This was the election that the drugs won. Initiatives legalizing cannabis, decriminalizing plant medicine or small amounts of all drugs, and legalizing psilocybin therapy passed in multiple jurisdictions, setting a precedent for storming the castle—just in time for the mental health and addiction crisis riding alongside the pandemic, just in time for dreaming a new world amidst multiple systems collapse.
There’s one psychedelic that lost the election however, and its name is Donald Trump. The Republican Party chose a toxin instead of a human being. I’m not a psychiatrist but it’s my humble guess Trump is a malignant narcissist. Such people should probably avoid psychedelics as they can trigger delusions of grandeur and the resulting behavior of a psychopath. The Office of the President might be a more powerful drug than LSD. The bond between Trump and his supporters is a spirit possession, a kind of honky tonk love. Trump’s supporters get to be part of something big. They can come as they are. Trump tells them they are good people. I have joined a cult or three in my youth for the same reason. I’ve paid money to hear some asshole tell me I’m good.
Before Trump, I would never have written an article about politics. I was built for more subtle arts. I remember being in my ninth grade history class and not understanding anything my teacher was saying about how the U.S. government works. I felt dumb and quickly masked my insecurity with egotism. I’m on track to be a prophetess or holywoman of some kind, perhaps a healer who works through the laying on of hands; screw this Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches, I’m waiting for my stigmata. To save myself from a bad grade, I wrote a paper about the hippie counterculture movement of the Sixties. I found some photographs of mud-covered kids wrapped in blankets at Woodstock and they awakened in me a longing and sense of identification. My paper was about how the hippies started out political, then devolved into hedonism, homelessness, and drug addiction because that’s what I knew the teacher would want to hear. I got an A+.
In 1971 Richard Nixon declared his War on Drugs as a political tool targeting black people and hippies specifically. The anti-war left and black people were his enemies throughout his presidency. The first LSD dealer was the CIA, then it escaped the lab.
After the Summer of Love, America’s great Aquarian tent revival, a nasty psychedelic called STP hit Haight-Ashbery, tipping an already fragile social scene into squalor. Where this Manson Family shit came from, it’s complicated, but the effect it had was a Nixon wet dream, leaving ground zero of a revolution nothing more than a war zone of homelessness and addiction, subject to violence from drug deals gone bad. The dominant narrative in the psychedelic community is that Timothy Leary’s influence, and even LSD itself, had the effect of dissipating the anti-capitalist, anti-war politics of the counterculture movement, though also the intersectional bond between the counterculture and the civil rights movement.
But I believe it was Nixon, not Leary, and it didn’t start out that way. The Diggers (1966-1968), a radical political theater group that operated in Haight-Ashbury, mocked Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s peace and love ethic, making jokes about the acid community: “Time to forget because flowers are beautiful and the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken!” They enacted happenings such as “The Death of Money,” and worked towards free food distribution and medical clinics. Positioning themselves against elites like Leary and Alpert was part of their anti-capitalist, anarchist ethos, all the while they hosted the best LSD fueled parties ever, featuring Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and The Grateful Dead. It’s very possible the deep politics of The Diggers were never abandoned. They just shapeshifted. Peter Coyote never turned into a square.
The rejection of politics in favor of hedonism, especially among the privileged, was a real thing, and is why ninth grade me, having felt the feeling, that hippie feeling in my heart, ended up unconsciously aligning with a whole set of countercultural tropes, a very American snake oil Gnostic theology that allowed me to envision a future career as a female Jesus who didn’t vote.
The radical politics of the hippies dissolved into rainbows and unicorns. In the Eighties, these same people created the New Age Movement. They mostly embraced neoliberal leftist politics. Fast forward to now, to the alternative health practitioners, astrologers, ayahuasca enthusiasts who got red pilled and are now Q-anon or Q-anon adjacent. Over 50 percent of Trump’s base believe the Q conspiracies. There’s a through-line that goes from alternative medicine Q-anon back through the Eighties New Age, to the hippies in the mud at Woodstock—the same line that runs through the crystalized shame in my ninth-grade heart that felt too dumb to learn basic political science.
