Kurt Andersen in "Fantasyland": American delusion and Donald Trump

Public radio host started writing a book about America's tendency to believe crazy stuff. Then this thing happened

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 30, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

Kurt Andersen (Random House/Thomas Hart Shelby/AP/Paul Sancya/Photo montage by Salon)
Kurt Andersen (Random House/Thomas Hart Shelby/AP/Paul Sancya/Photo montage by Salon)

Kurt Andersen did not begin writing “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire,” his mini-history of 500 years of American hype, conspiracy theory, shameless lies and self-delusion, with our current president in mind. As he recounted during our recent Salon Talks conversation, early in the 2016 campaign Andersen told his wife that if Donald Trump somehow wound up getting the Republican nomination, “it would be great for the book.” It never occurred to him at the time that the absurdity of the Trump campaign would continue all the way to its illogical conclusion.

I would like to claim otherwise, but at best it’s only partly true. I sent myself out on the road for portions of the 2016 campaign, in the role of culture critic playing latter-day Joan Didion, without a solitary clue that this particular election would prove so momentous. It’s an experience that will stick with me the rest of my life, and one important aspect of it was something that I now believe many political reporters share: moments of clarity when you see what’s coming, but cannot quite trust your instincts and impulses and try to shove them aside.

Received wisdom -- what was supposed to happen; what seemed likeliest to happen, based on what had happened before -- was at war with perception in 2016. Every reporter makes misjudgments at times based on limited or momentary perceptions, so it’s easy to default to the lore of the sages, to collective belief treated as gospel truth. I myself sat in a room with Jeb Bush and a few hundred “mainstream” Republicans a few days before the New Hampshire primary, and successfully convinced myself he was making a comeback. For political pundits and observers, 2016 presented what might be called an ontological shock; it was as if physicists suddenly figured out that every so often gravity reversed itself and apples started flying off trees into outer space.

What bothers me now about 2016 is not so much that we failed to see what was happening while it was happening – that was understandable on many levels. I wrote a fevered article in the middle of the night after Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention in Cleveland, saying that I thought he was going to win. I wrote another one right after the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, suggesting that Hillary Clinton’s party seemed complacent and out of touch. Then I more or less put those reactions out of my mind and went back to the presumption that the understood nature of political reality would reassert itself.

That was not a unique reaction by any means. Amie Parnes of The Hill, co-author of “Shattered” (with Jonathan Allen), covered the Clinton campaign from beginning to end. She now says she had premonitions of doom the whole time but kept on believing, at least with the rational-daytime part of her brain, that she was telling the story of the first female president. But that rational-daytime brain let us down. What we got wrong isn’t that we could not foresee an electoral fluke unlike any other in American history, resulting in the victory of a blatantly unqualified and profoundly ignorant candidate over one who had spent her entire life in training for the White House. What we got wrong is, effectively, the subject of Andersen’s book: We couldn’t see that this had been coming for decades, if not centuries. We couldn’t see that Donald Trump was our destiny.

I was just about to write that Andersen doesn’t put it quite that bluntly, that his argument is framed by the built-in anti-ideological caution that comes with years of running mainstream magazines and hosting a public radio show. (He is the host of “Studio 360,” which runs on more than 200 public radio stations, the author of several novels and the former editor of New York magazine.) But when I turned back to the introduction to “Fantasyland,” I found that simply isn’t true:

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.

Going back to America’s roots and origins, Andersen argues, ours has been a nation of “true believers and passionate dreamers,” a mixture of “epic individualism” and “extreme religion” that got dosed with steroids by the cultural explosion of the 1960s and then by the internet age, culminating in “the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.” Donald Trump, to put it another way, is a creature out of American mythology at its dumbest and darkest, promising a return to a mythical America that never existed in the first place. Which may explain why he seems so much more like an imaginary president than a real one.

There are areas of interpretation and emphasis where I disagree with Andersen, sometimes strongly. As he would likely acknowledge, his discussion of the 20th century before 1960 is exceedingly truncated, and various things that could be seen as important plot points in America’s long narrative of delusional thinking are mentioned only in passing or not at all: J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, FDR and the New Deal, World War II and the atomic bomb, and most of all the Cold War, a crazy-making pseudo-conflict whose contradictory effects on our society are still playing themselves out. Generally speaking, Andersen isn’t all that interested in questions of political conflict or state power and seems to view all forms of ideology as essentially religious in nature – which isn’t necessarily a wrong or useless idea but skews his account toward a relatively narrow conception of the cultural sphere.

That said, “Fantasyland” is an important book about the Trump era precisely because it isn’t about the Trump era (or is so only by fortuitous accident). The overall arc of Andersen’s argument, even in those places where I bristle and believe he’s gotten it wrong, hit me with the force of revelation. This is what we’ve been struggling with, and I don’t just mean “liberals” or “the media” but pretty much everybody: Why does it feel so much as if Trump is a fluke yet not a fluke, an alien usurper of unique dreadfulness and also an inevitable, mocking moment of karmic payback?

