On the Wednesday before Burning Man 2017, President Donald Trump surfed into Reno, Nevada on a wave of outrage following a speech in Phoenix the previous night where he’d sided with white supremacists and claimed that protesters who sought to pull down Confederate statues were “trying to take away our culture.”
The casinos and motels of Reno were already filling with those of us on our way to the desert for the most logistically challenging of world festivals, stocking up on bicycle locks, water bottles and leopard-print thongs, so the standing joke as Trump arrived in town was that the President must also be on his way to Black Rock City. “He’d probably turn up in the desert still wearing his suit,” smirked a taxi driver in midtown, before changing his tune. “He would definitely go though. He’s not afraid of anything. You’ve got to give him some credit for that.”
As strange as it seems to the rest of the world, in much of America President Trump remains a twisted sort of folk hero. His refusal to be bound by the conventional norms of politics or even basic human decency is a reminder that, as Joan Didion once wrote of another unhinged American millionaire, Howard Hughes: “the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake… but absolute personal freedom.”
Which is why the rise of President Donald Trump has more in common with the continued appeal of Burning Man than most of the hippies, dreamers and tech bros on their way to the festival would care to admit. This was the first time the festival had taken place in Trump’s America, but images of the President and discussions about his ongoing destructive influence on the world outside the dusty horizons were largely absent. There’s a decent chance Trump would have found a few supporters at this meeting point of the anarchist left and the libertarian right, but nobody really wanted to talk about it either way. There was a lot more dropping out than tuning in.
So if Trump had somehow found himself heading down the festival’s highways, his corpulent frame balanced precariously on a bike festooned with LED lights, he wouldn’t have seen much obvious protest. What he would have seen was every possible stripe and colour of entertainment, from aerial-acrobatics at the Beatles-soundtracked circus to pounding German techno in a shipping container dubbed ‘Burnhain’ to a full orchestra playing Mozart, Beethoven and Radiohead. From a multi-coloured tree growing out of the arid desert to drag shows at the world’s greatest British boozer, the Queen Dick, to – at a certain time of night in a certain kind of tent – a five-man fucktrain shuffle-thrusting through the dust. Just outside, leering out of the darkness, the images of Steve Bannon and Vladimir Putin daubed in clown make-up. Fancy seeing them here.
Sometime near the middle of the week the Black Rock City Dept. of Public Works parade, led by a NOFX cover band, heads out towards the man. They are one of the Burning Man tribes who still keep alive the post-apocalyptic Mad Max desert aesthetic, while much of the festival is now characterised more by day-glo and neon palm trees and a sense that for one week at least we live in a world where absolute personal freedom is for the many, not just for the billionaire few. Arriving back in the real world to news of further nuclear tests in Korea, it seems clear that those accustomed to post-apocalyptic desert living may be in their element very soon.
On the penultimate night of the festival, after the man was set alight, a 41-year-old named Aaron Joel Mitchell ran into the fire and sustained burns that would ultimately kill him. Nobody near me had any idea that anything had happened until they saw the news in the following days after leaving the festival site. Back then, after the burn, the outside world was starting to resurface slowly. Walking back to camp, a couple of guys noticed my accent. “Where are you from?” they asked. Hearing Britain, they each responded immediately and in turn with: “I didn’t vote for Trump.”
After a pause, one added: “It makes a difference.”