I just read Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (Random House, 2017) by Kurt Andersen. I came across it first about 18 months ago, leafed through it, and passed on it. But now, with tens of millions of Americans suddenly embracing wildly bizarre ideas about politics and reality, it seems much more relevant. What’s wrong with America? Andersen offers one explanation, namely that this mental failing was baked into the American psyche from the very beginning, as illustrated in the 46 short chapters of his roughly 450-page book, starting with the Pilgrims and going right up to Donald Trump. The current explosion of conspiracy thinking among right-wing Republicans is the obvious current manifestation of the problem, but Anderson covers episodes of liberal and secular craziness as well. I’ll review a few ideas offered in the book, but then come back around to a narrower question for readers: Not only are Mormons not immune to this mental condition, we seem particularly vulnerable to it. Mormons voted for Trump in higher percentages than any other religious demographic. So we have some explaining to do. What’s wrong with American thinking? What’s wrong with Mormon thinking?
Is It Religion?
From the beginning, the wide variety of denominations and religions in America introduced new possibilities for speculative thought, which sometimes veered into religious fantasy. From Chapter 2, “I Believe, Therefore I Am Right: The Protestants”:
[O]ut of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything.
In Chapter 4, “Building Our Own Private Heaven on Earth: The Puritans,” we meet “the most extreme of the extremists,” Separatist Puritans. They left not just the Church of England but England itself, and came to America after a short stay in the Netherlands. A similar but slightly less extreme group which founded the Massachussetts Bay Colony followed ten years later. All of these were biblical literalists and zealous apocalypticists with little regard for religious tolerance. But they also had a “paradoxical combination of their beliefs and temperament. … They were excruciatingly rational fantasists who regarded theology as an elaborate scientific enterprise. They were theologically medieval …. They were crazed and pragmatic.” They were religious zealots with a practical streak.
Andersen continues, reviewing the American witch hunts (Chapter 6, “Imaginary Friends and Enemies: The Early Satanic Panics”) and the First and Second Great Awakenings (Chapter 9, “The First Great Delerium”), at which point Mormonism enters the story: Chapter 10, “The All-American Fan Fiction of Joseph Smith, Prophet.” It’s not a very reverent discussion of LDS historical events, but the tone isn’t really different from discussions of other Christian groups. In fact, it’s a much fairer discussion of Mormonism than you’ll read in any Evangelical book.
Four years later Smith finally succeeded in unearthing the tablets, then began “translating” them. His friends and his wife were often at his side as he performed the translations. He would place a seer stone in a hat beside one of the golden plates, bury his face in the hat, and then speak the English words he “saw,” a sentence at a time. During the period he was translating the tablets, he said, he received additional revelations directly from God, in his mind, which he also transcribed.
Remove the disclaimers (scare quotes, “he said”) and this might have come out of a recent LDS manual. The author sees Joseph Smith’s views as right in line with the trends evident in earlier American Christianity, but amped up. “The grandiose anything-goes literalism of his theology knew no bounds.” And: “Joseph Smith was a quintessentially American figure.”
Is It America?
There are social and economic themes that parallel the religious elements he discusses. In Chapter 3 there are “the Gold Seekers,” in Chapter 11 it’s “Quack Nation: Magical but Modern,” in Chapter 16 “Fantasy Industrialized.” But let’s jump to Part IV of the book, when everything goes crazy in the 1960s. There are Hippies (Ch. 22), Intellectuals (Ch. 23), and Christians (24), all embracing wildly unconventional ways of thinking and living. With the Kennedy assassination, full-blown conspiracy theories about the event (and they are still going strong) became more or less mainstream. I’ll bet your local library has a half-dozen books on the Kennedy assassination. There was Nixon and Watergate, which initially sounded like a conspiracy theory but turned out to be an actual conspiracy. Not what you need if you are trying to discredit and marginalize all the other conspiracy theories. And there was political violence (assassinations, bombings, riots) not seen again in America until … well, until last week.
