"Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?"
By the end of his year covering the 1972 US presidential election, Hunter S Thompson was exhausted - both mentally and physically. The man who'd ridden with the Hell's Angels and searched for the elusive corpse of the American Dream in Las Vegas had become a self-admitted 'political junkie.'
In true Hunter fashion, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 opens with the following scene: "One afternoon about three days ago the Editorial Enforcement Detail from the Rolling Stone office showed up at my door, with no warning, and loaded about 40 pounds of supplies into the room: two cases of Mexican beer, four quarts of gin, a dozen grapefruits, and enough speed to alter the outcome of six Super Bowls... my room at the Seal Rock Inn is filling up with people who seem on the verge of hysteria at the sight of me still sitting here wasting time on a rambling introduction, with the final chapter still unwritten and the presses scheduled to start rolling in 24 hours."
The completed book, considered a cornerstone of modern political journalism, is made up of the articles Thompson originally wrote for Rolling Stone magazine during 1972 election campaigns of Richard Nixon and the Democrat underdog George McGovern. Focusing mainly on the Democrats' primaries and subsequently McGovern's campaign to topple the incumbent Nixon, Thompson takes us across the country through countless airport lobbies, smoke-filled hotel bars and packed convention halls.
Famously dubbed 'the least factual, most accurate account', the articles combine Thompson's cynical wit, trademark gonzo style and penchant for intoxicants that defined his previous work - making it so goddamn readable. His intense, frantically obsessive coverage of the election reveals the repellent and darkly seductive underbelly of US politics: just as in Las Vegas, it exposes the fear and loathing gnawing away at the heart of the presidential system.
So much of what happened in 2016, he had already bashed out into his typewriter in 1972. With so many similarities and so many disturbingly prescient predictions, what better time than now to take a look back at Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72?
Thompson reveals early on that despite winning 50 or 60 bets with fellow reporters or campaign staffers during the campaign, he lost the last one, the final outcome: "I made the invariably fatal mistake of betting my emotions instead of my instinct." Here and elsewhere in the book, he makes no effort to conceal his bias for George McGovern and bitter contempt for Nixon. Indeed, he frequently vocalises criticisms of the mainstream press and cynically dismisses their claims of objectivity.
Given the notoriously graphic insults he beat into his typewriter, we have to wonder what Thompson would have made of The Donald
Instead he advocates embracing a fully immersive and utterly subjective involvement in journalism - his defining 'Gonzo' style: "So much for Objective Journalism. Don't bother to look for it here - not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. There is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”
Perhaps we needed more of this during the 2016 campaign? Maybe having Dr. Gonzo, churning out a fortnightly diatribe, might have brought Trump down a peg or two? Given the notoriously graphic insults he beat into his typewriter, we have to wonder what Thompson would have made of The Donald. Perhaps he would've been able to recycle one of "flag-sucking half wit" or even the more exotic, "screeching rectum-faced celibate"?
Coming in the form of insightful reflections, Thompson managed to make several eerily accurate predictions that would come true in the 2016 campaigns.
After a surprise victory at the Democratic Party's primaries, Thompson despaired as George McGovern soiled his own image as a radical outsider and became just another stale establishment politician. McGovern the candidate was "essentially an anti-Nixon vote". Bring someone else to mind?
One of the major criticisms of Clinton was that she represented the tired mainstream of the elite political class. Way back in 1972, Thompson predicted that a politician of her type would never be able to win: "I don't think that the kind of standard-brand Democrat that he came to be - or that he actually was all along… is ever going to win a presidential campaign again."
Propelled by his ever-constant hungering for a just and fair society, Thompson bemoans flawed system that deprives voters of any real choice: "How many more of these stinking double-downer sideshows will we have to go through before we can get ourselves straight enough to put together some kind of national election that will give me and the at least 20 million people I tend to agree with a chance to vote for something, instead of always being faced with that old familiar choice between the lesser of two evils?"
Over 40 years ago, Thompson detected the desire amongst the American people for a radical president, someone "who would grab the system by the ears and shake it." Well, if he wanted a radical, he got it. Although sadly not the same type of Freak Power revolt he would have wanted.
It was this same disillusionment with the traditional political establishment that Trump shrewdly took advantage of to foster popularity. He presented himself as a candidate for change and, however erroneously, a candidate for the common man. Someone who represented an alternative, no matter how unbearably repulsive, to the way things have been run for decades.
There are similar predictions in Thompson's first major work, Hell's Angels. In 1966 he inadvertently predicted the rise of 'Trumpism' - the retaliation of an increasingly alienated white working class.
the most accurate of Thompson's predictions is those that relate to the character of the president and the whole presidential system
Just as Thompson speculated back in 1972, perhaps a more radical Democrat candidate, such as Bernie Sanders,would have prevented carnage in 2016: "Any candidate who'd offered a real possibility of an alternative to Nixon - someone with a different concept of the presidency - could have challenged him and come very close to beating him."
However, the most accurate of Thompson's predictions is those that relate to the character of the president and the whole presidential system.
"We've come to the point where every four years this national fever rises up - this hunger for the Saviour, the White Knight, the Man on Horseback - and whoever wins becomes so immensely powerful, like Nixon is now, that when you vote for President today you're talking about giving a man dictatorial power for four years."
Tell me that doesn't remind you of the 2016 campaign.
Thompson even suggests a systemic overhaul: "The whole framework of the presidency is getting out of hand. It's come to the point where you almost can't run unless you can cause people to salivate and whip on each other with big sticks. You almost have to be a rock star to generate the kind of fever you need to survive in American politics."
It is impossible not to think of Donald Trump's bloated, fake-tanned mug spluttering out its rabble-rousing non-sequiturs, as he wildly gesticulates before a immense swathe of red-capped airheads being whipped up into an "orgiastic frenzy."
It's a crying shame we didn't have Thompson around during the 2016 campaign. In the words of his old Rolling Stone editor, Jann Wenner: "He could have wielded a pretty effective sword against what's going on right now."
Who else would have been capable of spreading the rumour that one of the Democratic candidates was actually a drug fiend, addicted to the psychedelic African root, Ibogaine and then later reveal in an interview that it was pure speculation?
“I couldn’t believe people took this sort of thing seriously. I said there was a rumour in Milwaukee...which was true, and I started the rumour.”
About the author
Despite sharing the company of Rimbaud, Voltaire and co. for the third year in a row, Alec's real passion lies in writing. When the French degree permits it, he can be found scribbling away for a variety of publications, including The Spectator's Coffee House blog, Spiked-Online and - oh, how could he forget? - Disclaimer Mag!
A self-professed bon vivant, Alec is currently busy sunning himself in the South of France, whilst gleefully perusing the bountiful array of vin on offer. He's also been known to dabble in unscrupulous cheese-pairing.
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