Kurt Andersen looks at how America was designed
Last month, Kurt Andersen — the polymathic novelist, public radio host, and magazine editor — published his new book, Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, a recent history of this country’s political economy. The country we find ourselves in now — one with far-reaching polarization, massive inequality, and deep untrust in government — did not happen by accident. Andersen argues, rather convincingly, that this moment, in many ways, is the natural end-point of a plan developed by a group of conservative activists, big business executives, and right-wing intellectuals in the late 1970s following the tumult of the 1960s. Evil Geniuses is a follow up of sorts to Andersen’s excellent 2017 book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire (A 500 Year History), where he looks at Americans’ predisposition towards belief in magical thinking, conspiracy theories, and myth making1. These are books about America — about its intellectual history, about the stories it tells itself, about its particular brands of capitalism, religion, and nationalism — but they are also, at their core, books about design2.
Andersen first started thinking about what became Fantasyland after the first episode of The Colbert Report in 2004, where Stephen Colbert, playing a rightwing pundit, coined the term truthiness. “I don’t trust books—they’re all fact, no heart…Face it, folks, we are a divided nation, divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart,” Colbert, the character, said, “Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.” While it’s satirical, this mindset permeates all of American culture and Andersen goes back in time — back 500 years — to look at how we, as a people, are prone to all sorts of thinking devoid of logic or facts, from the Salem witch trials to Donald Trump’s birtherism, climate deniers to wide-spread distrust of experts. He writes:
Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. Some of my best friends are very religious, and others believe in dubious conspiracy theories. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.
Reading Fantasyland, you quickly realize Donald Trump’s presidency is merely the latest step in a gradual mainstreaming of conspiracy and fantasy. It is in America that many modern religions were founded from Mormonism to Scientology. It’s here we see cults from the Branch Davidians to NXIVM. This was the new world! This is where you could reinvent yourself and be anything you want to be! We’re prone to belief in myth and we’re predisposed to create our own myths. (“Once we realize that magical thinking is at the heart of both religion and branding, it will become clearly why they can momentarily merge.” wrote James Twitchwell in his book, Branded Nation, “Branding fetishizes objects in exactly the same manner that religion does: it “charms” objects, giving them an aura of added value.”)
Fantastyland is not a book about the 2016 election or Donald Trump or QAnon, though the book does culminate in the our current conspirator-in-chief. After the 2016 election, something I couldn’t quite figure out was how so many people were buying to what were clearly lies and conspiracy theories. I found myself thinking a lot about the idea of ‘fake news’ and I was curious about the design implications of it. Fake news, of course, is not new — for as long as there’s been news there has been fake news. What is new is the ability to produce it at a high fidelity. The tools of design — desktop publishing software, image editing, photos in everyone’s pocket — have democratized design (good!) but it’s also made it easier to build a website that looks credible but is actually peddling conspiracy theories (bad!). Think of the supermarket tabloids. Their design, with the bold graphics and grainy photos, has been peddling fake news for decades. On Facebook, however, it all looks the same, sitting between baby photos from our friends and real news from The New York Times. “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’” writes Daniel Boorstin in his 1962 book, The Image3, of which Andersen quotes in Fanstasyland, “that they can live in them.” Andersen continues, paraphrasing Baudrillard: “The concoctions of what I’m calling the fantasy-industrial complex,” he writes, “had come to seem more real than reality and twisted people’s attitudes and behaviors accordingly.”
This idea — the fantasy-industrial complex — comes up again and again in Andersen’s book and I’ve come to think of it as a problem of design. The power in design is that it can connote truth. Design can turn ideologies — particular ways of seeing the world — and make them real, or at the very least believable. Consider, for example, Disney, perhaps the quintessential American brand, with its P.T. Barnham like founder. Disneyland is the ultimate designed experience and we’re all living in Disneyland now. Every major city has created Instagrammable destinations, facades that have the ability hide that which we want to ignore, whether its racism, gentrification, or inequality. “Ours was the first country ever designed and created from nothing,” Andersen in the introduction, “the first country authored, like an epic tale—at the very moment, as it happened, that Shakespeare and Cervantes were inventing modern fiction.” This is the only time the word ‘design’ appears in the book, but it turns out to be the perfect word choice. “Design solidifies, and naturalizes, things that start off as opinions, stories and traditions and so supplies the form to the fictions by which we live,” a Michael Rock wrote in a 2016 essay, “Design always depicts, and manifests, the things that matter to us.”
If Fantasyland is about our predisposition to believe in conspiracy theories, Evil Geniuses, then, almost feels like the exposing of a massive conspiracy — a secret cabal of men in dark rooms rigging the economy in their favor. Yet, somehow, this is no conspiracy. Andersen, brilliant at weaving together otherwise disconnect narratives, brings the receipts. What he does inEvil Geniuses is show us how American’s political economy was, in a word, designed.
This paragraph that appears near the beginning of the book, serves as a good summary:
In 40 years, the share of wealth owned by our richest 1 percent has doubled, the collective net worth of the bottom half has dropped to almost zero, the median weekly pay for a full-time worker has increased by just 0.1 percent a year, only the incomes of the top 10 percent have grown in sync with the economy, and so on. Americans’ boats stopped rising together; most of our boats stopped rising at all. Economic inequality has reverted to the levels of a century ago and earlier, and so has economic insecurity, while economic immobility is almost certainly worse than it’s ever been.
