President Trump appeared in public twice on Tuesday, leading both Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert to compare him to Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog whose appearances, like Trump’s, are highly scrutinized.
“‘Punxsu-Donny Phil’ emerged from his hole for not one, but two public appearances today,” Kimmel joked.
“He knows that if he comes out of his bunker and sees his shadow, he’ll only have six more weeks of president,” Colbert said.
In the first appearance, the president held an impromptu news conference where he took credit for the stock market’s success. In the next, he pardoned a turkey named Corn. And yet, the late-night hosts noted, he still had time to retweet several of the actor Randy Quaid’s Twitter posts, including one that featured a video of Quaid dramatizing one of Trump’s tweets about Fox News.
“For those who remember Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie from the ‘Vacation’ movies, he has a long list of accomplishments outside acting: He’s been arrested a few times, he tried to get asylum in Canada, he believes there’s a group called the Hollywood Star Whackers that is plotting to kill him — and our president retweeted that person five times today.” — JIMMY KIMMEL
“Look out, kids — Santa’s been eating bath salts this year.” — JIMMY KIMMEL
“Let’s just say he makes Gary Busey look like Dr. Fauci, Randy Quaid.” — JIMMY KIMMEL
“Five Randy Quaid retweets. Two, sure. Three, that’s pushing it. Five? I think that makes him secretary of agriculture.” — JAMES CORDEN
“Quaid, of course, is most famous for trying to erect a Randy Quaid museum, or claiming he’s on the run from a celebrity-killing organization called the Hollywood Star Whackers, or showing up in court wearing a sheriff’s badge, or posting disturbing sex tapes in which he and his wife are having intercourse below a picture of Rupert Murdoch. Obviously, Randy’s a busy guy — barely has time to buy and sell urine on Craigslist.” — STEPHEN COLBERT
“So, a crazy guy retweeted another crazy guy performing the first crazy guy’s crazy tweet. It’s a Möbius mess. It’s like watching two toddlers try to change each other’s diapers, but somehow, it’s even more full of crap.” — STEPHEN COLBERT
“The only person listening to Randy Quaid is his therapist, which, unfortunately, is an old boot he put a hat on.” — STEPHEN COLBERT
The Punchiest Punchlines (Turkey Edition)
“Well guys, today, President Trump took a break from his busy schedule of retweeting Randy Quaid and carried out the presidential tradition of pardoning a turkey.” — JIMMY FALLON
“The bird needed to be pardoned after it was let down by its bumbling lawyer, Rooster Giuliani.” — JIMMY FALLON
“It’s the first turkey basted with Grecian Formula.” — JIMMY KIMMEL
“There you have it — an innocent turkey pardoned by a lame duck.”— STEPHEN COLBERT
“Yeah, the good news is, the turkey was pardoned. The bad news is, Trump didn’t wear a mask, so he’s a goner anyway.” — JIMMY FALLON
“Yes, it’s a lucky, lucky bird to have a better legal team than the president.” — STEPHEN COLBERT
“But I hope everyone else wore a mask, because it’s got to be embarrassing if your contact tracing leads back to a turkey pardon.” — JIMMY FALLON
“I saw that people could go online and vote for the turkey they wanted pardoned, Corn or Cob. Meanwhile, it turns out Corn might’ve won because the vote was rigged by Hugo Chávez.” — JIMMY FALLON
In the summer of 1966, Mao Zedong—the father of the Chinese revolution, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, and leader of the People’s Republic of China—called upon Chinese citizens to rise up in revolt against the very government and party he had been so personally responsible for establishing. “Bombard the headquarters!” he implored.
For months prior, radical acolytes of Mao, none with formal positions in the Communist hierarchy, had been circulating outlandish conspiracy theories about counterrevolutionary plotting and anti-Mao cliques in the highest echelons of the Chinese system, in which the party and the state were one. Unable to press their accusations through the highly bureaucratized and tightly controlled media channels of the party center in Beijing, the radicals, with Mao’s quiet urging, published their claims in a Shanghai newspaper, far from the nation’s capital.
In the resultant miasma of disinformation and innuendo, opportunists in politically important institutions, particularly universities, became emboldened enough to openly vilify what otherwise would have been considered the normal operations of the party-state. In late May of 1966, Nie Yuanzi, an undistinguished mid-level professor at Peking University, publicly accused the university’s leadership, and by extension the Communist Party leadership of Beijing municipality, of being controlled by the “bourgeoisie” and engaging in counterrevolution—capital crimes in those days. Her posted accusations on a university bulletin board might nevertheless have amounted to nothing in this pre-internet era of analog communication. Yet Chairman Mao endorsed the slanderous diatribe, ordering it to be read aloud on national radio and to be published in the party-state’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily.
