“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
—Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Oh, where’s the good doctor when you need him? Looking up at us, no doubt, sobbing his ass off between Wild Turkey shots. Do you know the work of infamous Gonzo journalist Thompson, the drug-addled litterateur who captured the zeitgeist of the 20th Century counterculture as prolifically as anyone—right up there with “New Journalists” Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and the recently departed Joan Didion?
“Hunter Thompson is a moralist posing as an immoralist,” the novelist James Salter once observed, before comparing HST to the chief nemesis in his writing: “Nixon is an immoralist disguised as a moralist.”
There was a lot of excess in Thompson, in both his life and his writing, as cinematic portrayals of him by both Johnny Depp and Bill Murray attest. But to watch Alex Gibney’s terrific documentary on Thompson is to recognize that what he did on the page is what is most missing in this cultural moment: He, and a handful of others, broke from journalism’s haughty, neutral voice and highlighted for us the sheer absurdity of the times in which we found ourselves.
As the post-insurrection news from D.C. gets darker and darker a year out, and as our state’s own race for Pat Toomey’s U.S. Senate seat gets weirder and weirder, the old stenographic way of covering what passes for news has never felt more atavistic.
This 2022 U.S. Senate field in Pennsylvania might just be the greatest testament yet to the fact that a major political party has become a cult, a depressing harbinger of civil war-like division to come.
Thompson, often dismissed as an entertaining sideshow by the political and media establishment—a mere drunk and druggie with a talent for stringing soulful sentences together— turns out to have been right back then: Those who merely reflect the world back to us co-sign the status quo if they’re not all Howard Beale: I’m Mad As Hell And I’m Not Going to Take It Anymore. Turns out, it was stoner Thompson, with his internal bullshit detector and fierce impulse to call out budding authoritarianism, who occupied the higher moral ground all along.
“The polls also indicate that Nixon will get a comfortable majority of the Youth Vote,” Thompson wrote in 1972’s groundbreaking Fear & Loathing On The Campaign Trail, a requiem for the American Dream that speaks to us even louder today. “And that he might carry all fifty states [. . .].This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it—that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable. The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes… understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Nixon.”
But Thompson was more culture critic than ideologue. If he were alive today (he committed suicide in 2005) he’d be just as outraged by the fact that criminals like the Boston Marathon bomber received a stimulus check from the Biden administration as he’d be by the return to Jim Crow-era voter suppression tricks. And he wouldn’t be letting the fourth estate—or citizens themselves—off the hook, either:
“Surely you are aware that the ‘dry rot’ of the press has its roots in the psychopathic complacency of the American public,” he once wrote. “ . . . which can be blamed almost entirely on inadequate facilities for information and education . . . for which the press is in large part responsible…and so on and so on in that familiar vicious cycle which can have its end only in the eventual disintegration of the greatest and most optimistic political experiment in the history of man. . .”
What sent me thumbing back through the Thompson canon was the coverage of the weirder and weirder Pennsylvania senate race, particularly on the Republican side. It’s presented to us like news, rather than a five-alarm civic fire. It’s as if the jockeying for Toomey’s seat is just another election, and not something that portends political and social cataclysm.
That’s what happens in the drumbeat of the daily news: With enough repetition, the weird morphs into the commonplace. Well, there’s nothing commonplace about this race.
First came the Trump-endorsed candidate, Sean Parnell, who faced allegations of abusing his own children and ex-wife. One political consultant I talked to thought that might actually help him in the primary—“I don’t know, because I can’t predict crazy”—but then, after hearing the evidence, a judge found it damning enough that he ruled against the candidate in a custody case; soon, Parnell was history.
That opened the floodgates for a slew of candidates, most jockeying for Dear Leader’s imprimatur: At least three carpetbaggers; one candidate with financial ties to Communist China; another with a history of serving in uniform, albeit for the Turkish army; a once-reasonable Republican who can’t bring himself to say whether he would have voted to certify Pennsylvania’s election had he been in the Senate in 2020; and, most recently, a pugnacious Center City lawyer who is spending $1 million of his own dollars to try and buy the seat, a pittance compared to what some others are ponying up.
Cards on the table: You’re reading the musings of someone who hoped John Kasich would be president in 2016. I didn’t agree with much in his platform, but he was a throwback: A pol who had demonstrated pragmatic, bipartisan problem-solving skills. Trump cleaned his clock and dispatched virtually all others who sought to fill the moderate—or sane—Republican lane, notwithstanding Liz Cheney, God bless her.
