Fantasy league … Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Brexit, Brangelina and Michael Gove. Composite: Getty Images/Rex
In 1990, I became aware of a man who was pretending to be me. This was in the days when my face was hardly known – before I was that bloke off panel shows who looks like Pavarotti after a tree fell on him. So my impersonator was able to pass himself off fairly easily as “Andy Hamilton, comedy writer”. He fooled a surprising number of people. One young woman was under the impression she had been living with me for six months. Many women found they had lent me money that I had not yet got round to paying back. Several people ended up working (unpaid) on a movie that didn’t exist.
For me, this fantasist’s escapades were, for nearly a decade, a persistent pain in the arse. He was outrageously confident and had a talent for telling vaguely plausible lies – or rather, plausibly vague lies. Detail was his Kryptonite. But in the end, he would invariably overreach himself and be revealed as a fake. So I consoled myself with the thought that, eventually, this is what always happens to charlatans.
Until this year.
Because 2016 is shaping up to be the year that the fantasists get a free pass. It is proving to be the year of what commentators have dubbed “post-factual politics”. And an environment where facts carry little weight is an ideal habitat for fantasists.
So what exactly is a fantasist? Well, a fantasist is much more than a liar. We all lie sometimes, to protect ourselves, or gain some advantage, or to spare someone’s feelings, or to get rid of a cold-caller. (I recommend feigning a heart attack.) Liars lie for a purpose, but fantasists just make things up. True, the fiction usually adds to some cathedral of self-aggrandisement that they’re building, but they tend not to plan the lie beforehand. It leaps out of some instinctual lobe of their brain, in a split second. When you watch Donald Trump coming out with that stuff, that is probably the first time he’s heard it.
Also, the liar knows he is lying, before and after, whereas, for the fantasist, the moment the lie leaves his lips it transforms itself into incontrovertible truth. Fantasists need this alchemy because they are narcissists who can never, never be wrong. When their fragile narrative is challenged they have a tendency to turn nasty. That is the reason they can be so dangerous and why we shouldn’t vote for them.
Inside outsider … Ukip’s Nigel Farage. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA
If we look at the year so far – and, God help us, it isn’t over yet – we can see the emergence of a febrile new world where accuracy and authenticity are seen as irrelevances; a world where being an obvious fake is no longer any kind of impediment. You can mythologise yourself: you can be a billionaire man-of-the-people, you can be a public-school-educated ex-banker who is an “establishment outsider”, you can invent your own custom-made “facts” and fire them through the spray gun of social media. You can invoke a golden age without ever specifying which age that was. Basically, you make up whatever irrational tosh you like, preferably tosh that activates the anger that lies dormant inside all those people who believe that their entire life is somebody else’s fault.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this new atmosphere is that so many people seem to have stopped caring if someone is lying to them. For instance, Donald Trump has repeatedly asserted that, after the attacks of 9/11, 10,000 Muslims were out celebrating on the streets of New Jersey. There were no Muslims celebrating in New Jersey. Or anywhere else. The only place where that happened was inside Donald Trump’s head. Normally, a fantastical invention like that would sound the death-knell for any candidate. But not now. The game’s being played by different rules.
Making America great again … Presidential hopeful Donald Trump. Photograph: Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Similarly, the fantasy that 76 million Turks might maraud towards our shores if we remained in the EU ought to have been enough to terminally damage the Brexit campaign. But those who wanted to believe it believed it, and the rest just gave a resigned shrug. All right, yes, Evan Davis got worked up about it on Newsnight, and various liberal newspapers deplored it. But the lie stayed out there, insidiously going about its business. Another lie was painted on to the side of a bus and remained there even after it had been exposed. The Electoral Commission should have insisted on a second bus with a correction painted on it.
Of course, for fantasists to prosper, they need rationalism to be put to flight. In the last few years, we have seen a growing trend to say the word experts in inverted commas. Michael Gove (son of a Scots fisherman and ordinary Joe) declared that the British people were sick and tired of “experts”. You just can’t trust them, these people who’ve spent their working lives studying something that anyone can look up for themselves on the internet. By the same illogic, statistics and independent studies are now often greeted with open scorn and, in the US, a lot of the electorate seem to have decided that facts are a form of witchcraft.
The “Vote Leave” battle-bus, and the slogan everyone knew to be untrue, but hey… Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
To an extent, we may have brought this on ourselves. For some time now, we have been abandoning the realm of thought. We have been reading pointless books about “emotional intelligence”. We have been indulging sciences that contain not the slightest particle of science, not even the memory of science. We have been immersing ourselves in reality shows that contain no semblance of reality. We have been obsessing about the love lives of famous composite nouns. We have allowed the 24-hour media to frighten us into a constant state of hysteria, even though our lives are longer, safer and healthier than they have ever been. We have moved into a world where feelings outrank thought, where we share our emotions instantly, incessantly and incontinently with people we’ve never met, as we binge on moral outrage and conspiracy theories. We are losing the faculties we need to spot snake-oil salesmen. Or unhinged demagogues. And as 2016 careers on – like a stolen car driven by drunk teenagers – it is starting to feel as if the forces of reason are ready to throw in the towel.
I should declare an interest here. If reason does not prevail, then I am out of a job. Comedy begins from a standpoint of reason, without reason it’s impossible to identify what’s absurd. Jokes are a playful form of reasoning. This is why Nazi Germany produced no great standups. Of course, the atmosphere in Germany during the 1930s was extremely “post-factual”. And they ended up voting for a ridiculous fantasist as their leader. I’m just saying, that’s all. (I won’t pursue this any further, as I don’t want to set Ken Livingstone off.)
No great standups … ‘post-factual’ Nazi Germany. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Back in the 1990s, the only upside of my experience with the fake Andy Hamilton was that it made me question what I knew. When I shared the story with other people, to my surprise, I discovered quite a few who’d had similar experiences with impostors, and it opened my eyes to how much damage can be caused by a determined fantasist. In time, a story began to form inside my head, which I eventually turned into a novel. (Just published, since you ask).
Of course, one of the joys of writing fiction is that you give your story the ending you want. But the potential endings for 2016 look like ones that no one could want. Demagogues seem to be in the ascendancy all over Europe. While it is quite possible that the American people are about to elect a man who is unhinged. (Many people are saying this, Donald.)
I should probably stop there, as writing that last paragraph has scared the hell out of me and I need to go and have a calming cup of tea.
One final thought, however. It would be so very easy for us to luxuriate in the belief that a Trump could never happen here, to feel somehow insulated by the British character. Yes, we may have had ridiculous fantasists in our politics, but they’ve all been comic, harmless sideshows, like Jeffrey Archer. But hold on, Jeffrey wasn’t always seen as a self-deluding loser. In 2000, according to the opinion polls, he was on the brink of being elected mayor of London. Then, true to character, he boasted about the wrong thing to the wrong person at a party, and ended up being charged with perjury. His posturing was what undid him, but Londoners had been more than prepared to vote for him. Also, let’s not forget that, as a nation, we did vote, repeatedly, for Tony Blair, a man who has a tendency to confuse himself with Jesus. So are we really any more immune to fantasists than the Americans? Why should we be any harder to fool or manipulate?
“Post-factual” politics – and the flight from reason that enables it – is a threat to public discourse everywhere and an open goal for demagogues. As I discovered back in the 1990s, fantasists move among us all the time. They live in their own brightly coloured, distorted world. Let’s hope this isn’t the year when we all go and live there with them.