I just got off the plane from the Republican National Convention with a bulletproof vest still packed in my suitcase, and I have to wonder if last week would have made Hunter S. Thompson lose his mind.
Before the convention, a large portion of the national press corps had been freaked out about getting shot in armed showdowns between skinheads and black separatists as Donald Trump accepted the one of the most controversial presidential nominations in modern times. Instead, I watched roving bands of communists, anarchists, religious fundamentalists and rifle-toting Second Amendmentistas get kept in line by the biggest army of police you’ve ever seen, and the press get … noticeably bored at the lack of action, which must be one of the reasons everyone hates us.
Fortunately I had Hunter S. to prepare me for the paranoia, the loathing (self- and otherwise) and the fundamental tedium of the campaign trail that I’m seeing up close for the first time, and I’ve sensed his influence, particularly on social media, during some of the most hallucinatory moments of the 2016 campaign.
(I now see him as an unacknowledged forefather of what we call weird Twitter – a vague collective of surrealist social-media users with a fondness for retweeting old Donald Trump tweets ironically and memes suggesting that Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz was actually the Zodiac Killer. I once found a Zodiac sign with Cruz’s name under it scrawled inside a movie theater bathroom stall.)
“Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” is one of the staples of what I’d call classic campaign lit (like “The Selling of the President,” “The Boys on the Bus,” “What It Takes”). Thompson, the pistol-packing, drug-eating, football-loving, Nixon-hating maniac who once ran for sheriff of Aspen under the banner of the Freak Power movement and who killed himself in 2005 after blazing a literary trail no one else could quite follow.
A collection of Thompson’s campaign dispatches for Rolling Stone, “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” was written “in airport bars, all-nite coffee shops and dreary hotel rooms all over the country” under “savage deadline pressure in the traveling vortex of a campaign so confusing and unpredictable that not even the participants claimed to know what was happening.”
It was Thompson’s first time covering a presidential campaign, a battle between the Republican incumbent, Richard Nixon, and George McGovern, a Bernie Sanders-esque candidate who emerged from a phalanx of Democrats (and who also never had much of a chance.)
Thompson smashes through almost every wall that journalism schools teach students to build around their work (and, implicitly, their sobriety). Thompson isn’t impartial: He’s totally in the tank for McGovern, — “the best of a lousy lot” — and is clubby with McGovern staffers to the point that he’s placing bets with them on how the primaries will go.
“This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it – that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesman with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.” — Hunter S. Thompson
Not that he’s always civil, exactly. “Once, when he was pressed into the back seat of my car with three other people, he tried to escape to a nearby bar when I slowed for a red light in heavy traffic,” McGovern recalled in the Los Angeles Times in 2005.
“Foiled by the baby lock that had been inadvertently clicked on, he raged at me: ‘Get me out of this evil contraption before I start killing.’” McGovern then said he wished he’d picked Thompson as his vice-presidential candidate.
McGovern aide Frank Mankiewicz called Thompson’s dispatches “the least accurate and most truthful” book about the race. In one scene, Thompson conjures a dystopian reverie with Nixon as a senile tyrant with “neuro-symphilis” contracted from a toilet seat and a “hatred for humanity,” living out his days “in an anti-environment bunker near Camp David, seated before a sun-ray lamp in a deckchair wearing only a pair of old style ‘jackboots.’”
Fiction, perhaps, but Thompson had in truth encountered a politician even more paranoid than he was. The Washington Post’s reporting on Watergate would soon bear that out.
Thompson feared dark forces at work in both parties, making decisions far beyond the voting booth. This year, many Sanders supporters nurture suspicions about voting fraud, biased superdelegates and a Democratic National Committee slanting things in Hillary Clinton’s favor. In 1972, Thompson diagnosed the election as a “backroom squabble between between Bankers, Generals, and Labor bosses.” No place at the table for the little guy.
Of course, then, as now, the nation seemed stuck in endless foreign wars administered by Democratic and Republican administrations alike. “If the Republicans win, we will immediately declared Limited Nuclear War on all of Indochina and the IRS will start collecting a 20 percent national sales tax on every dollar spent by anybody – for the National Defense Emergency,” Thompson writes. “But if the Democrats win, Congress will begin a fourteen-year debate on whether or not to declare Massive Conventional War on all of Indochina, and the IRS will begin collecting a 20 percent National Losers’ Tax on all incomes under $25,000 per annum – for the National Defense Emergency.”
As Thompson realizes Nixon will crush McGovern, he almost howls, “This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it – that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesman with all the money we need to buy guys, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”
I’m in Philadelphia now to cover protests outside the Democratic National Convention, and as Clinton accepts the nomination for president, correspondents may find Sanders supporters marching through the streets, demanding victory, or justice, or influence, or maybe simply to be heard, the voices of an army of the hopeful and the weird and the desperate who refused to play the same old roles in the same old stories.