By Jim Miller
A couple of weeks ago I saw Dead and Company open their tour in Las Vegas. The trip was filled with a bit of personal nostalgia for the many other times I came see the Grateful Dead play two or three show runs there before Jerry Garcia died. Of course, all of those trips, taken with friends steeped in the larger history of the band, were full of easy, ironic references to Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where he tells the tale of his own savage journey into the Heart of the American Dream.
Back then, when my friends and I stayed in Circus Circus with 6 of us packed into the cheapest room we could find, sleeping on the floor or in the bathtub, someone would always remember the passage where Thompson writes:
The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich. The ground floor is full of gambling tables, like all the other casinos … but the place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent, and all manner of strange County-Fair/Polish Carnival madness is going on up in this space. Right above the gambling tables the Forty Flying Carazito Brothers are doing a high-wire trapeze act, along with four muzzled Wolverines and the Six Nymphet Sisters from San Diego.
And, decades later, his observations still resonate and could apply to virtually any of the theme-parked spectacles that line the strip:
This madness goes on and on, but nobody seems to notice. The gambling action runs 24 hours a day on the main floor, and the circus never ends. Meanwhile, on all the upstairs balconies, the customers are being hustled by every conceivable kind of bizarre shmuck. All kinds of funhouse-type booths. Shoot the pasties off the nipples of a ten-foot bull-dyke and win a cotton-candy goat. Stand in front of this fantastic machine, my friend, and for just 99¢ your likeness will appear, 200 feet tall, on a screen above downtown Las Vegas. Ninety-nine cents more for a voice message. “Say whatever you want, fella. They’ll hear you, don’t worry about that. Remember you’ll be 200 feet tall.”
“It’s really interesting and kind of like hell.”
Whether you are wandering through the still existent Circus Circus or one of the multiple other simulacrum spaces, be faux Paris, faux New York, or faux Venice, the thing that strikes you most is the thinly veiled desperation hiding just beneath the over-the-top excess of drinking, gambling, hooking-up, and other two-dimensional “fun.”
If it is fun at all, it’s a kind of angry fun. A heedless, fuck it fun. Lose my last dollar fun.
On this latest trip, as we were walking up and down the strip past people throwing up, screaming at each other, or wandering dazed from one club or casino to the next amidst the din and flashing neon, I asked my thirteen year—who was enduring a Dead road trip in exchange for seeing the Padres’ Triple A affiliate, the Chihuahuas, play the Las Vegas 51s the next day– what he thought of all the grown-up high jinks, and he pithily observed, “It’s really interesting and kind of like hell.”
When I asked him why, he told me that he thought it was a crazy way to make people “get stupid and lose a lot of money.” Wise boy. Clearly he’s already on to what Thompson observed in his classic bit of new journalism:
But nobody can handle that other trip – the possibility that any freak with $1.98 can walk into the Circus-Circus and suddenly appear in the sky over downtown Las Vegas 12 times the size of God, howling anything that comes into his head. No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.
Thompson’s wry observation that Vegas was not the exception to the American rule but its logical extension was visionary in that he saw how “capitalism on acid” could incorporate nearly anything in a totalitarian fashion just to sell it back to you. Indeed, decades later, Thomas Frank in the Conquest of Cool would outline precisely how easily countercultural style was appropriated by the market in order to sell us hip capitalism and a plethora of identity-defining commodities that come with it, whether they be tangible products or commodity-spectacles.
One of the more perverse ironies of recent American history, however, is that a variant of Thompson’s “gonzo journalism” was adopted by the right as the old rules of objectivity put not the acid-tripping Thompson into the heart of the story as participant-observer but every right-wing wackadoodle with a blog or microphone into the middle of their own twisted American narrative from Breitbart to Fox News. Instead of trolling the squares, this new form of extreme storytelling is the square’s revenge, brought to them by the same corporation that titillated them with depravity on its other channels.
Perhaps the most important architect of this new variety of Fear and Loathing was the recently deceased Roger Ailes, who was notably remembered by Matt Taibbi from Thompson’s old outfit, Rolling Stone:
Ailes was the Christopher Columbus of hate. When the former daytime TV executive and political strategist looked across the American continent, he saw money laying around in giant piles. He knew all that was needed to pick it up was a) the total abandonment of any sense of decency or civic duty in the news business, and b) the factory-like production of news stories that spoke to Americans’ worst fantasies about each other.
Like many con artists, he reflexively targeted the elderly – “I created a TV network for people from 55 to dead,” he told Joan Walsh – where he saw billions could be made mining terrifying storylines about the collapse of the simpler America such viewers remembered, correctly or (more often) incorrectly, from their childhoods.
In this sense, his Fox News broadcasts were just extended versions of the old “ring around the collar” ad – scare stories about contagion. Wisk was pitched as the cure for sweat stains creeping onto your crisp white collar; Fox was sold as the cure for atheists, feminists, terrorists and minorities crawling over your white picket fence.
And the distorted reality that Ailes created had at its core the notion that information was just one more product to sell. As Taibbi smartly notes, “Ailes trained Americans to shop for the news as a commodity. Not just on the right but across the political spectrum now, Americans have learned to view the news as a consumer product.”
So as I strolled down the Las Vegas strip in Trump’s America, it somehow seemed like the perfect place to be, the savage heart of what ails us in a country where we are suffering from the worst sort of bad trip–knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing—and fearing and loathing everything that doesn’t conform to our chosen narrative.
Somebody throw the radio in the tub now!