their way.”
Did his supporters know his hogwash was hogwash? Do they now? Yes and no, the way people buying tickets to Barnum’s exhibitions 175 years ago did and didn’t know (and certainly didn’t care) that the black woman on display wasn’t really Washington’s 161-year-old former nanny and the stitched-together fish and ape wasn’t actually a mermaid. Trump waited to run for president until he sensed that a critical mass of Americans had decided politics were all a show and a sham—that a conspiracy consisting of “the press, the talk-show experts, the campaign strategists, the political parties, even the candidates themselves—has rigged the game,” as Louis Menand put it in The New Yorker. “Everyone knows that what you see in politics is fake or confected.” Yet that article in the summer of 2015 did not even mention Trump, who was still an impossible joke candidate. If the whole thing is an insincere charade, rigged, Trump’s brilliance was calling that out in the most impolitic ways possible, deriding his earnest competitors as fakers and losers and liars—because that bullshit-calling was uniquely candid, excitingly authentic in the age of fake.
Who but a preternaturally honest man would say in his announcement speech that Mexican immigrants are “rapists”? Or, as he said a few months later, that Muslims should be prohibited from entering the United States? A ban on Muslims is “very important and probably not politically correct, but I don’t care.”*2 Fuck the dog whistles, you fucking pussies.
Trump took a key piece of cynical wisdom about show business—The most important thing is sincerity, and once you can fake that, you’ve got it made—to a new level: his actual thuggish, un-PC sincerity is the opposite of the old-fashioned goody-goody sanctimony that people hate in politicians. And when Trump does do his obligatory bits of patently faked niceness, they get a pass, because the rest of the time he’s implying that most public niceness is fake.
If he were just a truth-telling wise guy, however, he wouldn’t now be president. Trump’s genius was to exploit the extreme skepticism about politics—too much equivocating, democracy’s a charade—but also pander to Americans’ extreme magical thinking about national greatness. “I play to people’s fantasies,” his ghostwriter, on Trump’s behalf, warned Americans thirty years ago in The Art of the Deal. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration.”
When you’re about to be president, it’s not innocent at all—such as the fantasy of a new healthcare system that will be “something terrific, “something great.” “We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” Trump guaranteed. “There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us….I am going to take care of everybody. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better,” and the new system will appear “Immediately! Fast! Quick!”
Not just healthcare. “I will give you everything,” Trump actually promised. Yes: “every dream you ever dreamed for your country” will come true. Another version of that big, magical fantasy he continuously served up was the general idea of winning. “We will have so much winning,” he said in front of the Capitol at the very start of the campaign, “that you may get bored with winning. Believe me.” His crowd cheered. “I agree. You’ll never get bored with winning. You’ll never get bored! We never get bored!” By the time of his Nevada primary victory speech at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino, the winning had dissolved into pure mantra: “And now we’re winning, winning, winning the country—and soon the country is going to start winning, winning, winning.” Then he miraculously won, seeming to prove that The Power of Positive Thinking and The Secret are true.
There have been all his component subfantasies, alternatively happy and hateful, many of them born of nostalgia for the days when lots more Americans were white and lots fewer spoke with foreign accents, when white guy guys totally ruled and slicked-back ducktails were cool—when America was Great. The assorted fantasies of how a belligerent superhero president would destroy or defeat villains—ISIS, the Chinese government, U.S. corporations that build factories abroad. The fantasy that on 9/11 “thousands and thousands of people” in New Jersey from “the heavy Arab population…were cheering as the buildings came down,” and the fantasy that Mexico will pay for building a high concrete wall along the border. What about the fact that the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico has been declining for years, a fact that makes the case for a wall even weaker? “We will build the wall no matter how low this number gets,” President Trump told the NRA convention at the end of his first hundred days in office. “Don’t even think about it. Don’t even think about it….We’ll build the wall. Don’t even think about it. Don’t even think about it. Don’t even think about it.”
The single major item on the Fantasyland checklist we can check off only nominally is the one for religion. Among the many shocking things about Trump is his irreligiosity—that our Christian party chose the candidate who was the least Christian of the lot, and that white evangelicals nonetheless approve of President Trump overwhelmingly. During the campaign he tossed a few special fantasy crumbs their way, promising he’d make sure they would again feel free to say “Merry Christmas” to strangers of every faith. And his shameless-sinner style is still more proof of his astounding honesty—he’s not pandering to them, not feigning piety or saintliness. When asked about his religious affiliation, Trump regularly describes himself as “Protestant”—an odd tell, sort of like saying he’s a Homo sapiens of the Western Hemisphere instead of an American man.
The one influential religious figure in his life was Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, with its instructions to “never think of yourself as failing” and to banish any “negative thought concerning your personal powers.” (See Chapter 21.) The Trump family attended his Presbyterian church, and the first of Donald’s three weddings took place there, the Reverend Peale officiating. Now that a version of Peale’s autohypnotic self-confidence scheme is at the heart of a hot charismatic Christian sector, Trump can almost pass for a prosperity gospel lay preacher. Sure, he’s ignorant of religious particulars (like when he called a book of the New Testament “Two Corinthians” instead of Second Corinthians), but he’s ignorant of the details of government policy and U.S. history as well—so what? White born-again Christians and Trump also really do share a contempt for (and from) the so-called elites. As I’ve said, Fantasyland’s regions have open borders: specifically Christian make-believe isn’t part of Trump’s make-believe, but both he and they definitely do make believe and feel the truth regardless of facts. Don’t even think about it.