So what happened? I was supposed to grow up to be a lightworker. Now I’m writing about how a psychedelic ethos can inform politics. Maybe someone way back when didn’t want me to get involved in the political. Oh right, that person was Richard Nixon.
Turns out psychedelics and other drugs don’t disqualify you from political participation. Hunter Thompson, whacked on Dexedrine, made it his purpose to take down Nixon with every weapon in his arsenal. He publicly accused presidential candidate Ed Muskie of being an iboga addict. It was a joke, but everyone believed it. I’m sure he’s laughing from the grave that Q took his writings on Adrenochrome seriously, believing it to be a highly secret drug made from the pituitary gland of a human baby. Hunter redefined what it meant to be a political writer. Whether covering a GOP convention or spending years with the Hell’s Angels, his Gonzo approach showed the world what toxins can do in a genius mind to help reveal the truth about America…“just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.” His fixation on how Nixon’s bad character affected the nation—on a shamanic level—can now also be read as an allegory about the Trump presidency.
As I write this the numbers are coming in. I am still slowly letting myself accept that Biden won, that the toxin has been voted out. I can’t feel joy because it’s been too painful and revolting these last four years, so much that I had to bury my feelings, and now that he’s over I’m finally feeling them—Ow ow ow and fuck you very much, ow.
Psychedelics have helped me navigate this intensified political landscape where everyone is now Che Guevara or Ayn Rand on their cell phones, scrolling while vexed. They are medicines of nuance and specificity. Psychedelics help me recognize the impostor, that which has been colonized, hijacked and manipulated, whether it be a person, a word, or an ideology. There’s one unforeseen side effect of seeing the situation psychedelically and it’s this: I see the humanity in Trump supporters whether I want to or not. They’re just wanting someone to tell them that they’re good. They know they’re not good. I know I’m not good, either. The mushrooms tell me it’s not the job of the government to fix your self-esteem.
I started engaging more in politics because of two things: psychedelics and my girlfriend. She’s on the spectrum like I am, and politics is one of her special interests. I kind of have to pay more attention now.
Timothy Leary said to “turn on, tune in and drop out,” but the psychedelic movement of today is no place to drop out. Maybe it never was. Papa Tim launched a “Politics of Ecstasy,” understanding the psychedelic as “stealing fire.” It’s power, and power is always political. The psychedelic movement is a political microcosm of the larger world, but extra. It’s an arena where ayahuasca devotees fight to protect the rainforest and indigenous land rights. Entheogenic herbalists teach the art of rewilding, planting seeds in stricken soils, and helping communities restore traditional farming practices. Radical mycologists tend to fatigued little spots of urban dirt, poisoned by oil and chemical waste, by dropping mushroom spores that grow into mycelium, purifying the soil enough to grow things again. Plant and fungi medicine communities forge alliances with social justice movements, building community gardens and mushroom farms. They support land rights movements that gained momentum at Standing Rock. Native American activists and allies work towards the protection of the endangered peyote cactus. Organizations like The POC Psychedelic Collective fight for safe access to psychedelics in marginalized communities and advocate for radical Drug Policy Reform. Rigorous conversations about decolonization and dismantling structures based on white supremacy are happening in every psychedelic space that matters.
I love to freak out psychedelic people on the left by telling them that the right have their own very visible psychedelic culture, too. It baffles me that they aren’t aware of this. 8chan, the notorious message board frequented by a confusing mix of free thinkers and actual racists, was created by Fredrick Brennan, who received the idea as a download on a mushroom trip. Peter Thiel, billionaire co-founder of PayPal and Palantir Technologies, was a Trump supporter in 2016. He backed Compass Pathways, a company that is developing psilocybin therapy through late stage clinical trials. Gay conservative political columnist Andrew Sullivan is psychedelic. He says whenever he trips on mushrooms, he ends up talking to Jesus. Elon Musk is psychedelic and trips with Grimes.
