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How America Lost Its Mind – The Atlantic

A single idée fixe like this often appears in both frightened and hopeful versions. That was true of the suddenly booming belief in alien visitors, which tended toward the sanguine as the ’60s turned into the ’70s, even in fictional depictions. Consider the extraterrestrials that Jack Nicholson’s character in Easy Rider earnestly describes as he’s getting high for the first time, and those at the center of Close Encounters of the Third Kind eight years later. One evening in southern Georgia in 1969, the year Easy Rider came out, a failed gubernatorial candidate named Jimmy Carter saw a moving moon-size white light in the sky that “didn’t have any solid substance to it” and “got closer and closer,” stopped, turned blue, then red and back to white, and then zoomed away.

The first big nonfiction abduction tale appeared around the same time, in a best-selling book about a married couple in New Hampshire who believed that while driving their Chevy sedan late one night, they saw a bright object in the sky that the wife, a UFO buff already, figured might be a spacecraft. She began having nightmares about being abducted by aliens, and both of them underwent hypnosis. The details of the abducting aliens and their spacecraft that each described were different, and changed over time. The man’s hypnotized description of the aliens bore an uncanny resemblance to the ones in an episode of The Outer Limits broadcast on ABC just before his hypnosis session. Thereafter, hypnosis became the standard way for people who believed that they had been abducted (or that they had past lives, or that they were the victims of satanic abuse) to recall the supposed experience. And the couple’s story established the standard abduction-tale format: Humanoid creatures take you aboard a spacecraft, communicate telepathically or in spoken English, medically examine you by inserting long needles into you, then let you go.

The husband and wife were undoubtedly sincere believers. The sincerely credulous are perfect suckers, and in the late ’60s, a convicted thief and embezzler named Erich von Däniken published Chariots of the Gods?, positing that extraterrestrials helped build the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, and the giant stone heads on Easter Island. That book and its many sequels sold tens of millions of copies, and the documentary based on it had a huge box-office take in 1970. Americans were ready to believe von Däniken’s fantasy to a degree they simply wouldn’t have been a decade earlier, before the ’60s sea change. Certainly a decade earlier NBC wouldn’t have aired an hour-long version of the documentary in prime time. And while I’m at it: Until we’d passed through the ’60s and half of the ’70s, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have given the presidency to some dude, especially a born-again Christian, who said he’d recently seen a huge, color-shifting, luminescent UFO hovering near him.



By the 1980s, things appeared to have returned more or less to normal. Civil rights seemed like a done deal, the war in Vietnam was over, young people were no longer telling grown-ups they were worthless because they were grown-ups. Revolution did not loom. Sex and drugs and rock and roll were regular parts of life. Starting in the ’80s, loving America and making money and having a family were no longer unfashionable.

The sense of cultural and political upheaval and chaos dissipated—which lulled us into ignoring all the ways that everything had changed, that Fantasyland was now scaling and spreading and becoming the new normal. What had seemed strange and amazing in 1967 or 1972 became normal and ubiquitous.

Extreme religious and quasi-religious beliefs and practices, Christian and New Age and otherwise, didn’t subside, but grew and thrived—and came to seem unexceptional.

Relativism became entrenched in academia—tenured, you could say. Michel Foucault’s rival Jean Baudrillard became a celebrity among American intellectuals by declaring that rationalism was a tool of oppressors that no longer worked as a way of understanding the world, pointless and doomed. In other words, as he wrote in 1986, “the secret of theory”—this whole intellectual realm now called itself simply “theory”—“is that truth does not exist.”

This kind of thinking was by no means limited to the ivory tower. The intellectuals’ new outlook was as much a product as a cause of the smog of subjectivity that now hung thick over the whole American mindscape. After the ’60s, truth was relative, criticizing was equal to victimizing, individual liberty became absolute, and everyone was permitted to believe or disbelieve whatever they wished. The distinction between opinion and fact was crumbling on many fronts.

