“And 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?”
—Hunter S. Thompson in “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72”**
Well I’ll be a good goddam.
If this is a tribute, I make it begrudgingly. To behold the 2016 presidential election on this day in August, without a nod toward its obvious parallels to the ’72 presidential election, is to miss a bone-white manifestation of that congenital atavism intrinsic to our beloved, oxygen-sucking race. Solzhenitsyn said something to this effect. Škvorecký, maybe? You know: Our repeated mistakes can be distinguished only by their variations . . .
Having joined this experiment a good fifteen years and five months after Richard Nixon’s re-election, I must rely on a close and ongoing study of key accounts from Tricky Dick Richard’s time if I have any chance of contextualizing it. There is still so much work to do. No ignoring the terrific clarity that comes with historical hindsight, either, of which I consider myself a fortunate beneficiary. With that in mind, three decades on planet earth seems like more than enough playing time to chop a pure Colombian kilo of good old American cynicism down to a few good snorts.
What better medicine for Campaign Trail 2016?
And in the spirit of true Americanism, I will use a nickel-plated knife to break down the brick. But my hands are shaky these days, so if I miss the mark, blame it on “Campaign Bloat,” that savage condition brought on by a full year of election politics. Debates. Media pulse. I consumed it all.
So do forgive me.
I am sick.
A grotesque and ego-ridden demonstration of our ever-failing sense of irony is what it is. We have only to look up to the belfry where the foot-swinging bats are cackling at us, blind, chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” to know the harsh bell their ever-looming chants might precede. Do they mock us? Or do these ancient echo-locators see ironies that only a winged species can understand?
Okay. Alright. I hereby promise—pinky finger swear—to spare you another naked partisan rant, despite the multitudes burning in my belly like oncoming bouts of ulcerative colitis. Leave that to the undulating hoard of television and internet (read: Facebook feed?) pundits showering us with hot takes slung from the hip. Still, assuming you agree (meaning you aren’t wearing Gerald R. Ford’s eyeballs as a result of some whack-o back-alley organ transplant) that Nixon was a crook, this should be a cinch—an earnest attempt at Objective Journalism.
“Well . . . shit, what can I say? Objective Journalism is a hard thing to come by these days […] 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 at Woody Creek, Colorado. […] there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.“
In his time, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (who often touted his own proximity to objectivity) spared little of his signature vitriol for the 37th iteration of United States Commander in Chief. In 1972, the prospect of four more Nixon years was a standout trigger for the Prince of Gonzo.
Thompson’s accounts of Nixon’s strong-arm push for a second term in the White House are hardly the only materials available to curious children of the Eighties, Nineties, and Beyond. Still, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, Thompson’s mad-cow account of the anxious months leading up to Nixon’s second inauguration, must be considered among the best and—in August 2016—most coincidentally prophetic. Read it for entertainment, read it as pure Gonzo; either way, the similarities between ’72 and our own little two-headed spectacle, the 2016 Presidential Election, will be clear.
Where to begin? With a disclaimer, I suppose: the parallels I’ve identified are hardly one to one, and far from comprehensive. For example, whereas the Democrats faced convention-floor chaos in June 1972, it was the Republican floor at the center of our own 2016 “contested convention” narrative—a haze of stinky elephant toots, if you will, hovering just above the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena that never quite made it to the Big Nose.
You today. Me tomorrow.
But oh, George McGovern. Where did Thompson stand when it came to the troubled 1972 Democratic nominee? The Senator’s campaign was often described in terms now used for a certain Vermont senator named Sanders, its centerpiece a man who, in Thompson’s words, “with little money, no media” hiccupped, banged, and brawled all the way to the Democratic nomination. It sounds very familiar, even if the Bernie Sanders revolution did meet its nebulous and twisted terminus right at the doorstep of the nomination, while McGovern went on to win it outright. Sanders will, at least within the context of his own party, be remembered for a lot of things; putting party first will likely be among the best indications of his integrity. Will we say the same of his counterparts on the other side of that wide wide aisle?
