From the AICGS Bookshelf: Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire
Most Europeans remain flabbergasted that Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. Millions of Americans are equally confused. Trying to overcome the fixation on tweets is not an easy task—let alone trying to find a large enough framework in which to understand the phenomenon.
Kurt Andersen has tried to deliver that framework, going back a half millennium to build it. It could be helpful for some Americans…and perhaps for a few Europeans.
Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire tells the story of a country built on a number of contradictions—and a number of myths. The red line running through this book is how those contradictions led us to a point where we stand in danger of not only being unable to resolve them, but to even agree on what the contradictions are.
Andersen explains how Donald Trump is a poster child for what he calls “Fantasyland,” a country based on a “promiscuous devotion to the untrue.” The phenomenon of “fake news” or “alternative facts” is not new in the U.S. He traces how the country’s cardinal beliefs in both religious and intellectual freedom as founded in the Constitution have cumulatively led to an increasing trend toward what he calls custom-made reality. Whatever you believe is right, regardless of the facts—to pervert the famous quote, “you ARE entitled to both your own opinions and your own facts.”
From the start, U.S. culture was formed by a battle between empirical facts and freedom of thought (First Amendment) with an evolution in the direction of an emancipation of every American to pursue what his or her image and reality of truth is. That trend was reinforced by the role of religions in the U.S.—primarily versions of Christianity—with a wide spectrum of mysticism and dogma and very little portions of self-doubt. After all, America is an exceptional nation and this notion of challenging authority and believing in whatever feels right fits with that.
Anderson takes us on a trip in which we see how American national character has made it increasingly difficult to find the boundary between fantasy and reality. He sees the prevalence of people who find solace in conspiracy theories, spiritual journeys of multiple dimensions, and questioning what truth is resulting in a country divided into tribes with less ability to communicate with each other.
The book is a reminder of the various trailblazers and icons who mark these passages and Andersen is an equal-opportunity critic of both the left and the right in getting the country further into its state of mind.
Of course, in the same 500 years, the U.S. has become the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world. I think his worry is whether our state of mind can sustain that situation much longer.
For those interested in a cultural trip through U.S. history, it will offer some insights about various reference points that are perhaps less known to non-Americans. Beware that it is a bit depressing. Still, it does help build a larger kaleidoscope to view a very complex society called the United States—as full of contradictions as ever and still a bit crazy after all this time.