Belief in gigantic secret conspiracies thrived, ranging from the highly improbable to the impossible, and moved from the crackpot periphery to the mainstream.

Many Americans announced that they’d experienced fantastic horrors and adventures, abuse by Satanists, and abduction by extraterrestrials, and their claims began to be taken seriously. Parts of the establishment—psychology and psychiatry, academia, religion, law enforcement—encouraged people to believe that all sorts of imaginary traumas were real.

America didn’t seem as weird and crazy as it had around 1970. But that’s because Americans had stopped noticing the weirdness and craziness. We had defined every sort of deviancy down. And as the cultural critic Neil Postman put it in his 1985 jeremiad about how TV was replacing meaningful public discourse with entertainment, we were in the process of amusing ourselves to death.



The Reagan presidency was famously a triumph of truthiness and entertainment, and in the 1990s, as problematically batty beliefs kept going mainstream, presidential politics continued merging with the fantasy-industrial complex.

In 1998, as soon as we learned that President Bill Clinton had been fellated by an intern in the West Wing, his popularity spiked. Which was baffling only to those who still thought of politics as an autonomous realm, existing apart from entertainment. American politics happened on television; it was a TV series, a reality show just before TV became glutted with reality shows. A titillating new story line that goosed the ratings of an existing series was an established scripted-TV gimmick. The audience had started getting bored with The Clinton Administration, but the Monica Lewinsky subplot got people interested again.

Just before the Clintons arrived in Washington, the right had managed to do away with the federal Fairness Doctrine, which had been enacted to keep radio and TV shows from being ideologically one-sided. Until then, big-time conservative opinion media had consisted of two magazines, William F. Buckley Jr.’s biweekly National Review and the monthly American Spectator, both with small circulations. But absent a Fairness Doctrine, Rush Limbaugh’s national right-wing radio show, launched in 1988, was free to thrive, and others promptly appeared.

For most of the 20th century, national news media had felt obliged to pursue and present some rough approximation of the truth rather than to promote a truth, let alone fictions. With the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, a new American laissez-faire had been officially declared. If lots more incorrect and preposterous assertions circulated in our mass media, that was a price of freedom. If splenetic commentators could now, as never before, keep believers perpetually riled up and feeling the excitement of being in a mob, so be it.

Limbaugh’s virtuosic three hours of daily talk started bringing a sociopolitical alternate reality to a huge national audience. Instead of relying on an occasional magazine or newsletter to confirm your gnarly view of the world, now you had talk radio drilling it into your head for hours every day. As Limbaugh’s show took off, in 1992 the producer Roger Ailes created a syndicated TV show around him. Four years later, when NBC hired someone else to launch a cable news channel, Ailes, who had been working at NBC, quit and created one with Rupert Murdoch.

Fox News brought the Limbaughvian talk-radio version of the world to national TV, offering viewers an unending and immersive propaganda experience of a kind that had never existed before.

For Americans, this was a new condition. Over the course of the century, electronic mass media had come to serve an important democratic function: presenting Americans with a single shared set of facts. Now TV and radio were enabling a reversion to the narrower, factional, partisan discourse that had been normal in America’s earlier centuries.

And there was also the internet, which eventually would have mooted the Fairness Doctrine anyhow. In 1994, the first modern spam message was sent, visible to everyone on Usenet: global alert for all: jesus is coming soon. Over the next year or two, the masses learned of the World Wide Web. The tinder had been gathered and stacked since the ’60s, and now the match was lit and thrown. After the ’60s and ’70s happened as they happened, the internet may have broken America’s dynamic balance between rational thinking and magical thinking for good.