This 2022 U.S. Senate field in Pennsylvania might just be the greatest testament yet to the fact that a major political party has become a cult, a depressing harbinger of civil war-like division to come.
Dramatic hyperbole? Maybe. But let’s channel Thompson—save the drink and drugs, ‘cause the old constitution ain’t what it used to be—and see. Let’s count the ways this election fits with the Thompson postulate: When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
Pennsylvania: Carpetbaggers Welcome!
Anytime you see hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent on treacly, anodyne TV advertising for a candidate that simply repeats the word Pennsylvania like some hypnotizing mantra, it’s a telltale sign that the dude they’re selling you lives somewhere else. That’s the case with David McCormick, the billionaire hedge fund guy, whose ads have inundated our airwaves with tales of his PA bona fides. Even though he lives in Connecticut.
But he’s not the only one. Dr. Oz—the TV doctor first sold to us by Oprah, who then turned around and tried to sell us on junk science—lives in a New Jersey mansion that overlooks the Hudson River across from Manhattan, as chronicled in a devastating New York magazine piece by Olivia Nuzzi. (In the story, Oz’s wife doesn’t realize she hasn’t hung up her phone after a brief non-conversation with the reporter, and what is revealed is a cravenness and soullessness that feels epically 2022). He is renting his in-laws’ home in Montgomery County and basing his local chops on the fact that he grew up in Delaware and attended medical school here.
Then there’s Carla Sands, a Trump donor who was rewarded with the ambassadorship to Denmark. She did grow up here, but spent the last 40 years living in California before selling her homes in Malibu and Bel Air and relocating to Harrisburg a year ago to begin convincing us her blood has always carried Keystone DNA.
All three are spending inordinate personal fortunes—Oz, it is reported, might clear out his bank account of in excess of $20 million. Voters choosing their representatives is starting to feel like a quaint tradition; here, we have candidates choosing who will get the chance to vote for them, regardless of whether they themselves have ever voted in the very communities they now seek to lead.
Carpetbagging goes back to Reconstruction, when northerners would arrive in the south with only a satchel or “carpetbag” of possessions and seek to profit from the new freedoms the abolishment of slavery had briefly wrought. Soon, they were derided as opportunistic bad actors seeking to get rich off of others’ misfortune.
Well, how things change, huh? Carpetbagging is a distasteful thing that offends basic notions of self-government and fair play, whether done by those on the left or right. We’ve got to keep that real. Bobby Kennedy and, later, Hilary Clinton, both spent fortunes to capture Senate seats in New York, and liberals looked the other way because they liked the policies of those interlopers.
Can’t have it both ways: If you believe there’s something intrinsically democratic about voters electing one of their own to high office, that principle ought to pertain regardless of ideology.
A Candidate With The Inside Track On The Pro-Communist China Vote.
The aforementioned McCormick is the CEO of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund. He is a graduate of West Point, served in Operation Desert Storm, and was Under Secretary of the Treasury in the Bush administration.
Sounds like a candidate right out of central casting, huh? He’s also closely tied to Trump, despite his globalist and Bush-crowd credentials. His wife, Dina Powell McCormick, was a Trump deputy national security advisor.
But there’s one problem for McCormick, who would have you believe he’s as Pennsylvania as they come. Much of those billions he’s made through the years have come from doing business with Communist China. His fund was founded by Ray Dalio, who has made it clear he thinks America is in decline and that China is the better economic bet.
In a recent CNBC interview, Dalio gave voice to the type of moral relativism that ought to be seen as a slap in the face to anyone who believes there’s still such a thing as American values. When asked to square his bullishness on China investments with that country’s penchant for disappearing people, he went all “what-aboutism”: “Should I not invest in the United States” because of its own human rights issues, he wondered. “As a top-down country,” he said of China, “they behave like a strict parent.”
McCormick quickly tried to dissociate himself from Dalio’s remarks, but does that strike you as anything but crisis management? He’s been at Bridgewater for 12 years; together, he and Dalio made billions investing with the Chinese Communist party. Did you hear him complaining then? When, say, the thorny issue of Taiwan independence comes before the Senate, what exactly will account for McCormick’s position on behalf of the citizens of Pennsylvania?
All the jockeying, the too-cute-by-half soundbites, the sycophancy to Trump, all of it runs the risk of saying, in effect, to the average Republican voter in our state who is just trying to get by every day: None of this is really about you.
