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AKA Trump, The Gonzo President.

An hour in the company of PJ O Rourke – iconoclast, much lauded author of the seminal Republican Party Reptile, contemporary of Hunter S Thomson, man of letters, polemicist, contrarian – and of course the near mythical voice of some legendary BA adverts that wrote themselves into our cultural mythology with that laconic opening statement: “You Brits!”

The Theme for the gathering – a TortoiseMedia-eye look at America Today in the space between Presidential conceding and inauguration. Rich pickings indeed.

What’s not to like.

PJ O Rourke is a hero, the meeting of which can be a precarious thing at the best of times, as James Harding, Tortoise co-founder and our host rightly pointed out. But we were in safe hands. Mr Harding’s effortless steerage allowed us to hang out in our PJs if you will, consuming PJs warm yet remorseless observations without said meeting popping the heroic balloon.

The hour was spent walking the tightrope between PJ’s ability to infuse Zoom with the smoky,  peaty warmth of an antique Chesterfield chair and the frothy opinion and polemic bubbling up in the chat stream at the expense of the departing POTUS . 

What does the lampooning and highly satirical Republican-ish writer PJ O Rourke think of The Yellow Hair?  [my imagined Lakota Sioux name for said POTUS].

A proponent of Gonzo Journalism, this was the man who famously wrote on “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink.” He also notably served as Editor-in-Chief of National Lampoon for many years with his imprint on many National Lampoon classics. His room for satirical manoeuvre was vast.  

And then it hit me – the fact that a master of Yan-kee satire and lampooning would be discussing a political culture of shifting-sand sensibilities underwritten by fatuous and sometimes almost wilfully funny untruths struck me as ironic at best, or at worse, a conflict of interest. 

This tension felt like it deserved a little more poking.  

To most people outside the U.S., and a rather large number inside, American Politics feels like it has been hijacked by the writers of National Lampoon and The Onion – with a smattering of H R Puff N Stuff and The King Of Kings screenplay bringing in the wings. At the heart of it all? Fake News – a master class in obfuscation. Everything is Fake, unless the Real President says otherwise, with @realDonaldTrump playing a pungent role in the Real Fake divide. Madonna or Maradonna? You decide.

Fake News – ridiculous flights of factual fictions, fantasies and potential conspiracies –  all liberally doused with the petrol of incensed ‘values-based’ hurt and ‘spiritual’ mortification. As the American master Mark Twain proclaimed:  ‘Why let the truth get in the way of a real story.’ Amen! Each new ‘real’ news story is  another tongue placed firmly in 330 Million or so American cheeks – and all the while POTUS gleefully flicking off the critical flies with pronouncements of ‘Fake News.’

Fake News feels so, well, American.  The right to shape any truth, fact, system, person, group, taste, belief, or data point in your own inimitable and highly subjective image feels more than just human. It feels like a goddam’ amendment in the constitution of all that is American.

Hunter S Thomson summed it up thus in his seminal Gonzo tome, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

‘But what was the story?

Nobody had bothered to say.

So we would have to drum it up on our own.

Free enterprise. The American Dream.’

Damn right. The Right to live out a Truman-show life under God & Fake News feels pretty damn good. Throw in a Rifle and I’ll pay the damn sub RIGHT NOW – in dark web crypto-currency of course, so those long-haired, bean-shoot-smokin, pinko sons-of-bitches can’t trace me. Hell yeah. I’m a Boy and Proud of it. Get me?

When the fact that the greatest political satire is real life – when everything is Fake, up is down, black is white, left is right, sex isn’t gender, fixed is fluid, everything’s a meme and the question of ‘how did we get here?’ gets begged – my tuppence-worth of an observation is this.

In the old courtly world, high satire was exactly that: the rarified and vaunted art of the rapier strike – of barbed projectiles of intelligent drollery fired against the pustular buffooning of royals, aristocrats and their petite bourgeoisie henchmen, with a liberal dose of mockery reserved for the sprawling, brawling plebiscite. 

But in the New World – the land of opportunity –  where every man was equal under God [though not the women – and…uhm…oh, yes, those dark skinned folks and any Native Indians we haven’t killed or filed under D for Destitution – just saying] – everyone should be allowed to play. Why just let the nobs of Nob Hill have all of the fun. 

Cue the heady days of the 60s and 70s. American polemicists took the spirit of free speech and the people’s right to voice their disdains, loathings, suspicions and truths to a whole new level. In the social splintering of the politicised Beat Generation and with the late Sixties agitprop movements came a new wave of satirists and lampooners with a much more audacious and ambitious sense of their audience. Hell, if a washing powder can change the behaviours [and underwear colour] of millions of Americans through television – just think what we might achieve. 

