If Hunter S. Thompson despised Richard Nixon for being a fascist, one can only imagine how he might have reacted to the 2016 election. His third novel, Fear And Loathing: On The Campaign Trail ’72, is both an illustrative analysis of the race between Nixon and George McGovern and a reflective study on the mutually corrupting relationship between journalists and politicians.
“The main problem in any democracy is that crowd-pleasers are generally brainless swine who can go out onto a stage and whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy–then go back to the office and sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece,” he writes, calling to mind with eerie similarity the ethos of Donald Trump’s campaigns.
Thompson began his coverage of the race in December 1971 and extensively covered each Democratic rally and address for the next year. The 500-page book was composed in ’72, mostly by consolidating the series of Rolling Stone articles Thompson published during this time. Thompson’s attention to detail was such that he correctly predicted every primary and caucus leading up to the race, faltering only at the end, where he “let hope get the better of him,” and cast his lot on McGovern to eke out a victory. Nixon won the presidency in a landslide. Two years later, he substantiated Thompson and most progressives’ fervent disbelief in his virtuosity when he became the only President to resign mid-term for political espionage a la Watergate.
“There are only two ways to make it in big-time politics today,” Thompson writes. “One is to come on like a mean dinosaur, with a high-powered machine that scares the shit out of your entrenched opposition (like Daley or Nixon)… and the other is to tap the massive, frustrated energies of a mainly young, disillusioned electorate that has long since abandoned the idea that we all have a duty to vote.”
He encapsulates the struggle of young people to be heard in a system run by old, wealthy elites. Newer generations eager for progress rally around candidates like McGovern or Bernie Sanders, but as Thompson predicted: Despite a large-scale feeling of hope among these younger generations that someone with a mind geared toward science and progress would finally have the driver’s seat, a larger group who revere wealth and convenience often win out.
Thompson writes that the failure of the left is that it fails to apply its values just as brazenly: “Liberalism itself has failed, and for a pretty good reason. It has too often been compromised by the people who represented it.”
Joe Biden’s election in 2020 is indicative of this truth. Why, after a long history of middle-aged or elderly white men running the country, and after possibly the most repugnant president the country has ever had, would a country desperate for progress elect another 78-year-old white guy? The answer is compromise. Democrats themselves don’t allow their party to run on its core values alone. They make generous exceptions; give ample leeway to attract those pesky swing-voters, but in doing so they weaken their position. Or when they don’t, it’s considered campaign suicide.
Writes Thompson, “There is a sense of muted desperation in the Democratic ranks at the prospect of getting stuck–and beaten once again–with some tried and half-true hack like Humphrey, Jackson, or Muskie… and George McGovern, the only candidate in either party worth voting for, is hung in a frustrated limbo created mainly by the Washington Press Corps. ‘He’d be a fine President,’ they say, ‘but of course he can’t possibly win.’ Why not? Well…”
The choice we have to make these days, it seems, is between the borderline white-supremacist, throbbing beacon of right-wing ideology, or a watered-down, compromised Democratic party that has been diluted in order to steal some line-sitters. In Thompson’s opinion, McGovern was an anomaly who fit into neither category, “one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been.” But the failure of politicians like him, according to Thompson, is largely the fault of media outlets’ unabashed catering to their audience over the truth.
“And how many 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 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?” He doesn’t exactly mean impartial reporting, either. “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. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”