Before the web, cockamamy ideas and outright falsehoods could not spread nearly as fast or as widely, so it was much easier for reason and reasonableness to prevail. Before the web, institutionalizing any one alternate reality required the long, hard work of hundreds of full-time militants. In the digital age, however, every tribe and fiefdom and principality and region of Fantasyland—every screwball with a computer and an internet connection—suddenly had an unprecedented way to instruct and rile up and mobilize believers, and to recruit more. False beliefs were rendered both more real-seeming and more contagious, creating a kind of fantasy cascade in which millions of bedoozled Americans surfed and swam.

Why did Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan begin remarking frequently during the ’80s and ’90s that people were entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts? Because until then, that had not been necessary to say. Our marketplace of ideas became exponentially bigger and freer than ever, it’s true. Thomas Jefferson said that he’d “rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it”—because in the new United States, “reason is left free to combat” every sort of “error of opinion.” However, I think if he and our other Enlightenment forefathers returned, they would see the present state of affairs as too much of a good thing. Reason remains free to combat unreason, but the internet entitles and equips all the proponents of unreason and error to a previously unimaginable degree. Particularly for a people with our history and propensities, the downside of the internet seems at least as profound as the upside.

The way internet search was designed to operate in the ’90s—that is, the way information and beliefs now flow, rise, and fall—is democratic in the extreme. Internet search algorithms are an example of Gresham’s law, whereby the bad drives out—or at least overruns—the good. On the internet, the prominence granted to any factual assertion or belief or theory depends on the preferences of billions of individual searchers. Each click on a link is effectively a vote pushing that version of the truth toward the top of the pile of results.

Exciting falsehoods tend to do well in the perpetual referenda, and become self-validating. A search for almost any “alternative” theory or belief seems to generate more links to true believers’ pages and sites than to legitimate or skeptical ones, and those tend to dominate the first few pages of results. For instance, beginning in the ’90s, conspiracists decided that contrails, the skinny clouds of water vapor that form around jet-engine exhaust, were composed of exotic chemicals, part of a secret government scheme to test weapons or poison citizens or mitigate climate change—and renamed them chemtrails. When I Googled chemtrails proof, the first seven results offered so-called evidence of the nonexistent conspiracy. When I searched for government extraterrestrial cover-up, only one result in the first three pages didn’t link to an article endorsing a conspiracy theory.

Before the web, it really wasn’t easy to stumble across false or crazy information convincingly passing itself off as true. Today, however, as the Syracuse University professor Michael Barkun saw back in 2003 in A Culture of Conspiracy, “such subject-specific areas as crank science, conspiracist politics, and occultism are not isolated from one another,” but rather

they are interconnected. Someone seeking information on UFOs, for example, can quickly find material on antigravity, free energy, Atlantis studies, alternative cancer cures, and conspiracy.


The consequence of such mingling is that an individual who enters the communications system pursuing one interest soon becomes aware of stigmatized material on a broad range of subjects. As a result, those who come across one form of stigmatized knowledge will learn of others, in connections that imply that stigmatized knowledge is a unified domain, an alternative worldview, rather than a collection of unrelated ideas.

Academic research shows that religious and supernatural thinking leads people to believe that almost no big life events are accidental or random. As the authors of some recent cognitive-science studies at Yale put it, “Individuals’ explicit religious and paranormal beliefs” are the best predictors of their “perception of purpose in life events”—their tendency “to view the world in terms of agency, purpose, and design.” Americans have believed for centuries that the country was inspired and guided by an omniscient, omnipotent planner and interventionist manager. Since the ’60s, that exceptional religiosity has fed the tendency to believe in conspiracies. In a recent paper called “Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion,” based on years of survey research, two University of Chicago political scientists, J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood, confirmed this special American connection. “The likelihood of supporting conspiracy theories is strongly predicted,” they found, by “a propensity to attribute the source of unexplained or extraordinary events to unseen, intentional forces” and a weakness for “melodramatic narratives as explanations for prominent events, particularly those that interpret history relative to universal struggles between good and evil.” Oliver and Wood found the single strongest driver of conspiracy belief to be belief in end-times prophecies.



