A Continuous Thread Runs Through US History: Hucksterism

Donald Trump may seem like a cruel huckster who deviates from a status quo of centrism in the United States. However, argues Kurt Andersen, author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, Trump is really the apotheosis of a long history of delusion and fantasy in the US.

Mark Karlin: What were some of the first examples of the “conjuring of America”?

Kurt Andersen: America was a blank slate for conjuring from the start in the early 1600s. The English settlers were people passionately convinced of various exciting untruths. In Massachusetts, they were religious zealots — an extreme faction of an extreme faction (Puritans) of a new religion (Protestantism) who imagined they were God’s chosen people sent to the New World to create a theocracy, wage wars on Satan’s agents (Native people, witches) and await Jesus’s return. In Virginia, they were … convinced they would find gold and get rich, and kept believing that for years, despite never finding any gold. An unkind way of saying it is that the first white people in America self-selected for credulity, for being true believers and/or suckers.

What was the “First Great Delirium”?

Historians call the emergence of our uniquely wild and emotional and contagious American Protestantism in the decades starting around 1800 the “Second Great Awakening.” I put that in a larger context of all sorts of wild beliefs that emerged and spread simultaneously, which I call the “First Great Delirium.” In that I include not just extravagant, highly supernatural religion, but the rise of medical quackery, spiritualism, conspiracism and more. So today, we’re going through the Second Great Delirium.

What was the impact of the ’50s and ’60s on contributing to our historical sense of fantasy?

Kurt Andersen.
Kurt Andersen.
Random House

In the ’50s, there were the pastoral and small-town fantasies underlying the suddenly ubiquitous new domestic ideal, the suburb, and the fantasies propagated as never before by the new medium of television. In my chapter on the 1950s, I also tie together a handful of fantasy-based new institutions that run counter to the ’50s stereotype of bland super-normality and set the template for Fantasyland America — Las Vegas, Playboy, the Beats, Disneyland, Scientology, the Billy Graham Crusades and McCarthyism. I have five chapters about the 1960s, which I refer to as the “Big Bang” for Fantasyland. In various American realms, from the bohemian counterculture to Protestantism to conspiracism to the academy, the very idea of empirical reality and shared facts was profoundly undermined. During the ’60s, for all the good that happened, our founding anti-establishment predisposition started becoming more and more extreme and dominant — leading eventually to the variously “alternative facts” of the present day.

Briefly explain your chapter, “The Inmates Running the Asylum Decide Monsters Are Everywhere.”

It’s about the overlapping American hysterias of the 1980s and early ’90s — the vastly overblown fear of kidnapping, the promotion of bogus psychiatric diagnoses and false memories of abuse and extraterrestrial abduction, and most especially, the so-called Satanic Panic, in which dozens of innocent people were convicted of performing satanic ritual abuse and imprisoned. It’s shocking to me that 30 years later, we barely recall it, let alone have any sense of national regret about it. 

When did the GOP “go off the rails”?

I’d say in a Fantasyland sense, it really started in the 1990s and became full-blown during the last decade or so. Right-wing talk radio and then Fox News and then the internet helped. [The US] had never had an explicitly, aggressively religious political party — and the Republican Party has become that.

For instance, in the early 2000s, most GOP presidential candidates still said they believed in evolution and that creationism shouldn’t be taught in public schools; by 2016 that wasn’t permissible. If more and more of a political party’s members hold more and more extravagantly supernatural beliefs, doesn’t it make sense that the party will be more and more open to make-believe in its politics? During the ’90s and ’00s, conspiracy theories about the New World Order and globalism and all the rest moved from the party’s fringes into its mainstream. The GOP establishment definitively lost control when the party nominated Donald Trump in 2016.

How does Donald Trump as president represent, as The New York Times said in reviewing your book, “a fitting leader for a nation that has, over the centuries, nurtured a ‘promiscuous devotion to the untrue’?”

I started writing Fantasyland a year before he announced his candidacy, and before he was nominated, turned in a draft in which I called him a pure Fantasyland being, its apotheosis, a stupendous Exhibit A. To describe him is practically to summarize the book. He 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; he exploited the myths of white racial victimhood; he’s a creature of the fantasy-industrial complex, a member of the WWE Hall of Fame who played a CEO on TV for 15 years and then became the first insult-comic president. I could go on.