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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Weird Vibes at the Ballot Box

How the writings of pioneering counterculture journalist Hunter S. Thompson exposed the grotesque circus of American politics—and can broaden our vision of the possible.




It’s late 2022, and that means two things. First, it’s midterm election season, complete with the usual cavalcade of political stunts, scandals, attack ads, and general sleaziness. As the Democratic and Republican parties arm wrestle each other for control of Congress, Joe Biden’s crusade against “malarkey” is beginning to look like a lost cause, and some profoundly nasty people are poised to take office. And second, it’s the 50th anniversary of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, one of the finest books ever written about the hair-raising weirdness of American elections. As we plunge headfirst into November, it’s a good time to look back on the life and career of Hunter S. Thompson, the renegade journalist who changed election reporting forever—and to see what, if anything, he can teach us about our own relationship to the ballot box.

I don’t think most people would agree with me that Campaign Trail ‘72 is Thompson’s best book. Thanks to Hollywood, that accolade is more likely to go to either Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or The Rum Diary, both of which have been adapted into glossy big-budget movies starring Johnny Depp. (Vegas is a great read, if a little overindulgent; The Rum Diary is rambling, sexist trash, about which more later.) Fuelled by the star power of actors like Depp and Bill Murray, together with pithy slogans like “Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride,” the films that capture Thompson’s larger-than-life persona have begun to eclipse his actual journalism in the popular consciousness. Thompson has come to embody a spirit of drunken thrill-seeking, drug use, and misadventure, rather than anything as mundane as poll-watching or political analysis. It’s a shame, because if your only exposure to Thompson comes through his pop culture profile, you end up missing a lot. Beneath the “Gonzo” recklessness (a term first applied to Thompson by Boston Globe editor Bill Cardoso) lay a fiercely intelligent critique of American democracy, or what passes for it. This, not the antics, was the heart of his work—both when he covered elections, and when he actually ran for office himself.

It doesn’t help that the current editions of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail tell an incomplete story. To fully understand where Thompson was coming from in ‘72, you need to first read “Freak Power in the Rockies,” his 1970 essay about running for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado; this should be tacked on to the front of the book as a prelude. In 1970, Thompson hadn’t yet become the legendary figure of later years. He had just one book to his name, Hell’s Angels, along with sporadic short pieces in the National Observer and Scanlan’s Monthly— a now-defunct underground magazine that ran from 1970 to 1971, and managed to get investigated by the FBI in that short time. A little too fond of guns and motorcycles to be considered a bona fide hippie, Thompson was nevertheless firmly aligned with the counterculture movement—especially where drugs were concerned—and he found himself at home among the “freaks, heads, fun-hogs and weird night-people,” as he affectionately put it, who populated Aspen’s younger, poorer neighborhoods. By the same token, he nurtured a deep disgust for the “real-estate goons” who “had come like a plague of poison roaches to buy and sell the whole valley out from under the people who still valued it as a good place to live, not just a good investment.” The word gentrification wasn’t yet in common use, but Thompson was one of the first American writers to rail against it—and in 1970, it led him to get tangled up in electoral politics for the first time.

It’s difficult, in today’s terms, to place Thompson’s “Freak Power” campaign along a left-right axis. If you squint, it resembles the best parts of the anti-authoritarian Left, but it also shares key elements with old-school, individualist libertarianism. Either way, it was ridiculously utopian for the early 1970s. If elected sheriff, Thompson promised to:

  • “Rip up all city streets with jackhammers” and “sod the streets at once,” effectively banning cars from the city limits.
  • “Change the name ‘Aspen,’ by public referendum, to ‘Fat City,’” scaring off wealthy tourists who were attracted by the town’s idyllic image.
  • Legalize marijuana and a wide variety of other drugs, but stipulate that “no drug worth taking should be sold for money,” only passed around for free. (As a concession, he did promise that he “wouldn’t eat mescaline while on duty.”)
  • Completely disarm the police, on the grounds that “Every urban riot, shoot-out and blood-bath (involving guns) in recent memory has been set off by some trigger-happy cop in a fear frenzy.”
  • “Savagely harass those engaged in any form of land rape,” or environmental pollution, and ban hunting and fishing for nonresidents.

