The Crumbling of Democracy through the Lens of Hunter S. Thompson

Posted by Colin Cruce on June 21, 2021

“Is democracy worth all the risks and problems that necessarily go with it? Or, would we all be happier by admitting that the whole thing was a lark from the start and now that it hasn’t worked out, to hell with it.” This question by Hunter Thompson prides itself as a question for the past, present, and future of America. The status of democracy as an idea, word, and philosophy is held without question in American values. It is the culmination of a millennia of trials and tribulations, empires rising and collapsing, to discover that the power lay amongst the people, a testament to all the kings and emperors who failed their very citizens. In modern day, the paradigm for this power rests in the hands of elected officials, kings who are bestowed into the American system by the true leaders. Through repeated abuses during the 20th century, the question of the legitimacy of elected leaders has been touted throughout American thought. In a new millenia, how will the leaders develop, what will his goals be, and when will they fall?

The American ideal is one of a multitude of variables and orientations. The Revolutionaries, Union, outlaws, titans of industry, the common farmer all united under one guise of the American experiment and had one collective goal in mind: to warp America’s future into something greater than themselves and to fuel and supply the American machine. This experiment Americans were taking part in was fresh and unpredictable, for the freedom of America knew no bounds in the endless expanse of the continent. Now, 150 years later, there is nowhere in America where the definition of freedom is being warped and stretched; it is as if the very thing these individuals were seeking was the very thing that led to their decay. The allure of freedom can never be defined. It can contradict, combat, destroy and empower, for the very nature of the word freedom is rebellious. We see the stern empowerment definition of freedom in our leaders, figureheads whom the public perceives will guide them through the valley of death. We see the more desirable sense of freedom in the average American; a sense of cleverness, creativity, and a lifelong desire for personal and communal satisfaction. Ironically, by accident or by engenious design, it is the shepherding of the average American that turns the cogs of the free world.

The characteristics of the postmodern leader have changed drastically in the last century. The 1950s were a very challenging time for the minority in America. Everywhere except for the American continent were in ruins from a war of apocalyptic proportions. Americans had enjoyed an exponential increase in commodity and had grown to relish in and embrace the system that gave them what they wanted; they stood on top of a hill surrounded by decay and destruction seen throughout the world. The antagonization of communism was seen to be the next and inevitable threat as the cold war loomed over the nation. This was a logical step, as the USSR joined the United States in a geopolitical struggle for dominance. No greater domestic threat to the United States was Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin senator with an extroverted temper and a fiery passion for the traditional American way of life. His reign as senator produced mass hysteria and panic never before seen in a political position; it is through McCarthy that the American public began to hate any other doctrines besides the ones that their nation harbored, a practice that flogs democracy at its core. McCarthy’s own demographic loathed his idea of international and domestic threats. Leroy Gore, a newspaper owner and devout Republican from rural Wisconsin, despised McCarthy. Even though Gore was a life-long Republican, he was described as “upholding a strict code of personal morality, and in his eyes, McCarthy had repeatedly violated it” (Thelen 187). In 1954, Gore enacted the ‘Joe Must Go’ campaign in an effort to see the removal of the senator from office. Gore states that “senator Joe McCarthy of March 1954 is NOT the same man the people of Wisconsin elected to the United State Senate in November 1952” (Thelen 188). The idea that Gore presents can be applied to a multitude of elections, and shows the underlying flaws of American politics.

Much like Frank Gore, many common Americans who were born into the American lifestyle felt a need to revise many aspects of the American political system. One of the most vocal of these individuals was Hunter Thompson, former writer, politician, and public figure. Thompson’s early years can be described as the American experience. Growing up in Kentucky and then going into the United States Air Force, Thompson’s youth did not stand out. However, Hunter’s first series of literature, a collection of writings and memoirs about his time spent in the Hell’s Angels, set him apart from other writers of his time. In Thompson’s novel Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, Thompson compares the Hell’s Angels to Western Outlaws (Thompson in an interview in 1967). Thompson’s comparison serves to gut American imagery and iconography. Ironically, the depiction of outlaws and bandits seem to be a constant theme amongst American culture, specifically during the 20th century. Images and films of the western outlaw seemed to be the pride of America; men who could do anything they wanted in a bountiful and limitless frontier. By analyzing the modern outlaw through the Hell’s Angels, Thompson seeks to identity and embellish the modern American outlaw. A country of self-proclaimed outlaws who push the boundaries of law and who sought freedom wherever it led them: weren’t these the core tenants of the very individuals who masoned the foundations of America? In a modern age, the allure of the great expanse of the Wild West, a vast symbol of freedom, has gentrified into the American system. With the death of the Wild West, these outlaws, many of whom Thompson reports in ‘Hells Angels,’ have turned into social deviants and common thugs. Thompson, the great laz-a-faire connoisseur of the love generation, is inclined to disagree with punk and outlaw rhetoric due to this conviction. Much like Leroy Gore, Thompson’s personal composition seems to be one based on morality rather than warped chauvinism.

The late 1960s and early 1970s was a crucial time for the American leader. Efforts in the fighting in Vietnam had grown stale and the ‘counterculture,’ was at its height; this era, however, would be defined by the actions of Richard Nixon. Nixon’s fraudulence fueled the need for leaders to emerge from the sociopolitical shadows, as many sensed a sort of incompetence and stupidity in Nixon’s presidential career. Thompson states that “as long as Nixon was politically alive -- and he was, all the way to the end -- we could always be sure of finding the enemy on the Low Road.” (Thompson, 1994). Thompson highlights the power of both his movement and the movements of others (such as Gonzo Journalism and the ‘love generation') were fuelled by a combined hatred for the Nixon administration and like minded individuals. It is through this period that Thompson emerged as a champion in the eyes of the counterculture and is probably the reason for the momentum held by the counterculture during Nixon’s reign. In ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’ Thompson display’s the weining counterculture movement in regards to the transition of power from Johnson to Nixon:

“There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” (Thompson, 1970)

In Thompson’s time, there was no alternative to the despair of the Nixon administration. Thompson remarks how both parties offered no refuge for individuals who considered themselves outside the realm of traditional democratic parties. Thompson remarks “This is the horror of American politics today - not that Richard Nixon and his fixers have been crippled, convicted, indicted, disgraced and even jailed - but that the only available alternatives are not much better.” It is through this nihilistic party view of democracy that Thompson sees a stagnation of the democratic system. America has never experienced such a stagnation, as every generation has left the United States with an exponential bounty. It is through this stand still that the foundations of America crumble, and all progress is halted indefinitely.