Let’s be clear: China is no “strict parent.” It’s actually committing genocide and few have responded to it with the moral clarity Thompson would have called for—not liberals, not conservatives, and not institutions like the NBA, which seems to be rather selective about the human rights abuses it will protest.
Dalio and other globalist one percenters make the old “constructive engagement” argument we heard when it came to propping up apartheid in South Africa—if not for our investments, things would be even worse. Finally, last month, after some hemming and hawing, President Biden signed the bipartisan Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law—a step in the right direction, yes, but one still lacking in moral urgency.
Right about now, Thompson would take a long bong hit and walk us through, as he would say, the “moral rot.” There are 12 million Uyghurs living in the province of Xinjiang; they’re mostly Muslim and speak their own language with Turkish roots. Over the last four years, China has rounded up over 1 million of them and forced them into internment and reeducation camps. There are allegations from Amnesty International and other credible groups regarding torture, sterilization, and forced labor. One anecdote held that a woman who was detained, stripped naked and urinated on by the police while they sought a false confession from her tried to commit suicide while in custody…by gnawing on her own wrists all night long.
What do you think the chances are that a journalist in a Senate debate will ask David McCormick how his firm’s constructive engagement with Communist China helped her?
Besides, let’s not ignore the central incongruity here. Whatever happened to Trump as man of the people? All those working class White and Black men who were taken in by his playing on their resentments ought to wonder: This is what we’ve gotten for our votes, billionaires like McCormick and Dalio, who are on Team China?
Of course, Trump was always only about faux populism, as evidenced by his triumphant arrival at Mar a Lago the night Congress passed his sweeping tax cuts, when he promptly announced to the one percenters in the room: “You all just got a lot richer.”
Democrats have become the party of the elites—seemingly obsessed with trigger warnings, pronouns and emptying jails, at the same time that Trump seized on working class folks’ feeling left behind. But watch who his acolytes are. Just because Trump can channel your anger, it doesn’t mean he or those who would follow him are on the side of someone who works paycheck to paycheck.
Then There’s The Candidate Who Served in the Turkish Army.
Trump is wonderful at playing the tough guy, even while he weakly sucked up to strongmen like Putin, Kim Jong-un, and China’s Xi Jinping—remember how fawning he was toward China in the early days of the pandemic? “I really believe they are going to have it under control fairly soon,” Trump said as early as February, 2020.
Trump’s “toughness” has always been one of the great cons he’s pulled on his supporters. He’s actually more Neville Chamberlain than Harry Truman. (Remember, Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur in a high noon-like showdown. Trump, it’s been reported, despite his reality TV catchphrase, can’t even bring himself to fire people face-to-face.)
So how’s it going to play if he endorses the guy who served in the Turkish army? That would be Oz, and this description of the TV doc from Nuzzi’s story is a Thompson-like recapitulation of just how bizarrely weird our politics is getting: Oz, she writes, is “an elite, pro-choice, anti-gun, transgender-child-supporting, Michelle Obama–hugging Muslim carpet-bagger and Turkish-army veteran who once announced on national television that his testicles descend in such a way that his penis curves to the left.”
With enough repetition, the weird morphs into the commonplace. Well, there’s nothing commonplace about this race.
Nuzzi compares McCormick and Oz. “On paper, there’s at least as much of a Trumpist case against a globalist money guy as there is against a celebrity who took part in the Obama White House’s anti-obesity campaign,” she writes.
If you’re a Pennsylvanian who six years ago bought that Trump “alone could fix it,” don’t you have to be asking yourself: This is what I was signing up for?
Oz’s candidacy is a further test of the power of celebrity in politics. The old saying was that politics is show business for ugly people; now, celebrities—thinking that if Trump can ride fame for fame’s sake to political office, anyone can—are getting in the game for real, like former football great Herschel Walker, running for the Senate in Georgia, who has had to fend off reports that he threatened his ex-wife’s life, lied about his education and finances, and alarmed business associates with unstable behavior.
Is this a trend that’s here to stay? One democratic political consultant tells me the Dems better get on the celebrity candidate bandwagon. “You know who would be my ideal candidate for president in 2024?” he asked. I struggled, before he volunteered it: “Tom Hanks.”
What’s the old Mario Cuomo line? You campaign in poetry and you govern in prose. I love Tom Hanks—in movies, and hosting SNL. But what in his CV tells us he can actually govern? At least former actor Ronald Reagan spent two terms running the largest state in the union before ascending to the presidency. From the standpoint of purely winning the presidency, yes, a Hanks or Oprah or Clooney candidacy might sound smart. But that we’re even having this conversation enters jumping the shark territory. Yep, we’re all Fonzie now.