It’s worth noting that, even in 2022, this platform would be considered too extreme for virtually any political candidate to endorse. “Freak Power” was a radical experiment, devoted to pushing the boundaries of what’s possible within the American democratic framework. It had no respect whatsoever for property values, and it contained a definite note of class conflict, with Thompson proclaiming that rich developers should be “fucked, broken and driven across the land,” and the non-conformist youth of Aspen mobilized as a “totally new kind of political muscle.” Reading the essay, one would be hard-pressed to know how seriously Thompson was taking his chances of getting elected—there’s an element of practical joke or troll to the whole movement, embodied by the choice of a blood-red fist gripping a peyote button as the campaign logo. The manifesto is lacking in specifics, as well—what does “savagely harass” actually mean in practice? But the really remarkable thing is that, despite all this, he almost won.

In the end, Thompson only lost the Aspen sheriff race by 31 votes, with a final count of 173 to 204. At the last minute, the two major parties struck a backroom deal, agreeing that the Democratic candidate would abruptly drop out, and throw his support behind incumbent Sheriff Carrol D. Whitmire to unite the “non-Thompson” vote. (Keen-eyed readers might find this move familiar, and darkly mutter the name Buttigieg to themselves.) Faced with the prospect of a grassroots (pun intended) democracy that would actually represent the will of the local community, and engage nonvoters in the political process for the first time, the establishment was scared stiff, and set aside all its traditional enmities to crush the newcomer. Thompson’s defeat is a telling glimpse into the way Democratic and Republican party elites, seemingly at each other’s throats, actually collaborate to police the bounds of acceptable politics. It’s a theme that’s lost none of its relevance today.

These were the bruises and disillusionments that Thompson took with him into the ‘72 presidential campaign, and they formed the lens through which he’d view its main combatants, Richard Nixon and George McGovern. In Nixon, Thompson found a mirror image of everything he hated about the Aspen elite—a bullying, conniving enemy of youth, freedom, and human dignity, responsible for prosecuting both the War on Drugs and the bloodier one in Vietnam. (With characteristic bluntness, he wrote that Vietnam had turned the U.S. military into “the most efficient gang of murderers in the history of man,” an anti-imperial sentiment that would still be unwelcome in many media outlets today.) McGovern, meanwhile, was attempting to tap into new blocs of potential voters, eschewing the “machine” politics of Democratic kingmakers like Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley in favor of a direct appeal to citizens who were turning 18 and gaining the franchise for the first time. Promising both an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam and full amnesty for those who’d dodged the draft, his campaign looked suspiciously like “Freak Power” in a respectable suit and tie. Initially skeptical about the whole endeavor, Thompson slowly began to gain hope as McGovern racked up primary wins, taking Wisconsin, Vermont, and Massachusetts in quick succession. “If you offer 25 million people a new toy,” he wrote, “the odds are pretty good that a lot of them will try it at least once.” Ideally, this groundswell in the youth vote would both radically remake the Democratic Party, and send Nixon and his war machine packing.

Reporting for the fledgling Rolling Stone, Thompson was now riding high off the success of both Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” his breakout piece for Scanlan’s. As a result, editor Jann Wenner gave him carte blanche to write about the presidential race in any way he liked, applying the fast-and- loose “Gonzo” style he’d become famous for to the electoral process. The result was like a bolt of lightning through the staid world of political reporting, which had been dominated by figures like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow—eminently respectable, suit-clad men who would never dream of uttering a rude word in public, let alone injecting their own opinions and activism into their news coverage. By contrast, Thompson went in with rhetorical guns blazing, peppering his Rolling Stone articles with the most colorful, poetic insults seen since Shakespeare. In his words, mainstream politicians were “brainless swine who can go out on a stage and whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy—and then sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece.” Senator Hubert Humphrey, McGovern’s main rival in the primaries, was a “treacherous brain-damaged old vulture”; the Democratic establishment was a “gang of corrupt and genocidal bastards,” and Nixon was simply “The Evil One.” (And these are some of the milder epithets of Thompson’s long career.)

Once again, there’s serious political thought behind this outlandish irreverence. Throughout his career, Thompson was thinking carefully about the norms and conventions of American journalism, and finding them woefully inadequate to the task at hand. The expectation of objectivity rankled him most of all. “The only thing I ever saw that came close to Objective Journalism was a closed-circuit TV setup that watched shoplifters in the General Store,” he wrote in Campaign Trail ‘72. “With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.” In other words, journalism that tries to stay politically neutral renders itself impotent, and ceases to be journalism in any useful way. By taking no position on the actions it observes, it signifies that none of them are abnormal, abhorrent, or worthy of condemnation, and tacitly condones them—which is, in itself, a position, and not a good one.