As a 13-year-old, I watched William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line with my conservative dad, attended Teen Age Republicans summer camp, and, at the behest of a Nixon-campaign advance man in Omaha, ripped down Rockefeller and Reagan signs during the 1968 Nebraska primary campaign. A few years later, I was a McGovern-campaign volunteer, but I still watched and admired Buckley on PBS. Over the years, I’ve voted for a few Republicans for state and local office. Today I disagree about political issues with friends and relatives to my right, but we agree on the essential contours of reality.

People on the left are by no means all scrupulously reasonable. Many give themselves over to the appealingly dubious and the untrue. But fantastical politics have become highly asymmetrical. Starting in the 1990s, America’s unhinged right became much larger and more influential than its unhinged left. There is no real left-wing equivalent of Sean Hannity, let alone Alex Jones. Moreover, the far right now has unprecedented political power; it controls much of the U.S. government.

Why did the grown-ups and designated drivers on the political left manage to remain basically in charge of their followers, while the reality-based right lost out to fantasy-prone true believers?

One reason, I think, is religion. The GOP is now quite explicitly Christian. The party is the American coalition of white Christians, papering over doctrinal and class differences—and now led, weirdly, by one of the least religious presidents ever. If more and more of a political party’s members hold more and more extreme and extravagantly supernatural beliefs, doesn’t it make sense that the party will be more and more open to make-believe in its politics?

I doubt the GOP elite deliberately engineered the synergies between the economic and religious sides of their contemporary coalition. But as the incomes of middle- and working-class people flatlined, Republicans pooh-poohed rising economic inequality and insecurity. Economic insecurity correlates with greater religiosity, and among white Americans, greater religiosity correlates with voting Republican. For Republican politicians and their rich-getting-richer donors, that’s a virtuous circle, not a vicious one.

Religion aside, America simply has many more fervid conspiracists on the right, as research about belief in particular conspiracies confirms again and again. Only the American right has had a large and organized faction based on paranoid conspiracism for the past six decades. As the pioneer vehicle, the John Birch Society zoomed along and then sputtered out, but its fantastical paradigm and belligerent temperament has endured in other forms and under other brand names. When Barry Goldwater was the right-wing Republican presidential nominee in 1964, he had to play down any streaks of Bircher madness, but by 1979, in his memoir With No Apologies, he felt free to rave on about the globalist conspiracy and its “pursuit of a new world order” and impending “period of slavery”; the Council on Foreign Relations’ secret agenda for “one-world rule”; and the Trilateral Commission’s plan for “seizing control of the political government of the United States.” The right has had three generations to steep in this, its taboo vapors wafting more and more into the main chambers of conservatism, becoming familiar, seeming less outlandish. Do you believe that “a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government”? Yes, say 34 percent of Republican voters, according to Public Policy Polling.

In the late 1960s and ’70s, the reality-based left more or less won: retreat from Vietnam, civil-rights and environmental-protection laws, increasing legal and cultural equality for women, legal abortion, Keynesian economics triumphant.

But then the right wanted its turn to win. It pretty much accepted racial and gender equality and had to live with social welfare and regulation and bigger government, but it insisted on slowing things down. The political center moved right—but in the ’70s and ’80s not yet unreasonably. Most of America decided that we were all free marketeers now, that business wasn’t necessarily bad, and that government couldn’t solve all problems. We still seemed to be in the midst of the normal cyclical seesawing of American politics. In the ’90s, the right achieved two of its wildest dreams: The Soviet Union and international communism collapsed; and, as violent crime radically declined, law and order was restored.

But also starting in the ’90s, the farthest-right quarter of Americans, let’s say, couldn’t and wouldn’t adjust their beliefs to comport with their side’s victories and the dramatically new and improved realities. They’d made a god out of Reagan, but they ignored or didn’t register that he was practical and reasonable, that he didn’t completely buy his own antigovernment rhetoric. After Reagan, his hopped-up true-believer faction began insisting on total victory. But in a democracy, of course, total victory by any faction is a dangerous fantasy.