The answer, in a nutshell, is that America began as an “imaginary place,” rooted in ruthless greed and extreme forms of magical thinking, and nobody could embody those tendencies more perfectly than Donald Trump. (It was not imaginary to those people who already lived here, of course, and their reality would be reshaped by those fantasies, to catastrophic effect.) It’s entirely possible that those of us who want to view other aspects of American history or American mythology as paramount -- the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address and the March on Washington and so on -- are the ones trapped in a delusion.

English America of the 16th and 17th centuries, as Andersen hilariously observes, was a “failing start-up,” a combination of get-rich-quick scheme and DIY religious paradise driven by marketing hype and unfounded fantasy. (It took 20 years for British colonists to get over the proto-Alex Jones conviction that they would find “all Manner of Mines of Gold” in the coastal regions of Virginia, Massachusetts and Maine.) Enlightenment thinking got grafted onto this fantastical landscape, in highly visible fashion but more than a century later. It only partly took root and did not replace the underlying template.

As Andersen sees it, only the aspects of the Enlightenment concerned with individual rights and liberties -- with “the pursuit of happiness,” in Jefferson’s striking and unprecedented phrase -- became part of America’s cultural DNA. Science and reason remained undocumented immigrants, so to speak, tolerated but not embraced. As for the sense those intellectual forces gradually produced in the rest of the world of something approaching a collective human destiny -- a vision shared by socialism, fascism and global capitalism, albeit in different forms -- that was never widely accepted in America, in any period or by any political party. America was exceptional. America was where you went to reinvent yourself. America was where you could make shit up and confidently tell the world it was true.

I’m leaning hard here on the themes I like best in Andersen’s book rather than the ones he wants to highlight. But I think “Fantasyland” is a democratic work of popular history in that respect. Both in print and in conversation Andersen is cheerfully aware that his broad-brush opinions about the 1960s -- which he calls the “Big Bang” of irrational fantasy -- will strike many readers as overly cantankerous. He weaves a richly detailed tapestry of interconnected phenomena, and his prose is always a pleasure to read. Furthermore, he’s clearly correct that the iconoclasm and countercultural rebellion of that period had unpredictable aftershocks that reached every corner of American society, empowering evangelical Christians and far-right zealots at least as much as campus leftists and New Age healers.

But the devil here is in the details. Andersen argues that we are surrounded by pernicious manifestations of the radical subjectivity unleashed by the cultural upheaval of the ‘60s, from anti-vaxxer paranoia to Obama birtherism to Breitbart stories about sharia law to postmodern academics who declare themselves “impartial” on questions of fact. Evidence has become secondary to belief and we’re all entitled to our own versions of reality, with the end result being a president of the United States who has no interest in facts and no connection to reality.

There’s some amount of truth in there, but I suspect Andersen is putting the cart before the horse. He never clearly addresses why that cultural upheaval happened the way it did or whether he believes it could somehow have been avoided. I suppose it's true that if the entire American establishment of both parties hadn't embarked on a Sisyphean military crusade in Southeast Asia, the '60s would not have become "the '60s." That's not much of an answer. Andersen seemingly contends that the '60s were transformational in terms of amplifying and propagating fantasy and bullshit of many varieties, but also implies that they just exposed contradictions in American life that were there all along.

Indeed, Andersen’s larger narrative about America’s endless love affair with hucksters and snake-oil salesmen and holy rollers -- our shared certainty across all barriers of race or class or ideology that one day we will find the Big Rock Candy Mountain – does more to explain the rise of Trump than his jibes at Michel Foucault or the Esalen Institute. Andersen never flat-out says that America was a saner and better place before the coming of LSD and the New Left and alternative medicine and continental philosophy, and very likely doesn't think that. But there’s a hint -- just a hint! -- of MAGA-like nostalgia here at moments, a longing for an unrecoverable past or perhaps for a better future that was supposed to follow that past but never did.

Where the enormous value of “Fantasyland” lies, I think, is that Andersen identifies a deep current in American history and the American national character that led to this moment and this president. That current is our conflicted relationship with reason and science. We often uphold those things as abstract values, but they have never been fully compatible with the national creed that America is a special nation with a divine or providential mission. One could call this the American version of the “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” meaning the idea that even the most progressive modern thought has not escaped the power of myth and magic, which are likely to break out of its chest at any moment, “Alien”-style, and destroy it.

In his book, Andersen calls out the theorists who coined that term, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, as the godfathers of numerous dubious tendencies in American intellectual life. They would conclude, I suspect, that his argument is more than anything an illustration of their theme. They were trying to explain how a European nation known around the world for its music, poetry and philosophy could abruptly have descended into barbarism and mass murder. America’s dialectical dilemma is chronic rather than acute (and no one has ever accused us of being a nation of poets). Its consequences could be every bit as dire.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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