In the spring of 2011, Donald Trump began suggesting that U.S. President Barack Obama had not been born in the United States. “Why doesn’t he show his birth certificate?” Trump asked on ABC’s The View. “I would love to see it produced,” he told Fox News’ On the Record. “I’m starting to think that he was not born here,” he announced on NBC’s Today Show. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, Trump kept repeating his nonsense. To this day, polls show that some 70 percent of registered Republicans doubt Obama’s citizenship. Welcome to what Kurt Andersen calls “Fantasyland.”
In his new book, Andersen takes a dizzy, mordant trip through five centuries of magical thinking, bringing a novelist’s gaze to make-believe Americana. The “hucksters” and the “suckers” tumble through the pages. John Winthrop announces a “City upon a Hill,” with nothing less than the future of all Christianity at stake. The Puritan ministers Increase Mather and his son, Cotton, hunt witches in Salem Village. Andersen’s story runs through P. T. Barnum, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, and, finally, Trump himself, who beats them all by managing an average of over five untruths a day.
As Andersen shows, fantastical thinking has always played an outsize role in American culture. But something seems different today. Running beneath the parade of con artists and manias that Andersen deftly catalogs glints something more dangerous than illusions: a bitter contest over national identity that political institutions may no longer be able to contain.
Americans have wrestled over their national character many times before. What has changed? The answer lies in how the political parties have reorganized debates over race, immigration, and the American self. For a long time, the party system stifled tribal questions; now, it inflames them.
Fantasyland begins with an inventory of magical thinking. Two-thirds of Americans believe in angels and demons; a third think climate change is a hoax, that humans roamed among
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