Still Crazy After All These Years
America’s Long History of Political Delusion
In the spring of 2011, Donald Trump began suggesting that U.S. President Barack Obama had not been born in the United States. “Why doesn’t he show his birth certificate?” Trump asked on ABC’s The View. “I would love to see it produced,” he told Fox News’ On the Record. “I’m starting to think that he was not born here,” he announced on NBC’s Today Show. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, Trump kept repeating his nonsense. To this day, polls show that some 70 percent of registered Republicans doubt Obama’s citizenship. Welcome to what Kurt Andersen calls “Fantasyland.”
In his new book, Andersen takes a dizzy, mordant trip through five centuries of magical thinking, bringing a novelist’s gaze to make-believe Americana. The “hucksters” and the “suckers” tumble through the pages. John Winthrop announces a “City upon a Hill,” with nothing less than the future of all Christianity at stake. The Puritan ministers Increase Mather and his son, Cotton, hunt witches in Salem Village. Andersen’s story runs through P. T. Barnum, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, and, finally, Trump himself, who beats them all by managing an average of over five untruths a day.
As Andersen shows, fantastical thinking has always played an outsize role in American culture. But something seems different today. Running beneath the parade of con artists and manias that Andersen deftly catalogs glints something more dangerous than illusions: a bitter contest over national identity that political institutions may no longer be able to contain.
Americans have wrestled over their national character many times before. What has changed? The answer lies in how the political parties have reorganized debates over race, immigration, and the American self. For a long time, the party system stifled tribal questions; now, it inflames them.
Fantasyland begins with an inventory of magical thinking. Two-thirds of Americans believe in angels and demons; a third think climate change is a hoax, that humans roamed among the dinosaurs, or that pharmaceutical cartels are hiding the cure for cancer. The fantasies don’t sit in any one cultural corner, Andersen observes. Many of those who believe, against all scientific evidence, that genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat snicker at those who deny Darwin’s theory of evolution. And most creationists, in turn, dismiss the Mormon belief that an angel revealed the contents of the Book of Mormon on golden plates to Joseph Smith.
The leitmotif for Andersen’s tour of American chimeras comes from an unnamed senior adviser in the George W. Bush White House who, speaking with the journalist Ron Suskind in 2002, mocked the chumps in the “reality-based community” clinging to the notion that “solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” Not anymore, boasted the adviser. Now, “we create our own reality.”
This attitude, as Andersen shows, was nothing new. But two recent shifts in the social cosmos, he argues, have tipped American society into a more intense and destabilizing Fantasyland. First, the 1960s culture of “do your own thing, find your own reality, it’s all relative” liberated everyone to nourish his or her own favorite fantasies. Second, a new era of information and communication threw opinions onto the airwaves alongside actual news and fractured Americans’ shared understanding of reality.
Today, the mass media overflow with malicious fantasies and conspiracy theories. During the 2016 election, claims that Democratic Party officials were implicated in a child sex ring run out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., emerged from a white supremacist website and quickly went viral. This kind of fevered public discourse didn’t just spring up; it was unleashed, in part, by policy decisions. For nearly four decades, starting in 1949, the Federal Communications Commission enforced a policy known as the Fairness Doctrine, which required media outlets to present both sides of controversial issues—producing the bland news regime that many Americans now remember with nostalgia. Then, in 1987, the Reagan administration repealed the rule and fended off congressional efforts to reinstate it.
The change coincided with the emergence of transformative media technologies. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, cable channels sprang up on television, serious content moved into the newly opened FM radio bands, and a series of provocative talk-show hosts seized the freed-up space on the AM dial.
The policy shift and the technological change combined to produce a fresh kind of content: heated, partisan, and often fantastical. Rumors sprang from the dark corners of the new World Wide Web and crept into established broadcast media. Anderson surveys all sorts of collateral damage: one quickly discredited study of 12 people published by Andrew Wakefield in 1998 led to dangerous anti-vaccine hysteria and the return of dormant diseases such as whooping cough. A surge of racial fantasies convinced millions that anti- white bias was a greater problem than anti-black bias and that American Muslims were scheming to replace U.S. jurisprudence with Islamic law.
The new media ecosystem flourished mainly on the right. Although liberals have tried to emulate conservative news shows, they have never had much success. As Andersen observes, the 45 million Americans who listen to right-wing talk radio are older, whiter, and more conservative than the country as a whole. Above all, they are angry. According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 98 percent of those who regularly tune in are convinced that the country is going in the wrong direction.
