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tv   Overheard With Evan Smith  PBS  March 31, 2018 4:30pm-5:01pm PDT

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- [announcer] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by claire and carl stuart. - i'm evan smith, he's the co-founder of spy magazine, the host of the public radio program studio 360, and a best selling author whose most recent books are fantasyland: how america went haywire and the parody memoir you can't spell america without me, the really tremendous inside story of my fantastic first year as president donald j. trump. he's kurt andersen, this is overheard. (audience applauding) let's be honest, is this about the ability to learn or is this about the experience of not having been taught properly? how have you avoided what has befallen other nations in africa? hate to say that he'd made his own bed, but you caused him to sleep in it. you saw a problem and over time took it on. let's start with the sizzle before we get to the steak.
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are you gonna run for president? think i just got an f from you, actually. (audience applauding) kurt andersen, welcome. - happy to be here. - good to be with you, congratulations on this book. we'll talk about it first, fantasyland, the timing of this book is exquisite. i'm assuming it's not entirely accidental. - it is entirely accidental. - it is entirely accidental. - it is entirely accidental. i started thinking about this book many years ago. really decided that it was a book i was going to write as my next book in 2013, started writing in 2014, still no donald trump on the horizon. - no one had talked about fake news? - no one had talked about fake new or post truth or any of that. - alternative facts? - alternative facts was not yet a phrase. and then, really as i was finishing the draft, i put him in the book. i don't think he, donald trump that is, would have appeared in this book had he not run for president. - and this book would have appeared without donald trump.
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- this book indeed would have appeared without donald trump, and as i say, donald trump being nominated and elected president became the poster boy for my argument about 500 years of american history. - but, inevitably kurt, you know that people will say well, this is a trump book. but trump is incidental. - and i'm happy to take advantage of that. - the road rose to meet you, as they say. - exactly, the mountain came to mohammed. - something. - perhaps that's an unfortunate trope in the case of donald trump. - he might not want mohammed, right. (laughing) - it was providence. - it was providence. and really what this book is about, and we'll talk in some specifics in a second about it, generally speaking, it is about our culture of delusion and self delusion which goes back many years. - right. - right. - and the americans defining a desire to believe and an insistence on believing in the unprovable and untrue of every variety. - yeah, the things that i took away from this book
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i kept trying to categorize, well, there's this piece of it, there's that piece of it. really it comes down to two things. one is, as you say, our desire to elevate the subjective over the objective. - correct. - and that has been historically something that we do. the better thing that i thought, and it's a line from the book, is that being american means that you can believe whatever you want. that is a fundamental aspect of being an american. - correct, along which is the result of this anti-establishment impulse that was a defining part of being an american hundreds of years before there was a united states. - the famous pat moynihan coinage, we're all entitled to our opinions, we're not entitled to our own facts. - yes. - really is in some ways a frame around this, that americans have grappled with of late, this idea of what is and is not a fact. - [kurt] right. - am i wrong to think that that's an incredible thing? i mean, why are we having to debate what is and is not a fact? - it's an extraordinary thing, and back when moynihan started saying that in the 1980s and 90s, he was saying it
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about specific, it was a repost to specific people trying to pretend that this isn't a fact, but it wasn't this endemic or pandemic problem. he was kind of joking at the time, and that was 25 years ago. we have gotten to this place through a variety of means that i spent 400 pages describing, not least of them the digital revolution of the last 20 years. - right. - that enabled people really, really, fervently to have their own facts and treat their own opinions as if they are facts. - well let's talk about that. so the technology revolution, the communications revolution, has really been one of two key, and from the book, one of two key drivers or enablers of fantasyland, as you characterize it. the internet is this wonderful place, this source of information, but it is also this sort of wild west, unregulated, unsupervised, unchaperoned frontier. - right.
