“…why not run an honest freak and turn him loose, on their turf, to show up all the normal candidates for the worthless losers they are and always have been?” –HST “Freak Power in the Rockies” (1970)
As Donald J. Trump accepted the RNC nomination on Thursday night I couldn’t believe at first what my eyes were seeing, but more importantly I could not believe what I was hearing.
Something I don’t broadcast too often is that I am a registered Republican, but I more closely identify with the Libertarian party. I know, let’s try to keep this between you and me. If you are still reading I’ll also point out that I am something of a political agnostic–I really don’t believe in any of them in DC or Harrisburg anymore. One more disclosure: I follow politics like a casual fan with season tickets to the game. I am no professional in this field, but I enjoy watching it.
I watch and read a lot of political commentary. My Twitter feed is full of posits by political candidates and pundits of all stripes and parties. The modern political news cycle moves far too fast for me to catch everything, but political storylines are plentiful this day and age, and they serve as a great distraction sometimes. Something I’ve noticed of late is that we don’t really have a political correspondent like the late, great Hunter S. Thompson. I am not a Thompson scholar, but I have read all of his books and I once taught an advanced seminar on his works at Elizabethtown College in 2014. And I have wondered for two years now, as the 2016 campaign has unfolded, what Thompson would say about the political landscape that America now has to consider.
Thompson published the columns he wrote as an embedded journalist during the 1972 presidential campaign in a single volume he titled Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. In this disjointed text Thompson applies the in-the-moment, full-throttle “Gonzo” style journalism to give Rolling Stone readers a front-row seat to the American political process. I say “disjointed” because it is the best word I can use to describe the book. When the columns are published next to one another in sequential order, there is a lack of continuity one might find in a collection of works by Friedman or Kristol. Thompson’s reporting often put himself in the center of the story. The net effect was that the reader felt he or she was there with him in that moment.
As a political figure, Thompson was an irreverent visionary who some say was way ahead of his time. His own bid for the office of Sheriff in Aspen, CO commenced and ended in defeat in 1970. Thompson ran on a Freak Power platform. His plan was to engage a population of dope users, bikers and other marginalized populations to push his unconventional candidacy over the top. In short, he sought the highest office of law enforcement in Aspen by courting a coalition of voters who were most certainly on the other side of the law.
His own campaign in Aspen, and the success of his first major publication Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs caught the attention of Rolling Stone, a magazine that was looking to play a role in engaging the new youth vote in play for the 1972 election after the Twenty-sixth Ammendment to the US Consitituion was enacted–giving 18-year-olds the opportunity to vote for the first time in a national election. Thompson became a political correspondent for the magazine and the rest became history-in-the-making.
Thompson left such a strong imprint on American politics covering the ’72 election that even late in his life political reporters would often ask him for his insight every four years. This was a topic he cared deeply about. So much so that it has been said by surviving family members that the re-election of George W. Bush was one reason he finally decided to take his own life. Now gone, his influence floats over every political season as life-long fans and admirers, like yours truly, speculate about what he would say if he were still alive today.
In 2014 Marin Cogen of National Journal published an article called “The Gonzo Option” in which Cogen offers a profile of former Montana Democrat Governor Brian Schweitzer. The article introduces Schweitzer to a larger audience and describes him as the “Gonzo” option for the Democrat presidential ticket. Schweitzer is opinionated. He is liberal on some issues; conservative on others. He doesn’t fit the Democrat mold in 2014 (or 2016) because he, among other things, is pro-Second Amendment and boasts an A+ rating from the NRA. While Schweitzer is a seasoned politician, he looks a lot like an unconventional outsider much like Thompson must have appeared in the Apsen election of 1970. As Bernie declared (and it has been recently confirmed through a huge email dump posted on Wikileaks), the fix was in for Hillary, so maybe we will have to wait some time for a Schwietzer candidacy.
Enter Trump. His nationalist campaign message makes blood nearly shoot out Van Jones’s eyes and stirs the hearts of middle-American conservatives (not all conservatives in fly-over country, but most). However, from his acceptance speech at the RNC many see a complex political viewpoint developing. Trump, like Schweitzer, is clearly conservative on some issues and quite liberal on others. Trump, like Thompson, is tapping into the growing sense of so many people who feel the last 8 years have been a disaster for them. They have been, effectively, on the other side looking in. Like it or not; it’s working.
Trump applied an important aspect of Gonzo in his campaign for the RNC nomination. He made the story about him as much as possible. When he wanted to dominate the news cycle he would change a primary acceptance speech into a press conference ensuring that all media outlets would give him ample airtime to set the narrative. When Ted Cruz was speaking at the convention, and it was clear Cruz was not going to endorse the nominee, Trump made a well-timed entrance into the Quicken Loans Arena–inserting himself into Cruz’s speech which had been the top story of the day on the Convention floor an in the press boxes. He is a lightening rod, a sure-shot ratings producer for TV stations and news outlets. Like him or hate him, he has brand recognition and he just steamrolled an established political party as a complete political outsider. He is bombastic, incidiary and improvisational. While predictable, we still listen to him, just as we listen to Schwietzer and read Thompson, because we know he will say something unexpected.
Thompson, as I said, ended up losing his bid for Sherrif in 1970. The vote was close, but he lost. He did, however, help frame one of the greater upsets in the ’72 DNC primary by supporting Geroge McGovern in his work for Rolling Stone, and he is a long-standing American icon who will continue to prevail so long as we subject ourselves to elections every four years.
Is Trump the Gonzo candidate? Maybe he is. If Schweitzer is, as National Journal suggests, then there is a case Trup is too. He and Schweitzer share some similarities, though their backgrounds are quite different. Politically speaking, they both represent a new type of candidate in presidential politics–the unpolished and brash personalities who are not poll tested or beholden to one contemporary political ideology.
Would Thomposon endorse a Trump candidacy? Probably not. Trump’s acceptance speech revitalized the landscape of Fear and Loathing (and paranoia) Thompson railed against in nearly every piece of writing he published throughout the late 60s and 70s. So, Trump would certainly give Thompson plenty to write about today. Trump painted a pretty grim picture of America in his acceptance speech–a scene we haven’t seen since the 60s. To see Thompson’s comparisons of today and the 1960s would be insightful and illuminating. We could, perhaps, learn a great deal about ourselves and the hand we have all played in creating an environment in which Trump is a candidate for President.
What about Hillary? I don’t know if Thompson would support her either. Hunter was quite critical of the Clintons, particularly during the fallout of the Whitewater scandal. He would have plenty to say about the many scandals that have lingered around Mrs. Clinton. Thompson, a well-known harsh critic of Nixon, absolutely loathed cronyism and corruption.
So, it is difficult to say who Thompson would support today. Many of us in the voting public may be just as conflicted when it comes time to pull the lever for one of the two major candidates. Of the two party system, Thompson once said, “There’s a terrible danger in voting for the lesser of two evils because the parities can set it up that way.”
To put it another way, Evil is just one election away from the White House. Buckle up, America. We are in for a wild ride.