NATION OF IMMIGRANTS
The history behind that anger helps explain just how and why the United States has gone haywire. Anderson is right to point to the 1960s. But underneath the story of a “do your own thing” culture lies a deeper tale of how the white majority has responded to the twin dangers of racial equality and immigrant power. Amid the upheaval of the 1960s, leaders of both parties finally acquiesced to black demands for racial justice—and promptly faced a white backlash. The Republican Party lurched into a rebellion against its own elites. Barry Goldwater, the party’s nominee in the 1964 presidential election, was the first leader of that revolution. He preached free-market liberty but remained silent as segregationists lined up behind him. At the same time, Democrats faced their own racial reckoning as white voters, especially those in the South, turned away from the party. The Democratic nominee has lost the white vote in every presidential election after 1964.
Goldwater’s coalition of small-government conservatives and segregationists had a long, bipartisan provenance. Back in the antebellum United States, supporters of slavery fiercely resisted federal projects. If the national government was powerful enough to build roads or mental hospitals, they reasoned, it might be powerful enough to meddle with their racial order. In 1842, former President John Quincy Adams, then an antislavery representative from Massachusetts, told his constituents that slavery “palsied” the hand of national government and stood in the way of “the prospective promotion of the general welfare.”
These clashing attitudes about federal power were vividly illuminated when the North and the South split in 1861. With the slave states gone, the Union Congress passed a cascade of previously blocked national programs: land-grant colleges, railroads, a homestead act, banking bills, a progressive income tax, and the first national currency. The Confederate constitution, in contrast, forbade its central government from engaging in any “internal improvements.” Alexander Stephens, the Confederate vice president, explained the twin cornerstones of the fledgling state: slavery for blacks and no national projects under the guise of interstate commerce. Guarding the racial hierarchy meant binding the central government.
That pattern persisted long after slavery ended. Men and women fighting to preserve segregation in the middle of the twentieth century learned that raw racism provoked a national backlash. Calling for liberty and bashing the government, in contrast, brought them allies. The leaders of the powerful libertarian streak that runs through mainstream American conservatism, from Goldwater, through Reagan, down to the present, always seem to wink at the bigots. Of course, many conservatives dispute that idea; after all, they point out, every coalition has its lunatic fringe, and the big-government liberals of the New Deal were long enmeshed with the segregationists of the “Solid South.”
But with Trump, what seemed fringe burst onto center stage, trumpeting racial animosity to cheering partisans. Anderson bluntly sums up the Trump campaign’s strategy: “Fuck the dog whistles.” You’re “living in hell,” Trump told African Americans during the first presidential debate. “You walk down the street, and you get shot.” For a time, Trump refused to denounce the Ku Klux Klan or disavow the white supremacist leader David Duke, who had urged his supporters to vote for Trump. What allowed racism to burst from the shadows after all this time was an unprecedented intersection of racial politics and immigration.
Until the 1960s, the political parties sorted views on immigration very differently from those on race. Before the Civil War, the pro-slavery Democrats embraced new Americans, hustled them into the franchise, and turned an indulgent eye on their cheating at the polls, beating up abolitionists, or sparking race riots. Year after year, the Democratic Party platform denounced abolitionists, welcomed “the oppressed of every nation,” and attacked the rival party’s long history of anti-immigrant prejudice.
On the other side, the same people who fought against slavery often despised immigrants and worked to limit their political participation. Even Abraham Lincoln quietly incorporated nativists into the new Republican Party, although he refused to make concessions to them. As the historian David Potter wrote, “No event in the history of the Republican party was more crucial or more fortunate than this sub rosa union. By it, the Republican party received a permanent endowment of nativist support which probably elected Lincoln in 1860 and which strengthened the party in every election for more than a century to come.” These twin alliances—Whigs (and, later, Republicans) joining with slavery’s critics and nativists and Democrats siding with segregationists and immigrants—kept the two issues of slavery and immigration largely separate.
Once again, the 1960s changed everything. In 1965, Congress passed the Hart-Celler Act, which opened the door to a new wave of immigrants (immigration to the United States had been radically curtailed in the 1920s). The main opposition to the act came from segregationists who feared that, unlike the predominantly European immigrants of the past, new arrivals to the United States were more likely to be nonwhite. New tensions arose as the immigrant generation that arrived after the act swelled into one of the largest in U.S. history. Those tensions were increasingly channeled into party politics as the parties aligned themselves along racial, ethnic, and national-origin lines. The Democratic Party championed civil rights and sponsored open immigration; over time, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Spanish speakers drifted (or were pushed) into its ranks. At the same time, white natives moved decisively to the Republicans.
