KURT ANDERSEN is a writer whose works include the bestselling novels You Can't Spell America Without Me, True Believers, Heyday, and Turn of the Century. He's also written for film, television, and the stage, and is the host of public radio's Studio 360. Andersen has contributed to Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, the New York imes, and TIME magazine. He co-founded Spy magazine with Graydon Carter in 1986 and was editor in chief of NewYork in the mid-1990s. His latest book is Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire:A 500-Year History.
MICHAEL WERNER: Your new book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, is a theory about how the triumph of the radical right, and Donald Trump in particular, are only part of the culmination of a long historical process. Can you explain?
KURT ANDERSEN: We began, of course, as an Enlightenment nation and in our school histories we have most emphasized that proud and self-flattering part of our history. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were certainly people of the Enlightenment, but the strange bedfellows of the American idea were these passionate beliefs in the untrue and unprovable held by the Puritans, in their theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and by the gold hunters in Virginia who, despite no evidence, kept assuming they were going to find gold.
So we began in this new world wishing with all our hearts that this place we imagined as the empty slate could fulfill all the dreams and fantasies the English settlers had, whether they were dreams of a supernatural New Jerusalem and Garden of Eden or dreams of instant wealth, El Dorado. We codified that essential American ultra-liberty and ultra-individualism: "I can believe whatever I want," which is a residue of the Enlightenment. For most of our history the people in charge of our political and cultural establishments generally kept the various forms of magical thinking, extreme religion, and religious delusion from getting out of control.
There's a good side to dreaming the impossible dream, which is part of what made America grow and accomplish so much. The downside is that religion has always been more extreme in this country than other places in the developed world. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, but it has become more and more extreme, especially in the last half-century. Its not just religious myths of 2,000 years ago--there are beliefs in supernatural events and magical happenings today that simply aren't widespread elsewhere in the developed world. Over the last century, and especially the last few decades, our divergence from what we used to call the rest of the civilized world has become extreme.