In the summer of 1835 an enslaved black woman — blind, toothless, paraplegic — caught the attention of a young white man seeking to make his fortune. She had claimed to a newspaper reporter that she was “George Washington’s mammy” and was 161 years old. The white man bought her and took her on tour, “carrying out my new vocation of showman.”
The poor woman was soon dead, but P. T. Barnum was on the way to fame and fortune. The man we associate with the circus was much more than an entertainer; he was a principal actor in the construction of an all-American tradition: the blurring of truth with fiction.
America is the home of magnificent human achievement. I used to complain to the BBC that our coverage of it contained little besides stereotypical stuff about guns and poverty: why, if the place was as ghastly as we portrayed, was it so successful? So rich? Why did half the world want to live there? Why San Francisco, rather than Irkutsk?
Go and tell us, the BBC said, and for many years, as North America Editor, I did. But a decade later, with the benefit of distance and hindsight, I realise that the real story of America cannot be told by separating out the rational positive stuff from the dross. It’s all one, folks. It’s a show. The greatest show on Earth in some respects but in others the most dangerous, the most distressingly foolish. A show that entertains us, hypnotises us, and might eventually destroy us all.
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One book above all others knits together the strands of American thinking — and lack of thinking — that combine to bring us this uniquely peculiar brew of madness and sanity, kindness and cruelty, civilisation and dystopia. Fantasyland, by Kurt Andersen, was a rip-roaring success among the NPR-listening New York Times-reading metrosexual elites, when it was published in 2017. As one reviewer observed, “The people who should read this book won’t — because it’s a book — but reality based citizens will get a kick out of this winning romp through centuries of American delusion.”
That’s the point, and the joy of Fantasyland. In a literary world weighed down by formulaic, squealing Trump-phobia, this is a work of history that tells us why Trump is where he is and why this is an entirely predictable consequence of how America is. There is nothing new about the Donald. Nothing unique. Nothing, even, that is outside the normal. This is the conclusion, baleful as it is, of Fantasyland.
P.T. Barnum was, as Andersen tells it, “America’s first great commercial blurrer of truth and make-believe.” Soon to be followed by another. William F Cody — stage name: Buffalo Bill — really did kill “Indians” in battle. But he also played the part of himself in a stage entertainment. And then — this is really crucial and wholly American — he went back to killing Indians, but did it while wearing the kit of his stage character. And then he went back to the theatre alongside Indians he recruited to play the part of themselves.
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Andersen calls the Buffalo Bill phenomenon, “a key milestone in our national evolution”. He suggests that no other nation has even attempted the blurring of reality and fantasy in its public life that America has achieved.
Is he right? Plainly there have been moments — long moments — of national hysteria or myopia in other nations at various stages of their development. But Andersen suggests that America is special. No other nation has combined fake news with real news and cared less about the difference. The point is simple but often missed: America’s rational brain and irrational heart are not in conflict. They are essential organs in a deeply strange body. Lose one and the whole enterprise falls apart.
That does not, of course, mean that this jolly jape can carry on forever. The darkness of America — its ability to go off the deep end, to believe things that are not true and to disbelieve things that are — feels, long term, like an existential threat.
The shiny positivity can sometimes blind us to the madness that lurks beneath. Nowhere is this contrast more evident than in the social media revolution that began on America’s West Coast. We are slowly waking up to the downside of tech and the contempt that its overlords have for freedoms expressed through democratic government. But when people complain about the power and the irresponsibility of the tech world, they should remember that this world grew out of a 60s hippy culture that valued personal experience above all else. It prized the right to believe absolutely anything — to mix up fiction and reality at will — as Americans always had. Not to be governed. To do your own thing.
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UFO hunters. Anti-vaxxers. 9/11 truthers. They didn’t come into being with the tech revolution: their worldview is part and parcel of the West Coast motto, ‘do what feels right and seems true to you and hang the consequences’. But they are also part of the wider American tradition for mixing fact and fiction, and respecting non-facts as well as truths. Andersen suggests it comes all the way from the Puritans who brought with them to the New World all the dotiness of a group of people who were already — by definition and self-selection — in a mental world of their own before they set sail.
Of course, America is not alone in facing the challenges of fakery. But there is something unique about the American predilection for that Buffalo Bill style blurring of the differences between truth and fiction. As Andersen puts it: “Mix the protestant impulse to find meaning and purpose in everything, with the Enlightenment’s empiricism and you get our American mania for ‘connecting all the dots’, irrationality in rationalist drag.”
Irrationality in rationalist drag. That’s it. That’s America. Dotty religion, pseudoscience, tatty fakery — all living alongside, or mixed up within, a nation that thinks its business is business, thinks it is serious and sober and searching for truth.
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Will they ever snap out of it? Will the fever pass? Probably not. And frankly it looks as if it could get a lot worse before it gets better in the era of Trump. America is on a bender, a Buffalo Bill re-enactment moment. Andersen points out a striking fact towards the end of Fantasyland: in 2008, three quarters of the Republican candidates for president said they believed in evolution. By 2012, the figure had dropped to a third. In 2016 it was down to one candidate: Jeb Bush, who said it was his truth, but did not need to be taught in schools.
You could cry at such nonsense. Or shrug your shoulders and turn away. Or keep loving America — enjoy the circus — and hope for the best. As the father of an American citizen and a frequent visitor to the land of the too-free-with-the-facts, I am taking the latter option. But I admit to being worried. Andersen, being American, ends his book with a little homily about how decent folks can rescue the situation. It is the least convincing part. I am not so sure they can.