Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Hunter S. Thompson: The Man Who Saw It Coming

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." So wrote Hunter S. Thompson--drug user, firearm enthusiast, and founder of Gonzo Journalism. The going doesn't get much weirder than it is right now, with Donald J. Trump soon to be inaugurated as president--but, sadly, the King of the Weird, Thompson himself, isn't here for it, having ended his own life back in 2005. Not that a Trump presidency is something he would have wanted to live to see, but there's no commentator I can think of whose voice is more needed at this point in time.

From photobucket
Maybe that's just a desperate thought I'm having as I try to cope with the idea of four years of a narcissistic, sex-assaulting con man as president. But I don't think that's the only reason I've had this thought so many times. At a time when the incoming president poses a threat to the wellbeing of millions, it might seem trivial, even privileged, to talk about how I wish one of my favorite writers were alive to comment on this, but I really do think Thompson could make some difference, even if just a small one. Dealing with problems requires understanding them, and that's where Thompson would come in.

We've had plenty of insightful, sober commentary about Trump and how he came to be. I'm not downplaying the usefulness of that, by any means, but it doesn't strike me as enough. When something as shocking and surreal as Trump's election happens, simply understanding why or how it happened just doesn't seem adequate; even understanding, just on a rational level, what we should do as a response doesn't feel like quite enough. You have to be able to make sense of it on an emotional level, see it not just in terms of cause and effect, but in terms of values, ideas, morals, feelings, and that's why the absence of Thompson's vitriolic, acid-soaked commentary is such a loss right now. It's true, and useful, to say Trump came about because of anti-establishment sentiment, and economic anxiety, and that he appealed to xenophobia and reactionaryism to win support, but knowing that, do you really feel like you understand Trump? I don't. But if there's anyone who could really understand, and explain, Trump on a deeper level, it would be Hunter S. Thompson.

Part of the reason for that is because, in a way, they operated on the same wavelength. George Orwell wrote that Jack London could have probably understood the danger Hitler posed better than the average Marxist because of the similarities between London's personal philosophy and fascism; in the same way, Thompson's similarities to Trump would leave him better able to offer a full explanation of Trump than, say, Noam Chomsky, who has virtually nothing in common with Trump and whose observations about him, while true and useful, still leave something to be desired, in my opinion. In 1970, Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County in Colorado, on the Freak Power ticket--a campaign that scared the Democrats and Republicans so much that they united to defeat him. His platform included drug policy reform, ripping up the city streets with jackhammers, and changing Aspen, Colorado's name to "Fat City," in order to "prevent greedheads, land-rapers and other human jackals from capitalizing on the name 'Aspen.'" His antics were comical, his language was brutally to the point, and his platform proposed extravagant measures that were far outside of the mainstream. His campaign, and certainly part of his appeal, was characterized by the willingness to say just about anything, and seriously propose policies that other politicians would never dream of even mentioning.

There should be no doubt that that is a big part of what drew people to Trump as well. His platform and his ideology were diametrically opposed to Thompson's, but his style of campaigning was like a two-bit ripoff of the Freak Power campaign, with the same crassness and abrasiveness but none of the art or cleverness. But, on some level, Trump and Thompson's minds must have operated in a similar fashion, as radically different as they were in many ways--and being able to think like a criminal is exactly what you need when trying to stop a criminal.

Thompson also saw the trends that led up to Donald Trump. America "is so basically rotten," he once wrote, "that a vicious, bigoted pig like John Wayne is a great national hero...The brainwaves of 'The Duke' are like those of the Hammerhead Shark...He is a ruthless, stupid beast with only one instinct--to attack, to hurt & cripple & kill." We had already seen "a whole pantheon of Hammerhead Heroes: J. Edgar Hoover, John Dillinger, Audie Murphy, Joe McCarthy, Ira Hayes, Lyndon Johnson, Juan Corona ... but the king-bitch stud of them all was 'The Duke[.]'" We see with Trump just another American monster who abides by the "Hammerhead Ethic": "If it won't salute, stomp it. Break it. Destroy the goddamn queer dirty thing. Rip its lungs out ... "

Thompson, like Karl Marx, was a thinker who focused not on the moment, but on the broader trajectory, the forces that were at work--with Marx, the focus was economics, but for Thompson it expanded into morality, culture, and national character. Maybe that's why, in an article published the day after 9/11, he was able to predict what was to come with eerie precision: the invasions Iraq and Afghanistan, the unending "War on Terror" whose enemies were often ill-defined and unclear, the clampdown on civil liberties--he spelled it out in detail, with chilling accuracy. And he certainly saw the cruelty and bigotry in America that helped elect Trump.

"Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads?" he wrote during the W. Bush years. "Who are these swine? These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and fooled by stupid little rich kids like George Bush? They are the same ones who wanted to have Muhammad Ali locked up for refusing to kill gooks. They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character." What might have seemed like overblown cynicism back then has been vindicated now, as we've seen Trump supporters brutalize protesters, give Nazi salutes and scream racist slurs and anti-Semitic canards. Sure, plenty of people who voted for Trump are against all of that, but let's not pretend that his real base of support isn't the sort of people that Thompson was writing about. He knew they existed, and were a real force, back when others were content with believing that that sort of ugliness was confined to America's past. Look where that thinking got us.

Thompson's magnum opus, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was about the death of the American Dream--how its glittery, illusory promise still remained, but without any reality to back it up. The American Dream was one of Thompson's major focuses--the idea that America could be a country of justice and of opportunity. Over four decades after Fear and Loathing was published, the American Dream is deader than ever. That's what helped get Trump elected, and his election is just another nail in its coffin--the handing of the reins over to a man who represents the worst things about America.

But I don't want to end on a pessimistic note. Thompson was committed to making a difference, and he was involved with a number of groups to promote the causes he believed in. He knew that change was possible--as his widow said, "He believed we were better than what we were electing." So do I, for that matter. And that's why I wish Hunter S. Thompson were still around--because in a time when the need for change is urgent, there's no one whose writing could better help get it started.