In the context of the 1972 election, staying “objective” would mean treating a candidate who was for the indiscriminate fire-bombing of defenseless Asian nations, and one who was against it, as essentially the same—just two equally legitimate positions on the field of debate. In this way, the function of journalistic neutrality was to whitewash atrocity. Nixon could kill as many Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian people as he liked, but no one in the press was allowed to call him a murderer. Thompson found that more obscene than any combination of four-letter words could ever be, and he refused to play along. Paradoxically, his use of insults and profanity was a deeply moral stance. “Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism—which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place,” he reflected in his scathing 1994 obituary for the ex-President. “You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.” Using words like “scum”— and “hubris-crazed monster,” and “diseased cur”—became a way for Thompson to shock his readers out of apathy, and cut through the mindless decorum that only benefited the status quo. Later, this form of weaponized crassness would become a staple for socialists like Amber A’Lee Frost, who wrote a landmark essay about political vulgarity for Current Affairs; without Thompson to pave the way, I don’t know if we’d have provocative left-wing podcasts like Chapo Trap House or Behind the Bastards, or films like Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. In 2016, the rapper El-P would sum up the whole ethos on Run the Jewels 3, inspired by the Obama years: “Can’t contain the disdain for y’all demons / You talk clean, and bomb hospitals / so I’ll speak with the foulest mouth possible.” Not for the first time, Thompson was decades ahead of his peers.

illustration by Greg Houston

More than its take-no-prisoners attitude, though, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 is notable for the depth and insight of its actual analysis. Going beyond the usual “horse-race” coverage of what the candidates said and did on a given day, Thompson did his best to gauge the forces that were causing them to say and do it, giving his readers a backstage pass to the entire political process. At times, he seems to know the history of every staffer, advisor, and aide on every campaign, the motivations that led them to side with their particular candidates, and what they expected in return. Some figures, like McGovern campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz, get more time on the page than the candidates themselves. At every turn, Thompson is looking for “the man behind the man.” In one memorable passage, he details how Hubert Humphrey relied on the string-pulling of Tony Boyle, former President of the United Mine Workers, to win the West Virginia primary, despite Boyle being under investigation for ordering the murder of rival labor leader Joseph “Jock” Yablonski—something most people weren’t even privy to, let alone willing to state on the record. The overall picture is one of a system rife with graft, crookedness, and barely-concealed menace, desperately in need of a reformer like McGovern to sweep it all clean.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. By promising to end the Vietnam draft and wind down the war, Nixon was able to snatch McGovern’s most important policy plank away from him, and the Democratic campaign never recovered. (The administration’s rampant use of personal smears and “dirty tricks” like the Watergate break-in didn’t help, either.) Sweeping every state but Massachusetts, Nixon handed McGovern a humiliating 60-to-37 percent defeat in the popular vote, and cruised to victory with a full 520 of the possible 538 votes in the Electoral College. Even today, it’s still one of the biggest landslides in American history. Behind his ultra-cool exterior, Thompson was heartbroken. “McGovern made some stupid mistakes,” he admitted, “but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for. Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?”

It was a question many people were asking. In the wake of McGovern’s loss, the Democratic Party developed a serious allergy to anything that smelled even vaguely progressive, and a deep sense of hopelessness fell across the political landscape. When the next election rolled around, Thompson refused to write about it. “The idea of covering even the early stages of this cynical and increasingly retrograde campaign has already plunged me into a condition bordering on terminal despair,” he wrote in 1976, “and if I thought I might have to stay with these people all the way to November, I would change my name and seek work as a professional alligator poacher.” There’s a new note of bitterness in post-1972 works like Generation of Swine and Songs of the Doomed—even the titles sound gloomy—and Thompson returns again and again to the phrase “the death of the American Dream,” finding signs of the nation’s collapse and decay everywhere he turns. Clearly, seeing Nixon ascendant broke his faith in elections, and democracy in general, as a vehicle for positive change, and even “Tricky Dick’s” eventual ouster didn’t do much to help. He still wrote about politics, devoting an entire book to Bill Clinton’s rise to power—but even then, he admitted that “the only real priority in 1992 was beating George Bush,” not anything Clinton could actually accomplish. For him, elections became purely negative exercises, capable only of keeping the worst monsters temporarily at bay.

