Have you heard that John Kasich may be a vegan? Now, I don’t know whether it’s true that the Republican Party’s newest and strangest alterna-Trump, the budget-slashing, hug-dispensing Ohio governor who has called himself “the prince of light and hope,” refuses to consume any animal products. The search term “John Kasich vegan” returns no solid hits, except this moving but inconclusive poem called “Presidential Candidate John Kasich,” written by someone called Spock the Vegan. (“John Kasich served 9 terms in the U.S. House of representatives. / When it comes to fixing problems, he thinks he’s God’s preventative.”) We’re gonna get that term trending upward starting now, am I right? Anyway, I’m just reporting on a rumor someone was spreading around in New Hampshire.
OK, the person spreading the rumor was me, and the only reason I can’t be sure it’s false is that I haven’t asked. Kasich campaign refuses to address vegan rumor! Anyway, politicians lie about everything. Obama denies he’s a Muslim and Hillary Clinton denies that she intentionally let those people die in Benghazi because … well, I’m not sure why she did that. Something something something Muslims. So when you see Kasich — whose tenure as the current leader in the GOP’s “establishment lane” is likely to be exceedingly brief — claim to love pork products of all kinds and choke down a massive slab of South Carolina BBQ ribs, ask yourself this question: How can you be sure it’s not tempeh? Cleverly molded tempeh, artfully smeared with delicious Carolina mustard sauce? (Tempeh, by the way, is a meat impostor made from fermented soybeans and traditional to Indonesia, which is — you guessed it — a Muslim country.)
Of course, if it’s conceivable that Kasich is a closet “meat is murder” activist who has been consuming a cakelike soy product also eaten by radical Islamic terrorists (and if Kasich is known to be the subject of poetry by vegans from the planet Vulcan), it’s also possible that he has been ingesting massive doses of the obscure hallucinogenic drug known as ibogaine. Either hypothesis could explain Kasich’s insinuation that other Republican contenders worship the devil: “We have a lot of candidates who like the Prince of Darkness,” he told radio host Hugh Hewitt in January. Or the fact that during his recent New Hampshire appearances Kasich sometimes wandered off script into Fritjof Capra and/or Dr. Phil territory. From a town hall in Concord: “Sometimes there’s nobody around to sit and cry with us. Don’t we want that back in our country again? … Everybody on this earth is connected. We’re just a part of a mosaic in a moment of time.” Whoa. Next time steer away from the orange acid, John. But keep on truckin’!
There’s absolutely no basis for any of this malicious rumor-mongering, you say? Well, you’re right. But let’s turn the question around so I’m right instead, shall we? No one in the current Republican field is more deserving than Kasich of the Ibogaine Effect, the notorious prank inflicted on Sen. Edmund Muskie by Hunter S. Thompson in 1972. Thompson “reported” that rumors had surfaced during the Wisconsin primary campaign suggesting that Muskie, then viewed as the Democratic front-runner, was being treated with “something very heavy” by a “mysterious Brazilian doctor.” (Along the way, Thompson also implied that former Vice President Hubert Humphrey was a speed freak, which almost no one noticed.) Thompson himself, of course, was the sole source of these rumors.
Muskie’s consumption of ibogaine, a powerful psychoactive drug used in some African religious ceremonies, could explain the Maine senator’s lugubrious campaign demeanor, Thompson wrote: “It is entirely conceivable — given the known effects of Ibogaine — that Muskie’s brain was almost paralyzed by hallucinations at the time; that he looked out at the crowd and saw gila monsters instead of people, and that his mind snapped completely as he felt something large and apparently vicious clawing at his legs.”
I’m supposed to pull a long face here and tell you that Muskie was a decent guy who didn’t deserve this treatment, and that’s true enough. It is not true, however, that Thompson’s ibogaine fiction destroyed the Muskie campaign. The fact that such a ludicrous story could take hold was a symptom of Muskie’s '72 implosion, not a cause. None of Thompson’s later explanations of what he thought he was doing entirely hold water, except that he never suspected anyone would believe it for more than five minutes. More than likely he was high on ibogaine and any number of other things himself, and just writing for his own amusement.
To the extent that Thompson’s real target was the groupthink and collective idiocy of the political and media classes, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Ibogaine became a trending topic, in the social-media terms of 1972. Mainstream reporters began repeating and embellishing the rumors, while making no effort to source or verify them. (Yes, journalists were lazy even before Wikipedia!) George McGovern’s campaign staffers started dropping the reference in off-the-record conversations: “Hey, we hear Big Ed is doing some great drugs! Can you get us any, ha ha?” By the time Muskie gloomily withdrew from the race, his poor performance was widely understood to reflect an unspecified “personal problem.”
If Thompson wanted to spread false rumors about Muskie’s drug habit because he thought Muskie was a terrible candidate, I want to spread false rumors about John Kasich’s hemp suits, seaweed-fiber shoes and slow-food diet because he’s a giant phony. He talks the tofu talk, but he does not walk the tofu walk. Kasich’s brief moment in the post-New Hampshire media spotlight is based on his self-presentation as the first New Age Republican, an “experiment in political positivity” amid a rising tide of GOP hate, as Laura Reston of the New Republic has put it.
I don’t want to bash reporters like Reston (or Russ Choma and David Corn of Mother Jones) who have been seduced by Kasich’s folksy, reflective rhetoric or his admonition to Republican audiences that it’s time to talk “seriously about stuff.” I spent a week in New Hampshire myself, and felt profoundly grateful for the relative sanity of Jeb Bush, the scion of an evil dynasty who supports a long list of bad ideas. As those writers all get around to observing, once you get to questions of actual policy Kasich is a hardcore government-hating conservative. He wants us to slow down and cry together and hug our neighbors. He doesn’t want women to have access to abortion services or poor people to get help feeding their families or state workers to have collective-bargaining rights. He’s a cuddly version of Grover Norquist: Instead of drowning government in the bathtub, he wants to smother it with a fuzzy Night-Night Bear.
Salon’s Amanda Marcotte wrote a comprehensive dissection of Kasich’s extensive record on Wednesday. As governor of Ohio and before that a nine-term congressman, he has spent many years fighting to cut taxes on the rich, slash social spending or devolve it to the states (which in many contexts is code for “fewer benefits for black people”), break the power of unions and restrict abortion rights. Yes, he’s also the only Republican candidate who has halfway made peace with Obamacare (by expanding Medicaid in Ohio), and he has said he views marriage equality as a settled issue. Those pragmatic decisions are probably more than enough to scuttle his chances in the GOP race. But I would urge South Carolinians and other patriotic Americans to look past those superficial issues, which are only the outermost signals of John Kasich’s deeper and more troubling struggle with meatless ham loaf (aka "Cheerful Log") and fishless tuna.