Hunter S Thompson's urgent message of political dissent and personal liberation will always live on.
By Theresa May
In 2016, Donald Trump – a man with seemingly no presidential qualities apart from a preternatural ability to market himself – took his place in the race for the White House.
He galvanised social media, and deployed it with propaganda-like efficiency. The world looked on in amazement as a celebrity suddenly became the most powerful politician on the planet.
It would be a mistake to think that valuing personality over policy in politics is a recent trend. For decades, politicians have been creating attractive false identities for themselves through press stunts, social media, and clever campaigning. A Rolling Stone article from as early as 1970 stated, “It’s come to the point where you almost can’t run [for president] unless you can cause people to salivate and whip on each other with big sticks, … You almost have to be a rock star to get the kind of fever you need to survive in American politics.”
This was written by journalist Hunter S. Thompson, whose critical evaluation of the distortion of the American Dream has come to foreshadow a great deal of current political trends. Thompson was a sensation, entirely reshaping what it meant to write about politics. As writer Patrick Doyle noted, “He lacerated the “waterheads,” “swine” and “fatcats” of D.C. culture, and lifted the curtain on the mechanics of press coverage. He exposed “pack journalism” - puff pieces born out of schmoozing sessions between journalists and campaign aides.”
In a style he named ‘Gonzo journalism’, Thompson placed himself right at the centre of his news stories, becoming a part of the action. This first-person approach allowed him to inject sharp opinions and emotion into the heart of the political debate. Soon enough, Thompson found that he himself had become a celebrity, and readers couldn’t get enough of his exciting and outspoken commentary on American politics.
In writings including Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, Thompson gave this first-person character the name of Raoul Duke. Duke embodied the aspects of himself which were drug-addled, hedonistic and depraved. He was the perfect figure to drill to the heart of the American Dream, and see what lay beneath.
But as his fame grew, Thompson soon began to suspect that the public were more interested in hearing from Duke than the real him, and he felt pressure to perform this wild caricature for the cameras. In a rare intimate BBC interview, he revealed that this dual-identity was becoming unsustainable: “Eventually I'm going to have to kill one of them off and create a new identity.”
Fame's Two Faces
Thompson had been a powerful voice in exposing the ‘public’ personas of American politics, which were fabricated to rocket politicians to fame. But he soon became the greatest master of the celebrity alter-ego.
Throughout his life, his fans increasingly struggled to draw a line between him and the mythological Duke, making it impossible for anyone outside his acquaintance to believe they really ‘knew’ him. Thompson turned himself into a living, breathing symbol of American freedom and excess, inspiring a mass readership to push boundaries and defy conventions.
Even in death, Thompson gave a radical salute to personal freedom by taking his own life, raising himself from the status of celebrity to legend. In his will, he noted his one final wish, which came true in August 2005. In front of two hundred people, including Johnny Depp, Jack Nicholson and John Kerry, his ashes were shot out of a 153-foot cannon under the light of the full moon.
The phony politicians that Thompson spent a career pulling apart invented their fake identities around whatever the public wanted to hear. But the myth of Hunter S. Thompson – fiercely intelligent, half-mad and fearless – will always live on, because he truly believed in Raoul Duke’s urgent message of political dissent and personal liberation.
Thompson may have protected a private side of himself which the world will never know about, but he immortalised a necessary figure, both radical and inspiring, forever.