With the presidential campaign in full throttle, I ran across some truly thought-provoking passages recently. I’m probably going to violate some Fair Use laws here, but I’m taking the risk. This author spoke of this presidential candidate’s:
“… thundering, gut-level appeal [to voters] to rise up and smash all the … ‘bureaucrats in Washington’ who’d been f**king them over for so long. The root of the [candidate’s] magic was a cynical, showbiz instinct for knowing exactly which issues would whip a hall full of beer-drinking factory workers into a frenzy – and then doing exactly that, by howling down from the podium that he had an instant, overnight cure for all their worst afflictions. … [The candidate] assured his supporters that the solution was actually real simple.”
“The ugly truth is that [the candidate] had never even bothered to understand the problems – much less come up with any honest solutions – but [the candidate] has never lost much sleep from guilt feelings about his personal credibility gap. … [He] is one of the worst charlatans in politics, but there is no denying his talent for converting frustration into energy.”
Elsewhere in the same work, this same candidate is referred to as “a demagogue of the worst sort” and “a threat to the country’s underlying values of humanism, of decency, of progress.”
Any guesses what I’ve been reading, and who wrote it?
Fear and Loathing On The Campaign Trail ’72, by Hunter S. Thompson. That’s right – a book written 44 years ago by a man who’s been dead for 11 years. He was talking about former Alabama governor George Wallace.
44 years. Two generations. And yet the frustrations that Thompson refers to are still aflame today. These frustrations come from the relentless economic, technological, and capitalistic forces that drive change. In the 1970s, and probably every decade since, factories were closing and jobs were moving elsewhere. People felt abandoned not only by their employers, but also by their politicians.
Are politicians really powerful enough to affect the rules of capitalism? No, but they do have the power to effect legislation regarding taxes and investments and write-offs. They craft those laws at the behest of the people who fund their campaigns. That, at least, hasn’t changed. What’s happening today is no different from what happened back in the 1970s.
But are the politicians completely to blame? I say no. This is America, after all. We have innate freedoms that people haven’t exercised: the freedom to learn, the freedom to fail and start over, the freedom to change. How is it that two generations later, a huge swath of the population is still blaming minorities for the ills that plague them? How is it that, all these years later, these people still believe that there’s a politician who can wave a magic wand and solve their problems?
How is it that they haven’t figured out, after all this time, that they need to put some effort into not relying on institutions for their well-being? These are the people, after all, who believe that government should stay out of their lives, the ones who love America because it rewards individual initiative. Where is their individual initiative?
And what the heck did they teach their children a generation ago? To bide their time and wait for some authoritarian madman to come along and solve their problems by returning the country to some magical time and place that might as well be Oz for how ethereal it was?
I have always had a deep-seated belief in the common sense of the American people. When demagogues and race-baiters and others – from Joe McCarthy to Richard Nixon to George Wallace – have risen up, they have always slid back down. But I hate that we haven’t seemed to learn enough to keep them from rising up in the first place.