Thompson still had some scorchers left in him, though, when it came to describing those monsters. He was one of the first commentators to see George W. Bush and the War on Terror for what they really were, piercing through the haze of concrete dust and jingoism that followed 9/11:

“Make no mistake about it: we are At War now—with somebody—and we will stay At War with that strange and mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. […] This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed—for anyone, and certainly not for a baffled little creep like George W. Bush. All he knows is that his father started the war a long time ago, and that he, the goofy child-President, has been chosen by Fate and the global Oil industry to finish it off. He can declare a National Security Emergency and clamp down Hard on Everybody, no matter where they live or why.”

Astonishingly, Thompson wrote this in his “Hey, Rube” column for ESPN on the morning of September 12, 2001, and (eccentric Capitalization aside), he all but predicted the USA PATRIOT Act while the rest of the country was still scrambling to get its bearings. Later, he went further, condemning the push for war with Iraq on Colorado radio station KDNK:

“Just random killing like that, mass killing to force a population to get rid of Saddam so we can move in and take over and control the oil, God damn it, if that’s not evil, I don’t know what would be. You know, Bush, he’s really the evil one in here. Well, more than just him. We’re the Nazis in this game, and I don’t like it.”

It was an unthinkable thing to say in January 2003, when even Democratic stalwarts like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton were firmly behind the war effort, and questioning Bush’s wisdom was enough to get you branded a terrorist sympathizer. But as even the most craven pundits have now been forced to admit, the consensus of the time was dead wrong, and Thompson, weary and cynical as he was by this point, was one of the vanishingly few people who got it right.

Sometimes being right comes as hollow consolation, though. It’s hard, reading those late-career columns, not to miss the frenzied optimism that drove the “Freak Power” movement, and to feel that something’s missing without it. Ironically, Thompson took his own life in 2005, right before American elections got really weird again, and I’ll always wonder what his Obama book would have looked like. Or, even more tantalizingly, his Trump one. (The closest thing we have is Matt Taibbi’s Insane Clown President, which uses a Thompson-esque style, but it’s an unsatisfying experience—like seeing an Elvis impersonator at a local casino, or drinking the grocery store’s “Dr. Thunder” brand soda.) In today’s clickbait-driven media landscape, most outlets aren’t willing to finance a writer with such a unique literary style to follow a campaign for months on end, or if they are, they don’t have the funds to spare. With Thompson’s death, the era of Gonzo journalism may have ended for good. 

That may not be an entirely bad thing. There are definite criticisms we can make of Thompson’s work, and some of them are serious. To me, the biggest flaw with Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, and one that became more pronounced in later books, is the way the narrative sometimes treats politics as a spectator sport, rather than something to be actively engaged with. At one point, Thompson compares the Nixon/McGovern race to his beloved NFL, saying that it’s tempting to start “handicapping politics and primaries like it was all just another fat Sunday of pro football,” and that “after several weeks of this you no longer give a flying fuck who wins; the only thing that matters is the point-spread.” A lot of people take this approach today, and sit down to watch politics in the same way they would watch hockey or basketball, rooting for their “team” on election night, but having little concept that real people’s lives hang in the balance. There are entire TV network that exist to help them do this, and they rake in billions of dollars in ad revenue every year. Blurring the line between politics and entertainment is always dangerous, and it seems likely that sensational reporting like Thompson’s contributed to the hellscape of 24/7 cable news (and pseudo-news) that we see today. The whole phenomenon of the “political junkie,” a phrase Thompson appears to have coined, speaks to a lifestyle of privileged detachment from real struggle, and it’s unappealing.

And then there’s the sexism. Thompson had wildly uneven gender politics, sometimes surprisingly enlightened, and sometimes disgustingly macho—and when he was bad, he was really bad. To his credit, he supported abortion rights in ‘72 (pre-Roe, of course), and was disappointed with McGovern when he announced that he didn’t. He also covered Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman in Congress, as a serious presidential contender like all the others when she announced her run. On the other hand, at least two of his books (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary) include gratuitous scenes and references to sexual assault that do nothing to advance the narrative, and exist only as moments of adolescent shock value. In The Rum Diary, the ostensible heroine of the book simply flies home and disappears from the plot after being assaulted, leaving the journalist hero to wander drunkenly around Puerto Rico for several more chapters, unconcerned. (It’s an interminable novel, and perhaps tellingly, was left unpublished until Johnny Depp dragged it out of Thompson’s filing cabinet and decided he wanted to film it.) According to Thompson’s son Juan, he also treated Sandy, his first wife, terribly, flying into rages where he’d throw and break her belongings with a “vein of deliberate cruelty.” The opening chapters of Juan’s memoir, Stories I Tell Myself, read as a textbook account of domestic abuse. The elder Thompson appears to have mellowed with age, and his second wife, Anita, has nothing but good things to say in The Gonzo Way, her own memoir, but there’s no getting away from Thompson’s misogynistic side. As late as 1994, he’s still making jokes about “those old habits, like date-rape and cigarettes, which I like too much to quit.” It’s incredibly ugly stuff, and it stains his whole project. For a man with such an acute bullshit detector, he apparently couldn’t smell his own.

