Hunter S. Thompson on voting strategically

Hunter S. Thompson hated Richard Nixon.

I mean that on a personal level, and I mean it quite literally. Thompson felt a deep seething angry hatred for Dick Nixon. The depth of his loathing for the disgraced former President is evident in every sentence of his masterful obituary of the man:

Let there be no mistake in the history books about that. Richard Nixon was an evil man — evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it. He was utterly without ethics or morals or any bedrock sense of decency. Nobody trusted him — except maybe the Stalinist Chinese, and honest historians will remember him mainly as a rat who kept scrambling to get back on the ship.

If you want a deep dive into the miserable vicious struggle of national American politics at the height of the Cold War, check out that obit – Thompson summoned some of his more in-depth analysis for the occasion of the death of his long-time nemesis.

Most people know Thompson mainly as that drug-addled fiend that Johnny Depp played in a few movies, and to be sure, he was that. He was also a vile misogynist and a dangerous individual with little regard for the feelings of either friends or strangers.

He was also – and this in no way excuses his abusive and reprehensible behaviour – he was also one of the great journalists of the twentieth century.

And I say this mostly because he was among the first to whole-heartedly embrace the insight that there is no such thing as true objectivity in journalism, and that pretending to be objective is often incredibly harmful to reporting on politics, as he himself pointed out in his Nixon obituary:

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

I obviously didn’t live through the Nixon presidency – I was seven years old when that vicious war criminal breathed his last – but as a student of history, I feel like the parallels between Nixon and Stephen Harper are myriad. The hyper-controlling executive style, the open contempt for the media, the tendency to see all opponents as enemies and existential threats, the impulse towards secrecy, the use of fear tactics to shore up support, the baffling amount of enthusiasm from people who really ought to know better – these were all hallmarks of the Nixon years, and will be familiar to anybody who’s been paying attention to Canadian politics in the last decade. Some people have compared the Duffy scandal to Watergate, which ultimately dragged down the Nixon regime. Reread that quote above with Harper in mind and you’ll get a sense of how much the Nixon years had in common with the Harper years.

All of which is to set the scene. It’s early 1972, and Nixon is running for reelection after four miserable years which have disheartened and discouraged and frightened the piss out of every left-leaning individual in the whole United States of America, Hunter Thompson included. Thompson, then a political correspondent for the fledging alternative magazine Rolling Stone, had moved to Washington D.C. to cover the Presidential campaign in depth, in his already-characteristic totally immersive “Gonzo” style. Fresh off the successful publication of his most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson wanted to bring subjective participatory journalism to the then-uncharted realm of campaign politics.

The result was, in my opinion, far superior to the rambling aimlessness of Las Vegas. Compiled under the title Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Thompson’s biweekly articles in Rolling Stone charted the path of liberal Senator George McGovern from underdog for the Democratic nomination to surprise Presidential candidate to, ultimately, miserable loser in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in modern history.

Along the way, he got himself – and some of his friends and colleagues – embroiled in controversy, as was his tendency. He gave his press pass to an intoxicated brute, who used it to board the campaign train of then-Democratic frontrunner Senator Ed Muskie, a moderate compromise candidate; said brute then completely terrorized the press on the train and assaulted Muskie while the Senator was attempting to give a speech. Later on in the campaign, Thompson started rumours that Muskie was addicted to the psychedelic drug ibogaine, which rapidly circulated around the press pool; he then reported that there were wild rumours circulating around the press pool that Muskie was addicted to ibogaine – which, as he later pointed out, was strictly speaking true, from an Objective point of view.

For whatever reason – and perhaps it was a more innocent time – he was tolerated by the candidates and even embraced by some of the luminaries around the campaigns, as well as by some of the press.

In rereading his account of the campaign, one particular passage stood out to me as being way too contemporary. Days after being kicked out of a Washington R******* game for refusing to remove his hat during the national anthem, he somehow found himself seated next to Edward Bennett Williams, president of the team, on a flight to San Francisco. After some back-and-forth about the incident, the pair settled onto the topic of the presidential campaign:

We spent the rest of the flight arguing politics. He is backing Muskie, and as he talked I got the feeling that he thought he was already at a point where, sooner or later, we would all be. “Ed’s a good man,” he said. “He’s honest. I respect the guy.” Then he stabbed the padded seat arm between us two or three times with his forefinger. “But the main reason I’m working for him,” he said, “is that he’s the only guy we have who can beat Nixon.” He stabbed the arm again. “If Nixon wins again, we’re in real trouble.” He picked up his drink, then saw it was empty and put it down again. “That’s the real issue this time,” he said. “Beating Nixon. It’s hard to even guess how much damage those bastards will do if they get in for another four years.”

