The Long Tail of Hunter S. Thompson Shows Up in South Carolina

First, before you get too far along, I’m going to give you a little bit of assigned reading from the New York Times Magazine:

The Tea Party’s Not-So-Civil War

Done that?  Good.  Now let’s sit down and chat about this phenomenon.

For those of you who’ve not listened to me pontificate politically or haven’t the faintest clue as to why I might have a wee bit of cred when it comes to politics, let me give you some background.  Years ago, waaay back in the dark ages of my early twenties, I hooked up with a political guy.  Ended up being an activist in local Democratic Party politics on the county and state levels, got involved in boyfriend’s City Council campaign…and met the man I eventually married.  Spent a bit of time bouncing around various partisan and issue campaigns in the early Reagan years, did two sessions in the Oregon Legislature as an intern, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Oregon.  Somewhere around the house I think I still have my notes from my observations of a then-new phenomenon of the involvement of religious conservatives in politics.

I didn’t continue writing up my notes and I sure as hell didn’t try to parlay my observations into a political writing career, which I now vastly regret, because I was sure set up to do it, between the U of O background and the two years I spent at Northwest Christian College (now Northwest Christian University).  The NCU background exposed me to the movement’s theoretical foundation in its early days and I’m pretty sure that if I pull the old yearbooks out and start comparing names, I probably know more than a few of the players that are movers and shakers in the Religious Right political leadership, both out front and behind the scenes.  But I digress….

At the same time, I developed a fondness for the writings of HST.  While many of my contemporaries went for Thompson’s drug writings and embraced the bad craziness, I resonated with Thompson’s 1972 Presidential campaign coverage, even the gonzo rants and ramblings, because he sure as hell put his index finger right smack on phenomena and behaviors that I had seen in the free-for-all world of cutthroat local political campaigns and in the presidential primary of 1992 (let me tell you, I spent a lot of time with my dog-eared copy of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail that spring).

Well, Thompson had played the same sort of games that I had, and being that he lived in Aspen, another one of those sneaky little local incubators of Big Political Impacts, he nailed some trends that we are still unfolding.  I still think HST is underestimated as a political analyst, mostly because of his popular culture image as a drug-addled gonzo writer, and not taking him seriously is a big mistake on the part of many political thinkers.

Especially when I encounter a quote like this in the NYT:

“You’re starting to see some of the Tea Party folks getting into that realm, becoming political consultants,” Bill Connor, a Tea Party activist who’s backing Santorum, told me when I visited his home in Orangeburg. An Army Ranger who was the senior American adviser to local forces in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Connor looks a bit like Roger Clemens and projects a stern sobriety. “Being around politics, it’s like a drug,” he said. “People love having their name in the paper, getting attention, having people suck up to them. And that’s happening with the Tea Party.”

(Emphasis mine).

Um.  Folks?  This is what HST wrote in Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie:

Not everyone is comfortable with the idea that politics is a guilty addiction.  But it is.  They are addicts, and they are guilty, and they do lie and cheat and steal–like all junkies.  And when they get in a frenzy, they will sacrifice anything and anybody to feed their cruel and stupid habit, and there is no cure for it.  That is addictive thinking.  That is politics–especially in political campaigns.

We talk about religious conservative dog-whistles.  Well, that little quote from the NYT is a dog-whistle to me, and what that tells me is that this 2012 presidential campaign year is gonna be taking us all on a ride, the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1968 and 1972.

When you have a Tea Party activist either consciously or unconsciously referencing HST, you need to sit up and take notice.  This ain’t the lace glove type of political activism.  This is all out bad craziness.  The Tea Party is moving from being a manipulated tool of consultants to its own self-conscious, self-aware movement with leadership that’s going after the brass ring for their own gain.  The monster is starting to wake up, and it’s turning on those that would manipulate it for its own ends.  It’s already devoured and consumed Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich’s getting ready to join Sarah in the shadows of history.  The manipulators are now becoming the manipulated, and while they may not like it, well, that’s the way it shakes out.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens to those cynical manipulators who funded the movement that created the Tea Party.  It’s also going to be interesting to see what those of the Tea Party who survive this spring’s brouhaha end up doing as they swallow their stiff jolt of the realities of practical political activism and governance.  Because it does appear that, rhetoric aside, some of the more thoughtful and less corrupt members of that crowd are waking up to realize that it’s one thing to talk about slashing taxes and another thing to actually govern.  Especially in a government eviscerated by the ideology they originally espoused.  The transition from ideologue to pragmatist can be traumatic for many and, if they aren’t getting the cash incentive to stay an ideologue, well…that sort of cold dark night of the soul leads to some damn painful awakenings.  It’s damn easy to tear the structures down, but if you tear them down and then have to try to run the damn place after you’ve ripped it apart, suddenly the siren call of a weak ideology is much less appealing.

For right or wrong, many of the Tea Party activists had genuine concerns and passions fueled above and beyond simple reactionary bigotry.  Getting into office is the best damned wakeup call some of those activists could have encountered.  In retrospect, 2010 may not have been the triumphant prelude to domination that the covert funders of the movement hoped for, but the beginning of the end.

Let’s hope that it really does lead to a greater awakening.

(And why do I sense that the ghost of HST is cackling maniacally from beyond the grave?)

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