Who is Willing to Say 2020 Was a Free and Fair Election?
Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse and that the new American marketing slogan ought to be something along the lines of America: 244 Years. We Had a Good Run, the Inquirer’s Jonathan Tamari reached out to the Republican Senate candidates a few weeks ago to ask if they believed Joe Biden won the 2020 election and if they would have certified Pennsylvania’s election results, as Toomey had. None of them said they would have.
In fact, developer and former candidate for Lieutenant Governor Jeff Bartos was the only candidate to even respond, acknowledging Biden’s victory but not commenting on whether he would have voted to certify your 2020 vote. He then took the opportunity to pivot into a condemnation of Biden—red meat to the base—hitting him on running a “war on the energy industry” and inflation and a “humanitarian crisis” at the southern border.
Here’s the thing: I know Jeff Bartos. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, we did a wholly uplifting virtual event with him and his one-time rival turned friend, John Fetterman, who is also running for the Senate on the democratic side. Jeff Bartos is as decent and thoughtful a candidate as I’ve come across in local politics. He’s a mensch. That’s why, when I receive his clenched teeth fundraising emails to his supporters, it really makes me wonder if we’re ever going to recover from these dark, divided times.
Biden’s America, according to Bartos, is “a daily horror movie,” and he “plans to send people door-to-door to invade the health privacy of Americans…The Biden administration is committed to using the government to invade every aspect of your life.” There was this one back in August: “Joe Biden is destroying America and has betrayed the American people, and for that reason, he must be IMPEACHED!” That was followed in September with this: “In Joe Biden’s America, individual liberty is the enemy, and tyranny is the goal.”
Jesus. If there’s no lane for someone like Jeff Bartos to be a problem-solver instead of a hyperbolic, catastrophizing carnival barker…what hope is there?
After Tamari’s original round of questions went out, a new candidate joined the fray. Center city attorney George Bochetto filed papers last week and announced that he’d be spending $1 million of his own fortune on the campaign—a fraction of what the carpetbaggers will be using to inundate the airwaves.
Lo and behold, Bochetto has already said what the other, cowering candidates won’t: That Biden won in 2020 fair and square, and that he would have voted to certify our state’s election result—just like 92 U.S. Senators did.
Bochetto is a pugilistic litigator—a former state boxing commissioner who would actually get in the ring and practice taking shots to the head, probably a good training regimen for politics circa 2022. He’s made headlines spearheading high-profile cultural fights, like keeping the Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza, often targeting “woke liberals” for waging war on common sense.
RELATED: The fight over the Columbus statue in South Philly is a proxy for the divide that threatens to engulf all of us. Why can’t two opposing sets of facts be true at the same time?
I’ve known Bochetto for 30 years, and you underestimate his brightness and glibness at your peril. No doubt, he’s aware that Philly and the collar counties hold a large portion of the state’s Republicans—many of whom have seen him on local and Fox news. In a crowded field…who knows?
I’m not sure politics needs more litigators—Larry Krasner has proven that those true believers who are intent on winning arguments often lack in the amino acids of good governance: collaboration, coalition building, compromise. But Bochetto most certainly is a risk taker, someone willing to take on big fights. (I remember him driving down Broad Street in the mid-‘90s in a car ride that felt more fitting for an unlicensed amusement park; I still don’t know how he swerved to avoid that parked car.)
At a time when Donald Trump has intimidated an entire party into acquiescence, maybe there’s a lane, after all, for a swaggering tough guy who stands up to Trump and Trumpism. In the end, most observers say the math just won’t be be there. The Trump fever dream continues, particularly as Biden lurches from losing cause to losing cause. (Neither Build Back Better, or his new fixation, voting rights, hold out much promise.)
Either way, what’s clear at least up until now in the clown show that passes for the Republican party primary for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania is that there’s a wholesale underestimation of the voter going on. All the jockeying, the too-cute-by-half soundbites, the sycophancy to Trump, all of it runs the risk of saying, in effect, to the average Republican voter in our state who is just trying to get by every day: None of this is really about you.
If that persists, when the eulogy is written for this still-embryonic experiment in self-government, the weirdness of this Senate race just may be one of the prime exhibits in a saga that chronicles the fall of empire.
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