Fear and Loathing at Burning Man with Grover Norquist
It’s two o’clock Wednesday afternoon and 90 degrees outside. I’m furiously pedaling my crumbling bike through a whiteout dust storm on an alkali salt flat in the high Nevada desert. I’m on my way to meet a tax reform activist referred to as the “Grand Central Station of Conservatism,” at one of the most famous alternative art and lifestyle festivals in the world, Burning Man.
Grover’s attendance at Burning Man is a polarizing issue for the tens of thousands of “Burners” that frequent the festival. When he announced he would be attending for the first time last year, it ignited a social media fire-storm. Some felt his presence signified an end to the event’s authenticity, while others saw it as an elegant expression of the The Burn’s ethos of radical inclusion. Grover fired back in his widely read retrospective on his first Burn. The real question is: why would a man who has spent his entire career corralling Washington’s political elite into furthering Reaganesque reductions in government spending and taxation attend such an event? Why, oh why, would he attend a second time?
I walk my bike up to the structure where we’re meeting and am forced to pause and appreciate the surreal nature of the moment. For a man who’s spent a lifetime in Capitol Hill conference rooms wrangling Washington power brokers, today he holds court in a 15-foot tall laughing clown head the size of back-yard moonbouce. I duck to enter the mouth of the beast, narrowly missing the foot-long white teeth hanging above me. I spot Grover seated across the room atop a derelict church pew, deep in conversation with a curly haired woman wearing a green corset and army boots. He looks up, and with restrained zeal tells me that his new friend’s name is Absinthe and that she’s a manufacturer of the drink for which she’s named — using “only real wormwood of course.” Grover asks me “Have you ever seen what wormwood looks like?” I almost finish saying “no” before Absinthe cheerfully spins around to display a foot long tattoo of the plant on her right shoulder. Grover smiles. Welcome to Burning Man.
Founded in 1986, Burning Man has become one of the most talked about counter-culture events in the world. For one week nearly 70,000 people descend on Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, and from the dust, create Black Rock City or what some call a “temporary autonomous zone” aka the “Playa.” A vibrant “un-society” guided by 10 inalienable principals such as “radical inclusion,” “radical self-expression,” “civic responsibility” and an uncompromising ban on any elements of encroaching commercialization. All night EDM parties, flamboyantly themed bars, baroque costumes, tech-titan bedouin palaces and mind-expanding events abound to create an experience unlike any other. Then, at the end of the week, to the dust it returns, with no trace left behind.
Grover and I walk around the corner into his encampment and find an elevated platform with chairs and a shade tent. As the wind picks up and dust envelops us, he tells me about how he met Burning Man co-founder, Larry Harvey in DC and the two bonded over the struggle his organization had had with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — a federal agency responsible for permitting and regulating Burning Man’s operations in the Nevada Desert. Grover recounts how he learned the BLM was “extorting” the event planners into satisfying lavish million dollar requests for amenities including 24 hour laundry facilities and a never-ending supply of choco-tacos for agency staff. He saw Harvey’s struggle as parallel to the one he’d been fighting against the incursion of the growing reach of the US Government.
Our conversation vacillates from the physically punishing reality of a week in the desert to the unique ideology that sparked The Burn. “Burning Man is the only experience I’ve had that’s substantially more intense than I expected” he says. “You can’t pop out to Wal-Mart and back easily…it gives it this sense of glorious isolation.” He likens the underlying ethos of the community to a “Hayekian paradise” and “Eisenhower era republicanism,” emphasizing the need for small government and protection of personal freedom. He asserts,
“It’s what our government should be. A very small list of things they do and a very long list of things they leave alone.”
We finish the interview and stroll over to BMIR — the official community radio station for Burning Man — where Grover is scheduled as a featured guest. We ascend a column of railing-less steps into a converted shipping container with a 20 foot latticed antenna sprouting from the roof. Inside, the long room is a college dorm gone pirate radio outpost, covered in a thin layer of fine white dust. The host is an affable Burner named “Headshot” aka “Headstash” aka “Chomo” (also covered in a thin layer of fine white dust) who offers Grover a hard apple cider and jumps right in.
Grover and Headshot wax philosophical about everything from the meaning of Burning Man to it’s guiding principals while the “heartbeat of the Playa” — a cacophony of techno base reverbs, airhorns and gleeful screams — keeps pace just outside.
The conversation then turns to Burning Man’s system of governance at which point Grover explains the overarching theme that he finds so salient:
“It’s clear that the more complex the world is, the more diverse people are, the fewer rules you need and the fewer rules you can afford.”
