Taibbi didn’t start reading Thompson until he was older. (Unlike so many American adolescent males, poring over the druggy salaciousness of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Taibbi gravitated instead toward foreign fiction writers such as Gogol, Saki, and Swift.) But “obviously,” he says, “especially when I started going into journalism, there really aren’t that many people like him, so his approach was something that everyone who’s in the business strives for.”
While he demurs that “Hunter S. Thompson’s writing is a lot more ambitious than mine,” Taibbi’s political columns do often glint with Thompsonian brio. Take this passage from a recent Rolling Stone article about McCain’s shift from firebrand to fear monger:
It’s not about the war, or the economy, or the faltering Republican brand, or any of that. This is about hate and fear, and a dark instinct in our blood going all the way back to Salem, and whether or not a desperately ambitious ex-heretic named John McCain can whip up a big enough mob in time to drown the latest witch.
Similarly, in The Great Derangement, Taibbi emulates Thompson’s early reportorial fearlessness as he hits the road to show how, having been “egregiously lied to by their executive and by their supposed allies in the Fourth Estate,” citizens of the United States were tuning out the “untrammeled, insidious deceptions of mainstream media” and instead burrowing into “competing versions of purely escapist lunacy.”
On the right, that was us-versus-them end-time fundamentalism. Taibbi spent weeks undercover as a member of John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church. On the left, it was us-versus-them 9/11 Truthers. He went to their meetings, debunked their feckless conspiracy-mongering, and is still excoriated by dozens of vitrolic e-mails a day. (Chapters spent detailing the greed-fueled gridlock on Capitol Hill, and hanging out with troops in Mosul and Tal Afar, offer context.)
Our national prognosis? To paraphrase Thompson’s friend Warren Zevon, our shit is fucked up. “At a time when the country desperately needed its citizens to man up and seize control of their common destiny,” Taibbi writes, “they instead crawled into alleyways and jacked themselves off in frenzies of panicked narcissism.”
“If you have a guy like Hunter Thompson shooting himself because he can’t deal with the situation,” says Taibbi, “that probably tells you something about the capacity for ordinary people to face how fucked up the system has gotten.”
The write stuff?
So what to do? If this is no longer a country for an old man like Thompson, can a young one like Taibbi change anything?
We find ourselves, much like in 1972, in a bitterly divided country, with a wobbly economy, mired in an unpopular war. And once again, one party has nominated a candidate who promises to not just change but transcend all that. “I think there’s a level of idealism around Barack Obama that’s sort of similar to the McGovern campaign,” says Taibbi. “But we have a situation now where it’s not as clear-cut as that, where the enemy was Nixon and the good guy was McGovern. We have much more of a systemic problem in American politics, [with] media coverage, and the corporate takeover of media.”