“It was almost inconceivable that they would be so bitter in defeat that they would tacitly deliver their own supporters to a conservative Republican incumbent, instead of at least trying to rally them behind the candidate of their own party.“
We have seen it before. In 1972, it was the “Meany/Daley/Humphrey/Muskie axis” undermining its own party by refusing to unite behind the improbable nominee, George McGovern. Today, it is a confused mixture of beleaguered and conflicted Republicans treading water in the wake of the Donald Trump Waterscooter, a strange and upright contraption hell-bent on foiling the unification of the factious party its operator has been chosen to represent. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Longtime Arizona Senator (and decorated war veteran) John McCain. In an unprecedented swing, the Republican nominee for president has (at least for now, here in August) sold these accomplished speakerboxes down the Potomac. And they are sitting there taking it like hushed dunces facing the corner. It makes for startling media fodder, to be sure—pure television—but nothing new in terms of American election politics. Ask Mr. McGovern when you meet him in heaven. Maybe he’ll tell you that, like all backroom party fuckery, the hip wiggles of a character like Donald Trump and any other slave to Party are mere archetypes for the notable blowhards and wafflers that came before.
But what to make of the Republican nominee?
“It is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise.“
Is a comparison to Nixon too much of a stretch? A little George Wallace in him too, though that comparison might seem ominous even to the likes of Hunter S. Thompson. Who knows? Still, anyone can see that the Law and Order platform is back, with one of America’s most successful business moguls—a true capitalist—claiming that he, and he alone, holds the key to “restoring order.”
What order? It is a page straight out of Nixon’s book.
I know, I know. Bias! Liberal tomfoolery! Still, the question remains: is the party of Lincoln in its death throes? Are We the People administering the Last Rites? I am asking moderates, right-wingers, and conservatives. Liberals don’t really give a shit. We have only too look at our recent past for a template. Remember how the candidate who let the Law and Order platform slither out of his dark nether regions ended up? The only difference is that in ’72 it was the Democrats that, as Thompson mused, had become the same “atavistic endeavor—more an Obstacle than a vehicle” that we see coming up for air today in 2016. Those dumb bastards found a way to survive it, even if they did lose the election in the end. This time around, that dog is wearing a Ditch the Bitch pin on his lapel and there is talk (from conservatives!) that he is in the process of uprooting that fat old elephant and leaving it to dry out a hot hot sidewalk in No No Nowhereville, USA.
Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe we are witnessing the beginning of Donald Trump’s own McGovern-esque implosion on the launchpad, a kind of punch-drunk paroxysm three months out from General Election voting. Thompson spends many pages illustrating a George McGovern that couldn’t cut it after it was revealed that his choice for Vice President, Thomas Eagleton, had undergone shock therapy for some lingering psychological issues. This time around . . . well . . .
Is it really that different?
The lesser of two evils. There it is, that timeless phrase so common to the English language. Whether or not you agree with the sentiment, it is shared by more than a few voting Americans. Millions. They are on the right side of the aisle, on the left. They are snoozing in the in-between, fending off the swift rib-kicks pouring down from either side. Maybe that is the very piece of 1972 that Hillary Clinton embodies. What other ’72 avatar is there for the 2016 Democratic nominee? A comparison to Shirley Chisolm might be fitting, but not without coming across a bit glib. Search your heart: no American Woman has done what Hillary Clinton has. Her achievements, her résumé and eventual nomination (and all the dogged trashing she has faced at every turn) make her distinct and hard to make comparisons with. A woman alone stepping onto a sheet of ice that she absolutely does not know, for sure, will provide stable footing.
[…] “because a man on the scent of the White House is rarely rational. He is more like a beast in heat: a bull elk in the rut, crashing blindly through the timber in a fever for something to fuck. Anything! A cow, a calf, a mare—any flesh and blood beast with a hole in it.“
But as a Queen of Clout politician with endless money and a bulletproof name . . . ? Christ. Maybe Ted Kennedy is the best comparison there is, at least in the context of 1972/2016. That answer notwithstanding, it occurs to me that the Man On the Scent cannot be the Something to Fuck. I mean, try as you might to rewrite that paragraph, you’ll have trouble no matter what circle-hole you will be . . . ahem . . . filling with your pencil this coming November.
