Hunter S. Thompson saw this madness coming 40 years ago.
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn professional.”
So wrote Hunter S. Thompson in Fear And Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, his epic tale of the 1972 Democratic primaries. Fueled by drugs, booze and an unquenchable desire to see then-underdog George McGovern win the nomination – Thompson freely confessed his bias – he documented the unfettered weirdness of a political primary.
He would have loved the current spectacle. With social media and citizen journalism, weirdness can go public at the speed of light. Peculiar idiosyncrasies, inarticulate policy statements and foot-in-mouth episodes – which might never have been deemed print-worthy in 1972 – are tweeted and re-tweeted before the speaker can even unclip his microphone.
So far in the GOP primaries we’ve had Mitt Romney’s awkward attempt at wooing the Southern female vote (“Please give us a big hug. That’s the girls…”) and his ongoing inability to understand being not-rich. Then there’s Rick Santorum’s urge to “throw up” at the separation of church and state. And let’s not forget Newt Gingrich’s promise to fly us to the moon.
“With the truth so dull and depressing, the only working alternative is wild bursts of madness and filigree.”
In 1972, the “filigree” crept in on anonymous tiptoes, the madness directed at the candidates, not by them. McGovern found himself answering accusations that he was a sworn foe of all Jews. The forged “Canuck Letter” caused Ed Muskie to break down in tears in front of the press corps. Humphrey reportedly received an eleventh-hour campaign contribution from Las Vegas mobsters.
Outrageous accusations and inflammatory rhetoric are nothing new to politics, but this year’s GOP primary candidates seem to have taken matters into their own hands. The crazy, if you will, comes right from the horse’s mouth.
Hence Rick Santorum’s statement that “a third of all the young people in America are not in America today because of abortion.” He means the third of pregnancies he believes are terminated (it’s actually 22% but the logic still pretzelian). Not to be outdone, Newt Gingrich characterized President Obama as the “Food Stamp President” (not that that feels loaded in any way), and explained that people can use food stamps “to go to Hawaii,” and “even millionaires can qualify.” And, best of all, Mitt Romney responded to the outcry over driving to Canada with his dog strapped to the roof of the car, as follows: “PETA is not happy that my dog likes fresh air.”
“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 get the kind of fever you need to survive in American politics.”
For Hunter S. Thompson that rock star was Richard Nixon, an ego so boundless, Thompson described him as a “hubris-crazed monster” who “looked so good on paper you could almost vote for him sight unseen.”
Of course, we’re not doing so badly ourselves: we very nearly wound up with Candidate Donald Trump, who in a campaign speech referred to the Chinese government as “motherfuckers.” It’s as though the outré declarations of the remaining candidates seem designed to address this need for a feverish pitch. Perhaps that explains why begrudged frontrunner Mitt Romney, with his relatively bland persona, has had such difficulty gaining his party’s love.
Thompson wrote of the ’72 campaign: “We’ve come to a point where every four years this national fever rises up – this hunger for the Savior, the White Knight, the Man on Horseback.” And forty years have shown how little has fundamentally changed. We’re enthusiastic victims of our collective fascination with charisma, susceptibility to propaganda, and willingness to believe in something – or maybe anything. And our candidates stand ready to deliver.
The lure never ends. When Thompson died in 2005 – of a self-inflicted gunshot wound – his longtime collaborator, illustrator Ralph Steadman, wrote the following: “If you wonder if he’s gone to Heaven or Hell, rest assured he’ll check them both out, find out which one Richard Milhouse Nixon went to, and go there. He could never stand being bored.”
There’s nothing boring about these primaries. Thompson would be happy to note that politics is still a weird man’s game.
Outrageous inflammatory rhetoric is nothing new to politics, but the GOP candidates have taken matters into their own hands. The crazy, if you will, comes right from the horse’s mouth.Kristi VandenBosch
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