Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972, in 2016

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.

9 Comments on "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972, in 2016"

  1. The Thames TV doc on HST’s 1970 run for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado (i.e. Aspen) showed up online a few months ago, and it’s a kind of precursor to ’72 in its freaks vs. squares contest, and Thompson’s uneasy role as the freak candidate. (NSFW thanks to skinny-dipping hippies.)


  2. One of HST’s all-time bête noirs is Hubert Humphrey is — back in the day, when I read and reread F&LotCT often (it’s his best work by a long way). Reasons then seemed obvious (ugly compromised old party man fatally tied to Vietnam, no kennedy he etc — plus he lost in 1968) — but knowing quite a bit more about the dynamics of US politics I find HST’s hostility a *lot* more problematic. Once, long ago, I did a phone interview with James Brown (yes that one, namedrop klaxon) and I asked him who he respected politically, and he said Humphrey, first and last. At the time this was startling to me — but it entirely makes sense, given Brown’s political caution. HH was one of the insider architects of Civil Rights — not a marcher, not an agitator, but one of the Dem pols who moved to counter the Dixiecrats and so on. And one of LBJ’s key pointmen ensuring it went through etc — which involved a LOT of salami-slicing that looked non-great close up. Well, the Kennedy star has dimmed and LBJ’s has risen somewhat, as Vietnam fades into non-salient memory. Does HST even mention LBJ in F&LotCT?

    (I’m not arguing that HST was racist — he was close to Dick Gregory and Oscar Acosta so very obviously not — but his sympathies were with the younger black radicals who despised the entire system, not the much more numerous, somewhat older layer of black American voters who voted pragmatically precisely because they believed — from long and bitter experience — that real change is slow and needs to be nailed down every step of the way…)


  3. Also — slightly to push back against Alex — isn’t the moment of maximum excitement in F&LotCT at the convention, when the young idealistic political operators round McGovern pull off an intricate procedural coup more in common with ordinary (read treacherous salami-slicing) politics than utopian absence of competence? And didn’t at least some these operators end up as senior Clinton sidepeople, still operating and salami-slicing? I need to re-read the book myself…


    1. The best bits of the book are when HST is being a very good sportswriter who happens to be reporting on the Olympics of politics; the disappointing ones are when he’s being a fan, singing his heart out for the lads. (After all, it was an intricate political coup that necessitated stabbing the Women’s Coalition in the front in order to stab Humphrey in the back.)

      The guy you’re thinking of would be Sandy Berger, btw. Also, I don’t really understand the hate-obsession with Humphrey, either. I get the impression HST focused his bitterness post-1968 on Humphrey because, well, he was the guy left standing. Hate is very like love in that it’s much better with a partner (I’m adapting a quote from Pierre Mendés-France here), and I guess Humph was available.


  4. I really doubt Duncan Weldon is correct unfortunately – the problem the Tories would have with implementing it in any sensible way (as opposed to pumping up the housing market) would be that it would run counter to the narrative of the mythical benefits claimant who is living high off the government.


  5. “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.”

    Go on then, tell us. It certainly doesn’t bear any resemblance to reality so I presume it must be fiction.


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