Another way the GOP got loopy was by overdoing libertarianism. I have some libertarian tendencies, but at full-strength purity it’s an ideology most boys grow out of. On the American right since the ’80s, however, they have not. Republicans are very selective, cherry-picking libertarians: Let business do whatever it wants and don’t spoil poor people with government handouts; let individuals have gun arsenals but not abortions or recreational drugs or marriage with whomever they wish; and don’t mention Ayn Rand’s atheism. Libertarianism, remember, is an ideology whose most widely read and influential texts are explicitly fiction. “I grew up reading Ayn Rand,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has said, “and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.” It was that fiction that allowed him and so many other higher-IQ Americans to see modern America as a dystopia in which selfishness is righteous and they are the last heroes. “I think a lot of people,” Ryan said in 2009, “would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel.” I’m assuming he meant Atlas Shrugged, the novel that Trump’s secretary of state (and former CEO of ExxonMobil) has said is his favorite book. It’s the story of a heroic cabal of men’s-men industrialists who cause the U.S. government to collapse so they can take over, start again, and make everything right.

For a while, Republican leaders effectively encouraged and exploited the predispositions of their variously fantastical and extreme partisans. Karl Rove was stone-cold cynical, the Wizard of Oz’s evil twin coming out from behind the curtain for a candid chat shortly before he won a second term for George W. Bush, about how “judicious study of discernible reality [is] … not the way the world really works anymore.” These leaders were rational people who understood that a large fraction of citizens don’t bother with rationality when they vote, that a lot of voters resent the judicious study of discernible reality. Keeping those people angry and frightened won them elections.

But over the past few decades, a lot of the rabble they roused came to believe all the untruths. “The problem is that Republicans have purposefully torn down the validating institutions,” the political journalist Josh Barro, a Republican until 2016, wrote last year. “They have convinced voters that the media cannot be trusted; they have gotten them used to ignoring inconvenient facts about policy; and they have abolished standards of discourse.” The party’s ideological center of gravity swerved way to the right of Rove and all the Bushes, finally knocking them and their clubmates aside. What had been the party’s fantastical fringe became its middle. Reasonable Republicanism was replaced by absolutism: no new taxes, virtually no regulation, abolish the EPA and the IRS and the Federal Reserve.

When I was growing up in Nebraska, my Republican parents loathed all Kennedys, distrusted unions, and complained about “confiscatory” federal income-tax rates of 91 percent. But conservatism to them also meant conserving the natural environment and allowing people to make their own choices, including about abortion. They were emphatically reasonable, disinclined to believe in secret Communist/Washington/elite plots to destroy America, rolling their eyes and shaking their heads about far-right acquaintances—such as our neighbors, the parents of the future Mrs. Clarence Thomas, who considered Richard Nixon suspiciously leftish. My parents never belonged to a church. They were godless Midwestern Republicans, born and raised—which wasn’t so odd 40 years ago. Until about 1980, the Christian right was not a phrase in American politics. In 2000, my widowed mom, having voted for 14 Republican presidential nominees in a row, quit a party that had become too Christian for her.

The Christian takeover happened gradually, but then quickly in the end, like a phase change from liquid to gas. In 2008, three-quarters of the major GOP presidential candidates said they believed in evolution, but in 2012 it was down to a third, and then in 2016, just one did. That one, Jeb Bush, was careful to say that evolutionary biology was only his truth, that “it does not need to be in the curriculum” of public schools, and that if it is, it could be accompanied by creationist teaching. A two-to-one majority of Republicans say they “support establishing Christianity as the national religion,” according to Public Policy Polling.

Although constitutionally the U.S. can have no state religion, faith of some kind has always bordered on mandatory for politicians. Only four presidents have lacked a Christian denominational affiliation, the most recent one in the 1880s. According to Pew, two-thirds of Republicans admit that they’d be less likely to support a presidential candidate who doesn’t believe in God.