First the Internet enabled and empowered full Fantasyland, then it did so for candidate Trump in 2015 and 2016, feeding him pseudonews on his phone and letting him feed those untruths directly to followers on social media. He is the poster boy for the downside of our digital world. “Forget the press,” he advised people as a candidate—just “read the Internet.” After he wrongly declared during the campaign that a certain anti-Trump protester “has ties to ISIS,” he was asked if he regretted tweeting that falsehood. “What do I know about it?” he replied. “All I know is what’s on the Internet.”
But then he decided the Internet is a doubled-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows him to find and circulate conspiracy theories easily. “It gives a forum for people to express their ideas,” a senior minion explained, so “when he sees an idea that he thinks is worthy of having a discussion about,” he can immediately tweet it. On the other hand, Trump read on the Internet (Breitbart, Infowars) that his elite enemies operating the Internet (Google) conspired to spread lies to hurt him. “Google’s search engine,” he announced at a rally just before the election, was “suppressing the bad news about Hillary Clinton. How about that?”
Fantastical conspiracy theories, a recurring Trump motif, have also been a recurring motif in this history of Fantasyland—the supposed schemes of witches and Catholics and Masons and Jews, now of Muslims and liberals and internationalists. Trump launched his political career by embracing a brand-new conspiracy theory twisted around two other deep American taproots—fear and loathing of foreigners and nonwhites. In 2011 Trump became chief spokesperson for the fantasy that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, a fringe idea that he brought into the mainstream—he wasn’t a nut, he was Donald Trump!—so that it could be regularly promoted on Fox News and by an anchor on CNN. A dozen House Republicans cosponsored a federal bill that would require presidential candidates to submit a birth certificate and other proof that he or she isn’t a secret foreigner; similar bills were introduced in state legislatures. After the Hawaiian bureaucrat who released a copy of the president’s birth certificate died in a private plane crash, Trump tweeted: “How amazing….All others lived”—suggesting the official had been murdered by the Obama conspiracy. Finally, in the fall of 2016, he grudgingly admitted the president was indeed a native-born American—at the same moment that an Economist/YouGov survey found a majority of Republicans still believed Obama probably or definitely was born in Kenya.
A conspiracy of scientists, journalists, and governments perpetrated the false idea of climate change, Trump has said for years. “Global warming has been proven to be a canard repeatedly over and over again,” he declared, “mythical,” “nonexistent,” “bullshit” “based on faulty science,” “a total, and very expensive, hoax!” He tweeted, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” On that last one, he later claimed he’d been kidding.
Conspiracies, conspiracies, still more conspiracies. “Scalia,” the right-wing host of the Savage Nation asked him on the radio in 2016, “was he murdered…?” Well, Trump replied, “they say they found the pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow.”*3 On Fox and Friends, he discussed, as if it were fact, the National Enquirer’s suggestion that Ted Cruz’s father was connected to JFK’s assassination. “What was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death, before the shooting? It’s horrible.” The Fox News anchors interviewing him neither challenged nor followed up. He revived the 1993 fantasy about the Clintons’ friend Vincent Foster—his death, Trump said, was “very fishy,” because Foster “had intimate knowledge of what was going on. He knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide….I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder.” He has also promised he’s going to make sure “you will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center.” And it has all worked for him, because a critical mass of Americans is eager to believe almost any conspiracy theory, no matter how implausible, as long as it jibes with their opinions and feelings.
Not all lies are fantasies, and not all fantasies are lies; people who believe untrue things can pass lie detector tests. Trump’s version of unreality is a patchwork of knowing falsehoods and sincerely believed fantasies, which is more troubling than if he were just a liar. His insistence that he didn’t grab or kiss any of the dozen women who in 2016 said he had, unbidden—“Nothing ever happened. Didn’t exist. This was all fantasyland”—is a lie, I’m close to certain. But he probably really believed that “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in forty-seven years,” the total and dangerous falsehood he told leaders of the National Sheriffs Association in the Oval Office. Whatever he believes or doesn’t, he makes untrue assertions more frequently than any U.S. leader in recorded history. The fact-checking organization PolitiFact looked at four hundred of his factual statements as a candidate and as president and found that 50 percent were completely false and another 20 percent mostly false. After he became president, according to The Washington Post, he issued an average of more than four falsehoods or “misleading claims” per day.
He gets away with this as he wouldn’t have in the 1980s and ’90s, when he first talked about running for president, because now factual truth is just one option, the consensus reality, and Americans feel entitled to their own facts. After he won the election he began routinely referring to allunflattering or inconvenient journalism as “fake news.” Trump’s White House counselor was explicit about that their first weekend in the White House, when the inauguration crowd estimate was at least 75 percent smaller than the president wished it to be. “Our press secretary,” she said on Meet the Press, “gave alternative facts to that.” When his public approval declined during his first months in office, Trump simply refused to believe it: “Any negative polls,” the president tweeted at dawn one morning from Mar-a-Lago, “are fake news.”