Mid-way through the conversation a grab-bag assortment of white-washed burners walk into the studio. A non-official looking man in a cowboy hat says “I got a couple people here, I have no idea what they need, but we’re a community radio station first and foremost.” Headshot immediately cedes the mic over to the group.
The first announcement is from a man of Aztec extraction, covered head to toe in tribal tattoos. He announces that a group of dancers from the Earth Guardians Camp will be blessing the Playa with Aztec medicine and drums @ 6pm and all are welcome. Next is brown haired girl-next-door Lauren, who needs a ride back to San Francisco leaving tonight. Then it’s Gizmo who needs 40 feet of low voltage wire to fix the tail lights on his RV. Then Scott announces a “Pastafarian and Pole Dancing Party” at the Spaghetti Monster temple @ 8. Grover turns to me and says half laughing, “Well, that’s a first.”
The interview wraps up and Grover and I take a stroll into the center of the Playa. With winds picking up and visibility rapidly decreasing we make our way towards “The Man” — a 60 foot tall wooden effigy of a man towering above the Playa that will be burned to ash in an elaborate ritual Saturday night. A nude woman bicycles past us disappearing into the dust ahead as the guttural tones of tibetan throat music from a nearby acro-yoga session fade behind us.
We pass Grover’s favorite art installation, the Medusa Madness — a large steel statue of the mythical Greek Gorgon complete with fire breathing hair snakes. He explains, “I like it because it reminds me of my daughter and her wild curly hair.”
We finally reach “The Man.” Standing underneath it looking up there’s an undeniably church-like vibe. It feels as if the stolid behemoth is keeping a benevolent eye on his playa kingdom and all of his Burner subjects. Grover remarks in amazement:
“The amount of work it takes to do all of this keeps washing over me — it’s incredible. These people are not playing around.”
After the desert sun sets, and our fellow Burners trade their sunglasses and balaclavas for glow-sticks and elaborate costumes, we make our way to the “Steampumk Saloon” — a popular theme camp/bar. In keeping with the principal of gifting, wherein every Burner must bring a gift to the Playa, Grover hops up on stage and performs a stand-up comedy routine. His opening joke requires a glass of bourbon as a prop. “Bourbon, no ice, neat, no water. I never drink water, Dick Cheney tortures people with it.” The crowd erupts.
Friday, Grover is invited to speak the Palenque Norte, a lecture series that, earlier in the week, covered topics such as “Coming Down from the Psychedelic Power Trip,” “Holotropic Breathwork,” and “Meditation, Chanting and Discourse” — an apt tee-up for a talk on tax policy and civil liberties.
The event is in a large white tent with dusty carpets strewn across the desert flooring. The room has all 31 flavors of hippy. In front of me is a blue haired couple who (clearly in their own world) ferociously caress each other for the duration of the nearly two hour talk.
Grover shares allusions to the virtue of small government using examples of marijuana legalization in Colorado and concealed carry legislation in Florida preceding decreases in crime. The crowd is locked in and energized, with the rare exception of one dreadlocked man (and presumed liberal power broker) snoring on a couch in the back.
Afterwards, Grover sticks around and answers questions from the audience. In an environment like this it is easy to forget that the people around you are every bit as civically engaged as your average citizen, perhaps even more so.
One shirtless man asks if there are scenarios in which the free market constricts personal liberty. Grover trumpets that undue oversight of free markets constrict career mobility by narrowing in on the plight of convicted felons being unable to obtain vocational licenses. As a massive gust of wind fills the tent with dust and reduces visibility to fuzzy outlines, a large white-bearded Burner thanks Grover for coming a second year and “Giving me the opportunity to evolve past loathing people with your ideas.” He then submits an idea to use basic geometry to regulate gerrymandering. Grover is impressed.
It’s unclear whether Grover won any support for his famous tax pledge during his talk. What is clear is that he generated a real connection with the audience. Notions of sacrosanct individual liberty and freedom from interference by policing powers deeply resonated with his new fans. Therein lies the beauty of Burning Man. It galvanizes a culturally discontinuous group of people into one family united by a love for freedom of expression. The costumes, the ceremony, the guiding principals, all create a protected context for unbridling people from the strictures of the “default world.” Through this uniting ethos, Grover has found ideological allies in his fight to restore the American government to what he believes it was originally intended to be: a compassionate but restrained system of rules designed to augment the human experience, not limit it. In this frenetic dust-filled wonderland of lights and hippies, Grover Norquist has found the most unlikely of homes.
*This story was originally posted by the author on Independent Journal Review in 2015*