Mid West college kids, East Coast ingenues and West Coast dilettantes, growing up on the mass-market all you-can-eat-buffet of the American Dream, got busy. And they got tooled up. They armed themselves with Satire. What’s more, they got populist. [For the people by the people. How could they not. The whole point of propaganda, whether to stop a war, a politician, or a bunch of racists, is to inflame a reaction in the hearts and minds of as many people as possible as often as possible for as long as possible. Ridicule became the power tool of their populist propaganda.. 

Serious political discourse and posturing was already in full flight across most US college campuses. Over arch and deeply myopic, radicalism, was the order of the day and it had ‘rules’ as Saul Alinsky so clearly set out. This modern radical agenda and its propagandas cut deeply into the fresh-faced self-serving idealism of the existing New World elites. But it would always be a throw-back from the old world that would cut deepest. And that throw back was Ridicule. 

Ridicule, an art practised slavishly and to a higher order in the Old World of the 17th and 18th Centuries was, once again, to threaten the power elites of the New World. The using of formal and informal fallacies and fakeries to undermine someone or their argument – to make a mockery of their position or beliefs and in that way disavow them of any credibility, credulity or integrity – was to have a U.S. make-over.

As a weapon, Ridcule, designed to wither and erode the very foundations upon which someone stood, was remorseless and relentless. Ridicule is engineered to destroy the essence of the thing it targets. Forensic. Calculated. Cruel. 

The new satirical U.S. version was simply the old Ridicule dressed up in a goofy Matt Monroe jumper.

In playground terms, National Lampoon magazine could be said to have ‘started it’. Originally the Harvard Lampoon, NL parodied, mocked and ridiculed everything and everyone. In that way it was VERY egalitarian.

In it we can find perhaps a ground zero – a crucible moment – in a Gonzo to Fake News trajectory theory.

True Facts, one of the magazine’s cornerstone pieces and in fact the only factual part of the whole rag, used such bizarre obtuse and ridiculous pieces of real news from around the world that reality, even when it was in evidence, was barely distinguishable from ridiculous madness and satirical surreality.

It is at this point that the connection between Gonzo Journalism and Fake News becomes clearer for me. In that moment, where reality and the ridiculous were purposefully blurred beyond comprehension, the possibility of a Gonzo society became an unsettling reality.

In that effect, I believe that for all the good they did, and for all the rotten edifices they collapsed, the arch lampooners and satirists have at least a little to answer for in regard to to the polluting and toxic nature of what we now call Fake News.

The multiplier in all of this? The steroid of mass media – the exponential reach and influence of Television and the Movies.

Hot on its heels of National Lampoon came the fire-starter of Saturday Night Live. From its inauguration in 1975, SNL packed and wrapped ridicule for mass American consumption. By the mid-to-late seventies it was a seed-bed of cultish satirical showmanship. 

Between National Lampoon, SNL and all the subsequent mischief makers they spawned [The Onion being a notable example], the intelligent populist, comedic contrarian and anarcho-satirist had the opportunity to fire their ire into millions of homes via both printed piece and the cathode ray. What’s not to like?  

The small flaw in the blessed trajectory?

If everything is ridiculous, then nothing is serious – and more importantly, nothing is sacrosanct. There are no safe places or secure vaults of immutable truths and irreversible facts. Relativistic trick-cycling allowed anyone to present even the most rigorously tested or peer reviewed truth or fact as open to disdainful disregard or suspicion. Nothing can be fixed. Everything is fluid. Everything suffers a Borderline Personality Disorder. 

In a culture still mostly raised on the biblical trope of Let him that is without sin cast the first stone, the idea that any flaw whatsoever disavows you of being able to stand in serious and sometimes punitive judgement of a belief, moral code or political position, satire is more than just an intellectual foil, it is an instrument of faith. When that happens, you’re effectively fucked.

Everything is flawed – ergo – it does not have the untainted status, permission or the credibility to ever take higher ground or present an unassailable position, framing fact or truth.  In that instance, everything is relative and nothing is what it seems, to the person or persons ‘seeming’ it at least. So any and every thing can be ridiculed, undermined and summarily dismissed with no right to reply. Sound familiar?

The satirist and the lampooners power to pull down edifices of bullshit, self interest, political filibustering, outright deception and lying changed the face of massed political debate and its accompanying sophistry, in some cases irrevocably, removing its cloak or invisibility and invincibility completely. 

More recently, Social Media has simply accelerated the whole kit and caboodle – leaving us with Radical Pamphleteering to the power of Moore’s Law.

