How America Got Divorced from Reality: Christian Utopias, Anti-Elitism, and the Media Circus

Americans are inherently a little crazy. But now the crazy is being enabled by politicians in the White House and by the internet. How exactly did it get so bad?

Kurt Andersen: Americans have always been magical thinkers and passionate believers in the untrue. We were started by the Puritans in New England who wanted to create and did create a Christian utopia and theocracy as they waited for the eminent second coming of Christ and the end of days. And in the south by a bunch of people who were convinced, absolutely convinced that this place they’d never been was full of gold just to be plucked from the dirt in Virginia and they stayed there looking and hoping for gold for 20 years before they finally faced the facts and the evidence and decided that they weren’t going to get rich overnight there. So that was the beginning. And then we’ve had centuries of buyer-beware charlatanism to an extreme degree and medical quackery to an extreme degree and increasingly exotic extravagant implausible religions over and over again from Mormonism to Christian Science to Scientology in the last century.

And we’ve had this antiestablishment "I’m not going to trust the experts, I’m not going to trust the elite" from our character from the beginning. Now all those things came together and were super-charged in the 1960s when you were entitled to your own truth and your own reality. Then a generation later when the Internet came along, giving each of those realities, no matter how false or magical or nutty they are, their own kind of media infrastructure. We had entertainment, again for the last couple hundred years, but especially in the last 50 years permeating all the rest of life, including Presidential politics from John F. Kennedy through Ronald Ragan to Bill Clinton. So the thing was set up for Donald Trump to exploit all these various American threads and astonishingly become president, but then you look at this history and it’s like no we should have seen this coming. 

The idea of America from the beginning was that you could come here, reinvent yourself, be anybody you want, live any way you wanted, believe any thing you wanted. For the first few hundred years, like everywhere else in the world, celebrity and fame were a result of some kind of accomplishment or achievement, sometimes not a great accomplishment or achievement, but you did something in the world to earn renown. America really was the key place that invented the modern celebrity culture, which was, beginning a century ago, more and more not necessarily about having won a war or led a people or written a great book or painted a great painting, but about being famous, fame for its own sake. We created that, we created Hollywood, we created the whole culture industry and that then became what I call the fantasy industrial complex where, certainly in the last few decades more than ever more than anybody thought possible before, fame itself, however you’ve got it, was a primary goal for people. And again, as so many of the things I talk about in Fantasyland, not uniquely to America but more here than anywhere. And then you get reality television, which was this unholy hybrid of the fictional and the real for the last now generation where that blur between what’s real and what’s not is pumped into our media stream willy-nilly. There are now more reality shows on television than there were shows on television 20 years ago. And that’s another way for nobodies to become famous overnight. YouTube, another way for nobodies to become a famous overnight for doing almost nothing or nothing.

So... again back to Donald Trump, he had the advantage, unlike any normal politician, any person or normal businessperson for that matter who might presume to run for president he was a celebrity, he was a show business celebrity. He was a member of the WWE Hall of Fame after all and then also had this primetime show The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice of which he was the star playing himself for 15 years. So he was pre-marketed in a way that in the past would have been disqualifying for a president. Yes we elected a former actor Governor of California and President of the United States, but not all at once and only 20 years essentially in Ronald Ragan’s case after he gave up his Hollywood career. This is a different thing, this is I will go directly from this playing myself on a reality television program to being president and it worked proving the sheer power of any kind of celebrity. And again, yeah he was celebrated for having made a lot of money, but he made a lot of money in all kinds of dubious ways rather than normal forms of business achievement, but he’s famous. He’s a star. He was a star and that’s why he won the nomination and that’s why he became president. 

