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A lithograph depicting the angel Moroni delivering the golden plates of the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith in western New York, 1827

Fake news, alternative facts, and post-truth belong to a political climate change—that is, an overheating of the environment in which politics takes place. To understand it requires something more than fact-checking and the exposure of bunk, and to reduce it to the election of Donald Trump is to underestimate the extent of the change. Trump embodies tendencies that go far back into the past and that have seeped into politics from American popular culture. Think P.T. Barnum.

The most ambitious of several attempts to put fake news and the Trump presidency in historical perspective are Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen and Bunk by Kevin Young. To read them together is to see two talented intellectuals cover the same ground, draw on similar sources, and come up with intriguingly different interpretations.

Andersen, a former editor of The Harvard Lampoon, cofounder of Spy magazine, and columnist for The New Yorker, describes his book in its subtitle as “a 500-year history.” He does indeed go back to Luther and Calvin, but they serve only as curtain-raisers for the Pilgrim Fathers and the main theme of his argument: religious fanaticism. Under the illusion that they were God’s chosen people, the Pilgrims set out to prepare the way for the end of the world by establishing a theocratic state in the wilderness. They wiped out the indigenous people (imps of Satan), expelled anyone who thought for herself (Anne Hutchinson), and construed politics as the unconstrained power of the elect (not the elected). Massachusetts was America’s first fantasyland, and “America was founded by a nutty religious cult.”

Having been founded by fanatics, Andersen argues, the United States became the only country in the West to spawn extravagant new religions: millenarian cults derived from the Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, Mormonism, Christian Science, Scientology, Pentecostalism, and assorted sects whipped up by charismatics speaking in tongues and by evangelists preaching the imminent end of the world as signaled by the omnipresence of Satan.

In the beginning, moreover, the American republic suffered from a second fatal flaw, the Enlightenment faith of our Founding Fathers. They believed in the individual’s ability to understand the world by exercising reason. According to Andersen, this rational individualism interacted with the older Puritan faith in the individual’s inner knowledge of the ways of Providence, and the result was a peculiarly American conviction about everyone’s unmediated access to reality, whether in the natural world or the spiritual world. If we believe it, it must be true.

Faith in reason does indeed involve an element of belief, and currents of irrationality ran through the belief system that made up the Enlightenment, as scholars have stressed since the publication of Carl Becker’s The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932). But Andersen’s account of what he calls “the Enlightenment idea” whizzes past so fast—in three scant pages—that it cannot support the weight he puts on it. In fact, it illustrates the disproportions that make his 500-year history so problematic. Having galloped through the eighteenth century, he polishes off the nineteenth century, Civil War and all, in 58 pages; allots another 54 pages to the period between 1900 and 1960 (the two world wars barely get mentioned); then focuses heavily on the 1960s and 1970s (two decades spread over 63 pages); and devotes the bulk of the book (205 pages) to the period from the 1980s to the present. It is in this last period that the most extravagant fantasies, including the belief in extraterrestrial abductions and the complicity of US officials in the September 11 attacks, have taken root.

The pace and the tone of Fantasyland make it difficult to take the book seriously as history, although Andersen seems to have read the work of serious historians. (He mentions Edmund Morgan and Perry Miller, but as he includes no footnotes or bibliography, it is impossible to assess the evidence behind his assertions.) However, the book is not addressed to an academic audience—and so much the better. It is written with gusto; it is very funny; and it succeeds in ridiculing hogwash, past and present.

Andersen takes delight in selecting figures hallowed by a sentimental vision of our heritage—Emerson as a soulful transcendentalist, Thoreau as a pastoral ecologist—and zapping them. They fed “the pastoral fantasy that American suburbanites and hippies and country-home owners have reenacted ever since.” Daniel Boone and Buffalo Bill belong in the same company—supercelebrities who pawned off a fictionalized view of the West on a public eager to imagine itself as living at the edge of untamed nature. Andersen skewers Dwight Moody, “a shoe salesman turned celebrity preacher,” as the most egregious in a long line of evangelists leading to Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and other preachers of “fantastical Christianity”: “He insisted that every sentence in the Bible was literally true, no more metaphorical than the Sears, Roebuck catalog.”