I nodded. The argument was familiar. I had even made it myself, here and there, but I was beginning to sense something very depressing about it. How many more of these goddamn elections are we going to have to write off as lame but “regrettably necessary” holding actions? And how many more of these stinking, double-downer sideshows will we have to go through before we can get ourselves straight enough to put together some kind of national election that will give me and the at least 20 million people I tend to agree with a chance to vote for something, instead of always being faced with that old familiar choice between the lesser of two evils?

I have been through three presidential elections, now, but it has been twelve years since I could look at a ballot and see a name I wanted to vote for. In 1964, I refused to vote at all, and in ’68 I spent half a morning in the county courthouse getting an absentee ballot so I could vote, out of spite, for Dick Gregory.

Now, with another one of these big bogus showdowns looming down on us, I can already pick up the stench of another bummer. I understand, along with a lot of other people, that the big thing, this year, is Beating Nixon. But that was also the big thing, as I recall, twelve years ago in 1960 – and as far as I can tell, we’ve gone from bad to worse to rotten since then, and the outlook is for more of the same. (pp. 55-56)

All of which is precisely the feeling I get about the “ABC” (“Anything But Conservative”) crowd. The first election I paid any attention to was in 2000, when Stockwell Day was the right-wing menace du jour, and everybody who wasn’t batshit crazy or a fundamentalist Christian was urged to for god’s sake vote Liberal.

Then we had that whole Unite-The-Right craze, and the birth of the no-longer-even-slightly-progressive Conservative Party of Canada, headed by Stephen Harper, who even as Leader of the Opposition was terrifying. He was held off in 2004, briefly.

I remember Election Night ’06, when he won his first minority, was a real bummer of a night. I do believe I voted that year – I was old enough to, anyway – but I can’t remember for who, and the riding I was living in at the time, Peterborough-Kawarthas, went to Dean Del Mastro, of whom you may have heard, so it was a double disappointment of an evening. As has been every election night since then.

Which is to say, ever since I’ve been a voter, stopping Harper has been the priority. Ever since I’ve been paying attention to politics, stopping the right-wing psychopath of the moment has been the priority. We’ve been trying to stop him and his ilk for a goddamn long time now, by all agreeing to go for the moderate middle-of-the-road compromise best-chance-at-winning party – and where the hell has it got us?

Now we’re so desperate to get rid of Harper, it seems, that we’ll literally vote for anybody who isn’t him – and never mind that the major alternatives are just as eager to ship Indigenous-community-poisoning climate-destroying tar sands oil by dangerous pipelines and storm-swept tankers through narrow inlets, or that they’re just as unwilling to condemn the war crimes being perpetrated against innocent Palestinians by the Israeli government, or that they’re just as sold on the sovereignty-destroying job-killing corporation-empowering “free trade” agreements that Harper’s been busy negotiating these past few years. Never mind that we haven’t heard one peep out of either of them about major progressive priorities, like the decriminalization of all drugs (and no, Trudeau, just talking marijuana doesn’t cut it), or prison abolition, or a guaranteed minimum income, or a return to a peacekeeping rather than a warmaking role for Canada. Never mind about what we want, never mind about what we deserve. To listen to the ABC crowd, the only thing that matters is getting rid of Harper.

Which is to say, all other pursuits don’t matter in comparison. The campaign for justice for Palestinians can wait. The fate of the climate – the fate of our grandchildren, and their grandchildren – can wait. All our hopelessly idealistic priorities will just have to wait, goddammit, until we’ve got this menace dealt with.

Even Hunter S. Thompson, with his passionate and well-founded hatred of Richard Milhous Nixon, wasn’t able to get himself worked up about the prospect of merely voting against the man.

I’m not saying Harper isn’t a dangerous man and an awful Prime Minister. I’m saying that we deserve – and should demand – something better than Anything But him – especially if the outcome of an ABC election looks like it’ll be a continuation of many of the man’s worst policies.

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Great post. My take is that this is an argument for spending literally zero time thinking and caring about the election campaigns and associated news, but not an argument against voting. It’s not a zero sum game where you have to choose between a) voting and being content with the system, or b) not voting and operating outside it. You can also vote for purely pragmatic reasons. I would guess that the hour or so it takes me to vote would have an equal or greater probability of changing the world in a positive way, compared to any other hour-long activity I could be doing. That assumes the belief that the other parties, however lacking they may be, would be better than the Conservatives.

That said, I think I’m gaining respect for non-voters.

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