And yet, he was our greatest chronicler of elections. Nobody else since Tocqueville even comes close. Thompson’s career presents one of those classic, uncomfortable dilemmas, where a man who was often deeply unpleasant in his personal life creates important, unforgettable pieces of art. In Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, he captured timeless themes and archetypes that still resonate in American political life today. There’s the earnest progressive martyr, a little too honest for his own good, who’s immediately recognizable to anyone who still pines for Bernie Sanders. There’s the blustering right-wing demagogue, who might be named George Wallace, Richard Nixon, or Donald Trump. And there’s the impulse, tragic but understandable, to vote for a mediocre candidate to stop a worse one from taking power, even while kicking yourself for being a sellout. It’s strangely comforting to know that we aren’t the first generation to grapple with these questions, even as it’s also depressing that we haven’t found a way to overcome them yet.

As we near the end of 2022, it’s hard to deny that we live in Thompsonian times. Weird characters keep crawling out of the woodwork, looking like they’ve just escaped a Ralph Steadman drawing and haranguing people for their votes. In my state alone, the GOP candidate for senator is Dr. Mehmet Oz, a celebrity doctor who made his name selling “magic” diet pills and has been accused of killing more than 300 dogs in dubious medical experiments. One of the candidates for governor, meanwhile, has been photographed wearing a Confederate military uniform, and he keeps an evangelical “prophet” on his staff who believes that Joe Biden is already dead and being portrayed by a crisis actor. (Yes, really.) In Georgia, former NFL star Herschel Walker has become an anti-abortion zealot, only to get in a public feud with his son over all the abortions and secret children he’s bankrolled. The respectable centrist media might wax nostalgic for the days of “decency” and “normality,” but it’s clear they’re not coming back; we’re in Bat Country now.

So what lessons can we take from Hunter S. Thompson, 50 years on? Chiefly, we can learn what not to do: fall prey to despair. In the wake of the 2020 presidential race, which stifled hopes of universal healthcare and saw Joe Biden barely squeak out a victory, many people on the Left seem to be disenchanted with representative democracy in general, swearing off “electoralism” in favor of other forms of political engagement. In some ways, it’s an understandable reaction. American elections really are absurdly corrupt, and skewed against poor and minority voters in all kinds of insidious ways. Things like gerrymandering, identification requirements at the polls, and Super PACS with millions of dollars to burn on propaganda make a mockery of the word “democracy,” and it’s infuriating to be told to “just vote” when so much is so horrifyingly wrong. But unfortunately, just because the dice are loaded doesn’t mean we can get away with not playing. It may be likely that the next U.S. president will be a loathsome creep, whether their name is Biden, DeSantis, Harris, or Trump; but if the Left doesn’t field a candidate, it’s certain.

Instead, we should reach back to Thompson’s early days, and try to capture the utopian spirit of his Aspen campaign. We really can live in a world of disarmed cops and grassy meadows where the streets used to be, if we fight for it. People on the margins of society actually will turn out to vote, even if they swore they never would, when you give them something worth voting for—and when they do, even a seemingly impossible set of policy goals can have a real shot. For examples, we need only look to Latin America, where leftists like Gabriel Boric (the recently elected president of Chile), Gustavo Petro (the recently elected president of Colombia,) and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (the recently elected president of Brazil who defeated far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro) are making incredible gains in the electoral arena, despite suffering far worse repression than anything we face to their north. It’s a mistake to focus on elections as the only form of politics—they happen, after all, just twice a year in the U.S., leaving another 363 days to fill with mutual aid, mass protest, labor action, subversive writing, and all the other tools and tactics available. But if the term “democratic socialism” is going to mean anything at all, it’s also a mistake to disregard them as a field of struggle.

Fear and Loathing is upon us, at the ballot box and everywhere else—but if we keep our heads, and keep fighting, we just might make it through.

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