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The humor, however, is deeply anachronistic: “Luther’s main complaint had been about the church’s sale of phony VIP passes to heaven”; “Two decades into the seventeenth century, English America was a failing start-up.” These one-liners hit the spot, but they are cheap shots, because anachronism reduces the past to categories of the present. It is the historian’s original sin, one to be combatted, even though it can never be entirely defeated.

If it fails as history, Fantasyland succeeds as an effort to debunk bunking, and that is an important service, because America never had a Voltaire. We had Mark Twain, to be sure, and H.L. Mencken, who treated politics as “a carnival of buncombe.” (“Bunkum” is derived from the vapid oratory used by a congressman to court his constituents in Buncombe County, North Carolina, in 1820.) Andersen writes as a modern Mencken: no pity for the “booboisie,” no sympathy for religious claptrap, no holds barred in combatting political piffle, because the ringmaster of the carnival today is Donald Trump, whom Andersen presents as “empirical proof of my theory as it applies to politics.”

A large proportion of the population, Andersen insists, holds firmly to beliefs that have been mapped and measured statistically by experts from survey research centers. For example:

Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” At least half are absolutely certain Heaven exists, ruled over by a personal God—not some vague force or universal spirit but a guy. More than a third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of scientists, government, and journalists…. A quarter believe vaccines cause autism and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 general election. A quarter believe that our previous president was (or is?) the Antichrist. A quarter believe in witches.

So many Americans have held such nutty ideas, Andersen argues, that they have built a Sonderweg, which leads directly from Plymouth Rock to Fantasyland.

A more balanced discussion would have led Andersen to a more convincing conclusion. Historians certainly may shape the past in any way they please. To expand their story as it approaches the present can work as a device for establishing perspective, like the vanishing point in Renaissance paintings. But doing so raises a danger greater than anachronism, because it makes the distant past look like a prologue to the immediate present. Trump’s election administered a shock to the political system, but it does not confirm the thesis that mystification has conquered the continent and extinguished other elements in American culture such as pragmatism, horse sense, and street smarts.

One way to put Andersen’s argument itself in perspective is to consult Kevin Young’s Bunk, which offers an alternative interpretation of the same phenomena. A poet and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division in Harlem of the New York Public Library, Young organizes his book around themes such as hoaxes, confidence games, forgeries, plagiarism, and literary fraud. He illustrates each theme with anecdotes, taking care to cite sources and document quotations with footnotes, so his volume has more intellectual heft than Andersen’s.

It does not look that way, however. Its catchpenny design fails to do justice to the depth of its argument, and the chapter headings and subheadings provide no guidance to its structure. Thus the heading for Part Three, which is meant ironically to evoke barkers’ blarney:

Mysteria
(a sideshow!
starring
JT LeRoy
with guest appearances by
Lance Armstrong
Disneyland Paris
Sybil
& Many Faces of Eve)

This format may be appropriate for a book about bunkum, culminating in “post-facts and fake news,” but it makes heavy demands on the reader, because the anecdotes come so thick and fast that it is difficult to follow the logic that ties them together.

Once inside the “sideshow” on “mysteria,” for example, the reader confronts the main exhibit, the notorious case of a fictional author, JT LeRoy, invented by a real author, Laura Albert, as part of an elaborate hoax. The narrative leads through a chamber of horrors—child abuse, parental pimping—and the scenes shift so erratically that one can easily get lost. First comes a museum of fake Africana in Times Square, then Disneyland Paris, and, in rapid succession, Lance Armstrong’s cheating in the Tour de France, late-grunge music in San Francisco, AIDS hysteria, Jean-Martin Charcot’s medical theater in the Salpêtrière Hospital of Paris, multiple personality disorder, the recovered memory movement (complete with fantasies of UFO abductions and satanic ritual abuse), witch hunting in a California day-care center, the murder trial of Amanda Knox in Perugia, double-consciousness as exemplified by an American hysteric, Eve Black, and the African-American intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois, the clichés of Southern Gothic, and the grotesque as a literary theme. It ends with LeRoy again and the unmasking of the hoax as Albert is taken to court and convicted of fraud.

