OLD-TIMERS who remember Spy magazine, the New York–based satiric monthly that experienced its heyday in the late Reagan years, will know Kurt Andersen as the guy who, along with co-founded Graydon Carter, made a certain obnoxious real-estate developer notorious decades before he ascended to the presidency.
Andersen has since become a novelist, cultural critic, and pioneering radio host, inaugurating the smart and eclectic public-radio show Studio 360.
Andersen’s new book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, explains the rise of that ’80s developer — short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump, as Spy used to call him — but does much more besides. This “500-Year History” begins before the establishment of the nation, reaching back to the birth of Protestantism and Martin Luther’s attack on the Catholic Church. Funny, illuminating, and disturbing in equal measures, it describes a phenomenon far more sweeping than any one president.
The interview took place by phone from Andersen’s house in Brooklyn.
SCOTT TIMBERG: The book is a lot of fun to read and also deeply frightening. What was it like to write?
KURT ANDERSEN: You know, that’s the reaction of so many people: “Oh, how frightening, depressing, whatever, but also funny and fun. It’s a roller-coaster.” I had never written a big nonfiction book before. I’ve written little nonfiction books, so that was really interesting and different for me. It began like any book begins — like novels begin — where they’re kind of half-baked, stick-figure ideas, “Oh, I think this is true, and this may be true, and that may be connected to this.” But then it was a matter of immersing myself in history and research, and that was actually fun. I mean, no book is fun — every book is horrible to write — but it was fun, as you say.
I knew some of these things in a superficial way, in a way that stuck with me from junior high school. But going deeper into the story of Anne Hutchinson or the Scopes trial was fascinating. I write to find out what I think about things, and that was very true in this case: the thinking and the writing literally led me to places I didn’t start out. It had all the pleasures of discovery that writing, when it’s gratifying — I won’t say fun — will give you.
The book will be remembered, and probably marketed, as “the road to Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh and the whole Alex Jones conspiracy complex.” But the roots of the book are literally 500 years old. When did you personally get a sense that there was something a little bit off about the American experiment?
Well, I never put it that grandly to myself until I started writing this book. But looking back and seeing — in my own little life, in the things I had written — I saw the various threads: everything had become entertainment. The Republican Party had become a Christian party of a kind it had never been. I’d been writing about this stuff for 15 years, but it wasn’t until the 2010s, I guess, that I started thinking, wait, there’s a kind of unified theory going on here. So I’m very happy that — and again, it’s pure luck — that I dreamed it up and wrote it and finished the draft before Donald Trump was nominated for president.
What a stroke of luck, right? The nation would go entirely off the rails in between you turning this in and its publication.
I was recently reading Walter Isaacson’s book about Einstein, who introduced the theory of relativity and then, suddenly, coincidentally, two years later this particular eclipse happened and proved his theory. Not that I’m Einstein or that Donald Trump is an eclipse. But the election of Donald Trump as president makes it easy for people to understand what I’m talking about.
I spent some of the summer in England and Ireland and I repeatedly had people come up to me who knew I was journalist and ask, “What happened to your country? Do you have any explanation?” And I never have a succinct way to put it.
I think most Americans are as confused and befuddled by it as your Irish and English friends. The history is not obvious. It’s a weird alternative, revisionist history.
So much of this ends up coming from Protestantism — the religion and culture, supposedly, of reason, literacy, the printing press, and moderation.
Let’s remember that the P in “WASP” stands for Protestantism. I was pretty unschooled in early Protestant history, so I had a lot of remedial work to do. What I didn’t realize is that there is Protestantism and then there’s American Protestantism, which was always a different thing. We began as Puritans, some of whom were finally absorbed back into the Church of England, but the American ones were sectarian zealots.
What was Luther’s line — “every man his own priest”?
We are the priesthood of all believers, each of us is a priest, and all we need is to read and have — in America’s case — English bibles. We don’t need any experts to tell us what’s what. Carried to an extreme, that brand of Protestantism becomes American anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism. We take things to their extremes.
Speaking of Protestantism and extremism: One region that shows up in your book and is dominating the news recently is the South, which in Jefferson’s age was actually considered the least pious region in the country. There was a much less zealous commitment to Christianity. How important is the South to Fantasyland, and when did it go all-in with the fantasy?
Well, again I never fully realized that Southerners during the 18th century through the middle of the 19th were saying, again and again, “Oh, those crazy New England zealots who burn witches…” But that changed, and it’s not just about the religion. The commitment to the slave-based Old South led to a kind of anticipatory nostalgia — “Oh my God, the South is going away, slavery is going away” — and that exacerbated the tendency toward magical thinking. Now there are historians of the South who say that this magical thinking has always been part of the Southern character.
I think W. J. Cash said that.
Yes, Cash does say that, and Mark Twain says that. I was unaware of Mark Twain’s memoir, where he talks about the influence of Sir Walter Scott and insists, in the strongest polemical way, that Southerners lived according to a feudal fantasy of Sir Walter Scott — that every Southerner read and named their children after his characters. He blamed Sir Walter Scott for the Civil War. And once the South lost the Civil War and invested in deeper fantasies of the noble Lost Cause, building new institutions like the Ku Klux Klan to serve the fantasy of their own nobility and glory — versus evil, meddling liberals from the North — the South became an important part of this story.
And then, starting in the 1960s, you see the rise of the idea that it was all so good before these nonwhite people got so many rights and privileges, and now it’s all gone to hell. In reaction to the Civil Rights movement, a white Southern idea became a white American idea.
One of the most controversial ideas in the book is that the American 1960s, with its anything goes, anything you want zeitgeist, ended up being a friend of the political right more than the left. How did that work out? It wasn’t so much Woodstock as readers of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman who won, right?
