The Greatest Show on Earth


by Lee McIntyre
MIT Press, 216 pp., $15.95 (paper)
Sarin Images/Granger
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…

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