In Fantasyland, refusing to be fact-checked is celebrated—“his brazenness is not punished,” the Economist noted, “but taken as evidence of his willingness to stand up to elite power.” Lying works for Trump even when he’s denying that he told lies he was recorded telling. “From the point of view of political psychology,” the University of Connecticut philosophy professor Michael Lynch explains, “the more blatant the contradiction, the better….If I simply deny what I earlier affirmed and act as if nothing has happened, then you are left having to decide what I really meant….The most disturbing power of contradiction is that its repeated use can dull our sensitivity to the value of truth itself.” If our sensitivity to the value of truth is dulled, it’s easier for everyone to become more like him and those in his thrall.
Did he really think he lost the popular vote because of a conspiracy that arranged for millions of noncitizens, “illegals,” to vote for Clinton? “I’m a very instinctual person,” President Trump said when a Time reporter challenged him on this claim, “but my instinct turns out to be right.” Did he really think President Obama ordered his telephones to be tapped and that a conspiracy of government officials covered it up? My hunch is that both of those conspiracy theories were as much sincere beliefs as lies.
The people who speak on Trump’s behalf to journalists struggle to defend or explain his assertions. They’ll sometimes point out that a fantasy was asserted by somebody else, too—as when the press secretary quoted a Fox News commentator who’d said, without evidence, that British intelligence spied on Trump at Obama’s behest. Or they’ll ask that Trump be graded on a curve: because he’s new to politics, the things he says mustn’t always be taken literally. Asked about “the President’s statements that are…demonstrably not true,” the White House counselor asked the reporter to please remember all “the many things that he says that are true.”
According to The New York Times, the people around Trump say his baseless certainty “that he was bugged in some way” in Trump Tower is driven by “a sense of persecution bordering on faith.” And indeed, their most honest defense of his false statements has been to cast them practically as matters of religious conviction—he deeply believes them, so…end of story. That’s what the press secretary did concerning the nonexistent three to five million illegal voters: in a single encounter, he earnestly reminded reporters that Trump “has believed that for a while” and “does believe that” and “it’s been a long-standing belief he’s maintained” and “it’s a belief that he has maintained for a while.”
Which is why a quarter of Americans subscribe to that preposterous belief themselves.*4 And in Trump’s view, that overrides any requirement for facts.
“Do you think that talking about millions of illegal votes is dangerous to this country without presenting the evidence?” the anchor of ABC World News Tonight asked President Trump.
“No,” he replied, “not at all! Not at all—because many people feel the same way that I do.”
THIS BOOK HAS traced the route that our exceptional country has taken to arrive at this latest version of its exceptional self. Now we can see how each fork in the road tended us toward the next, and the next, and then the next.
If the Roman Catholic French or Spanish had been more successful in making more of North America theirs, maybe we would be less rogue-utopian and individualistic. If the Dutch had extended their influence beyond New York and beyond the 1600s, the sensible and cosmopolitan strains of our national character might be more dominant. What if those first hundred radical Puritan extremists hadn’t leased the Mayflower and had stayed instead on their side of the Atlantic? What if we hadn’t been so tolerant of slave labor? What if the American Revolution had failed, or the Confederate secession had succeeded? What if California had remained part of Mexico, or the United States hadn’t fought a war in Vietnam? What if Joseph Smith and P. T. Barnum and Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan and Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump and a dozen other key channelers of these American tendencies had never appeared? What if Internet search had been designed differently or if, in 2009, some senior Wall Street executives had been imprisoned for their recklessness and fraud? There were so many inflection points along the way. We might now be a warmer Canada, a massive Netherlands, a lumbering Argentina, or the United States the way it was until recently—that is, a country with a penchant for fantasies, but the penchant mostly under control.
Instead, it all happened as it happened. We are what we are, in all our sui generis splendor.
America was the dreamworld creation of fantasists, some religious and some out to get rich quick, all with a freakish appetite for the amazing. Beyond our passionate beliefs in various kinds of magic and destiny, our particular religious DNA, supercharged, was the source of other defining American habits of mind as well, such as the craving for the mysterious to be literal, and the hair-trigger sensitivity to persecution by elites. In addition to being the first designed-built Protestant nation, America was also the first designed-built Enlightenment nation. The two fed each other—and sometimes became toxic in combination.
Mix the Protestant impulse to find the meaning and purpose in everything with the Enlightenment’s empiricism, and you get our American mania for connecting all the dots,*5 irrationality in rationalist drag. You get phrenology and homeopathy and intelligent design. You get complex data-rich schemes calculating the dates that God created the world and everything on it and the dates when God or Quetzalcoatl will erase and reboot it. You get books packed with facts and factlike assertions proving that this or that omnipotent conspiratorial enemy—witches! Masons! extraterrestrials! Muslims!—has infiltrated America to enslave or destroy us.