Podcasters Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, Joe Rogan, Duncan Trussell and Sam Harris are all psychedelic. They are all more or less self-identified as on the left, yet also have a big right wing following. Because of this, they occupy a fertile interstitial zone where they expose others to new ideas they never would have considered before. Listening to some of them might get you cancelled.
The apolitical hippie has been replaced by the anti-woke podcaster as the poster child of the psychedelic mainstream. Still, we don’t quite have our era’s Hunter Thompson, someone courageous enough to call it as they see it both politically, artistically, and psychedelically, with enough cultural reach to blow the minds of the lumping sober masses.
But I have a hunch we do, though. We have our Hunter Thompson. It is all of us together, if we get enough guts to start speaking with the nuance, specificity, and beauty that the psychedelics have shown us. Why do we do all that work in psychedelic space only to report back in public with the colonized language of the squares? Why are we assimilating? The poets are picking up our slack and it’s unconsentual labor.
We want to be good instead of true, that’s why.
Whenever psychedelics have spilled into a segment of the population, incredible advances occur on the landscape of both culture and invention. Evolution goes nuclear. The psychedelic download offers incredible insight into the nature of structures and how they work. It’s an alchemy of being able to observe all facets of a crystalline idea, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually, no matter where you happen to be situated. The psychedelic has the potential to see the whole picture. We are made for exactly this moment. We know what to do. Richard Nixon knew it too, and that’s why he started the Drug War that’s potentially on its way to being over. Trump’s gone too, right now in fact, but the worst of the pandemic is only just beginning. The plague marked the end of the Middle Ages and began an era of cultural renewal. The victories in this election are marked by the darkest of days ahead in which we are being tasked with dreaming a world. The Wide Awakes, a new political movement inspired by the 1860 abolitionist group of the same name, is designing new political futures, beginning with art. Wearing capes with eyeballs on the back, they enact pageants of joy in the inner city, on the reservation, on waterways in boats, in towns and on billboards all over America, reminding us every prayer begins with an image, a dream. It’s an act of faith. You see it, then step into it.
I’d like to set some boundaries between myself and the left by giving my politics a name.
I’m the Psychedelic Left.
It means whatever I say it does. As psychedelic people we have one thing in common—we all have had direct personal experience with a great mystery. We are a diverse crew to say the least, yet when pressed to describe what this mystery feels like, we all pretty much say the same thing. It felt holy, it felt like love, we say. Trump’s base has been humiliated, and while that might bring happiness to some, history teaches us that humiliated people are the ones most vulnerable to fascism, seeking any absolution and relief from their shame that they can find, at any cost.
Up at Naropa in the Seventies, when Alan Ginsburg was cruising boys on acid, the scandalous Chogyam Trungpa warned of “idiot compassion.” As psychedelic people, our most profound teachings have often come from maniacs.
The source of true compassion is your own heart and the guiding question is, “What is needed in this exact moment?” The source of idiot compassion is concept and the guiding question is, “What do I need to do to feel good about myself?” — Susan Piver in An Open-Hearted Guide to the Path and Practice of Meditation.
Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, and countless other psychonauts understand Love is a philosophy and a practice. We learned it from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, we learned it from Jesus, we learned it from psilocybin mushrooms, and a tab of LSD. It’s not just for hippies. It’s not idiot compassion. Love is a serious technology and it’s political. It must be used carefully, with strategy and it must be true. We do not have to be good. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this—but stop yelling mean things at Trump supporters. It’s bad manners and its bad luck. He lost. The ancestors are watching. The time for the great psychedelic Love experiment is now.
Bett Williams is the author of the novel Girl Walking Backwards and the memoir “The Wrestling Party.” She and her partner, Beth Hill, produce “No Cures, Only Alchemy,” a podcast about psychedelics and culture, for which they received a Kindle Foundation Maker’s Muse Award in 2018. Bett lives in New Mexico, where she supports writers, artists, and others through hosting private retreats, residencies, and events in keeping with the spirit of mycelium. Her new memoir “The Wild Kindness; A Psilocybin Odyssey” was released on Dottir Press in September.