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America’s belief in fantasy, and how it impacts our politics

“In this era of cable TV and the internet, people can have alternate reality fed to them 24/7.” — Kurt Andersen

CORNWALL — Like most Americans, author and journalist Kurt Andersen spent much of the day on Wednesday, Jan. 6, watching news coverage of the protest in Washington, D.C., in which a mob pushed past police, broke windows and entered the Capitol Building. 

Andersen is the author of two recent nonfiction explorations of the American character, called “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire,” published in 2017; and “Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America,” published last year in August. 

In addition to his books, Andersen is well-known for his writing in The New Yorker, for his weekly NPR radio program Studio 360 and of course for Spy magazine, which he started in 1986 with Graydon Carter — and which covered a then-iconic New York City character named Donald Trump, whom the magazine tagged as a “short-fingered vulgarian.”

Andersen is now a Cornwall resident, with his wife, Anne Kreamer. 

Living in a P.T. Barnum world

In “Fantasyland,” Andersen explored how Americans are susceptible to what he calls
“exciting falsehoods.” 

In an article about the book in “The Atlantic” magazine, he explains that, “America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, and by hucksters and their suckers, which made America successful — but also by a people uniquely susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem’s hunting witches to Joseph Smith’s creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Trump. In other words: Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. 

“The result is the America we inhabit today, with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.”

What had been a tendency in the early centuries of the country grew into more of a central tenet of American life in the 1960s, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Andersen said in an interview on Thursday, Jan. 7.

“‘Fantasyland,’” he said, “was about general American irrationality, and it ends with politics, and with Donald Trump becoming president.”

How a tendency was exploited

He hadn’t intended to do a follow-up, he said, but his book “Evil Geniuses” sort of turned into one. The first book was about the American tendency to believe widely and fervently in things that aren’t always backed up with concrete facts — and about how that tendency took hold more deeply with help from the “entertainment industrial complex” and the advent of the internet.

The second book,  he said,
“is about how essentially rich people and big business and serious rational economic right wingers exploited the things I talked about in ‘Fantasyland’ to change the American system so they got more wealth and power by exploiting people’s belief in the exciting falsehoods that were out there.”

That, in his opinion, is how Donald Trump became president, and how a thousand people ended up in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday “and broke into the Capitol.”

Trump merged entertainment and real estate to become successful, and then became a reality television star himself. 

Like tourists on the set of a show

“And yesterday was like an amazing show,” Andersen said. “It was scary, and nerve wracking and horrible but it didn’t seem to have a real plan. It was a show and Trump’s ‘super fans’ gathered in Washington, many of them in costume, some in absurd costumes. They were there to be part of the show.

“When you watch the video of them, most of them weren’t running around and damaging things; they were wandering around, like tourists on the set of a reality television show. 

“I don’t want to underplay what was happening. It was an attempted coup, in a way — although a coup requires the cooperation of the military and that wasn’t going to happen. It was more like a foolish ‘cos play,’” where people dress up and enact scenes from their favorite animated series or movies or video games.

“If it hadn’t ended as relatively quickly as it did, and if there hadn’t been a relatively happy ending, my reaction would be different. But right now, I feel like it was mostly a stupid, hideous finale or denouement to the Trump Presidential Show.”

What the future might hold

This interview took place on Thursday, when 13 days remained of the Trump presidency. 

There was no way to know at that point what the next two weeks would bring. But as a satirist, of course Andersen’s advice is largely for us all to “ridicule all this rather than overreact to it.” 

Saying that overreacting just plays into the hands of terrorists has become an internet “meme,” Andersen said, but, “I think this is actually one of those cases where we should  take it seriously” but not so much so that we lose our equilibrium.

“They want us to be freaked out. If we react that way, then they’ve won.”

Returning to the essential differences between his two studies of 21st-century America, Andersen reiterated that there have always been way-out ideas in the air; but that what really makes them dangerous is when people with money, power and influence exploit fears and paranoias for their own ends. 

“In this era of cable TV and the internet, people can have alternate reality fed to them 24/7. It’s a new condition and I don’t know what we do to stop it or fix it, other than to be careful what we say, especially to our children and our grandchildren. If your brother-in-law says things that you know aren’t true, correct him. 

“The evil geniuses part is perhaps easier to fix. It’s a political struggle. For the past 40 or 50 years, they’ve changed the norms of our political and economic systems. 

“But if it can be f**cked up, it can be fixed.”

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