As a matter of fact, one of the Constitution’s key clauses—“no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust”—is kind of a theoretical freedom. Not only have we never had an openly unbelieving president, but of the 535 members of the current Congress, exactly one, Representative Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, lists her religion as “none.” Among all 7,383 state legislators, there is apparently only one avowed atheist: Nebraska Senator Ernie Chambers.

I’m reminded of one of H. L. Mencken’s dispatches from the Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925. “Civilized” Tennesseans, he wrote, “had known for years what was going on in the hills. They knew what the country preachers were preaching—what degraded nonsense was being rammed and hammered into yokel skulls. But they were afraid to go out against the imposture while it was in the making.” What the contemporary right has done is worse, because it was deliberate and national, and it has had more-profound consequences.



I have been paying close attention to Donald Trump for a long time. Spy magazine, which I co-founded in 1986 and edited until 1993, published three cover stories about him—and dozens of pages exposing and ridiculing his lies, brutishness, and absurdity. Now everybody knows what we knew. Donald Trump is a grifter driven by resentment of the establishment. 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. His case of what I call Kids R Us syndrome—spoiled, impulsive, moody, a 71-year-old brat—is acute.

He is, first and last, a creature of the fantasy-industrial complex. “He is P. T. Barnum,” his sister, a federal judge, told his biographer Timothy O’Brien in 2005. Although the fantasy-industrial complex had been annexing presidential politics for more than half a century, from JFK through Reagan and beyond, Trump’s campaign and presidency are its ultimate expression. From 1967 through 2011, California was governed by former movie actors more than a third of the time, and one of them became president. But Trump’s need for any and all public attention always seemed to me more ravenous and insatiable than any other public figure’s, akin to an addict’s for drugs. Unlike Reagan, Trump was always an impresario as well as a performer. Before the emergence of Fantasyland, Trump’s various enterprises would have seemed a ludicrous, embarrassing, incoherent jumble for a businessman, let alone a serious candidate for president. What connects an Islamic-mausoleum-themed casino to a short-lived, shoddy professional football league to an autobiography he didn’t write to buildings he didn’t build to a mail-order meat business to beauty pageants to an airline that lasted three years to a sham “university” to a fragrance called Success to a vodka and a board game named after himself to a reality-TV show about pretending to fire people?

What connects them all, of course, is the new, total American embrace of admixtures of reality and fiction and of fame for fame’s sake. His reality was a reality show before that genre or term existed. When he entered political show business, after threatening to do so for most of his adult life, the character he created was unprecedented—presidential candidate as insult comic with an artificial tan and ridiculous hair, shamelessly unreal and whipped into shape as if by a pâtissier. He used the new and remade pieces of the fantasy-industrial complex as nobody had before. He hired actors to play enthusiastic supporters at his campaign kickoff. Twitter became his unmediated personal channel for entertaining outrage and untruth. And he was a star, so news shows wanted him on the air as much as possible—people at TV outlets told me during the campaign that they were expected to be careful not to make the candidate so unhappy that he might not return.

Before Trump won their nomination and the presidency, when he was still “a cancer on conservatism” that must be “discarded” (former Governor Rick Perry) and an “utterly amoral” “narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen” (Senator Ted Cruz), Republicans hated Trump’s ideological incoherence—they didn’t yet understand that his campaign logic was a new kind, blending exciting tales with a showmanship that transcends ideology.


R. Kikuo Johnson

During the campaign, Trump repeated the falsehood that vaccines cause autism. And instead of undergoing a normal medical exam from a normal doctor and making the results public, like nominees had before, Trump went on The Dr. Oz Show and handed the host test results from his wacky doctor.