Exacerbating matters still further, the U.S. Census Bureau began to publicize an explosive demographic prediction after the 2000 census: the United States was inexorably becoming a majority-minority nation. That oversimplified matters because the bureau uses a standard reminiscent of the “one-drop rule,” classifying people of mixed ethnic heritage as minorities. But there is no denying that the face of the nation is changing. Nothing symbolized that change more than Obama. Nothing gave voice to the fretful backlash more than Trump.
The political realignment over race and immigration meant that by the early years of this century, for the first time, race and ethnicity mapped neatly onto party identification. Take just one marker of the divide: almost 90 percent of Republican members of the House of Representatives are white men; among Democrats, the figure is 43 percent. The political system that once diffused the issue of national identity now exacerbates it. Although most Americans expect politics to turn on differences over public policy, the two political parties are now configured to bring tribal issues to the surface. They repeatedly thrust the same perilous question into politics: Who counts as a true American?
By underscoring the question of national identity, party conflict now strains the United States’ political institutions: regular order in Congress, the norms that once held the presidency in check, the impartiality of the courts and of the news media. Everything from the churches to the Boy Scouts has been caught up in the struggle. Mix this broad conflict over identity with the United States’ long history of fantasy, and the result is a nation that has, indeed, gone haywire.
Andersen ends his book with the wan hope that American fantastical thinking has peaked and that the American people will somehow stumble their way to “balance and composure.” What are the chances of that happening? The racialized history that runs parallel to the story of Fantasyland offers two very different prospects for the future.
On the one hand, national institutions are generally resilient, and even in today’s media landscape, it remains difficult for most people—Trump excluded, it seems—to simply lie without consequences. Politics may continue to swing wildly back and forth for some time, but the basic demographic trends that worried Republican leaders after their defeat in the 2012 presidential election have not changed. Every year, the United States grows a little less white; white nationalism offers no long-term prospect of political success. Rather, each party will have to face up to some stubborn realities. Republicans will need to finally and forcefully divorce their small-government message from implicit (and sometimes explicit) appeals to white supremacy. Democrats will need to earn the allegiance of their voters by squarely addressing the issue of economic opportunity rather than running on antipathy toward the Republican Party.
Of course, on either side, an impassioned base might not permit its party to make the necessary adjustments. There is plenty of precedent for that. American politics has often operated with a dominant majority party and an (often regional) minority one. The party that fails to keep up with the times may find itself looking like the Democrats after the start of the Civil War (the party put just two men in the White House in 72 years) or the Republicans after the start of the Great Depression (just one president in 36 years).
On the other hand, democracies can break. As the political scientists Robert Mickey, Steven Levitsky, and Lucan Ahmad Way warned in this magazine last year, it is exceedingly difficult for a large democracy to negotiate a change in its dominant ethnic group. The United States tried to achieve something like that after the Civil War, during Reconstruction, when Republicans sought to impose racial equality on Southern society. Resurgent white power fended off the reforms and constructed bluntly authoritarian regimes that stripped the vote from almost all black people and many whites across the Southern states. By the mid-1930s, for example, Mississippi had over two million citizens, but only about 6,000 of them cast ballots in midterm congressional elections.
In this scenario, the pressure of racial and ethnic change could result in the old South’s racial politics going national. Andersen’s history makes it easy to imagine the tall tales that might justify voter suppression, already a finely honed feature of U.S. politics. Politicians gerrymander districts, deny suffrage to felons, purge voting lists shortly before elections, impose restrictive registration requirements, enact voter ID laws, close polling places, and reduce voting times, all of which make it harder for many black, Hispanic, poor, and young people to cast their ballots. Fantasies about massive voter fraud could ratchet up the restrictions. Trump’s victory, achieved with almost three million fewer votes than his opponent got, might mark the beginning of minority rule.
Whichever of these visions proves more accurate, American politics is not likely to calm down anytime soon, as the nation continues to confront its changing identity. Yet there is ultimately something soothing about Andersen’s lively history. It is a litany of falsehood, fantasy, and folly. But it is also the tale of a country that has managed to survive and thrive for five centuries despite all the lies it tells itself.