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The fakery is easier to follow in the first half of the book, which develops a historical narrative, beginning with Barnum. At first, Young explains, hoaxes were a form of entertainment, entered into with good humor by a public that enjoyed being diddled. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Fox sisters (phony communication with spirits by means of cracking joints in the feet) and Madame Blavatsky (pseudo-Oriental theosophy) shifted the emphasis to spiritualism.

Barnumesque bunkum continued well into the twentieth century, but it gave way to self-fabricated phonies: fake Indians, fake refugees from abductions by aliens, and fake Holocaust survivors. From the beginning, hoaxes were spread by the mass media. In 1835, the New York Sun reported that humanoid creatures had been sighted on the moon by Sir John Herschel with his famous telescope. Readers, who did not expect much truth from the new penny press, were duped and then amused. In 1938, when Orson Welles announced an invasion from Mars on CBS radio, the public panicked. Hoaxing had become noir. Its tone, as traced by Young, evolved from humor to horror, and its content was laced with racism.

Barnum’s first and most famous exhibit was Joice Heth, a black woman he may have bought, who pretended to be George Washington’s nursemaid, 161 years old in 1835. Later exhibits included “What is It?,” an African-American man dressed in animal hides and presented as the missing link in the chain of evolution. The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago took up the racist theme by featuring “cannibalistic Samoans,” a “Dahomey Village” with sixty-nine supposed “native warriors,” and a woman paid to pose as a real-life Aunt Jemima. The fakery continued through the World’s Fair of 1933 in Chicago, where a black performer decked out in ostrich feathers and speaking gibberish pretended to be an African chief named Wu Foo.

Young dissects these examples of freaks and fakes to demonstrate the racism inherent in American popular culture. It extends to exhibitions of fake Indians, Asians, and even whites. Barnum’s “Circassian Beauty,” a white woman supposedly rescued from slavery in the Caucasus region, was meant to evoke the origin and essence of the Caucasian race, another fiction. The history of hoaxing exposes uncomfortable truths about American society:

Why are all these white folks hoaxing about all these brown, yellow, and black ones? We have few other ways to say just how Americans remain divided, not only from each other but also schizophrenic about truth and race and detached from reality even though, or especially because, we refashion it daily.

The main hoaxes from about 2000 discussed by Young appeared in print—in newspapers, novels, short stories, and poems, continually blurring the line that once had divided fact from fiction. Young concentrates on the fake news of three reporters: Stephen Glass, who wrote at least two dozen fabricated pieces for The New Republic from 1996 to 1998; Michael Finkel, who concocted a profile of a teenage slave in West Africa that appeared as a cover story in The New York Times Magazine in 2001; and Jayson Blair, who manufactured thirty-six faked stories for the Times, including one about sniper murders along the D.C. Beltway in 2002. After being exposed, all three journalists compounded their fraud with self-justifying, self-pitying, semi-autobiographical books: Glass’s The Fabulist (2003), Blair’s Burning Down My Master’s House (2004), and Finkel’s True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa (2005).

Mark Peterson/Corbis/Getty Images

Rush Limbaugh, 1995

Young goes over this fakery at great length, not simply to reveal the origins of fake news today but to demonstrate something deeper, which he calls a “narrative crisis.” It is a double violation of the truth, first as a lie about experiences endured by real people in real life, and second as a betrayal of the realities conveyed by literary fiction. Young writes from the perspective of his vocation as a poet and with a commitment to what can be understood as poetic truth. He therefore condemns literary plagiarism as the most poisonous kind of hoaxing.

