The Gonzo Playbook

Photograph Source: Gage Skidmore – CC BY-SA 2.0

The mid-term elections demonstrate how democratic governance has fundamentally changed. Consider Arizona’s 2022 governor contest. Prior to the August primary election, candidate Kari Lake said, “We’re already detecting some stealing going on.” A few days before the November election she stressed “If we don’t win, there’s some cheating going on. And we already know that.” On election day she told reporters, “I’m going to be your worst fricking nightmare for eight years, and we will reform the media as well. We are going to make you guys into journalists again, so get ready.” When she lost the election to Katie Hobbs, she called the 2022 election the shoddiest election ever, in history, run by imbeciles. A few weeks later she contested the election and filed suit against Maricopa County election officials.

This is the new normal of Gonzo Governance that has emerged from our communication order featuring digital media that provide instantaneous, personal, and visual information. This entertaining conflict-ridden media logic promotes evocative reaction rather than referential and reflective communication.  Gonzo, or breaking the mold of a conventional activity, was popularized by Hunter Thompson’s deviant-drugged-edgy lifestyle and approach to journalism. Sociological and communication researchers argue that a key feature of a Gonzo perspective is that individual actors use media performances to rail against a fearful disorder that needs drastic correction. Politicians cultivate and pursue the emotional appeals to audiences and potential constituents.  Gonzo is justified by a perceived crisis and a breakdown in institutional and conventional means of dealing with a problem or issue, whether in journalismcriminal justice sentencing, or social organizationA dramatic resolution is offered that resonates with an audience who shares the sense of disorder. The solution is extraordinary—even deviant, illegal or immoral– breaking boundaries and violating the parameters of social and discursive participation within a community of actors, typically promoting raw emotional meanings and symbols. Gonzo rhetoric requires attention-grabbing bold action that only the savior can provide, such as Kari Lake or Donald Trump.  Gonzo Governance is becoming institutionalized as routine resistance to the election process and the rule of law.

Changes are due to a new set of practices that I refer to as the Gonzo Playbook. The basic premise of this new order is that one side will win unless there is cheating in the entire election, counting, and certification process. The Gonzo Players support: 1. Attempting to destroy some target and promote a false narrative about a higher moral and civic order. This is done by simultaneously mobilizing an emotional constituency by connecting with their anger, resentments, envies, and hatred. Pulitzer Prize winning sociologist, Paul Starr, identifies the challenge to entrenched American values and taken-for-granted forbearance about authoritarianism, voting rights, and progressive change; 2. Denying the legitimacy of major institutions, including education, science and journalism, and denial of basic facts; Targets include officials, workers, and particularly day-to-day operations involving elections at federal, state, and local levels;  3. Disrupting with legal and extra-legal means many governmental activities by elected and appointed officials; 4. Suppressing and discouraging voting through regulations, additional eligibility requirements, and certification processes; 5. Promoting mistrust with massive propaganda and disinformation through media and particularly social media platforms; 6. Encouraging supporters to protest, harass election workers, and threaten violence.

Gonzo Governance is becoming institutionalized as routine resistance to the election process and the rule of law. Over half of all republican candidates for congress, governor, secretary of state, and attorney general denied that the 2020 Presidential election was legitimate. More than 220 candidates who challenged the 2020 Presidential election results have won state or federal office. Such allegiance is common. All 157 GOP Arizona office seekers in the midterm election denied the 2020 Presidential outcome. In Arizona and some other states, some losing candidates refused to concede, claiming voting irregularities, early-voting shenanigans, crooked and malfunctioning voting machines, and blaming corrupt officials and election workers. Nationally, the Brennan Center for Justice documents that 1 in 6 local election officials have been threatened and harassed.

The U. S. is helping to export the Gonzo Playbook. Mr. Jair Bolsonaro, who lost a recent election in Brazil, was encouraged by Steve Bannon and other supporters of the Big Lie to not concede. The claims are familiar: Voter fraud, defective voting machines, and corrupted processing and counting. Some analysts may argue that our democracy is still working as usual by pointing to swing states like Arizona, where Democrat Katie Hobbs defeated Kari Lake, by a little more than 17,000 votes.  That is a margin of less than 1% of some 2.6 million votes cast. Punditry aside, that is hardly a decisive victory; more like a winning half-court shot at the buzzer. But democracy should not be a game ruled by a few lucky shots.

David L. Altheide is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Gonzo Governance: The Media Logic of Donald Trump (2023).