As we all prepare as best we can for the oncoming bare-knuckles brawl of the 2016 presidential election, I’ve been re-reading Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 72.” Published as a kind of compendium of Thompson’s election reporting for Rolling Stone, it remains one of the most unflinching books ever written on American politics. In between references to his rampant drug use, including thoughts on the relative value of crank to journalists, Thompson hits on some deep political truths.
He begins the book solidly convinced that the collection of freaks, young people, and minorities can overwhelm the Nixon machine. In the end he knows he was wrong, has a pretty good idea of why, and would never again put much store in the radicals to form electoral powerhouses. This weekend’s unpleasantness for the stunned former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Netroots Nation 2015 conference could have been ripped from Thompson’s pages. And it doesn’t bode well for Democratic prospects.
What happened this weekend at #NN15 was nothing short of a clarion call that middle-age white dudes need not apply to positions of power on the progressive Left. When poor O’Malley tried to address the concerns of the segment of the crowd shouting him down it was to no avail. Eventually, an organizer had to jump on stage as a cowed O’Malley watched his presidential prospects crash on the rocks of the new Democratic Party.
Then he said it. In response to the chants of “black lives matter,” he suggested that “all lives matter”—a statement so steeped in privileged racism that the crowd nearly sent him home in tar and feathers. Here’s the video footage:
Early on in “Fear and Loathing,” Thompson opens a chapter with this quote from Los Angeles Times reporter D.J.R. Bruckner:
There are issues enough. What is gone is the popular passion for them. Possibly, hope is gone. The failure of hope would be a terrible event; the blacks have never been cynical about America. But the conversation you hear among the young now, on the South Side of Chicago, up in Harlem or in Bedford-Stuyvesant, certainly suggests the birth of a new cynicism. In the light of what government is doing, you might well expect young blacks to lose hope in the power elites, but this is something different—a cold personal indifference, a separation of man from man. What you hear and see is not rage, but injury, a withering of expectations.
It turns out that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ low expectations for white people isn’t as new as it might seem. And the withering sense of injury expressed at Netroots by O’Malley saying “all lives matter” isn’t either. Thompson goes on to explain how this refusal to engage explained not only the black political moment of 1972, but that of all progressives. They weren’t going to stand by and allow the moderate Democrats like Scoop Jackson to pretend the nation wasn’t at a revolutionary moment. Beating Nixon wasn’t enough. He had to be beaten by the hippies, the blacks, the gays—the marginalized who would announce a new greater society of profound freedom.
They lost. They lost by a lot. They lost by a margin barely seen before or since. It turns out that the majority of Americans do not snap to attention when radicals present agendas based more on philosophy than prosperity. In 1972, progressives believed that they had seized the moment, that the unrest and popular upheavals of the late ’60s had announced the coming of a new America. They believed they had occupied the American mind. And in the early 2010s, another group of occupiers had come to believe the same thing.
These Antics Are a Road to Nowhere
In the Washington Post last week, Tom Toles explained to us how the Occupy movement, which by most accounts collapsed under its own mindlessly, non-rigorous weight, actually won. He argues that the issue of income inequality has become the issue of 2016. But Tholes forgets the other bizarre tenets of Occupy Wall Street: The progressive stack system of speaking in their general assembly, in which white men were forced to speak last; the posters lambasting President Obama and his cronies; the anti-Semitism and drug-fueled, drum-circle, pseudo-political nonsense that the movement had no authority to condemn. It’s not a buffet. You get it all.
The nonsensical antics of the NN15 protestors who would not even listen to the responses of the candidates they invited to speak are a road to nowhere. Make no mistake, difference of opinion will not be tolerated by the new vanguard of the American Left. ThinkProgress’ Zack Ford made this clear with a breathless tweet sent from NN15 as if from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War:
But dig it, mansplaining privilege theory to some young woman who is on your team is not going to create the supportive atmosphere in the room that wins elections. It’s going to make you look like a bombastic ass, and won’t be impressive to her independent-minded parents when she goes home for Thanksgiving to sell your agenda. Smart-ass kids, as Thompson learned in 1972, are never the key to victory in American politics.
After several hundred words of brilliant description on how exactly the wheels fell off the Progressive ice cream truck in 1972, Thompson arrives at his post mort. He writes:
After months of quasi-public brooding on the Whys and Wherefores of the disastrous beating he absorbed last November, McGovern seems finally to have bought the Conventional Wisdom—that his campaign was doomed from the start: conceived in a fit of hubris, born in a momentary power-vacuum that was always more mirage than reality, borne along on a tide of frustration churned up by liberal lintheads and elitist malcontents in the Eastern Media Establishment.
He goes on to say:
After a decade of left-bent chaos, the Silent Majority was so deep in a behavioral sink that their only feeling for politics was a powerful sense of revulsion. All they wanted in the White House was a man who would leave them alone and do anything necessary to bring calmness back into their lives—even if it meant turning the whole state of Nevada into a concentration camp for hippies, niggers, dope fiends, do-gooders, and anyone else who might threaten the status quo.
Never again would Thompson trust in the capacity of national elections to result in the great new world that the right sort envisioned. He ran for office in his little town in Colorado—local government is important, after all. But his memoir of the national campaign of 1972 leaves little doubt about how the politics of guilt and blame play out.
As progressives implode into Wesleyan white girls crossing swords with gayer, less privileged, and therefore more-of-the-moment white men it’s all falling apart. Hillary Clinton was noticeably absent from NN15. Hard to blame her.
So what happens now? Has the moment finally arrived? Are we marching into the new Progressive America? Is flyover country ready to open up wrist veins over their white privilege? Can we finally admit that our entire system of government is a Citizens United-driven pay-for-play system of inequity and racism that requires the destruction of black lives to exist?
Look, our government doesn’t treat people equally. Our police don’t. Our courts don’t. Our civil servants don’t. But equal treatment for everyone has to be our goal. O’Malley was ready to talk about solutions, yet his party’s vanguard won’t let him. They make him apologize for trying.
The GOP needs to make sure it welcomes solutions, not rhetoric. If that happens, the history might repeat itself. Both sides should give Thompson’s tome a read. The Left should learn its lessons. The Right should cross its fingers.