In my introduction to this series of posts about Uncle Duke, I argued that Garry Trudeau’s caricature of Hunter S. Thompson revealed the “excess, racism, greed, self-interest, and ground ethos of amorality” that defined much of American culture as the nation emerged from the failed revolutions of the 1960s.In these next two posts, I’m going to look at how Trudeau established Duke as a mirror that reflected the worst parts of America’s essence. This process did not unfold on American shores: fittingly, it happened in a context that is largely overlooked in America’s image of itself, America’s overseas empire. In 1975, Duke left his job at Rolling Stone to become governor of American Samoa: in the process his character was transformed from a caricature of Hunter Thompson to an embodiment of the ugly underbelly of America’s character.
Duke’s debut was on 8 July 1974, when Zonker stops by the offices of Rolling Stone to visit his “uncle.” (Duke is not really related to Zonker: he’s an old family friend) Duke’s first appearances are little more than shout-outs to Thompson’s reputation as a hard-living writer. Introducing Duke, Trudeau directly references Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, showing him under his desk, killing “huge hairy bats” that he hallucinates after consuming “too much tequila and coke.” (Fear and Loathing begins with Thompson seeing “huge bats, all swooping and diving around the car” as he drives across the desert in a drug-induced haze.) Subsequent early appearances reinforce Duke’s role as a parody of Thompsonian excess: he’s careless with firearms; he spends the weeks leading up to Christmas comatose after “[getting] into some particularly viscous hallucinogens over Thanksgiving”; upon awakening, he believes that Zonker is “a giant lizard.” Trudeau’s parody of Thompson is its harshest when he portrays Duke/Thompson as a hack writer with an amateur work ethic. Duke is so messed up that he misses his deadline for submitting “the finest, most savage article [he’d] ever cranked out,” a piece about his “shoplifting conviction” titled “Fear and Loathing at Macy’s Men’s Wear.” When he finally goes to submit the article to RS editor Jann Wenner, all he’s written is pages of gibberish.
Yet even as Trudeau satirizes Hunter Thompson’s character and work, he gives us a glimpse at what Duke would become: a pathetic hustler with no regard for his fellow humans, and, as such, a stand-in for American moral corruption. When Zonker suggests that Duke think about straightening out, Duke agrees, laying out an idyllic vision of a future life: “I might just go back to Aspen … settle down, raise a family, buy a Labrador,” and “open up a little massage parlor.” In Duke’s eyes, there is no line dividing what is generally framed as “good” in America – pristine landscapes, dedication to family, stability – from a darker, amoral America where getting ahead by taking advantage of others is the only way to go.
That aspect of Duke’s character became fully developed when he left his job at RS to become the governor of American Samoa, with Zonker as his lieutenant-governor. There, the characteristics that would define Duke for decades to come – greed, corruption, racism and a general disregard for anyone other than himself – were established, and Duke was transformed from a caricature of Hunter Thompson to a character who would play a critical role in revealing the worst aspects of American politics and society over the next five decades. What can’t be overlooked is that this transformation occurred in the context of a key part of American reality that generally goes unacknowledged by most Americans: imperialism. In other words, Duke’s greed, racism and corruption came to the fore in a social and political context built on those very values.
Understanding Duke in Samoa means understanding the United States as what it is: an empire. But what does that term mean as applied to the modern world’s first democracy? As the political philosopher Hannah Ardent points out, there is “a wild confusion of historical terminology” surrounding the question of empire.1 Here, I’m going to use a simple definition of the term, that of a state exercising control over territories or people that do not enjoy the same degree of sovereignty as citizens of the imperial state. America is largely in denial of its imperial nature as that nature sits in firm opposition to its stated foundational values of liberty and self-determination. Yet, especially in the years following 9/11 and the arrival of a permanent state of war and the development of a massive global American military footprint, America’s imperialist character has always been hard to deny.2
American colonial rule over American Samoa reveals the ambiguous nature of United States imperialism. The 1889 Treaty of Berlin gave the eastern Samoan islands to the United States, but unlike in the cases of other colonizing powers, United States rule over American Samoa left room for independent political action on the part of colonized subjects: the United States committed itself to respecting chiefly authority at the village level while the islands were under the overarching control of the United States navy, which pursued a policy of “integrating the military and its values” into local life.3 Like European colonizing powers, however, the United States embraced the foundational idea of modern imperialism, the idea that white Americans’ alleged racial superiority justified their rule over colonized subjects who, as a distinct and inferior “other,” required paternalistic guardianship. American Samoans were constructed in the American mind as being “friendly, orderly and non-violent,” and thus in need of the protection that imperial power provided.4