I have only touched on material about halfway through the book at this point, so I’m going to cut some corners and then get to our Mormon discussion. In the 1980s and 1990s, he talks about the cult of youthfulness (Chapter 28, “Forever Young”), which is interesting. These days, some people never really grow up or turn into adults, which is a very new thing, even in America. There is the emergence of a variety of alternative religious or spiritual movements or ideologies (Chapter 33, “Magical but Not Necessarily Christian, Spiritual but Not Religious”), many of which subscribe to varieties of secular craziness, from reincarnation to thetans (Scientology). One example:
A woman in Washington State named Judith Darlene Hampton renamed herself Judy Zebra Knight, JZ for short, and became rich and famous by pretending to speak as Ramtha, a Stone Age warrior from the legendary land of Lemuria who’d fought a war against the legendary land of Atlantis and conquered most of the world before becoming an all-knowing demigod. JZ Knight attracted a ton of followers ….
Moving into the 21st century, there is Chapter 38, “Reality Is a Conspiracy: The X-Filing of America,” giving a nod to The X-Files, one of the first conspiracy TV series. Now it seems there are dozens, hundreds of TV dramas featuring young heroes struggling against government or corporate conspiracies. It’s how the next generation is being trained to think about the world, it seems. There’s Chapter 41, “Liberals Denying Science,” which I note just so you don’t think the book or me is portraying this as a Republican or conservative problem. There’s Chapter 43, “Final Fantasy-Industrial Complex,” talking about the entertainment industry, including video games but the Internet and the media as well. It’s like Reality TV is starting to take the place of plain old Reality for lots of us. There are millions of young men who spend more time, more hours per day, immersed in video game worlds than in the real world.
The author notes fantasy sports leagues, a minor item perhaps but rather revealing. There are millions of people who are, in a sense, sports fans but who get their sports kicks not from watching actual sports events and rooting for actual sports teams but, instead, from constructing virtual teams and computing virtual points based on box scores or league statistics, competing against other guys and their virtual teams and points. The more you think about it, the stranger it is. Somehow the growing media and entertainment industry has morphed into fantasy entertainment and fantasy media. The author suggests this is just another aspect of his overall thesis. In earlier America, there was fantasy religion and fantasy medicine (various forms of quackery). Now our thirst for fantasy entertainment is somehow contributing to the popularity of fantasy politics and fantasy history and fantasy science. The world of popular media and discussion is all turning into one big cauldron of “fact-free nonsense,” the term a CNN anchor coined for what average Trumpists sound like when they try to explain what they believe and why they are doing the things they do.
Is There an Explanation for All This?
That rather long review of some but not all of the points in the book is a helpful reminder that today’s American Craziness is not new or unique, it just seems that way. The author’s argument is that this sudden emergence of political fantasy on the right is just the latest twist on a general and long-term American penchant for embracing speculative and fantastic and downright ridiculous ideas and claims. Recall that it was an American who said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” It was first uttered in the 19th century, not the 21st century. We’ve been suckers for a long time.
There are other options to explain things. Maybe sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll in the Sixties was not just part of a 500-year story but was something new that put us as a country on a different track. It sure seems like things have never been the same since. Or maybe Trump is not just the latest in a line of American political opportunists but is something new on the American political scene. He certainly has redefined political norms in America. There’s never been a Trump before and hopefully there won’t be another. Alternatively, one might say there have been earlier versions of Trump, but they never had any political traction on the national scene and never got elected. Maybe we, the voters, are to blame, and we should be saying: We’ve never elected a Trump before, but we did four years ago, and let’s hope we don’t do it again. But why did we do it now? How have we changed?
And let’s throw in the Mormon angle. In light of the whole discussion above, one view might be that only Americans (a few of them, anyway) would have found early Mormonism compelling, and continued to do so for two centuries. But let’s focus on the here and now, and ask the question of why more Mormons than average Americans seem to be Trump supporters and believers in the various Trump and fringe conspiracy theories. I suspect the author would say that all Americans have been open to conspiracy theories and fantasy thinking over the years, but that Mormons are just more open and more vulnerable than most. Perhaps Ezra Taft Benson gave a big push to the whole Mormon attraction to political conspiracy theories. If some other LDS fellow had been called instead of Benson, how different would LDS political history have been?
So, readers, tell me: Are Mormons particularly vulnerable to recent political conspiracy theories, or is that whole idea just an exaggeration? Our overseas readers might chime in and tell us whether this is all an American aberration or whether there are opportunistic populist politicians on the rise elsewhere as well? I’m thinking the guy in Brazil and Boris Johnson in England are evidence that there’s more going on than just what’s happening in America. And perhaps some readers have their own stories to tell about how fantasy is displacing reality in some other corner of the modern world, whether religious or political or something altogether different.