Our special American alloy of Protestantism and the Enlightenment also generated our extreme, self-righteous individualism. I have searched for the truth and discovered it (Protestant and Enlightenment). My intuitions are equal to facts (Protestant). My skepticism is profound (Enlightenment) except concerning my own beliefs (Protestant). Who I am is whatever I imagine myself to be (both), and You’re not the boss of me (both).
As we did with our founding religious legacy, we’ve taken from our Enlightenment legacy certain pieces of the program—skepticism, freedom of thought, mutable truth—and selectively amped them to extremes at the expense of other Enlightenment virtues, such as reasonableness and rigorous self-doubt. It’s what pathologists call hypertrophy, when an organ or muscle grows too big, or like an autoimmune disease, when an essential process that normally keeps us healthy runs amok and makes us sick.
It wasn’t only our peculiar amalgam of new sixteenth- and seventeenth-century religion and new seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy that laid Fantasyland’s groundwork. Other American idiosyncrasies had roles. Ours was a country created by wildcatters and entrepreneurs, hustlers of every kind. Wide open spaces made for solitude as much as for community, which in turn made for still more extreme individualists—people alone for months on end marinating in their own thoughts and feelings and fancies. The spaciousness also made it easy for Americans, especially at the start and again more recently, to sort themselves into homogeneous, self-reinforcing geographic clusters where all the inhabitants share the same script.
Fantasies were always synergistic in America. The wild new religions prepared people for wild new pseudoscience and vice versa. If serious people took mesmerism seriously, why shouldn’t other people regard homeopathy and phrenology and cure-all pills as state-of-the-art science? If Yale professors believed there were winged men on the moon, why shouldn’t other people believe it was possible to communicate with the dead? If America’s great men were convinced of a hidden government of occultists and a Vatican plot to destroy liberty, who could gainsay the claims of anyvast scheme of evil genius?
Our nostalgia tic also explains a lot. Americans have always been apt to think of America as the best place on Earth—but also that it used to be so much better, more pioneering, more charming, more virtuous, more authentic. People imagined in the 1700s that it was better in the theocratic wilderness of the 1600s, then in the 1800s that it was better back in the 1700s, before the racket and speed of factories and railroads; in the 1900s we imagined it had been so much better back in the 1800s, when we still depended on guns, before we moved from farms and small towns into noisy crowded cities; today, on top of most of those older nostalgias, we miss the good old days when Americans worked at secure well-paying jobs for years on end. In 1900 a lot of people were nostalgic for the time when Americans were all Protestant, later for when Americans were all Christian, and now for when we were practically all white—and when men were men and women were women and the love that dared not speak its name didn’t speak it.
Like other fantasy-flavored impulses, American nostalgia can express itself happily or fearfully, as wishful stage-set charm or they’ve-wrecked-our-stage-set rage. Nostalgia enacted and gratified by the fantasy-industrial complex is mostly the happy kind. The kinds of nostalgia that drive our politics can either be fond, like Ronald Reagan’s, or angry and scared; lately it’s the latter.
In fact, our political culture sometimes comes in happy and scary forms inside the same big tent. The late 1960s were experienced simultaneously as the threshold of violent revolution and as a romp through cloud-cuckoo-land. Most of the Americans who have recently been most certain that America is both wrecked and the best place ever call themselves Republicans. Our tendencies to fear the new and to reject reason have appeared on the left as well as the right, often in a tag-team fashion—first Transcendentalists and utopian communards in the mid-1800s, then Protestant fundamentalists in the early 1900s. But during the last half-century, the cycles got faster. The right-wing conspiracists of the 1950s were followed in the 1960s by conspiracists on the left, then the hippies of the 1960s appeared almost simultaneously with extreme Christians.
The spectrum from madly full of dread to madly optimistic also applies to our spiritual beliefs. There are the believers in irremediable human depravity, Armageddon any day, most people bound for hell, in the meantime persecution of the virtuous by Satan’s agents. Then there are the more hopeful—instant E-Z salvation, imminent global alakazam, plenty of room in Heaven. And finally the superhopeful, believing that angels are here improving the world right now, that shamans and healers channel mystical energies, that actionable magic can increase your net worth or in the afterlife send you to your own planet as an immortal. Then there are people with strong beliefs in both supernatural terror and bliss, bipolar optimist-pessimists—they can chat with God or Jesus or ancient spirits but may also be possessed by demons; they believe that chants and diluted poisons give them virtual superpowers but also that an evil corporate-government conspiracy is out to sicken them with vaccines and genetically modified food.
By the mid-1800s, entertainment was bigger here than anywhere (theaters, popular music, superstar singers, circuses, dime museums, magicians), but the new wrinkle was that other businesses and professions were becoming show businesses—religion, medicine, journalism at first—and that real-life heroes (Daniel Boone, Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull) morphed into fictionalized show-biz versions of themselves. The zone between make-believe and true was expanded and became a quintessential product of entrepreneurial America.