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- where everything is equivalent to everything else if you choose for it to be. - exactly. we're both old enough to remember when the dawning of the age of the internet was all hopeful. - [evan] right. - in terms of its epistemological, political consequences, it would be wonderful. - [evan] right. - because, of course, it's democratizing by its nature, and of course, as the marketplace of ideas was always supposed to do, the good will drive out the bad. - right. - well, the worry is the bad drives out the good and it enables people who believe any cockamamie thing to have their version, their places online where those alternative facts are propagated. - and even to this question of the good pushing out the bad, or the bad pushing out the good, the bad and the good are at moments, if not always at the moment, indistinguishable from one another. part of the problem is that you really can't tell what is a good source and a bad source. - right. - the bad actors have figured out how to fool us. - that, and starting as you know, i loved the 60s as much as anybody.
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- [evan] right. - but, there have been some unreckoned bad consequences of the 1960s, not least of which, in the context of fantasyland, is the anti-establishment feeling, the de-legitimization of gatekeepers getting out of control and not going away with the 60s. - that's, in fact, the second of the two things. you mentioned the technology revolution, that's one, but the other is this thing which you date to the 60s of relativism, everything's relative. find your own reality. now the children of the current, you do you, basically. - right. - go to your own place, and that's fine. - yeah, find your own truth. - it's encouraged. - you have your truth, i have my truth, it's cool. - and that was part of that 60s mentality as you described. - it was, indeed, along with a kind of post enlightenment antipathy towards science and reason itself. - i want to talk about some of the moments over the course of the many, many decades, centuries that you talk about,
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going back to george washington. who is more unimpeachable in history than george washington? - interesting choice of word there. - unimpeachable, oh right. (audience laughing) yeah, i made an unintended joke. but if you think about it, george washington, and the myth of george washington, the story of george washington, really is the first recorded example of fake news. - it was, because shortly after his death, this biography came out which gave us our most famous untruth about early presidents, which is the chopping down the cherry tree. - [evan] the cherry tree myth. - and admitting that he did it, which neither thing took place. - it's really, history is now filled with these moments that we all take to be true that are often repeated as true, and often they're quotations, like we have this phenomenon of people saying to quote jefferson blank, and then you discover, no in fact, jefferson never said that, or hamilton never said that. - or mark twain, who i repeat a lot again and again in this book, that history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes, which i love and it sounds like twain
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and you want it to be twain, there's no evidence that it was. - it's not twain. george washington jumped off the page to me as an example. buffalo bill cody, another great example. - yeah, buffalo bill cody is a great character and he's one of several people or characters in this book who, if i wrote operas i could write an opera about. - [evan] right. - he was extraordinary because as a young man, this actual scout, pony express rider, fighter of indians, soldier, medal of honor winner at 26 or something, he has turned into kind of a fictional version of himself by pulp novel writer slash journalists from the east, and he goes with that. - and he embraces it, right. - then for several years, he spends half his year going on stage playing buffalo bill, this name that he was given by a journalist and then back in the west actually killing indians. - so unlike washington, around whom the fake news myth arose. - correct.
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- buffalo bill actually was the propagater. - and such an american pioneer in that sense of merging of show business and reality. - so i jump ahead then to the 20th century and i think about the kennedy assassination, what is the kennedy assassination and all the conspiracies around it, but a hotbed of fantasyland, right? - yup. - the ufo universe, area 51, and the kind of persistent i want to believe philosophy. - yeah, 1960s, 1960s. - yes, again, back to the 60s. i think about in the most recent decades, 9/11 trutherism, obama birtherism, again real aspects of this. i mean, here we sit in the people's republic of alex jones. - yes, yes. - alex jones is like the walter cronkite of fantasyland. - he's got a chapter. - he has a chapter in the book, that's the way it wasn't. i mean, that's the alex jones mantra. all of this of a piece, and what's so interesting is, we think we know these things as verticals, but when you lay them out end to end, you begin to see how really this is a pattern.
