Some people think with their heads and some know with their hearts. “The truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen– the gut,” Colbert’s right-wing character said. America is all about freedom. The freedom to believe any old crazy-ass idea that comes into our individual heads. And no one has any business trying to disabuse us of our fantasies or the conspiracies we believe.
Kurt Andersen writes in his book “Fantasyland How America went haywire: A 500-year history,” that two-thirds of us believe in angels and demons, a quarter swear there are witches lurking about. Half of Americans are sure heaven exists, ruled by a guy. “A quarter believe vaccines cause autism and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 general election,” writes Andersen, who believes the current president is “stupendous Exhibit A” in the landscape of “Fantasyland,” a fitting leader for a nation that has, over the centuries, nurtured a “promiscuous devotion to the untrue.”
America was founded by those seeking refuge from religious persecution and Andersen lets the likes of Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard and Norman Vincent Peale have it. Smith had a burning bush, while “Peale’s approach was perfect for it’s American moment: breezy self-help motivational cheerleading mixed with supernatural encouragement, Dale Carnegie plus the Guy Upstairs.”
Hubbard morphed from sci-fi author to religious prophet. When his book, “Dianetics” was a bestseller for two years, he realized there was more profit in being a prophet and “transformed the whole thing from a pseudoscience into a religion, the Church of Scientology.” Meanwhile, Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” spent three years on the New York Times bestseller list.
A young Donald Trump attended Peale’s 5th Avenue Presbyterian church and the positive thinking pastor officiated Donald’s first marriage to the currently silent and mother of his older brood, Ivana.
America was built on entrepreneurship and the “American faith in faith.” Andersen sees “every entrepreneur’s job is to persuade and recruit others to believe in a dream, and often those dreams are pure fantasies.” Andersen is no fan of capitalism and chronicles the numerous railroad bubbles and busts along with the panic of 1873, through a lens of hucksters taking advantage of rubes.
P.T. Barnum makes an appearance in Andersen’s story, quoting the famous promoter, “the perfect good-nature with which the American public submits to a clever humbug.” Barnum and the president have been compared often, with Kevin Young writing, “the Age of Euphemism has its modern inheritor” to Barnum in Trump, a man similarly aware of the press, “by turns defiant of and dependent on it in ways that only reinforce the spectacle’s power.”
James Fellows explains in Vanity Fair,
They both experienced bankruptcies and ran for office (Barnum served one term as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and in the legislature) and, yes, both “planted fake-news story as matter of course.” Admittedly, Barnum didn’t start a phony university, pretend to be his own publicists, or fabricate Time Magazine covers that filled halls in his properties.
“Delusional ideas and magical thinking flood from the private sphere into the public,” writes Andersen, “and become so pervasive and deeply rooted, so normal, that they affect everyone.”
For those considering possible 2020 Trump opponent Oprah Winfrey, Andersen writes, she, “is responsible for giving a national platform and credibility to magical thinking New Age and otherwise. In her broad domain, she is the Cotton Mather, John Wesley, Brigham Young, and Billy Graham, the first New Age pope.” He continues, I believe she’s both sincere and a brilliant Barnumesque promoter of her dreamworld.”
So, perhaps, we haven’t seen anything yet. America’s fantasy will march on. LW