The fantasy-industrial complex invented and dominated by Americans continued to sprawl exponentially, taking over parts of every conceivable realm—politics, real estate, retail, “hospitality,” lifestyle, life. We have encased ourselves in a wall-to-wall 24/7 collage of fantasy and fantastic reality. Sure, at Disney World or an IMAX theater or playing Mortal Kombat, we know we’re in fictional domains. But otherwise? In so much of the rest of our lives, the nominally authentic parts—the ways we look and dress, where we live and eat, the world depicted by infotainers and news commentators and Internet exhorters—many, many distinctions between fake and real have been erased. A lot of American reality is now virtual. We’re often unaware whether we’re inside or outside of Fantasyland.
FOR THREE CENTURIES, in culture and religion as well as in politics and economics, the fantasist and realist impulses existed in a rough balance, with a powerful animating tension between the two tendencies. That dynamic balance was key. We were like an internal combustion engine, a great machine powered by endless little explosions—every idiosyncratic vision and dreamy ambition permitted to ignite—but with control mechanisms and gaskets and a sturdy engine block, all keeping the contraption from blasting apart. Or if you will, the American id was kept in check by a strong ego and superego.
For instance, when the U.S. government was created, the Founders invented a cautious Senate to overrule the House fiends when necessary—Washington told Jefferson it was like a saucer to cool impossibly hot coffee. Jefferson’s nemesis Alexander Hamilton hoped the Electoral College would do something similar every four years, that a sober, deliberative group could have the final say in case the People ever elected some unacceptable charlatan or demagogue with “talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity.”
Renegade religious sects emerged, then calmed as they grew and matured. We submitted our faith in free markets to constraints so that the system seemed fair enough to continue operating successfully. Dream the impossible dream, build it and they will come, put the pedal to the metal, let your freak flag fly—but play by the rules, and don’t drink and drive. Being an American always meant having a chip on your shoulder about fancy-pants know-it-alls, but when push came to shove, the know-it-alls who actually knew important things remained firmly in control. Most of the time it worked okay.
As life became easier, however, the easier climate was more conducive to the loosey-goosier parts of the American psyche. A tipping point came in the 1960s, when our yin began to be overwhelmed by our yang. We discarded the good residue of our founding Puritan ethos—discipline, austerity, hyperliteracy—and doubled down on the old Puritan beliefs in magic and an imminent apocalypse and utopia. After 1970 certain ingrained American habits—individualism, righteous conviction, open-mindedness—were all at once out of control, like flora and fauna in a newly tropicalized climate, blooming luxuriantly and shooting out seeds.
Then the economic climate changed again. Postwar prosperity had afforded fantasy-prone Americans the luxury of indulging more and more fantasies, and the Internet allowed them to inhabit more all-encompassing fantasies even more of the time. But around the turn of this century, the economic balminess ended for at least half of America. As a chilly dead-end dusk and gloom descended on the disappointed and newly disempowered, we did not as a nation cope by reverting en masse to old Yankee virtues—self-restraint, realism, pragmatism, and compromise. Too many of us had become too habituated to our various forms of magical thinking. As the American dream of endless upward economic mobility came to seem increasingly like myth, all sorts of pure myths and fantasies became still more appealing and seemed more real. The unprecedented and broadly shared affluence of our twentieth century—with its go-go blowout starting in the 1960s—was a prerequisite to Fantasyland, but the arrival of full Fantasyland was accompanied by the end of those economic glory days for most people.
According to psychologists, stress can trigger delusions, and engaging in fantasy can provide relief from stress and loneliness. According to sociologists, religion flourishes more in societies where people frequently feel in economic jeopardy. According to social psychologists, belief in conspiracy theories flourishes among people who feel bad about themselves; they may be powerless to improve their lives, but knowing about all the alleged secret plots gives them a compensatory jolt of what feels like power.
When Barack Obama first ran for president, his most memorable campaign gaffe was to describe this dynamic. “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania,” he told a group of supporters in San Francisco in 2008, “and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion, or antipathy to people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment…as a way to explain their frustrations.” Sure, it was condescending, but it was also true. The political scientists who wrote American Conspiracy Theories (2014) found that the least educated are almost twice as likely as the most educated to be highly predisposed to believing conspiracies.
For half a century, several generations of Americans lived with a binary view of the world, totalitarian bad guys versus the Free World. But after the Soviet Union collapsed and China became a normal country, global geopolitical reality was exposed in all its messy, confusing, shades-of-gray complexity. Russia is no longer Communist or much of a superpower, but it’s still evil or…what, no, maybe not? China still calls itself Communist and is now our fellow superpower, but…economically it’s even more unequal than we are and it’s also our indispensable economic partner? Muslim countries used to be either pro-American or pro-Soviet, but now they’re either secular (good) or fundamentalist (bad)…but wait, the United States is allied with and fighting regimes and rebels in bothcategories?
As a way to make the world seem understandable again, to focus on a single enemy, the idea of the existence of some kind of elite cabal became irresistible to more and more Americans. Somebody must be pulling the strings. It can be simultaneously terrifying and comforting to believe that bad people are tyrannizing you. So conspiracists squint at the real world and see the exercise of power as both ridiculously simple and brilliantly complex. They fictionalize reality. Instead of the real-life Rube Goldberg contraption with no single designer or operator, they imagine a few puppet-masters in charge of a global Borg in which all the circuits and software operate in perfect synchrony. It’s the way religious fundamentalists see physical reality as God’s perfectly designed masterwork rather than as it really is, a somewhat kludgy but astounding accumulation of happy accidents with nobody in charge.
