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How the U.S. went haywire? It’s in the country’s genes

Along with Hillary Clinton's What Happened, the other book that is getting the buzz in Washington is Kurt Andersen's Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. In, shall we say, a nutshell, the author's thesis is that the crackpots are taking over. The surreal has become the real. It's all been inevitable.

This is a timely tome. After working on it for years, Mr. Andersen was nearing completion when, lo and behold, his thesis materialized before his very eyes. With his non-stop fabrications selling like pizza, Donald Trump was elected the 45th president.

It's the ultimate expression, Mr. Andersen claims, of what he calls the "fantasy-industrial complex," a United States where "the irrational has become respectable," where "the word mainstream has now become a pejorative," where politically "the old fringes have been folded into the new centre."

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Call it the new paranormal. Other writers chronicle this trend but whereas they tend to see it as a new phenomenon, Mr. Andersen contends that it's a culmination, that the United States has always been a fantasyland, one where fiction, delusion and dreamers thrived.

The mythical, he argues, is in the country's genes. It all began with the founding of the United States by the Puritans, "a nutty religious cult." It continued in the ultraindividualistic culture in so many ways, whether it's been with the born-again religious craze, the P.T. Barnum extravaganzas, Salem witch hunts, hippie counterculture excesses, the gun fetish and the belief in conspiracy theories.

Now, the argument goes, the great experiment in liberty is going off the rails to the point where a postfactual culture has emerged. Those on the fringe were always in abundance but lacked a platform. The dam burst with the arrival of the Internet and now the dross overflows the country. Look for more demagogic leaders selling snake oil to make good.

Mr. Andersen is selective in building his thesis, piling all the unorthodoxies atop one another to give his narrative a convincing thrust. An author could well make the opposite case, selectively choosing all the fine examples of rationality running through American history that made the country a dominant global force. You won't find many leaders more rational and judicious than Barack Obama. The American population elected him twice and, if he was allowed to run again, would probably have done so a third time.

But that image of the country has faded fast. The Andersen take is hot. In the fantasyland vein there arrives another book, a memoir called Finding Magic by Sally Quinn, the journalist and wife of the late legendary editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee. It's drawing attention because Ms. Quinn recounts, speaking of fantasies, how she put hexes on her enemies and the hexes worked to the point where in a couple of instances her targets committed suicide or died.

Given the down-to-earth, tough-as-nails reputation of Mr. Bradlee, it comes as a shock that his long-time wife and high-powered Washington socialite was into the occult. She writes about how spirits from beyond welcomed her and Mr. Bradlee to the old home they had restored in the Hamptons. On Monday evening, I attended her book reading where, sensing the mood of the audience, she tried to steer clear of the psychic stuff, offering more pleasing observations such as her belief that the American people are too good for the Trump culture to take hold.

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Mr. Andersen isn't at all sure. His book frighteningly argues that, given the breadth of the cultural shift, the fringe forces are entrenched.

There's the continuing war on the elites. There's a far right that has gained an unprecedented media clout. There's the war on science. There's the empowerment of the country's less educated who studies show are more vulnerable to being manipulated. Hollywood is more and more divorced from reality, its film offerings increasingly in the realm of escapist garbage. The Web, with its inability to distinguish credible information from random junk, is allowing more cockamamie ideas to spread.

The fringe forces may not yet be entrenched. But anyone thinking they are not gaining ground is in fantasyland.

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About the Author
Public affairs columnist

Lawrence Martin is an Ottawa-based public affairs columnist and the author of ten books, including six national best sellers. More

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