Bunk concludes with a coda, “The Age of Euphemism.” Although “euphemism” seems weak as a description of the fakes that pass for truth today—notably “alternative facts” as a cover-up for lying—it gets across the distortion of reality foisted on the public by the “modern inheritor to P.T. Barnum,” Donald Trump: “Trump too exploits deep-seated social divisions, ones that, despairingly, echo the very same ones of race and difference on which the history of the hoax has long relied.” Young’s conclusion matches Andersen’s. Both see Trump as a product of reality television whose understanding of the world derives from the long hours he spends watching TV, especially Fox News. What Andersen describes as Fantasyland, Young calls Neverland. It’s the same place, and Trump is in charge of it.

Although they come to the same conclusion and cite many of the same episodes, the two authors develop different interpretations. To Andersen, the driving force behind the muddying of reality is religiosity; to Young, it is racism. I find Young more convincing, because just as slavery existed everywhere in the original colonies, so do racist attitudes extend throughout the country, whereas while the most extravagant forms of religious beliefs developed in certain areas, such as the “burned-over district” of upstate New York, they have not penetrated the blue states as thoroughly as the red.

Young, like Andersen, accepts the notion of American exceptionalism. Although they cite many examples of absurd beliefs held only in the United States, they write as if collective delusions have not upset history elsewhere in the world. The most extravagant episodes in America’s fantasyland look mild when compared with the Children’s Crusade of 1212, led by wandering bands of the poor (not children), whipped up by chiliastic fantasies; the Great Fear of 1789, when hordes of French peasants sacked châteaux in order to save themselves from an imagined invasion of brigands; and the Taiping Rebellion of 1850–1864, which sought to rid China of the ruling Manchu dynasty and to install the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace (at a cost of at least 20 million lives) through an uprising led by a visionary who proclaimed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. All these events were set off by misinformation that could be called fake news.

Fake news has an even longer history than that imagined by Andersen and Young. In my own view, it goes back to antiquity in the West, and it became an element in political conflicts by the time of the Renaissance.1 The first great faker of news was Pietro Aretino, who got his start by composing libelous sonnets about the candidates in the papal election of 1522 and pasting them on the bust of a character known as “Pasquino,” which served as a bulletin board near the Piazza Navona in Rome. “Pasquinades” became a popular genre, and Aretino had many imitators right up to eighteenth-century Paris. By then newsmen (nouvellistes) spread gossip, much of it false, some of it true, through clandestine gazettes and books, including The Modern Aretino (L’Arrétin moderne), an underground best seller.

In London, “paragraph men” outdid the Aretinos of Paris in fabricating news. They picked up information in coffee houses, reduced it to a paragraph, and consigned it, usually for a fee, to compositors who laid out the paragraphs, one after the other, in the dense columns of type used to print London’s numerous newspapers. In the 1770s a new kind of scandal sheet specialized in paragraphs about the private lives of public figures. Two priests turned reporters, “the Reverend Bruiser” (Henry Bate) and “Dr. Viper” (William Jackson), battled for market share by churning out articles that make today’s tabloids look moderate. It never occurred to anyone that news should be neutral or objective. The ideal of objectivity did not develop until the second half of the nineteenth century with “papers of record” like The New York Times and The Times of London. They based their appeal on a new kind of professionalism, one that aspired to provide reliable reporting and to reject blatant partisanship.

A historical view of fake news should begin by considering the changing concept of news itself, an aspect of the subject that is not considered by Andersen and Young. News is not what happened but a story about what happened, and by its nature it uses narrative conventions. As the conventions changed, so did the stories that readers consumed in newspapers. And far from being self-evident, the techniques of storytelling had to be assimilated by copy boys aspiring to become reporters through on-the-job training.

How do you turn legwork into a story after covering a bank robbery or a murder? If the night city editor tells you after you return from the scene of the crime, “800 words,” what words will you choose and what will they look like when they appear in the paper next morning? Most readers have no idea of the arbitrary codes and professional skills that shape today’s account of what happened yesterday.

