It is through the analogy of an adrenaline-addicted jackrabbit that Hunter S. Thompson attempts to describe his own addiction to politics, the end result of which is Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. “When a jackrabbit gets addicted to road-running,” Thompson writes, “it is only a matter of time before he gets smashed—and when a journalist turns into a politics junkie he will sooner or later start raving and babbling in print about things that only a person who has Been There can possible understand.”
The basic concept of Campaign Trail ’72 is to “essentially record the reality of incredibly volatile presidential campaign while it was happening: from an eye in the eye of the hurricane, as it were.” Record he does, from late nights in hotel bar-rooms in Wisconsin and Illinois to conversations on the beach with campaign staffers during the Democratic Convention in Miami. Thompson’s extensive coverage of George McGovern’s Presidential campaign in 1972 provides an unflinching and thought-provoking look into the nature of political campaigns and the volatility of public opinion.
It is remarkable that nearly fifty years later, Thompson’s analysis of American politics still rings true, if not even more so given the events of the past three years. The parallels between our current president and Richard Nixon are uncanny.
Take Thompson’s description of Nixon’s strategy for victory:
“By welcoming all the right-wingers and yahoos back to the front ranks of the party— then watching silently as ‘liberals fought vainly for a fair share of the delegate seats in ’76—Nixon aimed the party as far towards the Right as he could, while charting his own course straight down the center and opening wide his arms to to all those poor homeless democrats driven out of their own party.”
Any of that sound familiar?
Thompson’s book is a finger on the pulse of American politics and the mercurial nature of public sentiment. This is due in part to a lack of fear, odd given the title, of talking to anyone and everyone he comes across. No individual is too small for Thompson and while the narrative is dominated by the outsize personalities that comprise a presidential election, Thompson doesn’t forget to include the voices of the anonymous campaign volunteers and rally spectators who are essential cogs in the campaign machine.
The defining character of Thompson’s writing is his willingness to become a character in the story he tells. He allows his biases to color the story he tells, placing McGovern as the protagonist, Nixon as the antagonist and himself as the driver of the action. He prods, pokes, researches, and questions the world around him, constantly pushing the story forward
The book is filled with Ralph Steadman’s illustrations and photos from the campaign, juxtaposing the “reality” of the photographs with Steadman’s often ghastly, apocalyptic cartoons. An illustration in the “August” chapter of the book shows two grotesque and misshapen individuals, sporting Nixon hats, on the beach in Miami; conveying Steadman and Thompson’s loathing for Nixon backers.
After the election, which McGovern famously lost by landslide, Thompson assessment of the political landscape of the country is both current and familiar.
“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 means turning the whole state of Nevada into a concentration camp for hippies … dope fiends, do-gooders and anyone else who might threaten the status quo.”
Had Thompson, a proponent of the Pendulum Theory in which political feelings and sentiment swing inevitably to extremes, covered the 2016 election, it seems almost certain that he would’ve clued into the public sentiment that led to Trump’s victory. In a conversation with his editor, Thompson explains that “Any kind of political campaign that taps the kind of energy that nothing else can reach … there are a lot of people just walking around bored stupid … would generate a tremendous high for everybody involved in it.”
Being a child of the late ‘90s, I didn’t bear witness to the seventies and thus found 2016 to be an overall shocking year. Had I taken the time to read Campaign Trail ’72, I don’t think it would have been as much of a surprise. Thompson’s book stands the test of time, as both an expert guideline for any aspiring political journalist, and as a strikingly accurate assessment of the nature of American politics.