Grover Norquist Goes to Burning Man

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It’s a hell-hot Friday afternoon, and conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and I are walking down a dusty footpath at Burning Man, the annual New Age festival held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. As we stroll past rows of parked RVs on Gold Street, we pass a large tent that advertises “Free Taint Washes." A man approaches us from inside, carrying a jug of water with a misting attachment.

“Would you like a spray?” the man asks.

“Not today,” Norquist says.

The man smiles. “Well, would you like a taint wash?”

Norquist has been at Burning Man for less than a day, but he’s already learning lots of new things — including the word taint, which, after a moment of confusion, he asks me to define. (Hmm, how to put this to the godfather of modern American conservatism?) Sheepishly, I inform him that it’s the colloquial term for the patch of skin between the genitals and the anus, properly known as the perineum. People call it the taint, I say, because it taint one part and it taint the other, either.

“Okay, I did not know that,” Norquist says. “Is that a recent slang?”

We continue down the path, past a “shaman dome” and a 22-foot-tall sculpture of a penis entitled “The Divine Masculine.” Nearby, a topless woman rides by on a fur-festooned bicycle. The oontz-oontz of house music reverberates in all directions. It’s a much different scene than you’d find at the offices of Americans for Tax Reform, the influential right-wing organization Norquist leads, but he seems charmed rather than frightened.

“If you had 500 people get together and [they did] something like this, that would be impressive,” he says, surveying the blocks full of elaborately decorated theme camps. “But seventy thousand?”

Further down the path, while Norquist is making a point about the evils of labor unions, a man in a fedora runs over to meet us — he saw my notebook and pen and wanted to pretend to interview us both. (He is possibly very stoned.) “Gentlemen, I’m coming here to get some news on the report,” he says. After an awkward silence, the man whirls away and shouts, “Now watch me get run over — it’s going to be modern art!”

“Did you know that guy?” Norquist asks.

Norquist has been wanting to come to Burning Man ever since meeting the event’s co-founder, Larry Harvey, at a 2012 event in Washington, D.C. And so far, he’s loving it. He and his wife arrived at Black Rock City, as Burning Man's pop-up civilization is called, by private plane the day before our meeting and stayed up until 2:30 a.m. riding on an art car that was decorated to look like a spider. He woke up a few hours later to watch the sunrise. He’s been hanging out with the event’s organizers, which has given him historical context for what’s happening here, and he even brought a costume — a Soviet military jacket he picked up on a trip to Afghanistan. “My take, having spent 20 hours walking the streets of this place,” he says, “is that if your takeaway from looking at the art and the participatory effort that goes into something like this is ‘there were naked people!’ then that’s a reflection on you, not on Burning Man.”

A few weeks earlier, when Norquist tweeted that he was heading to Burning Man, it sounded to some like an SNL skit in the making. (“The Day Burning Man Died,” read one headline.) But Norquist insists that his ideals aren’t incompatible with Burning Man’s ethos — that, in fact, Burning Man is a natural place for free-market libertarians. And he’s got a point. After all, Black Rock City is largely a lawless setting, and while the festival does have its own infrastructure, including a ranger force and makeshift hospital, its supervision is hardly hands-on. Norquist became famous for suggesting that government be made small enough to be drowned in a bathtub; Burning Man’s free-for-all model is about as close to drain-size as it gets.

“Burning Man is a bunch of people who think the government doesn’t need to be here,” he says. “Nobody told anybody to do this stuff. I mean, talk about Hayekian spontaneous order — this is, like, exhibit A.” Harvey, the Burning Man co-founder, agrees — while the festival is officially nonpartisan, he told the Washington Post in 2012 that ”if you’re talking about old-fashioned, Main Street Republicanism, we could be the poster child.”

Burning Man’s emphasis on “radical self-reliance” may also explain why it has drawn in scores of high-ranking Silicon Valley tech moguls, including Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk. These executives share with Norquist a streak of techno-utopianism, and Burning Man provides them with both creative inspiration and a glimpse of what innovation in a regulatory vacuum would look like. The culture of Burning Man has seeped into Silicon Valley’s lifeblood — Black Rock City was reportedly a testing site for early prototypes of Tesla’s electric vehicles, and Google CEO Larry Page has called for the formation of special Burning Man–like zones where tech companies would be free to try things that are currently illegal under U.S. law.

Norquist believes Burning Man's popularity among “high-tech, pro-growth” elites says something profound about changing attitudes toward state supervision. He also thinks the festival is wrongly caricatured as a hippie drug den.

“The expectation that there’s a cross between absentminded professors and bohemians and that’s what artists are, it’s not true,” he says. He gazes down the road at a gigantic bus that has been decorated to look like a pirate ship. “Look at the amount of work that goes into building something like that! That was not done by lazy people. That was not done by people who think the world owes them a living. Or people who say, ‘Let’s pass a law to build a boat.’"

In the long run, Norquist thinks that the high-profile regulatory struggles of tech companies like Uber and Airbnb could help the GOP attract young Silicon Valley voters if it positions itself as the innovation-friendly party.

“The Democratic party spent the last 20 years trying to figure out how to tax Amazon instead of going, ‘This is a thing of wonder! It makes people’s lives easier!’” he says. Uber’s successful struggle against taxi-industry protectionism, he adds, is the “canary in the mine” for the coming disruption of many different regulated industries by tech upstarts.

But enough about politics — Norquist is here to have his mind blown. As we stroll back to the camp where he’s meeting his wife, he periodically stops to admire the roadside attractions: a golf cart decorated to look like a gumball machine; an antique car with a “Nixon/Agnew” bumper sticker; a geodesic dome. We pass HeeBeeGeeBee Healers, a camp that puts on daily spiritual healing workshops where attendees are asked to chant like monkeys.

“Is that the gong one?” Norquist says with a laugh. “I saw an advertisement for a place where you lie down and they hit gongs near you and they can cure your appendicitis or something.”

Norquist is still getting used to Burning Man’s quirky traditions — for starters, he doesn’t yet have a “playa name,” the nickname given to first-time Burners as a rite of passage. (“I went through eight years of the Bush administration without a nickname,” he says. “I think Grover is sufficiently unique.”) And he’s still ignoring the parts of the Burning Man agenda that don’t confirm his conservative priors. But like many veteran Burners, Norquist is finding that Black Rock City can be a pretty welcoming place for an idealist.

“There’s an artist inside many of us that coexists with who we are,” he says.