I’ve referred repeatedly to full Fantasyland and to events and phenomena (such as President Trump) that wouldn’t have happened before it emerged. Until now I’ve avoided setting a precise date. When did it begin? Obviously after the 1960s and ’70s, and after Ronald Reagan. The 1990s were the hinge decade: Oprah and Behold a Pale Horse and the Satanic Panic and Limbaugh and The X-Files swept the nation, the NRA called law enforcement officers jackbooted thugs, a wrestler from the booming WWF was elected governor of Minnesota, Disney built its perfect make-believe town in Florida, the federal building in Oklahoma City was blown up, the Pats Robertson and Buchanan ran for president, President Clinton was investigated for murdering his White House counsel before being investigated for lying about adultery, Final Fantasy was launched, and so were the National Institutes of Health’s alternative medicine center and reality TV and Fox News. And, of course, the Internet: starting in 1995 everyone could browse the Web, so let’s call 2000, the first year a majority of Americans were online, the unequivocal first year of full Fantasyland.
I GREW UP in the 1960s in a family that was as irreligious as both my parents’ families had been in the 1920s and ’30s, Protestant only culturally—not Catholic, not Jewish, so what else was there? Christmas was a big deal, and when we were little, we hunted for dyed eggs every Easter morning. My parents spent time in churches almost exclusively for weddings and funerals, but we were not taught to think of believers as fools. Most people we knew went to church, and that was fine. We were just…indifferent. Back then in Nebraska—in America—religious belief was a private matter.
My folks weren’t antireligious, but they were antidogmatic. They didn’t even enforce their religious unbelief on us. When some of my siblings and I decided we wanted to try out Sunday school, first the Congregationalists down the street and then the Unitarians (where my mother sometimes played piano), we were neither discouraged nor encouraged—and then each of us stopped going on our own. One day when I was about eleven, I tried to get my mom to admit, finally, that she didn’t believe in God. She carefully and cutely hemmed and hawed until I probed and pushed so much she surrendered.
Since the 1970s, when my siblings went through their intense exotic-Eastern-religious phase, I’ve wondered if that was some kind of recoil from our secular childhoods, or an extrapolation of the family’s Transcendentalist strain. My parents did seek to experience deep wonder and contemplate the exalted mysteries of existence. It’s one reason they took us camping across the northern Great Plains and the mountain West every summer. The trips on which we got to see the aurora borealis had the feel of successful religious pilgrimages. One of my mother’s favorite writers was the poet John Neihardt, whose book Black Elk Speaks is the biography of an Oglala Lakota shaman.
I still seek out unfathomable and fathomable mysteries and wonders of existence that render me dumbstruck. I enjoy having my mind boggled. When our two daughters were growing up, my wife and I didn’t take them to church services, but often we’d all go outside on clear nights to lie on the ground and look up at the stars, marveling and discussing the scale and complexity and the amazing good luck of this planet and our species and our very selves. On the greatest family vacation ever, as my wife and children and I drove one dusk through the East African bush, where the first humans lived a hundred thousand years ago, we spotted a troop of chimps walking in the distance, and I teared up.
“I’m not an atheist,” the great Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson said in 2015, “I’m a scientist. Atheism is the belief that there is no god, and you declare there is no god: ‘Come, my fellow atheists, let us march together and conquer those idiots who think there is a god—all these other tribes. We’re going to prevail.’ I would even say I’m agnostic because I’m a scientist.”
In this he echoes the greatest scientist of the last century. “In my opinion,” Albert Einstein wrote, “the idea of a personal God is a childlike one…but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist….I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.” Indeed, he wrote,
the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious….He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed….To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.
Yes. My life isn’t one of pristine, lab-pure rationalism, unleavened by emotion or superstition. Superrationalists are often prone to arrogance, hubris, a blindered devotion to markets or technology, an abandonment of the wholehearted search for meaning beyond science and economics. Flecks of fantasy are charming condiments in everyday existence. Like so much of life, it’s an instance of the Goldilocks Problem, avoiding the too-cold and the too-hot in favor of the just-right. But despite my dull faculties and primitive comprehension of the impenetrable mysteries of existence, I do try hard not to surrender to magical thinking.
I’m agnostic about God, always ready but never expecting to be persuaded.*6 America’s tiny population of agnostics and atheists is growing briskly, doubling in the last decade to 7 percent. Back in 1972, the entire nonreligious fraction of Americans, disbelievers plus doubters plus nothing-in-particulars, was just 5 percent—and now it’s 23 percent. (That’s partly a function of education. Almost half of Americans who didn’t get beyond high school think every bit of the Bible is literally true, while only one in six college graduates do.) If that rate of growth were to continue, in another forty years we would be more like a normal rich country, half of Americans religiously unaffiliated, and half of those agnostics and atheists.