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- that's what i discovered, not only a pattern historically, but now, a kind of eu of fantastical thinking where, well we see that alex jones is also, in addition to the conspiracy theories that he promotes every day, he's a promoter of fantastical, ridiculous medical quackery as well. - [evan] right, right. - there are two adjacent states of fantasyland that you can travel back and forth without a visa. - and the degree to which the fantasyland mentality has now been brought into the mainstream is made evidence, is given credence by the fact that here is donald trump alongside alex jones. - right. - essentially legitimizing. - well, indeed, and again, i tell my children and i tell people who don't know, younger, people under 50 who don't realize that this is a new thing. that this conspirasism of what used to be
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the john birch society back when i was a little child, and the true conservative movement led by william f. buckley and barry goldwater and others kept their distance from that. - right. - and then, little by little, people running the republican party didn't keep their distance so much and allowed that conspirasism to seep into the mainstream, and by the way, it's not only the right. - well, there's left conspirasism, right? - sure, but it is, the bad consequences of fantasyland that i talk about politically are disproportionately right. - or at least at the moment they are. - exactly. we'll do the sequel in 10 years where the left has gone completely crazy. - it occurs to me that one great example of this or topic of conversation around this would be climate change or climate science. - [kurt] yes, yes. - where it's such false equivalency. 97% of the world believes that this is a thing, or more. 2% doesn't, we have to leave it there. - yeah, teach the controversy. - right, he said, she said. - and again, i didn't really,
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until i started doing the research for this book, didn't realize to what degree that was from the playbook of cigarette manufacturers. when they wanted a, as long as they could, no, no, no, it hasn't been proven that smoking causes cancer, and they kept that up, and there's literally a playbook that was used and in the wish to sew doubt about the science of climate change, that was used, and people say to me about climate change, well, that's because of the koch brothers, that's because so much money has been spent to ... - [evan] yeah, but it's more than that. - but it's more than that. and what i say is, you know, if the koch brothers decided for some reason, or their danish equivalents, to make the people of denmark doubt the science of climate change, they could spend all the money they want. you wouldn't have a third to a half of danes doubting the science of climate change. - you need gullibility as a feature and sadly, here in america, we are gullible. - that's my point. - i want to ask you about religion before i get to trump.
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i'm so interested in the degree to which religion is a persistent topic in this book. - [kurt] yeah. - you talk about christianity on the one hand, and actually you go down into the weeds on scientology a little bit and some other things, but you also talk about secular folks, who are like the new agers basically, right? - yeah, spiritual but not religious. - right, who are themselves in some ways -- - some, and again, i don't want -- - [evan] fantasylanders. - yes, many of them are, and i don't want to paint with too broad a brush. when you say christians. - not all christians. - not all christians at all just, you know ... - but it does beg the question of whether faith is the same thing as belief for purposes of discussion for this book. - distinguish them for me. - well, my point is you have people who, if i were bill maher sitting here as opposed to myself, i would be saying well, the bible is made up. - [kurt] yeah, yeah, yeah. - you know his whole trope about that. - yes. - the kind of belief without facts to support the belief or back the belief up that you talk about in here, do you see a long walk or a short walk to people's traditional faith?
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i mean, after all, they're believing in a thing that they believe. - right. - but there's no basis for it. - right, and that is the nature of not all religions but much of religion, is taking empirically unknowable, unprovable things on faith, and i can't, i can have my doubts about things, but i can't say that's not true. - you don't think that the church broadly defined or institutionally defined without regard to one specific religion is necessarily a problem as far as it gets in fantasyland. - i don't think it's a problem, and again, i don't think it was a problem until starting in the 1960s in my lifetime it's sort of becoming a problem because as, just in protestantism, as the mainline churches lost power and churchgoers, and thus, and their subtle, more allegorical, more metaphorical version of christianity was not selling, instead, a more magic right now,
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the second coming is imminent, and by the way, we have to teach genesis in public schools version of christianity came back big time. that, to me, became a problem. and then, and again, it's unkind and people don't like hearing challenges to religious faith and religious faith is supposed to be off the table as a thing to even bring up along with other kinds of ... - but it's in the book. - but it's in the book and it has to be. and again, one of the things that drove me to go on this journey and research this book and write it is i've always been curious and never found any satisfactory answers in this scholarship about why, in all senses and always for its entire history, america has been so much more religious, more extravagantly religious, more exotically religious, than any other developed country on earth. why scientology was invented here? why mormonism was invented here?