But it was Mao’s own public proclamation on August 5, his call to bombard the headquarters, that fully set the nation ablaze. Mao, echoing and now formally putting his name behind the conspiracy theories that had been swirling for months, declared that comrades from the party center down to the organization’s lowest-level tendrils had adopted a reactionary bourgeois line, were committed to overturning the revolution, and were actively imposing a “white terror” upon the people. The real threat to the nation’s survival, Mao argued, was no longer the holdouts from the old order—the capitalists, the landlords, the Confucianists. Nor was it China’s turncoat former allies, the Soviets. Nor even was it the worst of the imperialists abroad, the Americans. Rather, the existential threat now resided within the heart of the Communist Party itself, in what today would be termed the “deep state.”
Mao, relishing disruption, and basking in his own centrality to the roiling chaos, called upon young people to rise up. And rise up they did. From August to November 1966, millions of Chinese youth flocked to the capital to attend wildly emotional rallies. Little Red Books in hand, they crowded in Tiananmen Square to catch a glimpse of the chairman, revel in his politics of resentment, and bellow in unison their unwavering fealty to his rule. “Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao! Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao! Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao!”
Impassioned in their newly anointed role as saviors of the revolution, the young, the impressionable, and the disaffected lashed out against the agents of authority all around them, the closer at hand the better: teachers, parents, senior colleagues in the workplace, and so on. Indeed, on the day Mao urged citizens to bombard the headquarters, secondary-school students—adolescents, really—in the all-girls high school affiliated with Beijing Normal University beat to death their school’s party secretary, Bian Zhongyun. Murders of this type would be repeated almost 1,800 times in Beijing alone over the next eight weeks. And that’s not counting the suicides, the beatings, and all the other grievous injuries.
That was just the beginning. By the fall of 1966 and into 1967, violence metastasized across China’s cities. Gangs of radicals tried to seize local power, only to be countered by defenders of the status quo fighting for their own survival. Government agencies were ransacked and looted. Party officials were bound up, humiliated, and thrown before the mob, some never to emerge alive. Workplaces, neighborhoods, and even entire cities descended into internecine warfare as faction battled faction, colleague raged against colleague, student pummeled student, and, in many cases, family member turned on family member. Radicalized citizens broke into military armories and pillaged the contents, thus injecting automatic weapons, hand grenades, and artillery pieces into the nationwide melee. China in just a few months had gone from a rigidly ordered society to Lord of the Flies. Though the final death count is still murky, well more than a million individuals likely lost their lives.
In late March, Donald Trump opened a rally in Wisconsin by mocking the state’s governor, Scott Walker, who had just endorsed his Republican opponent, Ted Cruz. “He came in on his Harley,” Trump said of Walker, “but he doesn’t look like a motorcycle guy.”
“The motorcycle guys,” he added, “like Trump.”
It has been 50 years since Hunter S. Thompson published the definitive book on motorcycle guys: Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. It grew out of a piece first published in The Nation one year earlier. My grandfather, Carey McWilliams, editor of the magazine from 1955 to 1975, commissioned the piece from Thompson—it was the gonzo journalist’s first big break, and the beginning of a friendship between the two men that would last until my grandfather died in 1980. Because of that family connection, I had long known that Hell’s Angels was a political book. Even so, I was surprised, when I finally picked it up a few years ago, by how prophetic Thompson is and how eerily he anticipates 21st-century American politics. This year, when people asked me what I thought of the election, I kept telling them to read Hell’s Angels.Thompson observed that the Hells Angels were alienated from a changing America in which they felt left behind. Most people read Hell’s Angels for the lurid stories of sex and drugs. But that misses the point entirely. What’s truly shocking about reading the book today is how well Thompson foresaw the retaliatory, right-wing politics that now goes by the name of Trumpism. After following the motorcycle guys around for months, Thompson concluded that the most striking thing about them was not their hedonism but their “ethic of total retaliation” against a technologically advanced and economically changing America in which they felt they’d been counted out and left behind. Thompson saw the appeal of that retaliatory ethic. He claimed that a small part of every human being longs to burn it all down, especially when faced with great and impersonal powers that seem hostile to your very existence. In the United States, a place of ever greater and more impersonal powers, the ethic of total retaliation was likely to catch on.