We let a million flowers bloom — it wasn’t just groovy peace and love. “I can believe what I want; science is no better than magic; reason is not superior to faith; it’s all a construction” — different flavors and versions of that existed in the academy, in Haight-Ashbury, in my college dorm room. At the same time, this was the moment when American Protestantism really threw out nuance and reason.
Right, we don’t need your history, we have our own.
We’re going to become as theologically primitive as our Puritan forebears were. And these new things that we decide to call charismatic healing and speaking in tongues, that was also part of the ’60s explosion as well, driven in part by a great Christian awakening — a backlash to free love and all that. But the counter-explosion was just a different part of the same phenomenon: I can believe in magic whether I’m a fundamentalist Christian or taking acid.
Right, why should they be mutually exclusive? Tell us a little about the role played by your generation, the Baby Boom — the biggest and wealthiest generation in the history of the world. How crucial were they to making the fantasy happen?
Though I am technically a Baby Boomer I don’t identify with them. I am slightly younger, for starters.
Nevertheless, through no fault of our own, this generation — because of its size and because of when it came along in the political economy of America — became the avant-garde of Fantasyland. It was a perfect storm of conditions: the United States had won the war, we were determining the global order, and there was this huge number of people — and television.
When I look at the 1960s I’m not saying that civil rights, or feminism, or any of these unquestionably good, virtuous pieces of progress were bad. But there was a blurring of the real and the fictional, and adults trying to be young forever … I don’t want to so much blame the Baby Boomers, but they were, by virtue of their size and their timing, the crucial generational agents of this change. And then we got the internet, and now we’ve all gone to hell.
One of the strange, creepy moments in the book comes when you talk about being a kid in Omaha in the ’50s and how much time you and everybody you knew spent watching TV … There’s a point where technology and the development of the suburbs meant that the reality of physical encounters were replaced by media.
Yeah, television and suburbanization happened so quickly and were such a radical change. Especially in the case of television and its successor media technologies, we sort of quickly lost sight of how disruptive that change was: suddenly, between 1950 and 1960, people are going from not spending any time in a fugue state staring at screens to spending a third of their waking hours doing it.
This new set of conditions blurred the nature between empirical reality and fiction. The news and I Dream of Jeannie came out of the same box.
Right, and this is what Neil Postman or Dwight Macdonald would say: It wasn’t that one was bad or the other is good, it is that they’re in the same magazine or on the same station, so who can tell the difference?
Right. Until I was doing research for this book I hadn’t read this great preface that Aldous Huxley wrote when Brave New World was reissued in the late ’50s, and after he had been a Hollywood screenwriter for 15 or 20 years. He was talking about how this new mass media entertainment-communications system is not trying to put out falsehoods (this was in 1958), but that it was indifferent to the truth. It was simply providing endless distraction.
This was not simply a right-wing movement. Fantasy came from both sides. But at a certain point, it took a right turn.
Yes, in the last 20 years there was much more fantasy on the right than on the left — certainly more so than in the 1950s. Of course, there was this ferocious conspiracy-minded right in the form of McCarthyism and its successor movement, the John Birch Society, but that was marginalized by serious conservatives like William F. Buckley. But after being kept out of the main chambers during the ’60s and the ’70s, in the ’80s, they were no longer kept out. And by the turn of the century the John Birch positions and paradigms of how the world worked — which my Republican parents always disparaged — were orthodoxy.
But I don’t want to make it purely a thing about politics or the right. One of the most counterintuitive and surprising lines I draw is from the counterculture and the academy of the ’60s to the “alternative facts” and the state we’re in now. There’s plenty of culpability to go around. But where it gets consequential is when climate-change denial has become a thing …
Truthers, birthers …
The rationalist, reasonable Republican establishment was playing with fire a lot longer and more cynically than the leaders of the left have done.
You’ve written at least one historical novel, but you’ve never written a nonfiction book with a lot of research and cultural background. I wonder if you had some kind of model for this deeply researched but basically pop social history.
You know, to tell you the truth, I didn’t. I had some books that I remember making people think differently, like Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism. I certainly relied on Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics, which was shorter and narrower, and the Daniel Boorstin book about pseudo-events …
The other region that seems important to the building of the big fantasy, at least for the last 100 years or so, is Southern California. It has a recurring role in this: Hollywood, Disney, Amy Semple McPherson, and so on. How do Los Angeles and its environs fit into this larger march toward lunacy?
Both Southern and Northern California get repeated shout-outs. Northern California has the Gold Rush, the Beats, Esalen, and all that. And Southern California has Hollywood, created out of a blank slate in a very few decades around the turn of the century. It was this idea of America squared — a new world, we can make it whatever we want, let’s go do it! Hollywood is an industry devoted to the most immersive, persuasive, compelling fictions: all dreams are true and it’s beautiful and perfect and wonderful.
Southern California took these deeply American ideas and exaggerated them: I can remake myself to be whatever I want to be; I can create a stage set; I can live in a Mediterranean villa or a sci-fi future house; the sun shines all day and the living is easy and anything is possible. Ultra-individualism … I’ve lived in Los Angeles, I love Los Angeles, but there’s a reason that Southern California and California more generally do appear in the last act — the last century of this history. They were very fertile grounds for the kinds of wackiness, the merger of the real and the fictional, that this whole book is about. L. Ron Hubbard developed Scientology right there in your city.
We have “liberal Hollywood” and conservative Breitbart and whatever Scientology is — all in the same city.
It was a perfect petri dish for all of these organisms to grow like crazy.