Duke’s time in American Samoa reflects many of the dynamics of American colonial rule, starting with a particular conception of the indigenous population’s character. When Duke announced that he had applied to be governor of American Samoa, he tells a Rolling Stone colleague that he likes “the Islanders” because they are a “wonderful, gentle people” who are “diligent” and “uncomplaining,” an explicitly paternalistic framing. The central role that American military culture played in the colony underlies the story behind the name of Duke’s aide and eventual successor MacArthur, who was named after Douglas MacArthur, the commander of American forces in the Pacific during the Second World War. Duke’s aide was named following the Battle of Midway: after “the Japs really got stomped there … Samoan parents began naming all their new children after General MacArthur,” which, as MacArthur tells Zonker, was particularly difficult for his sister, Doug. Moreover, Duke’s rule maintains the American commitment to preserving local culture, or at least an imagined, satirical vision of it. Throughout the Samoa arc, Trudeau has fun with a running gag about Samoans sacrificing virgins to appease a volcano, “a time-honored custom” that Duke supports continuing, much to Zonker’s dismay. Even the stoner humor that is part of nearly every Duke story line references the dynamics of colonial rule: alongside his prodigious drinking and use of grass scored from the colony’s Minister of Marijuana, Duke gets into kava, a Samoan drug with deep cultural roots that has, in recent decades, become popular with tourists seeking an “authentic” experience. This sort of cultural appropriation is a typical feature of imperialism. As the physician and scholar Yadhu N. Singh notes, the transformation of a drug long believed by Samoans to have “ancestral and divine powers” into a commodity targeting the metropolitan tourist trade extracts those deep local meanings.5
The anthropologist Karen Armstrong argues that, unlike in most cases of imperialist rule, America embraced a “lack of commitment to the responsibilities of governing.”6 America’s basic lack of care for its colonies defines Duke’s tenure as governor. Duke’s term as governor begins with an acknowledgement that while the United States is a colonial empire, its denial of that reality makes it virtually impossible for it to fulfill its imperial responsibilities. Duke gives “the same inaugural speech used by every previous governor,” not out of laziness, but because nobody has bothered to write a new one in nearly a century. MacArthur points out that “Samoans feel very secure with [the] speech” because “it’s got some really great promises and some very nice references to our place in the world community,” but it’s just as easy to see a speech that begins “Men of Samoa! I bring you greetings from President McKinley” as evidence of an administration that totally disregards its basic obligations.
Beyond the formalities of governance, realities on the ground reveal the inability of the United States to fulfill its obligations to its colonial subjects. Duke quickly learns that American Samoa is not the “paradise” he imagined as he has to shepherd the colony through a series of natural disasters including a locust plague, brush fires, hurricanes, famine, flooding, and volcanoes. Most famously, the colony is hit by a snowstorm, a gag that Trudeau resurrected in 1999 when Mark and Chase went to America Samoa to get married. The American response to those disasters reveals the extent to which the United states is unable and unwilling to effectively administer its colonies. When Duke reaches out to Washington for the aid that American Samoans desperately need, all they send him is some Peace Corps math teachers. (America’s purposeful blindness to the welfare of its colonized populace continues to shape its style of imperial governance 45 years after Duke left American Samoa: the distance between Donald Trump’s total disregard for the people of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria and Duke’s incoherent responses to the disasters that occurred under his watch is much closer than many Americans would like to acknowledge.)
Duke’s tenure as governor of American Samoa reveals how America’s disavowal of its imperialist character allows it to avoid the responsibilities that accompany colonialist rule. Could anything be more irresponsible, after all, than putting Duke in charge of the well-being of a population that looks to the United States to ensure order and stability? Alongside the ambiguities of American imperialism, Duke’s reaction to the string of disasters that befall the colony bring to the fore his fundamental corruption. When Duke assess the damage from a volcanic eruption, he laments the plants in his garden that were killed – “the roses, the petunias, the begonias, some sensational orchids and African violets that just knocked your eyes out” – but the fact that “a damn fine gardener” died in the incident is merely an afterthought. Next time on the Duke Chronicles, we’ll look at more examples of Duke’s corruption and malfeasance, the state of the American empire in the wake of defeat in Vietnam, and Hunter Thompson’s own writing about America’s Pacific Island colonies.
1 George Steinmetz, “Return to Empire: The New U.S. Imperialism in Comparative Historical Perspective,” Sociological Theory 23, no. 4 (2005): 339–67.
3 Karen Armstrong, “American Exceptionalism in American Samoa,” Suomen Antropologi 33, no. 2 (2008): 49–69; JoAnna Poblete-Cross, “Bridging Indigenous and Immigrant Struggles: A Case Study of American Samoa,” American Quarterly 62, no. 3 (2010): 501–22.
4 Armstrong, “American Exceptionalism in American Samoa.”
5 Yadhu N. Singh, “Kava: An Old Drug in a New World,” Cultural Critique, no. 71 (2009): 107–28.
6 Armstrong, “American Exceptionalism in American Samoa.”