FANTASYLAND: How America Went Haywire — A 500-Year History, by Kurt Andersen. Random House, 462 pp., $30.
In 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against “the military-industrial complex,” the symbiotic melding of the U.S. military and weapons industry that could leave the country in a perpetual state of war. In “Fantasyland,” a provocative new study of America’s cultural history, author and journalist Kurt Andersen explores a force in society he believes is equally dangerous.
Calling it the “fantasy-industrial complex,” Andersen documents the myriad entities — business, religion, politics, entertainment — that have produced a populace that eschews reality for fantasy, facts for fiction, real life for make-believe.
“Little by little for centuries,” Andersen observes, “then more and more and faster and faster during the last half century, Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation. . . . The cliché would be the frog in the gradually warming pot, oblivious to its doom until too late.”
For America, the “doom” that has arrived, according to Andersen, is Donald Trump, who is “a pure Fantasyland being, its apotheosis.” Trump “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.”
Belief in the fantastical has been part of American life since the Puritans. The sermons of the early 18th century preacherJonathan Edwards read more like horror fiction than biblical discourses. In Salem, when a minister’s 9-year-old daughter “began acting strangely,” it was decided she and several other girls were witches. Twenty were executed; others died in jail.
Andersen contends this “anything-goes relativism” began to extend “beyond religion to almost every kind of passionate belief: If I think it’s true, no matter why or how I think it’s true, then it’s true, and nobody can tell me otherwise.” Americans accepted conspiracies involving Freemasons, Illuminati and the Vatican, even as they embraced figures like P.T. Barnum (whose wildly popular circus made him “America’s first great commercial blurrer of truth and make-believe”) and Buffalo Bill (whose live Wild West show made him “the most famous personality in America and probably the world”).
The twentieth century saw the creation of Hollywood, radio, television and finally the internet. As the century passed, fantasy became even more prevalent in everyday life. Witness Dungeons and Dragons, faux Confederate re-enactments, role-playing games, and Renaissance fairs. Oprah Winfrey became the “queen” of her “Fantasyland realm” who propagated The Secret (which says you can become whatever you imagine you can become) and Dr. Oz (who is, Andersen claims, “a dispenser of make-believe”). On a darker note, radio host Alex Jones, who his own attorney once described as a “performance artist,” traffics in outrageous conspiracies (the government was behind 9/11, Sandy Hook was staged) but helped elect Trump — according to Trump.
Which brings us back to a central argument of “Fantasyland”: Because of the fantasy-industrial complex, Trump is president. Trump was the perfect candidate for the time — a man whose business autobiography, which he did not write himself, popularized the notion of “truthful hyperbole.” “He gets away with this,” Andersen believes, “because now factual truth is just one opinion, the consensus reality, and Americans feel entitled to their own facts.”
In this absorbing, must-read polemic, Andersen exhaustively chronicles a development eating away at the very foundation of Americanism. And what does it all portend? “Nations and societies have survived and recovered from far more terrible swerves, eras that felt cataclysmic as they were happening,” Andersen writes. “The good news . . . is that America may now be at peak Fantasyland. We can hope.”
On Sept. 14, Kurt Andersen discusses “Fantasyland” with Diane Masciale, general manager of WLIW21, part of Long Island LitFest. Tickets, $45 (includes a copy of the book), must be purchased in advance. At 7:30 p.m., Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave. Huntington. For more information call 631-423-7611 or go to cinemaartscentre.org