“[…] but it is hard to imagine any question in American politics today that could have more long-range impact than the argument over “Amnesty,”—which is nothing more or less than a proposal to grant presidential pardon to all draft dodgers and U.S. military deserters, on the grounds that history has absolved them. Because if the Vietnam War was wrong from the start—as even Nixon has tacitly admitted—then it is hard to avoid the logic of the argument that says the Anti-War Exiles were right for refusing to fight it.“
Some American issues are perpetual. Thematically speaking, the question of whom we consider Americans and whom we do not—whom we let be and whom we jail—remains. After the Vietnam War, the Amnesty argument put draft-dodgers, conscientious objectors, and battlefield deserters under the microscope. Remember Muhammad Ali? Rest in peace. Forty some years on, the focus is on eleven million undocumented immigrants come over from our neighbors to the south. Do we vote them a path to citizenship, pay for it with our own money? Or do we round ’em up in cattle cars, ship ’em back across the Rio Grande and then build a fifty-foot wall behind them? Back and forth.
Back and forth.
Some might argue this is an unfair comparison. Okay. But will there come a point when the original stance that drove the narrative changes, evolves, the way it did with regard to the Amnesty issue?
“Well . . . maybe so. This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it—that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.“
The ’72 presidential election differs from its 2016 successor* in that it featured an incumbent, Richard Nixon, who sought (and eventually won) his second term. Is not 2016 a re-election? A cursory search of the heart (and conservative talk radio) will elucidate the recurrent nature of this year’s choices: fill in the circle next to some semblance of the governance that got us to the unhealthy American Quarter Horse we ride today; or make a definitive pen-stroke for change.
If ever there was an operative word.
“If the Republicans win, we will immediately declare Limited Nuclear War on all of Indochina and the IRS will start collecting a 20 percent national sales tax on every dollar spent by anybody—for the National Defense Emergency. But if the Democrats win, Congress will begin a fourteen-year debate on whether or not to declare Massive Conventional War on all of Indochina, and the IRS will begin collecting a 20 percent National Losers’ Tax on all incomes under $25,000 per annum—for the National Defense Emergency.“
I will be rereading that paragraph for a long time. It is the very dose of good clean irony that we need in our bloodstreams, right now—the shit we need hopping across our lethargic synapses. Months are chapters in Thompson’s 1972. Should I wait until September to start September—to start synchronizing the timeline with things happening here in 2016?
Will it end predictably? Will it even make a difference?
Whatever the answers in whatever year, be it 1972 or 2016, 2020 or 2028, November should make for a fearful and frightening finish to one of the more hideous years in American politics.
It is true: I promised against partisan claptrap; but there is a lot on the line. Always has been. At least it seems that way to me, a member of this next generation of engaged adult voters. History repeating itself, I guess you could say. It is unclear who will be the waterhead this time around, but I am going to try desperately to avoid wearing that sobering moniker—
“There is not much difference between Democrats and Republicans; I have made that argument myself—with considerable venom, as I recall—over the past ten months . . . But only a blind geek or a waterhead could miss the difference between McGovern and Richard Nixon. Granted, they are both white men; and both are politicians—but the similarity ends right there and from that point on the difference is so vast that anybody who can’t see it deserves whatever happens to them if Nixon gets re-elected due to apathy, stupidity, and laziness on the part of potential McGovern voters.“
—if, for nothing else, than the sake of these United States of America.
But hey. I am just another kid.
* There are other more subtle parallels of which I am relatively sure, some too nuanced for a written oddity like this. Others I likely overlooked completely. The Anybody But McGovern (ABM) movement comes to mind, something akin to the modern-day attempt by the #NeverTrump well-diggers to stop Donald Trump from earning the republican nomination. Just as the ABM made a push on the convention floor, so too did the #NeverTrumpers. And then there are the differences that come naturally with the passage of 44 political years: email servers; online fundraising; Twitter meltdowns; Teleprompters. What’s more: all the gaffes, flops, and pure king-hell buffoonery is available, on-demand, so we can loop them over and over on our big big screens . . .
**All quotes taken from my aging copy of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.“