What’s happened since the 1970s and ’80s didn’t just happen. It looks more like arson than a purely accidental fire, more like poisoning than a completely natural illness, more like a cheating of the many by the few—and although I’ve always been predisposed to disbelieve conspiracy theories, this amounts to a long-standing and well-executed conspiracy, not especially secret, by the leaders of the capitalist class, at the expense of everyone else. A Raw Deal replaced the New Deal.
For people my age — in our thirties — this is the only America we’ve known. It’s easy to forget that forty years ago, the country was more much more progressive, much more equal (economically, at least), and much closer to a social democratic system (both universal basic incomes and universal healthcare were close to being passed). But then that all changed. These big businesses, conservative lawyers, and right-wing thinkers decided to rig the economy in their favor. They passed laws to decrease the power of unions and the orchestrated sweeping tax cuts for the wealthy. They began talking about how government was the problem — too much oversight and too much spending — and that we should let the market work itself out. They launched conservative think tanks to train the next generation of politicians and opened the Federalist Society, an organization for conservative and libertarian thinkers dedicated to “literal interpretation of the Constitution” that’s seen far more influence than they could ever have imagined — packing the Supreme Court with current and former members Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and likely one more in the next few weeks. This has allowed the wealthy to get even wealthier while the rest of us find our incomes stagnant despite the cost of living continuing to rise. But perhaps more amazing of all, they convinced all of us to go along with it. The face of this new political order, it should go without saying, was Ronald Reagan, the former actor known for playing cowboys in Westerns that mythologized the country’s history. It turns out that face was the perfect front because to sell us citizens on it, it had to rely on a false nostalgic image of a country that never was.
America, throughout its history, was a country about progress, about the new, about tomorrow. But in the seventies a newfound nostalgia found its footing in culture. (It was in the seventies, for example, that suddenly we had more than one television show about the 1950s.) What’s more, all the stuff that was being produced stopped looking new. Around the time the Right was orchestrating their new economic ideas, many Americans, feeling tired after the sixties, stopped looking towards the future and retreated. In many ways, Andersen argues, culture stopped. The eighties never ended.
Sure, there are slight differences in clothing or cars and of course major innovations in technology but the overall look of world has largely gone unchanged. Historically, each decade had a distinctive style — the cars, the clothes, the movies, the design — but now it’s all started to blend together. Or it’s a remix, a reboot, a rediscovery. That Hollywood’s movies are mostly reboots of old IP is a practice that really started thirty years ago. The hipsters, with their vintage clothes and long hair who pickle their own vegetables, is just a reboot of the 1960s countercultural movement. (Think about graphic design, too. I was talking to another designer recently and we couldn’t think of the last time we had seen a piece of graphic design that truly felt completely new, unlike anything we’d ever seen before.) Here’s Andersen:
In the past, over the course of any and every two-decade period, the look and sound of life changed dramatically. New York’s famous new architecture of the 1930s (the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building) looks nothing like the famous new architecture appeared twenty years earlier (the Flatiron Building, Grand Central Terminal, the Woolworth Building) or twenty years later (the Seagrams Building, the UN Headquarters, the Guggenheim Museum). Anyone can instantly identify a 1950s movie (On the Waterfront, The Bridge Over River Kwai) versus twenty years before (Grand Hotel, It Happened One Night) or twenty years after (Klute, A Clockwork Orange) and tell the difference between hit songs from 1992 (Sir Mix-a-lot) and 1972 (Neil Young) and 1952 (Patti Page) and 1932 (Duke Ellington).
That unmistakable ceaseless stylistic change was the nature of life for most of the history of the United States. But after the 1980s, cultural time slowed down and in many ways topped. The 1990s looked and sounded extremely different than the 1970s, but by comparison, the 2010s were almost indistinguishable from the 1990s, as 2020 is almost indistinguishable from 2000.
Now Andersen is not saying that our evil geniuses were smart enough to rig cultural production too but he does argue, through a fascinating subplot in the book, that this cultural stagnation served the Right’s agenda perfectly. When everything looks the same, it’s easy to begin to feel that things have always been like this, that nothing changes, and there’s no hope in imagining something better. Again, this is design. This is design solidifying ideologies. As the conservative movement took control, redesigning our entire political economy, the design of culture started to reflect it. Eventually, they form a confirmation loop: in talking about failures in Washington, you reduce the size of the government so that when a real crisis hits — like a national pandemic, for example — the government is unable to respond. By always looking back, we fail to imagine new futures. If everything always looks the same, all we want is all that’s ever been. Design always depicts what matters to us.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. Andersen ends Evil Geniuses on a surprisingly positive note. Moments like the ones we are in now are inflection points — opportunities to further retreat into our nostalgias, our fantasies, our cultural stagnation or opportunities to rethink the entire system. If America was designed — if this current political economy was designed — then it can be redesigned. There’s more work to do.
In an interview with Peter Kafka on Recode Media, Kurt Andersen describes Fantasyland and Evil Geniuses as his ‘two part series on the fuckining of America.” That’s about as a good a description for these books as I can think of. ↩
This isn’t a surprise, necessarily; Andersen was an architecture and design critic for Time in the eighties. ↩
The Image, along with Fantasyland, was one of a handful of books I read right after the 2016 election in an attempt to explain how we’d gotten to this moment. I previously wrote about The Image here. ↩