The recent American secularization, such as it is, has been led by the young. A third of millennials say they’re atheist or agnostic or nothing in particular, and fewer of them than their elders say they believe in God with absolute certainty. The small fraction of all Americans who regard the Bible matter-of-factly—as “an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man”—has increased a lot since 1990, as has the group convinced of a God-free process of creation and evolution.*7
But here’s the thing: the fraction of Americans who believe that the Bible is “the actual word of God…to be taken literally, word for word,” is unchanged—33 percent in 1990, 32 percent now. Beyond that hard core, religiously affiliated Americans say they’re praying more, reading the Bible more, and “sharing faith with others” more. And the younger a Christian is, for instance, the more likely she or he is to “believe that the charismatic gifts, such as tongues and healing, are valid and active today”—including a large majority of Christians under thirty-five.*8
As far as religion goes, then, America isn’t so much secularizing as splitting into two distinct societies, one more secular and reality-based, one much less so. Rationalism and reasonableness are gaining some ground, but the true believers, still the bigger cohort, are sticking to their guns. We are polarizing religiously the way we have been polarizing politically. As I’ve said, that’s not coincidental, it’s synergistic.
Which makes America exceptional in a curious new way. Instead of the Puritans’ shining city upon a hill, a newly invented model society to which the rest of the world should aspire, we’ve become a warts-and-all model of the messy, mistrustful rest of the whole world—split between cosmopolitan seculars and tribal fundamentalists, between educated people hopeful about possible futures and others desperate to return to some dreamy past.
DURING THE EARLY months of the Trump administration, I was reminded of a George Orwell essay from 1943 about the civil war in Spain, four years after the fascists won. One subtle but profound effect of the fascist regimes in Spain and Italy and Germany, he wrote, was how their propaganda “often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history.”
His contemporary Hannah Arendt escaped Germany as a young woman in 1933, when the Nazis took over, and emigrated to America, where she became one of the most important political philosophers of the age. Her first big book, in 1951, was The Origins of Totalitarianism. I’d never read it until 2016, around the time Trump made “rigged elections” a recurring theme of his campaign. “The essential conviction shared by all ranks” in a totalitarian movement, Arendt wrote, “from fellow-traveler to leader, is that politics is a game of cheating.” When I read the next paragraph, I was staggered. I stopped and read it again. It gave me goosebumps.
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….Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
Arendt published Origins of Totalitarianism when Stalin was in power and Hitler only six years gone. I don’t think the most important U.S. institutions are about to collapse. History doesn’t repeat. But damn, this rhyme is chilling.
The idea that progress has some kind of unstoppable momentum was always a very American belief. But it’s really an article of faith more than a historical law—the Christian fantasy about history’s happy ending was reconfigured during the Enlightenment into a set of secular fantasies about inevitable improvement. One version was our blithe conviction that America’s forms of freedom and democracy and justice and affluence must prevail in the end.
I can imagine, for the first time in my life, that America has permanently tipped into disarray and decline.
I wonder if it’s only America’s destiny, exceptional as ever, to unravel in this Fantasyland fashion. Or maybe we’re early adopters, the canaries in the global mine, and Canada and Denmark and Japan and China and all the rest will eventually follow us down our tunnel. The German historian Oswald Spengler, author of The Decline of the West, a complete pessimist about our civilization, wrote in 1931 that “only dreamers believe there is a way out. Optimism is cowardice.”*9 I’m not there yet, but why should modern civilization’s great principles—democracy, freedom, tolerance—guarantee permanently great outcomes? Just as Christian believers think God granted humans free will to sin, the Enlightenment granted us the freedom to create the Dark Ages all over again.
“Keeping an open mind is a virtue,” Carl Sagan wrote in The Demon-Haunted World, the last book he published, but “not so open that your brains fall out….I have a foreboding of an America when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” That was twenty years ago.
The historical period of superstition and darkness that looms in our rearview mirror is the closest one, the Middle Ages in Europe, preceding the Enlightenment and the Renaissance. Renaissance, of course, means “rebirth”—the rediscovery six hundred years ago of much earlier golden ages of intellectual clarity and rigor and brilliance, in ancient Rome and Greece. For a moment this cheers me: give us some time, and we’ll have another renaissance!
But then I look at the rise and fall of ancient Greece. The seven centuries of Greek civilization are divided into three eras—the Archaic, then the Classical, then the Hellenistic. During the first, the one depicted by Homer, Greeks’ understanding of existence defaulted to supernaturalism and the irrational. Then suddenly science and literature and all the superstar geniuses emerged—Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle—in the period we canonize as “ancient Greece.” But that astonishing era lasted less than two centuries, after which Athens returned to astrology and magical cures and alchemy, the end. Why? According to The Greeks and the Irrational, by the Oxford classicist Eric Dodd, it was because they finally found freedom too scary, frightened by the new idea that their lives and fates weren’t predestined or managed by gods and they really were on their own. Maybe America’s Classical period has also lasted two centuries, 1800 to 2000, give or take a few decades on each end.
In any case, our circumstance doesn’t seem altogether new. Fantasyland has been the norm for the run of humanity; the unusually rational and scientific centuries here and there along the way, like the last few, are exceptions. Dominant cultures have had their enlightenments and golden ages before, then returned to primitivism and murk.
