Reporter's Notebook

Postcards From Fantasyland
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Periodic dispatches on truth, culture, and Trump’s America from Kurt Andersen, the author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.

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The Fantasist

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

In his article this weekend about the Republicans' failure to make good on their central mantra, repealing and replacing Obamacare, The Washington Post’s chief correspondent Dan Balz made exactly the right point: "For seven years, Republicans have lived what turned out to be a fiction."

That's true. But I'd like to take the opportunity to note that Republican ideology has been riddled with far more extravagant fictions for a while now. The denial of evolutionary biology and climate science, the belief in an imminent takeover of the American legal system by sharia and of everything else by the UN, the idea that anti-white prejudice is America's most serious racial problem—these and other pieces of make-believe have been peddled to Republican voters by conservative media and politicians since the turn of the century. Not long after Daniel Patrick Moynihan first said that people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts, a lot of Republicans were disagreeing, and turning the GOP into a Fantasy Party.

Donald Trump didn't make that happen—he just took advantage of the transformation of the GOP (and of presidential politics into show business) to become fantasist-in-chief. Trump lies shamelessly and compulsively, and because politicians in general fib and dissemble, his supporters excuse that. But a key difference with Trump is that he doesn't merely lie: He's also a fantasist, a credulous believer in fictions. I think he really believed that Barack Obama was born outside the U.S., that we don't know “who really knocked down the World Trade Center,” that millions of illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton.

His belief in the self-servingly and excitingly preposterous seems to be kind of a method acting trick as well, given that he always has been a performer, playing a character named Donald Trump—not just for 15 years on reality television, but in the news media and in life before and since then. So when he was saying on the campaign trail a year ago that his new health-care system would be “something terrific," “something great,” “insurance for everybody,” “Immediately! Fast! Quick!”—he probably could have passed a lie-detector test.

Sony Pictures Animation

In my forthcoming book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, I look closely at America’s modern invention of and unequalled immersion in show business, from the make-believe concoctions of P.T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill to those of Walt Disney and the WWE character/reality show star/insult comic now in the Oval Office.

I don’t blame The Emoji Movie, and its success since opening last week, on President Trump. But both are quintessentially 21st-century entertainment phenomena, both are jaw-dropping symptoms of American decline—and they share a fundamental marketing strategy.

The Emoji Movie was about as negatively reviewed by professional critics as a movie can be. Its percentage of positive notices, according to the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, is 7 percent. The other big bad movies this summer, such as Baywatch and Transformers: The Last Knight, completely tanked, some people think, because Rotten Tomatoes now enables everyone to know an extremely negative consensus with precision before movies open.

So why did The Emoji Movie have a successful opening weekend, unlike those bombs? As The Hollywood Reporter explained on Wednesday, it’s in part because Sony forbade reviews from being published until hours before the movie opened. Sony’s president of marketing was proud of the trick he pulled off, winning with a product the elite despised: “What other wide release with a [Rotten Tomatoes] score under 8 percent has opened north of $20 million? I don’t think there is one.”

Does that not sound a lot like Trump or a spokesperson of his gloating about how the mainstream haters thought he could never win the nomination or the presidency? And was the studio’s press strategy not akin to the Trump administration’s move of excluding cameras from press briefings?

Rotten Tomatoes also measures audience reaction. Only 7 percent of critics liked The Emoji Movie, but it has an “audience score” of 44 percent—strikingly similar to Trump’s approval ratings among the professionals and civilians, respectively. We'll find out if The Emoji Movie develops a sufficiently devoted fan base to make its sequels profitable. Trump, like a show-business impresario, is playing exclusively to his most devoted fans, ignoring the haters and everyone else, hoping that he can somehow stay afloat with only a passionate plurality of supporters. We’ll see if that works, too.