Hunter S. Thompson Was Right About America: It’s Still Freaks vs. Fear

The journalist died nine years ago this month, but we need him more than ever after Obama’s own gonzo campaign curdled into the politics of fear.

Louie Psihoyos/Corbis

Every February, a certain kind of person’s thoughts will turn, more or less quickly, to Hunter S. Thompson, who killed himself with a gun nine years ago on the 20th of the month.

His best days were far behind him, as he’d already admitted in the 1980s. Now even his mountainous funeral is creeping into the remorseless past. That night I listened to the revelers, confidants, and cronies in Hunter’s compound on the other side of the fence, as the large Gonzo Fist Tower of his own design shot off fireworks, and an itinerant Broncos fan handed me a warm can of Milwaukee’s Best from his Jansport bag and warned that a Saudi Crown Prince lived on the other side of the street behind us.

The rabble—“the fans”—were not permitted inside the gates. I was turned away with several radical documentary filmmakers, one of whom refused to discuss a jarring episode that transpired later when we were briefly separated probing other weak points in the security perimeter. “There are only two people named John on this list,” said a bro in Black Flys. “One’s named Depp and the other one’s Kerry.”

Simpler times.

That was before the Barack Obama era. Hunter Thompson is fun and easy to abuse for one’s own political purposes, but we are woefully all the poorer for having lost him in 2005, before he had a chance to discover that the power dynamic he railed against at the peak of his powers was still with us, smarter and dumber than ever.

The primal antagonism between “freak power” and the “kingdom of fear” came to a head in the Battle of Aspen, waged when Thompson put himself and Joe Edwards, a 29-year-old hippie lawyer, through the wringer of highbrow bipartisan street panic. Thompson engineered Edwards’ run for mayor, losing by six votes; the next year, Thompson himself ran for Pitkin County sheriff, losing by 465. The Freak Power ticket was almost enough to split the vote and edge out both Rs and Ds. But at the last minute, the parties threw in together to fend off the weirdos, and the closest Thompson’s cabal ever came again to twisting the national discourse was when Gary Hart, a pal, ran for president.

Gary Hart knew well enough to keep his Freak tendencies—politically, I mean—under respectable wraps. But it was a shame, because there are now so few Democrats with even a wistful, nostalgic connection to the days when Freak Power thrived on the left. On a bad day, the landscape resembles a shameful two-species ecosystem: old corporatist behemoths casting long shadows over flea-bitten packs of communists so young and frustrated that they’re always on the verge of bursting into tears.

Hell, when I think about my young self in my orange polyester suit, standing outside the Woody Creek Tavern with a local news reporter asking me to add context and meaning to Hunter Thompson’s death, I’m on the verge of bursting into tears. We were on the back half of the Bush years. Something new, possibly even wonderful, would soon be in sight. Sure enough, the impossible happened—Hillary Clinton was beat, fair and square, by someone so sonorous about the possibilities of choice and resilience that he received the Kennedy stamp of approval, and then America’s.

Innocent times. Now, that special someone has left the crown of hope in the gutter, overwhelmed and infected by the propaganda of neediness and choicelessness that fuels the rule of fear over so much of our daily life. Progress has somehow gone from an inspiring option to an individual mandate—a grim necessity we are obliged to grind out.

Welcome to politics, some will say, along with the great political sociologist Max Weber. For Weber, the practice of politics had to be nothing more glamorous than the “slow boring of hard boards.” But for a would-be theorist of charisma, who knew that politics wasn’t everything, Weber lacked the emotional availability that helps intellectuals dance to the tempo of grace. For thousands of years the basic idea of grace—secular or religious—has powerfully remained the same: you are free of the fears of this world. The fearful spirit says “but I have to do this, under the circumstances!” In the presence of grace, the courageous spirit testifies, as St. Augustine and John Lennon did, that we are the circumstances.

This was the touchstone of Obama ’08. Now it goes all but untouched. There was a dazzling gonzo streak to Obama’s insurgent campaign—a sense not of historical inevitability but of people, real people, going off on an incredible tangent, so crazy it just might work. The mood of the moment was nearly the opposite of today’s Obama, with his nationalistic claptrap about how “America doesn’t stand still.”

No, Mr. President, we don’t. We shift with unease from one foot to the other. We fretfully pace the floor. America is becoming a waiting room.

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We’re waiting for more shoes to drop. The nagging, nervous energy that dominates our personal and political lives belies the harsh lesson of executive action: the more constant the crisis, the more impotent it is apt to grow.

Two hundred years ago, the French liberal Benjamin Constant saw the same pathology in Napoleon Bonaparte’s waning days of despotism. Trapped in the cycle of permanent emergency and perpetual action, he wrote, “servitude has no rest, agitation no pleasure.”

Hunter Thompson knew the pleasure of agitation required freedom from political fear. In a column written almost ten years ago to the month—one of his last—Thompson invoked the moral depths of gonzo life resonant in Terry Gilkyson’s old song “The Cry of the Wild Goose:”

“My heart knows what the wild goose knows,and I must go where the wild goose goes.Wild goose, brother goose, which is the best?A wandering fool or a heart at rest?”

Today politics is a no-go zone for wandering fools and hearts at rest, both of whom “fail” to “understand” the existential “threats” continuously posed to our national health and safety. Instead of Thompson’s Freak Power, politics under Obama’s watch has given way to Freak Out Power. The outrage, the hectoring, the constant rhetoric metaphorical “war:” it’s all a substitute for the gonzo idea that we can freely choose whether or not to be slaves to our fears—or others’.

If the cry of the wild goose no longer gives us goosebumps—out of a sense of sudden grace, and not a frightened paralysis—our approach to politics will forever be locked in the narrow confines of dread. The free will seem like freaks, and not in a way that makes them celebrity heroes.