BECAUSE I’M AN American, a fortunate American who has lived in a fortunate American century, I remain more of an optimist than a pessimist. I haven’t abandoned hope. Even as we’ve entered this winter of foolishness and darkness, when too many Americans are losing their grip on reason and reality, it has been an epoch of astonishing hope and light as well.*10 During these same last three decades, Americans accomplished the miracle of reducing murders and other violent crime by more than half. We decoded the human genome, elected an African-American president, recorded the sound of two black holes colliding a billion years ago, and created Beloved, The Simpsons, Goodfellas, Angels in America, The Wire, The Colbert Report, Transparent, Hamilton, and, in my extended family alone, a dozen excellent babies. Since 1980, the fraction of Earth’s people living in extreme poverty has plummeted from more than 40 percent to 10 percent. I do despair of our devolution toward unreason and magical thinking, but not everything has gone wrong.
What is to be done? I don’t have an actionable agenda, Seven Ways Sensible People Can Save America from the Craziness. But I think we can slow the flood, repair some dikes and levees, maybe stop things from getting any worse.
If we’re splitting into two different cultures, we in reality-based America must try to keep our zone as large and robust and attractive as possible for ourselves and the next generations. We need to adopt a guiding principle, based on those aphorisms of Daniel Moynihan and Thomas Jefferson I’ve quoted so often: You’re entitled to your own opinions and your own fantasies, but not your own facts—especially if your fantastical facts hurt people.
We need to become less squishy. We must call out the dangerously untrue and unreal. That may sound impractical, but a grassroots movement against one kind of cultural squishiness has taken off and reshaped our national politics—the opposition to so-called political correctness. Antifantasy is different, because PC is more in the eye of the beholder, ranging from the dopey and annoying to expectations of common decency, and everyone in a culture as diverse as ours is bound to draw those lines differently. However, distinguishing among the factually true, the dubious, and the false, at least outside of religion, doesn’t involve many judgment calls about taste or “appropriate” and “inappropriate.” This struggle should be less fraught.
But it will require a struggle to try to make America reality-based again. We few, we happy few, we band of sisters and bothers—in fact, we’re not really so few. Fight the good fight in your private life. You needn’t get into an argument with the stranger who claims George Soros and Uber are conspiring to make his muscle car illegal, but do not give acquaintances and friends and family members free passes. If you have children or grandchildren, teach them to distinguish between true and untrue as fiercely as you do between right and wrong or between foolish and wise. We need to adopt new protocols for information media hygiene. Would you feed your kids a half-eaten casserole a stranger handed you on the bus, or give them medicine you got from some lady at the gym? Do you have unprotected sex with people you just met? Remember when viral was a bad thing, referring only to the spread of disease? The same goes for what you read and watch and believe.
And fight the good fight in the public sphere. One task, of course, is to contain the worst tendencies of Trumpism and cut off its political-economic fuel, so that a critical mass of fantasy and lies doesn’t turn it into something much worse than nasty, oafish, reality-show pseudoconservatism. Progress is not inevitable, but it’s not impossible either.*11
Cultural predispositions and national characters are real, and societies do come to crossroads and make important choices. But while our Fantasyland tendencies were present from the beginning, the current situation was not inevitable, because history and evolution never are. Nor now is any particular future. We could regain our national balance and composure. These last decades may turn out to have been a phase, one strange act of our ongoing epic, an unfortunate episode in the American experiment that we will finally move past and chalk up to experience. Nations and societies have survived and recovered from far more terrible swerves, eras that felt cataclysmic as they were happening. The good news, in other words, is that America may now be at peak Fantasyland. We can hope.
*1 “The scum that gets high on badly hurting old ladies and others through knockout assaults wouldn’t feel that way with a gun at their head!” the reality-show host Donald Trump tweeted at the time.
*2 Back in 2010, that had been one of the eight specific recommendations in Shariah: The Threat to America (see Chapter 40).
*3 In fact, the pillow was found on the mattress, not on Scalia. By the way, that show’s host, Michael Savage, is another exemplar of Fantasyland’s open borders: as Michael Weiner, Ph.D., he is the author of more than a dozen alternative medicine books, such as Herbs That Heal and The Complete Book of Homeopathy.
*4 2017 Washington Post/ABC News and Politico/Morning Consult surveys.
*5 I realize: given this book, I’m one to talk.
*6 According to a 2014 Pew survey, the Americans who most frequently “feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe” are agnostics.
*7 Data in this paragraph and the previous one are from the General Social Survey 1990–2014 as well as Gallup, Harris, Pew, and Ipsos surveys.
*8 General Social Survey 1990–2014, Pew 2014 survey, 2010 Barna Group survey.
*9 “Hitler is a fool,” Spengler said in 1932, then voted for him for president anyway, because he thought that only strong leaders on the model of the Caesars might save the West from further decline.
*10 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was…like the present period.”
*11 For instance, the state of California eliminated Personal Belief Exemptions from vaccination for schoolchildren as of 2016, and the vaccination rate for California kindergartners is already higher than it has been in a decade.