There are some books I re-read regularly. Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is one; I read it every time there’s a presidential election on.
In 2008, the first time around, it was a ghastly memento mori for the failure of a great movement campaign, and also a reassuring reminder of the consummate competence of the Obama campaign. In 2012, as the Obama campaign purred along to the win, it formed a sort of demented counterpoint of bad craziness, this time mirroring the weirdness of the Republicans.
This time? I got a gaggle of insights into how a great insurgent campaign fails. If the 2008 reading was about Obama, the current one is about Sanders, Trump, and Jeremy Corbyn. Obviously, Trump is perfect for Thompson’s style, but that’s not my point.
Thompson mentions, in the postmortem interviews near the end of the book, that McGovern did startlingly badly with black voters. This is telling because HST doesn’t talk much about that for the rest of the book. He talks about individuals, but he doesn’t talk about how McGovern tried to address blacks or didn’t, which is weird because one of the best things in the book is Thompson’s coverage of the practicalities of politics.
An obvious conclusion is that he didn’t write about it because it wasn’t there. The same has been said about Bernie Sanders in this classic blog post, and we probably need to talk about the Corbyn offering the two black ladies each others’ jobs.
Thompson also discusses how he thought McGovern was successfully addressing the working class during the primaries, but failing to do so during the general election. Again, he doesn’t want to talk about his own besetting case of the great hippie sin, massive condescension to workers and to the unions that represented them.
The rallies were great. The volunteers were all bright and young and handsome. The campaign did nothing better than campaigning to its own volunteers.
What Thompson didn’t and couldn’t know is that both the collegiate sneering and the Boss Tweed swagger would be swept away by the macroeconomic revolution of Reagan and Paul Volcker soon enough, of course. Thompson missed that this civil war in the Democrats would destroy both combatants, which is weird seeing as he classically diagnosed it in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Perhaps he couldn’t accept his own role in it.
With regard to the Corbyn, it’s more the other way around. He addresses the RMT tolerably well. The problem is everyone else. If we’re lucky and Duncan Weldon is right, the macro shift that finishes him might be a swing to reflation across the G-7. If we’re lucky.
And, of course, what HST wanted was a campaign that specifically would destabilise and maybe finish the Democratic Party. He repeatedly says as much. Oddly enough, he didn’t much like the results. But that’s what happens if you decide to piss your side’s institutions up the wall because the rallies are great.
The specific failure mode is that if you don’t care about that stuff, you end up not caring about the skills and operational practices that underlie it. Everyone but HST thought the killer was competence; lacking it, the campaign never got close enough to put Nixon under pressure.
This year, the book is a painful story of a movement campaign that never escaped from its deeply hippyish and middle-class roots and that as a result risked losing the whole party.