The phrase “fake news” has emerged as a ubiquitous byproduct of the current political climate. What started as a fair and accurate description of widely disseminated internet hoax stories – for instance, a pedophilia circle operated by Democrats out of a D.C. pizzeria – was deftly co-opted by the Trump administration to tar any piece of reported information that might show the White House in a negative light.
Meanwhile Trump publicly praises the likes of MagaPill, an online “news” organization that recently tweeted a video claiming there exists a sex tape with Hillary Clinton and an underage girl on Anthony Weiner’s laptop.
Trump understands the scariest part of all: There are people who believe this stuff.
This is where we’re supposed to say we’re in uncharted territory, and in many ways we are. No president has so enthusiastically embraced hoaxes and conspiracies or endorsed such blatant falsehoods. The Web gives him the perfect nonsense accelerant to stoke the fires of gullibility. Fact checkers get exhausted when the truth all but vanishes.
And yet, the current moment may just be the apotheosis of the country’s hoax-filled history, its romance with convenient magical thinking and its acceptance of what the White House so imaginatively termed “alternative facts.”
Two writers approached this phenomenon from different angles in 2017, and both started writing their books well before a Trump presidency seemed possible. Kevin Young’s “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News” digs back into the 19th century, when the penny press hatched a hoax about life on the moon and P.T. Barnum spun elaborate background myths for the human oddities he put on public display. Kurt Andersen’s “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire” goes all the way back to Sir Walter Raleigh’s 16th-century quest for El Dorado, a city of gold, and continues apace through witchcraft panics, anti-Catholic conspiracy, 1960s utopian dreams of if-it-feels-good-it-must-be-true and beyond.
Built on anything-is-possible ideals, America has often believed that literally anything is possible. As Andersen writes, “Being American means we can believe any damn thing we want, that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.”
In other words, if I say it’s true then it must be true. The “experts be damned” part seems particularly relevant today, when the overwhelming majority of scientists tell us climate change is real and dangerous, only to be met with a corporate chorus that brings to mind a line from “The Big Lebowski”: “Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
Richard Hofstadter was onto this back in 1963 when he wrote his Pulitzer-winning book, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” “The citizen cannot cease to need or to be at the mercy of experts,” Hofstadter wrote, “but he can achieve a kind of revenge by ridiculing the wild-eyed professor, the irresponsible brain truster, or the mad scientist, and by applauding the politicians as they pursue the subversive teacher, the suspect scientist, or the allegedly treacherous foreign-policy adviser.”
The hoax is a close cousin to alternative facts. As Young points out, the groundbreaking hoaxers were generally in on the joke, recognizing the public’s odd delight at having the wool pulled over their eyes. Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s classic hoaxers, had a word for such trickery: Diddling. “Your diddler is ingenious,” Poe wrote. “He has constructiveness large. He understands plot. He invents and circumvents.” As Young observes, “Poe’s diddler sounds a lot like one idea of the writer.”
The king of hoaxers, the master diddler, was P.T. Barnum. In his American Museum, Barnum displayed the torso and head of a monkey sewn to the back half of a fish. He called it the Fiji mermaid. One point of such exhibits was to come see the grotesquerie, think “there’s no way that’s a mermaid,” then remind yourself that mermaids don’t even exist, and then chuckle at your own gullibility. Barnum, in spinning his lies and illusions, had no need for experts. As Young said recently at the Texas Book Festival, “Barnum offered us a kind of chance to each be an expert, to each be in this democratic process of choosing whether something was real or not. And that’s sort of still with us, but I think it’s also changed quite a bit.”
The biggest difference between then and now? The hoaxers aren’t attaching a monkey head to a fish. They’re running the country.
Barnum was also quick to see a central element of the hoax that Trump has learned well: America’s fascination with and fear of the racial other. The showman displayed the microcephalic African-American William Henry Johnson in a cage, renamed him Zip the Pinhead and billed him as “What is it?” As Young writes, “the hoax regularly steps in when race rears its head – exactly because it too is a fake thing pretending to be real.” In this view, race is a social construct, and a signifier of the exotic and dangerous. That’s why Trump gains traction by pushing the myth that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and, therefore, isn’t a real American. Birtherism is a classic hoax, a perfect tool for firing up those who simply believe what they want to believe.
Anderson’s statistics are alarming. More than a third of Americans think global warming is a hoax. A quarter believe Trump won the popular vote. A quarter believe Obama is the Antichrist. A quarter believe vaccines cause autism.
“By my reckoning,” Andersen writes, “the more or less solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us, but almost certainly fewer than half.”
America has become the ultimate Choose Your Own Reality game, and the players are legion. Young spends a chunk of “Bunk” on fake memoirists, à la James Frey, and, yes, journalistic fabricators, such as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. Know what happens to fake journalists? They get fired and they don’t work in the profession again. Some, including Glass, go on to write what they secretly wrote all along: fiction.
Both Anderson and Young thought their books were just about finished before the 2016 election. On that score, they were wrong. The Age of Trump provides a perfect capstone for both “Fantasyland” and “Bunk,” and the authors have the decency to refrain from a told-you-so touchdown dance, even as they point out their perfect timing.
“Donald Trump is a pure Fantasyland being, its apotheosis,” Andersen writes near the end of his book. “If he hadn’t run for president, I might not have mentioned him at all. But here he is, a stupendous Exhibit A. To describe him is practically to summarize this book.”
In other words, Trump helped prove a point. Welcome to the United States of Fantasyland, where the bunk is sold in bulk.
Chris Vognar is the Dallas Morning News culture critic. Readers may email him at email@example.com. ©2018 The Dallas Morning News