Americans have always had a tremendous capacity for fantasy. Jay Gatsby is a classic American hero because he constructed a fantasy version of himself and then attempted to live it. John Wayne constructed a fantasy version of the American West, which a lot of people still try to imitate.
As Kurt Andersen writes in his book “Fantasyland,” for roughly three centuries America’s fantasist and realist impulses existed in rough balance. But now fantasy seems to be sweeping the field.
I’d say the crucial pivot was in the early 1960s. Hugh Hefner created a fantasy version of masculinity. Ken Kesey created a fantasy image of an acid-dripping New Age.
The two great writers who died this month tracked the explosion of fantastical thinking. In 1961 Philip Roth wrote an essay for Commentary called “Writing American Fiction,” in which he endorsed Benjamin DeMott’s observation that America was then experiencing a “universal descent into unreality.” Roth would go on to make the most of it. “Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life,” he told The Paris Review.
Tom Wolfe blasted the American berserk into the stratosphere. He tagged along with the Pump House Gang. He chronicled the ESP believers and the Upper East Side aristocrats who imagined they were radical Black Panthers.
Recently we’ve let the fantasy dog out for a romp. “Donald Trump is a pure fantasyland being, its apotheosis,” Andersen writes. Trump is celebrity subsuming governance. Every day he produces great geysers of fantasy – some of which rip the cultural fabric (Mexican rapists), some of which merely tug it (“Obama had my ‘wires tapped’”).
Trump’s fantasies regularly collide with reality, and so far reality has a perfect winning percentage. That’s what happened with North Korea on Thursday. I sympathized with Trump’s efforts to give North Korea an opportunity to change, but his bluster, flattery and commemorative coins amounted to nothing more than pseudo-policy – a verbal meringue buttressed by no analytic substance, no institutional leverage, no real power force.
The dangerous thing about Trump’s fantasy world is not when it dissolves into nothing; it’s when he seduces the rest of us to move into it. It’s not when he ignores the facts; it’s when he replaces them by building an alternate virtual reality and suckering us into co-creating it.
That’s what he’s done with the Mueller investigation. My instinct is that the Trump campaign never really colluded with the Russians because there never was an actual Trump campaign – at least not in any organized sense of that word. It was a bunch of relatives and hangers-on having random meetings with some vague hope of personal and professional enrichment.
But whatever you think of the underlying crime, it’s clear that Trump has flipped the Mueller investigation into the central “me versus the swamp” soap opera of his presidency. There are a bunch of familiar characters in the cast: the “witch hunters,” Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, the media. Trump’s tweets drive the daily plot twists. And sure enough, the American people are addicted. If you want cable ratings or page views, you have to cover it, play your role and pump up the hype.
The first problem is you can’t beat Trump at his own fantasy game. As Daniel Boorstin understood back in 1962, you can’t refute an image with a fact. Every pseudo-event “becomes all the more interesting with our every effort to debunk it.” Trump gets to monopolize attention ever more comprehensively and deepen his credibility as anti-establishment hero.
The second problem is that when you agree to operate within his fantasy, even if you are motivated by the attraction of repulsion, you’ve given the man your brain. Sometimes my Trump-bashing friends and I seem like puppets on his string.
There was a fascinating essay in Literary Hub by the book agent Erik Hane. Hane reads through the slush piles of new novel submissions. These days they are often about Trump. The novelists, he writes, have lost control of their own consciousness: “These authors are not writing the political moment so much as the moment is writing them.”
Hane, who writes at the top of his voice, continues, “It is one of fascism’s goals to monopolize our attention. It would like to shrink our imagination. … Fascism welcomes our attempts to play logical ‘gotcha’ with its inconsistencies because it knows we will lose – not because we won’t find a fallacy but because the fallacy won’t matter.”
Hane says he misses novels that are about someone else’s actual lived experience. I miss people thinking about the world outside the gravity field of Trumpian unreality, and about the world after Trump – the world we should be building.
We’re in the middle of some vast historical transition, and it’s very hard to know what to believe in. The more time we spend on the Trumpian soap opera, the less likely we are to know where we are or what we should do.