People under the cosh of power elites have always seen potential witchery and devilry in those above and beyond them. Unknown darkness and debauch in the big houses and the strange ways of those who Have have always been with us. And elites have always attracted suspicion, with wild stories of their excesses and self interest [often true] used as propaganda to bring them down. Put that sensibility into the New World and the land of Salem Witch Trials and the Pilgrim suspicions of the excesses of Mammon and, well – light blue touch paper and stand well back.  Conspiracy theories have always existed. But as with any fact or ‘truth’ generally, pop a conspiracy theory into the super-fly, deep-fat-frier of investigative gonzo journalism to the power of social media and shazaam, Bob’s your slightly unnerving and sexually ambivalent Pizza Delivering Paeodophile Uncle of the Jewish Global Conspiracy variety. 

Suddenly, It feels like a very short walk 


everything is underwritten


everything is undermined

How does one sustain a shift of that scale and nature? 

Comedy of course. Great comedy. Crazy comedy. Off-beat comedy. Free-form rough-edged comedy shit. Funny shit. People love to laugh, especially at things that would otherwise make them cry – like the state of their wallet, their world or the nature and idiosyncrasies of the people tasked with running it – elected or otherwise.

Funny is what we do when all else fails. Humour is how we navigate the madness. Funny is sacrosanct; a human right. We don’t like people telling us what to laugh and not laugh at. If you need proof, look no further than the belief that the the inauguration of Donald J Trump was in part powered by people reacting against being told what not to laugh at. Don’t mess with funny. Even it if is offensive or potentially dangerous. 

‘Sy Benson’ discusses comedy and Coffee with ‘Benjy Stone’ [AKA Benjamin Steinberg].

As Sy Benson, head-writer on King Kaiser’s Comedy Cavalcade in the movie My Favourite Year proclaims when challenged to remove his ‘Boss Hijack’ sketch, a bitingly satirical yet potentially libellous piece on a Mobster thug:

“You never cut funny.”   

The relationship been truth, satire, journalism and dangerous living are ancient. Telling powerful people, or massed tribes and types of people exactly what you think of them and their shibboleths has been getting satirists into trouble since Aristophenes in Ancient Greece first thought to poke fun at both Socrates and the Athenian Court System. The golden age of Satire was no different – Moliere, Voltaire and Boileau-Desperaux in France and Swift, Pope, Dryden and Hogarth in the U.K. walked a perilous line with the potential for censure, prison and death threats as the reward for their caustic, parodical exclamations.

This whiff of danger has lurked in the wings of Gonzo since its inception. The counter culture and its harrying of state instruments and bodies in the era of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon and Watergate bought investigative journalists, cultural commentators and bold satirists closer to the flame again. To be seen to be distributing a truth that did not align with the ‘confected’ truth of the governing elites was a very dangerous pastime. 

Furthermore, it wasn’t always political truths that were being smashed or subverted. This was also the era of brutal self enquiry, identity myth busting and raw revelation – where people mined the underlying flows, fractures and flaws of the human psyche through explorations that sought to break down multiple doors of perception in search of some greater cosmic truth via LSD. A search for absolute truths in whichever shape they came could be cause for concern

Again Thomson, this time in a Rolling Stone Article in 1973 states:

“Absolute truth is a rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.” 

If you set out to design, engineer and seed a social movement custom-built to suffocate serious debate and enquiry, undermine universal ethical and moral constructs, and effectively neuter any intellectually-rigorous and profound discourse or enquiry, you couldn’t do better than Gonzo Journalism and National Lampoon’s anything. A stroke of genius. In these two pillars the foundations of a Gonzo Society are born.

To that point, one could posit that Gonzo culture and Gonzo Society both deserve and create Gonzo Politicians. 

Followed to its logical end, one could say that Donald J Trump was the only choice in 2016.

Trump is the ultimate Gonzo Politician. The perfect POTUS to sit in power at the heart of a nation of states suckled on gonzo lampooning and relentless irreverence. In 2016 Hilary was the epitome of a satirical target. Rooted and raised in the self serving circles of political power elites and Washington well-doers, Hilary was never going to have an easy race against Trump in a predominantly Gonzo Society. Gonzo was the pixie dust in Trump’s armoury, the accelerator of his ambition. The 2016 election was far more a realisation of gonzo politics than an assertion of real inalienable political will. 

Is P.J partially responsible for the political mood in 2016? Kinda but not really. No more than for any election since 1969. Should Hunter S Thomson take a bow? Again, it’s a No.

But their legacy does certainly taint the world we now live in, for both good and bad.

If showbiz rules and we’re all Gonzo now, Trump Rules – or at least did for 4 years longer than most of us would have liked. But, careful what you wish for. And perhaps more importantly careful what you laugh it. Because someone might take you seriously.

Inspired by the very real events and conversations [recorded] in an An Evening with PJ O Rourke hosted by Tortoise Media. The topic? America Today.