Did his voters know that his hogwash was hogwash? Yes and no, the way people paying to visit P. T. Barnum’s exhibitions 175 years ago didn’t much care whether the black woman on display was really George Washington’s 161-year-old former nanny or whether the stitched-together fish/ape was actually a mermaid; or the way today we immerse in the real-life fictions of Disney World. Trump waited to run for president until he sensed that a critical mass of Americans had decided politics were all a show and a sham. If the whole thing is rigged, Trump’s brilliance was calling that out in the most impolitic ways possible, deriding his straight-arrow competitors as fakers and losers and liars—because that bullshit-calling was uniquely candid and authentic in the age of fake.

Trump took a key piece of cynical wisdom about show business—the most important thing is sincerity, and once you can fake that, you’ve got it made—to a new level: His actual thuggish sincerity is the opposite of the old-fashioned, goody-goody sanctimony that people hate in politicians.

If he were just a truth-telling wise guy, however, he wouldn’t have won. Trump’s genius was to exploit the skeptical disillusion with politics—there’s too much equivocating; democracy’s a charade—but also to pander to Americans’ magical thinking about national greatness. Extreme credulity is a fraternal twin of extreme skepticism.

“I will give you everything,” Trump actually promised during the campaign. Yes: “Every dream you’ve ever dreamed for your country” will come true.

Just as the internet enabled full Fantasyland, it made possible Trump as candidate and president, feeding him pseudo-news on his phone and letting him feed those untruths directly to his Twitter followers. He is the poster boy for the downside of digital life. “Forget the press,” he advised supporters—just “read the internet.” After he wrongly declared on Twitter that one anti-Trump protester “has ties to isis,” he was asked whether he regretted tweeting that falsehood. “What do I know about it?” he replied. “All I know is what’s on the internet.”

Trump launched his political career by embracing a brand-new conspiracy theory twisted around two American taproots—fear and loathing of foreigners and of nonwhites. In 2011, he became the chief promoter of the fantasy that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, a fringe idea that he brought into the mainstream. Only in the fall of 2016 did he grudgingly admit that the president was indeed a native-born American—at the same moment a YouGov/Huffington Post survey found that a majority of Republicans still believed Obama probably or definitely had been born in Kenya. 
Conspiracies, conspiracies, still more conspiracies. On Fox & Friends Trump discussed, as if it were fact, the National Enquirer’s suggestion that Ted Cruz’s father was connected to JFK’s assassination: “What was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death, before the shooting? It’s horrible.” The Fox News anchors interviewing him didn’t challenge him or follow up. He revived the 1993 fantasy about the Clintons’ friend Vince Foster—his death, Trump said, was “very fishy,” because Foster “had intimate knowledge of what was going on. He knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide … I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder.” He has also promised to make sure that “you will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center.” And it has all worked for him, because so many Americans are eager to believe almost any conspiracy theory, no matter how implausible, as long as it jibes with their opinions and feelings.

Not all lies are fantasies and not all fantasies are lies; people who believe untrue things can pass lie-detector tests. For instance, Trump probably really believed that “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years,” the total falsehood he told leaders of the National Sheriffs’ Association at the White House in early February. The fact-checking website PolitiFact looked at more than 400 of his statements as a candidate and as president and found that almost 50 percent were false and another 20 percent were mostly false.

He gets away with this as he wouldn’t have in the 1980s or ’90s, when he first talked about running for president, because now factual truth really is just one option. After Trump won the election, he began referring to all unflattering or inconvenient journalism as “fake news.” When his approval rating began declining, Trump simply refused to believe it: “Any negative polls” that may appear, the president tweeted at dawn one morning from Mar-a-Lago, “are fake news.”

The people who speak on Trump’s behalf to journalists and the rest of the reality-based world struggle to defend or explain his assertions. Asked about “the president’s statements that are … demonstrably not true,” the White House counselor Kellyanne Conway asked CNN’s Jake Tapper to please remember “the many things that he says that are true.” According to The New York Times, the people around Trump say his baseless certainty “that he was bugged in some way” by Obama in Trump Tower is driven by “a sense of persecution bordering on faith.” And indeed, their most honest defense of his false statements has been to cast them practically as matters of religious conviction—he deeply believes them, so … there. When White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked at a press conference about the millions of people who the president insists voted illegally, he earnestly reminded reporters that Trump “has believed that for a while” and “does believe that” and it’s “been a long-standing belief that he’s maintained” and “it’s a belief that he has maintained for a while.”

