Denevi tells me, “A lot of people today know Thompson as a drugged-out cartoon character”—indeed, the Doonesbury artist Garry Trudeau has made “Duke” a recurring character—“but what many of us are feeling right now [about Trump], Thompson was articulating beautifully in the ’60s and early ’70s, about how difficult it was to watch a government lie to its citizenry, and about how the country disfigured itself. When you’re constantly told one thing and you know the truth is another thing, the citizenry begins to fracture.
Read: The Hunter S. Thompson you don’t know
“That’s what we saw with the Vietnam War, with the Nixon administration and Watergate, with what Thompson saw as shameless, ruthless criminality. I think Thompson would look at the shameless criminality in the Trump administration, and he would’ve been able to dramatize the trauma of the situation, using the New Journalistic techniques.”
Not everyone, of course, loves the iconoclastic Thompson persona (the cigarette holder, the ever-present bottle of Wild Turkey), nor does every scribe and chronicler embrace the “New Journalistic techniques,” which combine reportage with the narrative devices typically associated with fiction. Thompson once wrote that “fiction is a bridge to the truth that the mechanics of journalism can’t reach … you have to add up the facts in your own fuzzy way,” and some journalists in recent decades, perhaps inspired by Thompson, have been accused of fuzzing the line that separates fact from fantasy, of inventing details in the pursuit of a higher truth.
Read: An interview with Hunter S. Thompson
Nor does everyone in the news business endorse Thompson’s flagrant participatory style (hence the term Gonzo); in 1974, he told Playboy magazine, “I like to get right in the middle of whatever I’m writing about, as personally involved as possible”—which arguably skewed the reality he was covering. During his Rolling Stone stint at the 1972 Republican convention, he infiltrated a Youth for Nixon rally and told the kids that NBC News’s John Chancellor loved to drop acid. Because the kids hated the media, they believed his fake LSD rumor—which arguably heightened the reality he was covering, because it exposed the Nixon kids’ naïveté. (“Golly,” he quotes a girl as saying about Chancellor, “that explains a lot, doesn’t it?”)
Denevi defends Thompson’s immersive subjectivity, which was developed only after years of objective reportorial spadework; today, by contrast, “too many people have decided that the more opinions they have, the more likely they’ll get noticed. But there’s no inherent worth to the opinions … Tucker Carlson [on Fox News] thinks he’s Hunter Thompson, whereas in reality, he’s not reporting; he’s just an opinion who’s trying to further Trump’s power.”
The keepers of Thompson’s flame contend that his shoe-leather reporting provided ballast for observations that today seem prescient. He hung out for a year with the ’60s Hell’s Angels, and his descriptions—of white guys without college degrees, “rendered completely useless in a highly technical economy”—bring to mind Trump’s so-called forgotten Americans. Thompson said they were motivated by an “ethic of total retaliation.” He wrote: “They are out of the ball game and they know it, (so) they spitefully proclaim exactly where they stand … Instead of losing quietly, one by one, they have banded together with a mindless kind of loyalty and moved outside the (establishment) for good or ill. (That) gives them a power and a purpose that nothing else seems to offer.”