Friday, March 04, 2005

The Werewolf in Us
By now, nearly two weeks after his death, I would imagine that Hunter S. Thompson's wish has been granted, and his ashes have been blasted from a cannon across his Owl Farm at Woody Creek, Colorado, up the road from Aspen. I have been spending the last week or so in Thompson's shadow, rereading Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. It occurs to me that what the Doc chronicled in that book was the birth of the right-wing political monster that's come to full maturity under George W. Bush. Writing of Richard Nixon after his reelection, Thompson said:
[I]t 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 despise. Our Barbie doll president, with his Barbie doll wife and his box-full of Barbie doll children is also America's answer to the monstrous Mr. Hyde. He speaks for the Werewolf in us; the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string-warts, on nights when the moon comes too close . . . .
So Thompson was one of the first to take note of the idea that political candidates can appeal to the worst in us and ride those impulses to glory. An even better example, however, might be George Wallace. In 1972, the former governor of Alabama made some hay from this very thing--although Wallace was running as a Democrat, he was running to Nixon's right. Thompson suggests race-baiting and white-trash anger was all Wallace had going for him, and that he didn't have anything remotely resembling a program in mind should he end up getting elected. Wallace started late, ran a disorganized campaign, and never really had a shot at the Democratic nomination, but Thompson theorizes that had Wallace run as an independent in 1972 as he did in 1968, he may have cut Nixon's majority to a mere plurality--meaning that a significant percentage of the electorate was ready to go ever further to the right in 1972 than Nixon ended up going.

Although Wallace mellowed in his later years, his blueprint remained as virulent--and useful--as ever. Appealing to the worst--racism, xenophobia, greed--is how the right got to where it is today, although it used a slightly more sophisticated variety of the medicine that helped Wallace make strong showings in the '72 primaries, in definitely non-redneck places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Thompson again:
The root of the Wallace magic was a cynical, showbiz instinct for knowing exactly which issues would whip a hall full of beer-drinking factory workers into a frenzy--and then doing exactly that, by howling down from the podium that he had an instant, overnight cure for all their worst afflictions. Taxes? Nigras? Army worms killing the turnip crop? Whatever it was, Wallace assured his supporters that the solution was actually real simple, and that the only reason they had any hassle with the government at all was because those greedy bloodsuckers in Washington didn't want the problems solved, so they wouldn't be put out of work.
See also Reagan, Ronald, and Bush, G.W.

I don't know where I'm going with this, exactly, other than to recommend Thompson's '72 campaign book to you--and to marvel at the way so much of it seems to have foretold what we're seeing in American politics right now. Whoever said there are relatively few original ideas in human life, and that everything else is merely variations on them, appears to have been onto something.

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