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christian science, we could go on. it is a defining part of america. - well now, let's go to the president, and really, the president is the link between book one and book two. - [kurt] he is. - in the sense that you the the president is the apotheosis of fantasyland, right? - yes. - no one more than he. and this book, which is a parody of the president, that you co-wrote with alec baldwin, kind of the fake president of the united states at the moment. - correct, correct. the resistance is president of the united states. - this memoir which you and alec co-wrote in the voice of the president, we're kind of getting at the same thing, the real is the unreal, the unreal is the real. - well, indeed, and my first reader as always was my wife ann, who read this as i was writing and said, i literally, as i was reading, forgot that i wasn't reading the words of donald trump. - reading the actual donald trump, yeah. - yes, indeed. and i have this fond idea, i mean he's not going to read this,
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because i don't think this will become the first book he's read in 30 years. (laughing) - that's why, it's not that he wouldn't like it, just not a big fan of books. - well, i think he would read it and i think, yeah, these guys get, do me better than the other people i've hired to write my memoirs in the past. (laughing) - i think it's so funny that you actually do have that problem. and you say it's a parody on the cover. i do think that there'll be people -- - that's a legal requirement, by the way. - but i do think that you'll have people that will dive into this book who will encounter it sort of from the middle. - and maybe squint and say ah yeah, it's trump. - oh my god, look, it's trump. - well, and several times, speaking of the blurry lines between fiction and reality, several times we were writing things, and i, as alec generously says, did most of the writing, and would come up with some fictional idea like back in february as we began it, musing about firing james comey, and then --
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- suddenly it happens. - suddenly it happened. (audience laughing) and it happened again and again, and finally alex started saying, oh, this is scary, you're like a seer, you're like a prophet. - a nostradamus. - exactly, he said just make sure it doesn't end with world war iii, okay? (audience laughing) - exactly, don't predict that. i mean, there is this phenomenon, you and i both come out of the media business broadly defined by back many years where at no point in my life, maybe in yours as well, has the news been harder to satirize. - correct. no, and that was the great challenge of this, and the interesting challenge to me of this is you've got a guy who is performing the part of being a certain kind of president that we've never had before doing every day a newly exciting outrageous thing and then there's the cartoonier versions, like the version of trump that alec plays on saturday night live, because it's television, it's live minutes, top of the show, it has to be cartoonier, so finding that middle ground that is more
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that makes people laugh because it's beyond reality, but it's still tethered to plausibility and that's what we tried to do. but, it was, yeah, it wasn't easy. - it's hard. - and the thing is because he, i don't think he would ever do this, but we say that about many things he's done, so i think the idea, there is, because it's a real, it's a book length thing that tries to get inside his head and try to give a three dimension sense of what might be going on in that mind and how it works. i think it's a fairly good, as good as we have right now, representation of the real donald trump. - it's funny, but the part that is not funny is that there are parts of it that are not funny. - yes, yes. - right, i mean, it's funny and it's not funny, and that's not funny. - well, indeed, and people have said, oh, should we really be being funny at a time like this, it's a catastrophe, it's an emergency.
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- oh my god, you've got to laugh or you'll cry. - that and, as i say, it goes to a pretty dark place in the end, so i'm happy with -- - it does indeed, spoiler alert, it doesn't end well. so i want to talk about you and trump because the idea that you could somehow channel trump in trump's voice is in part, i believe, the fact that you have been one with trump going back many decades, right? - yes, yes. - you were the co-founder of spy -- - we were roommates. - you were old town. you were the co-founder of spy magazine, the magazine that back in the day was satirizing donald trump regularly and in a way that now has extraordinary prescient aspects to it. - well it's bizarre. we started this magazine spy, satire and journalism in an alloy, back in fall of 1986, and our first cover, back when it was just kind of, we conceived it as a new york magazine, the cover story was jerks, the ten most embarrassing new yorkers, this unknown guy, donald trump, 40 years old at the time, was one of them.