What made that outcome almost certain, Thompson thought, was the obliviousness of Berkeley, California, types who, from the safety of their cocktail parties, imagined that they understood and represented the downtrodden. The Berkeley types, Thompson thought, were not going to realize how presumptuous they had been until the downtrodden broke into one of those cocktail parties and embarked on a campaign of rape, pillage, and slaughter. For Thompson, the Angels weren’t important because they heralded a new movement of cultural hedonism, but because they were the advance guard for a new kind of right-wing politics. As Thompson presciently wrote in the Nation piece he later expanded on in Hell’s Angels, that kind of politics is “nearly impossible to deal with” using reason or empathy or awareness-raising or any of the other favorite tools of the left.
Hell’s Angels concludes when the Angels ally with the John Birch Society and write to President Lyndon Johnson to offer their services to fight communism, much to the befuddlement of the anti-Vietnam elites who assumed the Angels were on the side of “counterculture.” The Angels and their retaliatory militarism were, Thompson warned, the harbingers of a darker time to come. That time has arrived.
* * *
Fifty years after Thompson published his book, a lot of Americans have come to feel like motorcycle guys. At a time when so many of us are trying to understand what happened in the election, there are few better resources than Hell’s Angels. That’s not because Thompson was the only American writer to warn coastal, left-liberal elites about their disconnection from poor and working-class white voters. Plenty of people issued such warnings: journalists like Thomas Edsall, who for decades has been documenting the rise of “red America,” and scholars like Christopher Lasch, who saw as early as the 1980s that the elite embrace of technological advancement and individual liberation looked like a “revolt” to the mass of Americans, most of whom have been on the losing end of enough “innovations” to be skeptical about the dogmas of progress.
But though Thompson’s depiction of an alienated, white, masculine working-class culture—one that is fundamentally misunderstood by intellectuals—is not the only one out there, it was the first. And in some ways, it is still the best psychological study of those Americans often dismissed as “white trash” or “deplorables.”
Thompson’s Angels were mostly working-class white men who felt, not incorrectly, that they had been relegated to the sewer of American society. Their unswerving loyalty to the nation— the Angels had started as a World War II veterans group—had not paid them any rewards or won them any enduring public respect. The manual-labor skills that they had learned and cultivated were in declining demand. Though most had made it through high school, they did not have the more advanced levels of training that might lead to economic or professional security. “Their lack of education,” Thompson wrote, “rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy.” Looking at the American future, they saw no place for themselves in it.
In other words, the Angels felt like “strangers in their own land,” as Arlie Russell Hochschild puts it in her recent book on red-state America. They were clunky and outclassed and scorned, just like the Harley-Davidsons they chose to drive. Harleys had been the kings of the American motorcycle market until the early 1960s, when European and Japanese imports came onto the scene. Those imports were sleeker, faster, more efficient, and cheaper. Almost overnight, Harleys went from being in high demand to being the least appealing, most underpowered, and hard to handle motorcycles out there. It’s not hard to see why the Angels insisted on Harleys and identified strongly with their bikes.
Just as there was no rational way to defend Harleys against foreign-made choppers, the Angels saw no rational grounds on which to defend their own skills or loyalties against the emerging new world order of the late 20th century. Their skills were outdated; their knowledge was insubstantial; their powers were inferior. There was no rational way to argue that they were better workers or citizens than the competition; the competition was effectively over, and Angels had lost. The standards by which they had been built had been definitively eclipsed.
We parents tell our children that when you know you’ve lost an argument or a race, the right thing to do is to be a good sport and to “get ’em next time.” But if there is no next time, or you know that every next time you are going to be in the loser’s lane again, what’s the use of being a good sport? It would make you look even more ignorant, and more like a loser, to pretend like you think you have a chance. The game has been rigged against you. Why not piss on the field before you storm off? Why not stick up your finger at the whole goddamned game?
Therein lies the ethic of total retaliation. The Angels, rather than gracefully accepting their place as losers in an increasingly technical, intellectual, global, inclusive, progressive American society, stuck up their fingers at the whole enterprise. If you can’t win, you can at least scare the bejeesus out of the guy wearing the medal. You might not beat him, but you can make him pay attention to you. You can haunt him, make him worry that you’re going to steal into his daughter’s bedroom in the darkest night and have your way with her—and that she might actually like it.
* * *
It’s not hard to see in the demographics, the words, and the behavior of Trump supporters an ethic of total retaliation at work. These are men and women who defend their vote by saying things like: “I just wanted people to know that I’m here, that I count.” These are men and women whose scorn of “political correctness” translates into: “You can’t make me talk the way that you want me to talk, even if that way of talking is nicer and smarter and better.” These are men and women whose denials of climate change are gleeful denials of scientific expertise in a world where scientific experts have unquestioned intellectual respect and social status. These are men and women who seemed to applaud the incompetence of Trump’s campaign because competence itself is associated with membership in the elite.
