Lost in Fantasyland (with Kurt Andersen)

The hills we choose to die on aren't even real.

LAST WEEK, the Mississippi State Health Officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, responded to a question regarding the use of ivermectin, a deworming medicine for livestock, to treat covid-19.

“Please work with your doctor. This is medical treatment. You wouldn’t get your chemotherapy at a feed store,” Dobbs said. “I mean, you wouldn’t want to treat your pneumonia with your animal’s medication. It can be dangerous to get the wrong doses of medication, especially for something that’s meant for a horse or a cow. So we understand the environment we live in. But it’s really important if people have medical needs to go through your physician or provider.”

The FDA was even more blunt:

In Mississippi—and in other Trump-happy states as well—ivermectin toxicity is, apparently, a thing. Folks are overdosing on something meant for barn animals, because they believe it will help ward off the coronavirus. (If only there was something else that could be taken to prevent us from catching covid-19…something free and readily available and, you know, intended for use by humans…[insert SMH emoji].)

The notion of using the bovine remedy for non-bovine purposes did not come to the hospitalized individual out of the blue. Ivermectin as miracle cure has been a MAGA talking point for months. Joseph Flynn, brother of Guy Fawkes traitor Mike Flynn, touted the stuff on his Twitter account, which was subsequently suspended. Laura Ingraham has long sung its praises, her endorsement echoed by other Fox News personalities, including Tucker Carlson and Maria Bartiromo.

Dr. Dobbs issued his statement in response to a question by the Health Department’s communications director, Liz Sharlot, who expressed sentiments best summed up with the letters WTF: “You know, for the life of me, I don’t get it. Dr. Dobbs, you have a vaccine that’s safe and effective. And yet people, as opposed to getting the vaccine, want to go after these kinds of things. What’s your thought process on that?” In effect, she was asking, “Why in God’s name would any sane, rational human believe something so patently and obviously ridiculous?”

To answer that question, we must turn not to the good Dr. Dobbs, but to this week’s guest on the PREVAIL podcast, Kurt Andersen—and, specifically, to his excellent book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, a 500-Year History, which I can’t recommend highly enough. (Seriously: If you haven’t read it, click on that last link and buy it right now). As it turns out, Americans are predisposed to believing in wackadoodle shit. Our gullibility is as baked into our national identity as rugged individualism, swagger, and insatiable appetite for fast food. The same quality that makes us dream the impossible dream makes us believe the impossible lie. As Andersen writes in the introduction,

America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, by hucksters and their suckers—which over the course of four centuries has made us susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem hunting witches to Joseph Smith creating Mormonism, from P.T. Barnum to Henry David Thoreau to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Donald Trump. In other words: mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.

Fantasyland came out in September of 2017, before QAnon, before the two impeachments, before the pandemic, before the besieging of the Capitol, back when Trump was still obsessed with proving that his fingers were longer than advertised (the description of Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian” came from the pages of SPY magazine, which Andersen co-founded).

But it’s not just that Americans are terminally gullible, prone to believe in crazy things. It’s also that there are smart, sinister men (it’s almost all men), with great riches and great power, who have tapped into this national propensity for believing in dopey fictions, subverted it, and weaponized it to achieve their self-serving, earth-raping, democracy-destroying, fuck-the-poor purposes. In Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, A Recent History (just released in paperback!), Andersen explains who these men are and how they worked in the shadows—patiently, for decades—to infiltrate the judicial branch, lobby pusillanimous politicians, apotheosize Ronald Reagan and the myth of “government is the problem,” yank the nation rightward toward what they call libertarianism but is closer to neo-serfdom, and, as he writes, turn “the New Deal into the raw deal.”

The eponymous Evil Geniuses—Lewis Powell, the brothers Koch, John Sununu, the Bradleys and Olins and Scaifes, Leonard Leo—succeeded too greatly. The national susceptibility to fantasy has ballooned out of control. As a result, 634,000 are dead, and a significant number of Americans would sooner ingest horse pills than a safe, effective vaccine.

We are a nation lost in Fantasyland. And it’s killing us.


S2 E1: Lost in Fantasyland (Season Two Premiere, with Kurt Andersen)

Description: The journalist, editor, critic, and author Kurt Andersen talks to Greg Olear about his two books, “Fantasyland” and “Evil Geniuses,” the prescient genius of SPY magazine, and how the 80s never died. Plus: a new brand of tea.

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Photo credit: Nejones1987. First statue of Paul Bunyan. Located in Bemidji, Minnesota.