The overlooked lessons from Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels.
Words Susan McWilliams Illustration Ralph Steadman
My grandfather, Carey McWilliams, was the editor of The Nation magazine, and in the early 1960s, he asked a young writer named Hunter S. Thompson to investigate an infamous California motorcycle gang. In 1966, Thompson published Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, a book about a biker gang, in which the biker gang is key to the future of American politics. “A future,” Thompson wrote, “that nothing in our history has prepared us to cope with.” It’s a book that talks about frustrated people of the ‘60s who sound a lot like the people of today that President Trump is trying to win over.
Thompson described the Angels as guys who at almost any other time in history would have had a lot of power. They were strong, and they didn’t shy away from danger; most of the Angels had been soldiers. They weren’t well educated, and they were not easily intimidated. But in 1960s America, they were dismissed as “losers.” Technological change meant fewer jobs for tough manual laborers, and foreign competition meant lower wages for the jobs that were left. Guys with diplomas took charge and mocked much of what the Angels valued, including their patriotism, which, to elites, looked simplistic against the mess unfolding in Vietnam. And the once-esteemed Harleys the Angels loved had become objects of popular scorn, replaced by cheaper, more reliable imports.
President Trump likes Harleys. Or at least he likes talking about Harleys. He talked about them on the campaign trail, and now he talks about them to Congress. “A great American company…Magnificent motorcycles,” he says. But Trump doesn’t ride — “I’m not a huge biker,” he told one crowd, “I always liked the limo better” — and when Trump proclaims his love for Harleys, he's trying to relate to the people feeling pissed and powerless. Sometimes, those people feeling pissed and powerless can't find a way to imagine a different future. The powerful seem too powerful. The big seem too big. When that happens, people retreat into tribes and express their anger through rebellion.
That’s what Thompson saw in the Hells Angels: an “ethic of total retaliation” directed at the “cultural mainstream.” The Angels customized their loud, outsized bikes to make them even louder and more outsized, then rode down Main Street and scared the crap out of polite society. They weren’t trying to change things —they didn’t think they could — but they wanted to make noise. There is no question that President Trump gets the deep political symbolism of the Harley, a symbolism made even more powerful because of what happened after Hell’s Angels was published.
Starting in the mid-’70s, Harley Davidson stopped trying to compete with sleeker imports and embraced its retrograde image. The company dabbled in what we call “political incorrectness,” even producing a Confederate flag-themed bike. Around the same time, President Reagan imposed a steep tariff on Japanese motorcycles. The moves vaulted the company back into a position of strength. Now Harley-Davidson, Inc., is a publicly traded corporation with global operations, a loyal following, and stores in fancy shopping malls. The polite society that used to fear the Angels now clamors to buy Harley-Davidson pashminas.
Somehow the earsplitting American clunker that had seemed a surefire loser in the era of techno-global competition had become, with a little reinvention and a lot of government help, a major winner. It’s not hard, then, to see how Harleys became one of Trump’s go-to talking points. The President built his base among people who are powerless and pissed; people whose jobs are disappearing, whose towns are decaying, whose education is inadequate, whose “deplorable” values are spurned by elites. These are Americans who, just like the Angels, feel scorned in their own land.
They may not all ride motorcycles, but Trump seems to think that they see something of themselves in Harley. If Harley-Davidson could, against all odds, take back the motorcycle market and win cultural respect, then why can’t these scorned Americans take back the nation and do the same? “They have been mistreated for so long that they have become used to it,” said Trump, talking about a conversation with Harley-Davidson executives. “They weren't even asking for a change — but I am.” Harley is Trump’s brand of hope, his attempt to convince fed-up folks that there might be a chance for them yet.
Here’s the thing, though: While researching Hell’s Angels, Thompson went out of his way to prove he was on the Angels’ side. He wanted the MC to know that he wasn’t like other journalists, that he wouldn’t hang the Angels out to dry. He went to their parties. He admired their Harleys. He bought them a whole lot of beer. He rode alongside them. And for a while, that worked okay. Thompson seemed to have the Angels’ acceptance, maybe even their respect. But at some point the Angels decided it wasn’t enough. An outsider was an outsider, and any outsider was suspect — especially anyone who was closer to cultural power than they were. So they beat Thompson within an inch of his life.
At the end of Hell’s Angels, with blood basically dripping from his eyes, Thompson realizes that people who believe in “total retaliation” are not like a traditional social or political demographic, a group you can court casually and walk away from quietly. If you’re not one of them, you’re always going have to tread carefully around them. If they decide you’ve made any false move, whether you’ve made one or not, you should expect to get thrashed. And about that thrashing: In the end, guys like the Angels love it when the night ends in full-body violence. Once you’ve invited them over, as Thompson put it, somebody’s sure to get fucked. If you’re not on the giving end, you’ll sure as hell be receiving.
It’s one thing to tell stories about motorcycles. It’s another to ride. Trump has the first part mastered, but he’s still sitting in the back of a limo. And lots of the people who elected him are still pretty powerless and still plenty pissed. I think Thompson would be the first to tell Trump that he has taken the American people down a dangerous road. Wherever loathing fills the air, fear should never be far away.
“Where will it end?” Thompson asked in 1985, musing on the American political future — in a paragraph, in fact, that mentions Donald Trump by name. “Carpe diem,” he decides. “Prepare to eat or be eaten.”
Words Chris Nelson Images Rikard Österlund
Something brassy, uninhibited, commanding, and haunting speaks through Ralph Steadman’s splattered art. Its distinctive visual language and erratic style found a perfect companion in the sharp and ruthless words of Hunter S. Thompson. “He was the one person I ought to meet in America because I could see what he thought, in a way,” Steadman tells us. “His vocabulary was so graphic. It was perfect.”
Steadman started working with Thompson soon after the release of Hell’s Angels. “Hunter decided to ride with the Hells Angels because he wanted to write about them and understand them but as soon as he had finished the book, he wanted to leave them and so they beat him up and put him in hospital for three months,” says Steadman. “The book is about his days spent with them, how he viewed them as actually a bunch of fanatics, but he just wanted to write about them because they were so crazy. They didn't really like what he wrote. I don't think he treated them as heroes — he was very objective but he had only one thing in common with them. He liked riding motorbikes but he wasn't very interested in any of the roughness or unpleasantness.”
Steadman has never ridden a motorcycle and included motorcycles in his art only because Thompson cared about them. Steadman cares about art, and he’s worried the thing he loves most is losing its soul. “I think [art] relies too much on electronics now and there is not so much physical material involved. I have always thought that. I think we are lost. We are losing the need for sensation in the real sense. We go online to look for it. We are losing the real.”
We ask Steadman how he thinks we can combat this. “Take an interest," he says. "It has to be real. You could pretend to go for a ride on a bike on a screen, but it is not the same. The fun of the thing is the physical experience, and that is what I would think is the most important part of riding a bike. A bird wouldn't go online to build a nest. They have learnt the real way, and I think we should too.”
This article was originally featured in Issue 027 of Iron & Air Magazine.