Like all humans, Americans suffer from what’s called confirmation bias, which is I believe this; I will look for facts for pseudo-facts or fictions that confirm my pre-existing beliefs. Americans, long before psychologists invented that phrase confirmation bias, had that tenancy, again, at the very beginning. "I’ve never been to the New World. Nobody I know has been to the New World. I never really read any first and accounts of the New World, but I’m going to give up my life and go there because it’s going to be awesome and perfect and I’m going to get rich overnight and/or create a Christian Utopia." So we began that way and that has kept up "I just want to believe what I want to believe and don’t let your lying eyes tell you anything different." And again, that was always there in the American DNA but kept in check by the needs of survival, by reality checks of various kinds. In this softer age where most people aren’t going to probably die tomorrow as a result of believing fantasies and untruths we became freer to believe them. So believing whatever nutty thing you want to believe or pretending you are whatever you are or having even kooky conspiracy theories or speaking in tongues, whatever it is fine if it’s private. The problem is when that, as it has in the last couple of decades especially, leeched into the public sphere and the policies sphere and like "there’s no global warming. We don’t have to worry about the seas rising." Or "nah scientists say that vaccines are safe but I think they cause autism so I’m not going to vaccinate my children" and so on and so on that’s when the rubber hits the road, will hit the road, and people will start saying wait a minute. 

Not until then, not until there’s a consequence and not until there is a price to pay and not until the Donald Trump-ian fantasies, for instance, the more short-term ones of oh I’m going to make every dream come true that you’ve ever had for your country, actually one of his promises during the campaign. Or I’m going to create a healthcare system that is better and cheaper and will cover everyone. Well, that’s probably not going to happen and so once these fantasies are taken into the public sphere and the political sphere and really in the short-term turn out to be fantasies and falsehoods that will persuade some people, but not everybody. According to a recent survey 98 percent of the voters who voted for Donald Trump in the primaries, which is to say his real base, 98 percent of them in late 2017 still absolutely supported him. So I don’t think that’s going to fall a lot. Those are true believers.

Back in the 1800s - back in before the 20th century, especially in the 1800s, American journalism was a very, very factionalized partisan thing. Political parties had their own newspapers and their own magazines and everyone gave its version of political spin and interpretation. 20th century, for a variety of reasons not just because we got smarter or more rational, maybe somewhat that, there began being more of a shared set of facts in our media. People disagree violently left, right, center, whatever, but the facts were agreed upon. What has been enabled in the last 30 years, first through deregulated talk radio where you didn't have to be fair and balanced anymore then national cable television, FOX News comes to mind, and then, of course, the Internet as well where these more and more not just politically different points of view but these alternate factual realities could be portrayed and depicted. We’ve been in that state now for 20 years or more so, again, we were softened up as a people to believe what we want to believe but then we have this new infrastructure that I think is new that I think is a new condition. So there’s a history of oh I believe this or I believe this or slavery is good, no slavery is bad, those are disagreements. But in 1860 Southerners didn’t say "oh no there are no slaves. No there’s no slavery." That’s the condition we have now. That is the Kellyanne Conway/Donald Trump situation and Republican Party situation before Donald Trump ever came along where we say no there’s no climate change or oh this factual truth is not true. That’s the new thing and this new media infrastructure is a new condition. Now, it may not be the end of things as a result, but we don’t know yet. We’re only 20 years into it and maybe we’ll learn new protocols of what to believe and what not, we’ll grow up and be able to accommodate ourselves to this new media situation, but I’m worried that we won’t and I’m worried that a significant fraction of us, for now mostly on the right but there’s no reason it should be limited to the right, will be in their bubble and their silo and with their own reality and not be able to be retrieved into the reality-based world.

Since a boat of religious fanatics with buckles on their hats hit the shores near Plymouth Rock and claimed that this was their utopia, America has always been a little bit crazy. It's this kind of wide-eyed "anything can happen if you believe" mentality that, at its best, can produce incredible art. But at its worst, it can be cruel and conspiratorial. We live in a country where people refuse to believe vaccination can help you and where a White House is spinning "alternative — but Kurt Andersen is here to say that this is nothing now. At the time of the Civil War, society had become split by two sides that refused to listen to each other. Back then, the political and social divide is stoked by a hyperbolic partisan media where anyone could publish whatever they wanted in a pamphlet without fact-checking. Sound familiar? It definitely should. Kurt's latest book is appropriately titled Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.

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