When I underwent my own vocational training at The Newark Star-Ledger in 1956, I did the basic legwork for the veteran reporters who spent the day playing poker in the newsroom of police headquarters. Every half-hour, I would collect the “squeal sheets,” carbon copies of typed records of every complaint phoned in to the lieutenant on duty. I would read through the squeal sheets in the hope of finding something that might serve as news, and when I found an item that I thought looked promising, I would ask the poker players if it warranted following up. After continuous “no”s, I realized that I had not been born with a nose for news.

One day I found a squeal sheet that seemed so promising—rape, murder, and other horrors—that I went straight to the homicide department instead of stopping off first at the poker game. When I presented it to the lieutenant, he took a quick look and returned it to me in disgust. “This isn’t news, kid,” he said, pointing to the letter B in the parentheses after the names of the victim and the suspect. I hadn’t noticed that names always were followed by a B or a W. Only then did it occur to me that news in Newark did not happen to blacks.

That lesson led me to appreciate Kevin Young’s account of the racism that permeates popular culture, not just on the surface but at a level below collective consciousness. Today, news does not appear primarily in newspapers, whose circulation and revenue have dropped drastically since the advent of the Internet, usually identified with the invention of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990. News now circulates through Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and much of it is produced by people who have no professional training and who often make it up. Beqa Latsabidze, a student in Tbilisi, Georgia, made thousands of dollars by posting fabricated stories that damaged Hillary Clinton and favored Donald Trump—notably a bogus announcement that Mexico would close its border to the US if Trump won the election.

The importance of the digital revolution for the proliferation of fake news and untruth in general is a main theme of another recent book on the subject, Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University. By “post-truth”—a neologism chosen as the “word of the year” by the Oxford dictionaries in November 2016—McIntyre means the belief that an idea is true despite the counterevidence of verifiable facts and the testimony of experts who have studied the subject. He approaches this theme through the history of science—or, rather, of “science denial.”

For the last several decades, McIntyre argues, corporations have defended their interests by spreading doubts about the scientific evidence that threatened them. The tobacco industry fought the notion that smoking caused cancer. The oil industry contested the consensus among scientists that human behavior has produced climate change. And corporate-funded lobbies promoted untruths about many political issues: “climate change, guns, immigration, health care, the national debt, voter reform, and gay marriage.” Untruths fed into a thickening miasma of post-truth, because the public was persuaded to discount the findings of experts.

Such delusions can be explained in part, McIntyre argues, by a syndrome of confirmation bias studied by psychologists. We select evidence that confirms our beliefs and filter out information that undercuts the views of our peer group. In this respect, his argument runs parallel to that of another recent book, The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols.2 Nichols traces the widespread conviction among ordinary citizens that their opinion is as good as anyone else’s to the distrust of experts in science, medicine, education, and the professional civil service.

According to McIntyre, the change that did the most to create the current post-truth environment is the rise of social media. He notes that 44 percent of the adult population gets its news from Facebook (62 percent from social media in general) and that Facebook uses algorithms to feed us news that we will like. As a result, Americans live increasingly in “news silos,” learning about the outside world from insider circuits that connect “friends” and like-minded consumers. They cease to be exposed to facts that do not fit their preconceptions, and therefore they become vulnerable to hackers who use clickbait to feed them information that favors some political candidates and economic interests over others.

One result is Donald Trump. He denounces news he dislikes as fake, but he rode into office on the wave of fake news that flooded the Internet from sources in Eastern Europe, notably Russia, during the election campaign. We may never know whether Trump owes his victory to fakery, but, McIntyre insists, we must learn to recognize the fabricated character of what passes for reality in a power system where facts do not matter and bunk cannot be proven false.

Although McIntyre’s route to this conclusion is shorter than those taken by Andersen and Young, he arrives at the same place. All three of them quote Stephen Colbert on “truthiness”—the conviction that what you feel to be true must be the truth. All three invoke a famous remark by Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” They take a stand on ground that Andersen describes as “rationalism and reasonableness.” And the convergence of their views points to a danger greater than Trump. McIntyre cites Timothy Snyder, a historian of the Holocaust: “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”

  1. 1

    See my “The True History of Fake News,” NYR Daily, February 13, 2017. 

  2. 2

    Oxford University Press, 2017.