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- right. - in which the little piece on him describes among other things, his saying that he should be able to negotiate a nuclear arms deal with the soviets because he knows everything he needs to know and what he doesn't know about missiles he could learn in an hour. - right. - i mean there's the guy. - that could be today, right. - right, exactly. and then he immediately, of course, back then, 87, 88, was flirting with the idea of running for president, and we ran national surveys about that. - [evan] right. - so, no, the idea back then, it was a ridiculous joke. and who knew? and so i put him, i didn't -- - karma, man, karma right, that's what it is. - i guess it is. i didn't watch celebrity apprentice much and i stopped thinking about donald trump, it's not like it was a sherlock's obsession with dr. moriarty. - but the point is you didn't come to this subject cold. - no, i did not. - or did not come close. - i spent a lot of time thinking about him and then in preparation for writing you can't spell america, i immersed myself in him. - when i thought about you was during the primaries,
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during the debates, when marco rubio and donald trump got into a whole thing about the size of his hands. - yes. - because i remembered, well you tell the story, back in the day, you all coined the relevant phrase here. - we did, we tended to coin epithets for people we ... - [evan] positives, right? - to talk about again and again. every time we mentioned henry kissinger, in the way that time magazine used to do, cause we had both, my partner graydon carter in time magazine, every time we referred to henry kissinger, we called him socialite war criminal henry kissinger. (laughing) and just the repetition of that was fun. - so funny. - exactly. we tried different ones on trump and then finally, i have now looked back at the history of this since it's become consequential, i guess, we started calling him short fingered vulgarian donald trump (audience laughing) in the early 80s. and as a result, because graydon had done a profile of trump while we were starting spy and came back to the little office we shared
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and said, you know, this guy, donald trump, shortest fingers i've ever seen on a man that size. (audience laughing) and so, we were thinking, oh, short fingered vulgarian, so we called him that, and people who liked spy remembered it, and it kind of remained in its faint way a meme, but who cares? - first meme. - uh, maybe. and then, he starts running for president, and yeah, marcio rubio brought it up on the campaign trail. marco rubio, however, brought it up and donald trump responded to it as though it was some kind of double entendre about his manhood. - you know what happens if you have small hands, what that then. - and we never, it was just a literal thing, he's got tiny fingers and he's a vulgarian. - but that comes back, though, you know it all comes back to spy, whether you want it to or not. - i know, well i'll tell you, when that came up on the debate stage, i didn't literally do a spit take, but if i were ever going to do a spit take -- - now full of liquid, out. - that would have been, it was, i mean, that for me was the moment
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the trump era became fully surreal. - right then and there. - yes. - i must say in the two minutes we have left that talking about spy magazine and thinking about that we were going to be together, i think about how i, i'm a few years younger than you, but as a young journalist in new york, thinking about the life i wanted to lead in the magazine business, so admired that magazine. i think that that magazine has had such a long tail. - yeah. - long after its disappearance, and i think it created a whole generation of journalists who saw the opportunity to do different work. - well, thank you. - and so, you know, something i had. - no, i feel like our dna was propagated out through the media universe in a way that makes me very gratified. - what are you working on after this? this is lot of work, these two. - well, yes, this year has been the hardest i've worked since i started spy magazine, really. i mean, literally, the moment i finished fantasyland and did the final bits, started working on that. - [evan] followed sudden on that. - yeah, and now they both come out this fall, so i'm -- - spending a lot of time doing this. - doing this.
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this may have, the trump book may have other lives, another life in another form, and i have, as you might -- - you're killing me, what form? - well, we'll see. - we'll see, really? (audience laughing) - and i have another, i was, i sort of -- - please say it's a movie. they can't spell movie with me, either. (audience laughing) - well, that's true, yeah, yeah, or i. - or i. - i was working on a new novel, i'd been writing novels the last few years before i wrote fantasyland, and i may go back to that, or i have another idea that is a sort of companion idea to fantasyland that i may do that next. - well, i wish you great continued success. - oh, thank you. - these two books are so great. they're perfect companions, you know, fun to read one and more fun to read two. - yes, different versions of a gift you could give to different members of your family. (audience laughing) - with the holidays coming up. kurt andersen, thank you very much. - thank you. (audience applauding) we'd love to have you join us in the studio.
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visit our website at klru.org/overheard to find invitations to interviews, q and as with our audience and guests, and an archive of past episodes. - there was no time to second guess, or like, uh, maybe i should do this. i had to just write it every day. so there was something fun about that, and why that was even possible is, unlike writing a novel where you're kind of inventing the characters as you go, they start off as little stick figures and as you write they become flushed out, in this case, there's a real guy. - [announcer] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by claire and carl stuart.
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