The United States is suffering through an epistemic crisis. From day to day it seems increasingly difficult to know the truth with real certainty. The nation’s leadership came to power atop a wave of “fake news,” only to appropriate the term and wield it alongside its own “alternative facts.” The official propaganda is further muddled by opposing conspiracy theories, heightened by international intrigues, entangled in the pop culture industry, circulated on social media, and blessed by prominent televangelists. Citizens are divided over their trusted sources, forming rival camps according to which websites they are willing to read and which channels they are willing to watch. Along the way, the possibility of knowledge seems to have fallen into a fog of beliefs.
In his new book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, Kurt Andersen situates this state of affairs atop five centuries of American belief and imagination, tracing this legacy all the way back to its religious roots in northern Europe. In America, he argues, citizens have always demanded the freedom to follow their fancies, always insisting on the right to believe whatever they damn well please—right up until it all went dangerously out of control.
RD’s Eric C. Miller spoke with Andersen about conspiracy theories, charismatic Christianities, and the fantasy presidency of Donald J. Trump.
Compared to people from other nations, are Americans uniquely credulous?
The short answer is yes. Now, credulity is not unique to the United States, and one person’s credulity is another person’s deep faith, and I don’t want to minimize that. But I would make two points:
First, the great historian Daniel Boorstin—who I quote in the book—has said that, at the very beginning, Americans self-selected for their belief in advertising. The “New World” was this empty slate being advertised to English settlers, and the people who came over in those first few decades were people who believed the promises when, in fact, there was nothing here. Does that count as credulity? It certainly counts as a wishful pre-disposition to believe.
Second, the United States has always been far more religious than its peer nations, with a far more fervent belief in prayer, in divine intervention, in faith healing, and all the rest. On these points, we in the United States are outliers among the developed world.
So, all that to say—yes, I think we are more credulous than other people. Not uniquely credulous, but more so and in more ways than most other people, and it defines us in a way that it does not define other people.
At various points, you cite an anti-establishment streak in the American temperament. Would you say that Americans are generally too quick to disbelieve official accounts and too quick to believe alternative theories?
Yes, I think that is precisely correct, and I think it is in large measure a result of the nation having been born of the Enlightenment and of fervent Christianity. These are flipsides, too. This extreme credulity and extreme skepticism are yin and yang, or flipsides of the same coin—the operative word being extreme. Skepticism is fine, and good, and necessary. Belief, too, is fine, and good, and necessary. But when either of them gets extreme, it becomes problematic. And when you combine the two into this American hybrid—as we have in recent decades—they become very problematic.
Since you mention the founding influence of Christianity, how much of this is traceable to forces in American religious history?