Thompson would want us to see this: These are men and women who know that, by all intellectual and economic standards, they cannot win the game. So whether it be out of self-protection or an overcompensation for their own profound sense of shame, they lash out at politicians, judges, scientists, teachers, Wall Street, universities, the media, legislatures—even at elections. They are not interested in contemplating serious reforms to the system; they are either too pessimistic or too disappointed to believe that is possible. So the best they can do is adopt a position of total irreverence: to show they hate the players and the game.
Understood in those terms, the idea that Trumpism is “populist” seems misplaced. Populism is a belief in the right of ordinary people, rather than political insiders, to rule. Trumpism, by contrast, operates on the presumption that ordinary people aren’t going to get any chance to rule no matter what they do, so they might as well piss off the political insiders using the only tool left available to them: the vote.
While many commentators say Trump will have to bring back jobs or vibrancy to places like the Rust Belt if he wants to continue to have the support of people who voted for him, Thompson’s account suggests otherwise. Many if not most Trump supporters long ago gave up on the idea that any politician, even someone like Trump, can change the direction the wind is blowing. Even if he fails to bring back the jobs, Trump can maintain loyalty in another way: As long as he continues to offend and irritate elites, and as long as he refuses to play by certain rules of decorum—heaven forfend, the president-elect says ill-conceived things on Twitter!—Trump will still command loyalty. It’s the ethic, not the policy, that matters most.The racism unleashed by Trump can be understood as directed at the political elite rather than minority groups.
Even the racism that was on full display in Trump’s campaign should be understood at least in part in retaliatory terms, as directed at the political elite rather than at struggling minority groups. The Hells Angels, Thompson wrote, did things like get tattoos of swastikas mostly because it visibly scared the members of polite society. The Angels were perfectly happy to hang out at bars with men of different races, especially if those men drove motorcycles, and several insisted to Thompson that the racism was only for show. While I have no doubt (and no one should have any doubt) that there are genuine racists in Trump’s constituency—and the gleeful performance of racism is nothing to shrug off—Thompson suggests we should consider the ways in which racism might not be the core disease of Trumpism but a symptom of a deeper illness.
* * *
Thompson would also direct our attention in the early days of the Trump administration to the armed forces and the policies that will mandate what they do. For one great exception to the Angels’ ethos of total retaliation against authority was the military, just as one great exception to the Trump voters’ ethos of total irreverence is the police. Thompson explains that such institutions, which are premised on brute force rather than the more refined rules of intellectual engagement, maintain both a practical and a cultural connection to people like the Angels. The military and the police draw mostly from poor and working-class communities to fill their ranks, and their use of violence is something the motorcycle guys understand. It is one aspect of American life they can easily imagine themselves being a part of.
For his part, Thompson thought that what might prove most dangerous about the ethic of total retaliation was the way it encouraged the distrust of all authority—except for the authority of brute force. The president-elect’s enthusiasm for waterboarding and other forms of torture, his hawkish cabinet choices, and his overtures to strongmen like Vladimir Putin are grave omens. We could end up back where Thompson left off at the end of his book: the Angels, marching with the John Birch Society, on behalf of the Vietnam War.
At the end of Hell’s Angels, having spent months with the motorcycle guys, Thompson finally gets stomped by them. For some offense he doesn’t understand (and which he probably didn’t commit), Thompson gets punched, bloodied, kicked in the face and in the ribs, spat at and pissed on. He limps off to a hospital in the dead of night, alone and afraid. Only in that moment does Thompson realize that as a journalist (and therefore a member of the elite), he could not possibly be a true friend of the Angels. Wear leather and ride a motorcycle though he might, Thompson stood on the side of intellectual and cultural authority. And that finally made him, despite his months of good-timing with the Angels, subject to their retaliatory impulses. The ethic of retaliation is total, Thompson comes to realize. There is nothing partial about it. It ends with violence.
There’s no doubt about it: trouble lies ahead. That Hell’s Angels foresaw all this 50 years ago underscores the depth and seriousness of Thompson as a political thinker and of ours as a singularly dangerous time. Trumpism is about something far more serious than Trump, something that has been brewing and building for generations. Let us take Thompson’s cautions seriously, then, so that this time we Berkeley types are not naive about what we face. Otherwise, we’re all liable to get stomped.
On Record Store Day (Nov. 27), Resonance Records is releasing “Rollins in Holland,” a set of the saxophone master’s expansive concert and radio performances from 1967.