Which is why nearly half of Americans subscribe to that preposterous belief themselves. And in Trump’s view, that overrides any requirement for facts.

“Do you think that talking about millions of illegal votes is dangerous to this country without presenting the evidence?,” David Muir, the anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight, asked Trump in January.

“No,” he replied. “Not at all! Not at all—because many people feel the same way that I do.”

The idea that progress has some kind of unstoppable momentum, as if powered by a Newtonian law, was always a very American belief. However, it’s really an article of faith, the Christian fantasy about history’s happy ending reconfigured during and after the Enlightenment as a set of modern secular fantasies. It reflects our blithe conviction that America’s visions of freedom and democracy and justice and prosperity must prevail in the end. I really can imagine, for the first time in my life, that America has permanently tipped into irreversible decline, heading deeper into Fantasyland. I wonder whether it’s only America’s destiny, exceptional as ever, to unravel in this way. Or maybe we’re just early adopters, the canaries in the global mine, and Canada and Denmark and Japan and China and all the rest will eventually follow us down our tunnel. Why should modern civilization’s great principles—democracy, freedom, tolerance—guarantee great outcomes?

Yet because I’m an American, a fortunate American who has lived in a fortunate American century, I remain (barely) more of an optimist than a pessimist. Even as we’ve entered this long winter of foolishness and darkness, when too many Americans are losing their grip on reason and reality, it has been an epoch of astonishing hope and light as well. During these same past few decades, Americans reduced the rates of murder and violent crime by more than half. We decoded the human genome, elected an African American president, recorded the sound of two black holes colliding 1 billion years ago, and created Beloved, The Simpsons, Goodfellas, Angels in America, The Wire, The Colbert Report, Transparent, Hamilton. Since 1981, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty around the globe has plummeted from 44 percent to 10 percent. I do despair of our devolution into unreason and magical thinking, but not everything has gone wrong.

What is to be done? I don’t have an actionable agenda, Seven Ways Sensible People Can Save America From the Craziness. But I think we can slow the flood, repair the levees, and maybe stop things from getting any worse. If we’re splitting into two different cultures, we in reality-based America—whether the blue part or the smaller red part—must try to keep our zone as large and robust and attractive as possible for ourselves and for future generations. We need to firmly commit to Moynihan’s aphorism about opinions versus facts. We must call out the dangerously untrue and unreal. A grassroots movement against one kind of cultural squishiness has taken off and lately reshaped our national politics—the opposition to political correctness. I envision a comparable struggle that insists on distinguishing between the factually true and the blatantly false.

It will require a struggle to make America reality-based again. Fight the good fight in your private life. You needn’t get into an argument with the stranger at Chipotle who claims that George Soros and Uber are plotting to make his muscle car illegal—but do not give acquaintances and friends and family members free passes. If you have children or grandchildren, teach them to distinguish between true and untrue as fiercely as you do between right and wrong and between wise and foolish.

We need to adopt new protocols for information-media hygiene. Would you feed your kids a half-eaten casserole a stranger handed you on the bus, or give them medicine you got from some lady at the gym?

And fight the good fight in the public sphere. One main task, of course, is to contain the worst tendencies of Trumpism, and cut off its political-economic fuel supply, so that fantasy and lies don’t turn it into something much worse than just nasty, oafish, reality-show pseudo-conservatism. Progress is not inevitable, but it’s not impossible, either.


This article has been adapted from Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire—A 500-Year History, to be published in September by Random House.

How America Lost Its Mind – The Atlantic

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