Though Sonny Rollins, at the age of ninety, is no longer playing the saxophone, his legacy is still growing. On Record Store Day (Nov. 27), an annual celebration of independently owned music shops, Resonance Records, a prime label for rediscovered jazz classics, issues the three-LP set “Rollins in Holland.” It features expansive concert and radio performances with the bassist Ruud Jacobs and the drummer Han Bennink from 1967, and showcases—in cuts up to twenty-two minutes—Rollins’s freely associative artistry liberated from studio norms.
Pastor Juan D. Shipp is the radio personality responsible for The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story, Vol. 1, a new collection of old gospel songs.Courtesy of the artist
This fall brings a new collection of some old spirituals and gospel music, first recorded back in the 1970s. The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story, Vol. 1 aims to give a second life to some memorable performances that almost disappeared forever. It’s a story that really begins with a close cousin of gospel music: the blues.
In the late 1940s and into the ’50s, radio station KWEM in West Memphis, Ark., featured live broadcasts of future legends like B.B. King, Johnny Cash and Howlin’ Wolf. Eventually the station changed its call letters to KWAM, moved across the river to Memphis, Tenn. and started tilting in a more heavenly direction.
In 1970, the station hired Pastor Juan D. Shipp, a clergyman from a local church that was known for its music. “Always wanted to be a DJ,” Shipp now recalls. ” I do have a music background: I was in the band in my high school and I sang in the choir. Music was just a part of my life.”
Shipp had a daily show on KWAM — 2 p.m. until sunset — and depending on the vagaries of the atmosphere, The Gospel Train could sometimes be heard as far away as Detroit and New York. “Gospel quartets” is the name of the style Shipp like to play — though the groups weren’t limited to just four people. The style features close harmonies, similar to doo wop.
At some point, Shipp, known on air as Juan D, noticed a disparity in the recordings he was playing: He realized that local bands were being shortchanged. The audio quality of those records — groups like The Spiritual Harmonizers, The Silver Wings and The Calvary Nightingales — didn’t match that of the national acts.
So he went hunting for a good studio, where he could record area artists. One day, while picking someone up at the Greyhound bus station in Memphis, Shipp saw a hand-painted sign for Tempo Studios, owned by rockabilly drummer Clyde Leoppard.
“Up on the second floor, there was the most fantastic studio that I had ever seen,” Shipp says. “The way he had it laid out, each individual had [their] own cubicle. And the padding of it was so tight you had to just about holler in order for a person to hear you inside of it. It was just that good.”
Shipp already knew how to run a mixing board and produce, so he got busy. He says he pushed his artists: “They considered me a pretty hard taskmaster when I was in the studio. I was very nice outside the studio; they said I was the perfect person. But inside the studio I became a monster.”
But Shipp was a monster who created a unique sound. “My signature thing was to put something in there that others didn’t have, so we went into the ‘wah wah’ sound,” he says. That distinctive effect, a bit controversial for church music at the time, became a signature of Wendell “Music Man” Moore, a guitar player Shipp met when the artist was around 16.
“It was just a different sound, and the people was loving it — me being a young kid, doing my thing,” says Moore, now in his early 60s. “You know, you would have the older people — “What are you bringing up all that noise in here like that?” — but once they caught on, they loved it.”
Shipp eventually developed a first and second team of artists to split between two record labels: The best groups ended up on the D-Vine Spirituals label, while the the second string appeared on the JCR label. The collection released this September, The Last Shall Be First, features just second stringers.
Music historian Michael Hurt, who wrote the liner notes for The Last Shall Be First, says the album almost didn’t happen, and these old recordings came within weeks of disappearing forever. “I feel like the whole thing was D-Vine intervention, as Pastor Shipp likes to say,” he says.
Hurt tracked Shipp down after stumbling upon some old D-Vine 45’s and loving what he heard. In 2011, the two of them set out to find the original master tapes. Eventually they did, in an old shack behind a house in Olive Branch, Miss. “The roof was caving in and it was just a real mess — you know, when nature starts to take back over,” Hurt says. “But somehow or another, those tapes were in incredible shape.”
The shack had been a studio for Leoppard, Shipp’s old collaborator — and along with Leoppard’s former house, it was about to be foreclosed upon. Had Hurt and Shipp arrived just two weeks later, the tapes would have been lost for good, chucked out in the trash. Instead, there are now plans for many more releases of JCR and D-Vine artists.
As for Shipp, at 81 years old, he is back on the radio for the first time in more than 30 years, on WYXR in Memphis. “After all these years going back into radio, it’s fantastic, he says, “I’m really excited about it.”