DEVIL IN THE DE­TAIL

PJ O’Rourke’s take on Don­ald Trump’s rise to power is funny, se­ri­ous and full of ques­tions no one can an­swer, writes Philip Collins

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The satirist HL Mencken wrote that “democ­racy is the the­ory that the com­mon peo­ple know what they want, and de­serve to get it — good and hard”. What they got in the US was a man who, ac­cord­ing to PJ O’Rourke, has a hair­cut that makes Kim Jong-un laugh.

O’Rourke once wrote a book with the sub­ti­tle In Which Our In­trepid Re­porter Trav­els to the World’s Worst Places and Asks ‘What’s Funny About This?’. It was called Hol­i­days in Hell. The same plea­sure can now be had by stay­ing at home in the US. “The 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign,” writes O’Rourke, “is the most se­vere case of Amer­i­can mass psy­chosis since the Salem witch tri­als of 1692.” The ques­tion is: how the hell did this hap­pen?

O’Rourke has been for decades the wit­ti­est guide to Amer­ica, and the usual in­gre­di­ents are packed into this vol­ume. How the Hell Did This Hap­pen? is scabrously witty, in­ven­tive and rich in his­tor­i­cal de­tail. But it’s not clear that he re­ally knows the an­swer to his ques­tion. O’Rourke’s ti­tle is meant to be rhetor­i­cal, but I still read the book ex­pect­ing to find ex­pla­na­tions.

O’Rourke gets the cri­tique in first when he says “there’s a lack of con­ti­nu­ity be­tween the chap­ters. One thing doesn’t lead to an­other. This is be­cause in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, as far as I can tell, one thing didn’t lead to an­other.” They led to some­thing, though, and that some­thing was and is Don­ald Trump, so it’s a bit of a prob­lem that O’Rourke seems as baf­fled by his ques­tion as the rest of us.

Is Trump the up­shot of some big changes, the cause of some oth­ers, or both? Or per­haps nei­ther. How the hell did this hap­pen?

O’Rourke ex­cuses his lack of nar­ra­tive devel­op­ment by say­ing the re­al­ity lacked all shape. So it did, too, as Trump tore up the usual rules of a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, get­ting away with ev­ery­thing. Yet shape is ex­actly what an an­a­lyst has to im­pose on events. The story might be chaos, but we need to know why it hap­pened and what it means.

Satirists and com­men­ta­tors of­ten part com­pany; there is usu­ally no­body bet­ter than O’Rourke at pulling off the trick of us­ing comic brio to re­veal a se­ri­ous point. Any­one who thinks eco­nom­ics is bor­ing or too dif­fi­cult or both should read his Eat the Rich, a trea­tise that turns the dis­mal sci­ence into pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment while never skimp­ing on the facts. No­body gets in­side a sub­ject faster, or to greater ef­fect, so it’s a shame he doesn’t so much here.

Which is not to say this book isn’t full of vin­tage O’Rourke wit. “Land­lord of the Flies” is one of those smart de­scrip­tions of Trump that makes you won­der why it hasn’t been thought of be­fore. His ac­count of Trump’s poor taste is de­li­cious: “And, Don­ald, the end of your neck­tie be­longs up around your belt buckle, not be­tween your knees and your nuts.”

He has a plan to go back in time and en­sure that Hil­lary Clin­ton mar­ries Bernie San­ders, thereby chang­ing US his­tory. In­stead of a wall on its bor­der, the US should build a turn­stile and charge ad­mis­sion. I doubt any­one will bet­ter his de­scrip­tion of Clin­ton’s “ger­bil in the How the Hell Did This Hap­pen? The US Elec­tion of 2016 By PJ O’Rourke Grove, 256pp, $29.99 wheel” cam­paign. In fact, Hil­lary is the cen­tral char­ac­ter of this book rather than Don­ald. How the Hell Did This Hap­pen? piv­ots around O’Rourke’s re­luc­tant en­dorse­ment of Hil­lary Clin­ton. O’Rourke yields to no­body in his dis­taste for the Clin­tons. Hil­lary is “a Marie An­toinette of the left say­ing ‘let them eat fruit and fi­bre’ ”. He wanted to en­dorse the lib­er­tar­ian sen­a­tor Rand Paul but knew he could not win. Had the Repub­li­cans of­fered the na­tion a plau­si­ble can­di­date, he would have held his nose.

In­stead, “from the bot­tom of the cam­paign bar­rel with the lees, dross, and dregs” came Trump. Clin­ton, he said in one in­ter­view, “is wrong about ev­ery­thing. But she is at least wrong in the usual frame.”

That leads to O’Rourke’s blistering con­clu­sion: “I en­dorse Hil­lary Clin­ton for pres­i­dent. She is the sec­ond worst thing that could hap­pen to Amer­ica ... bet­ter the she-ape of neoMarx­ism than the fly­ing mon­keys’ king on his 757, go­ing to and fro in the earth, with gold-plated seat­belt buck­les, talk­ing na­tivist, iso­la­tion­ist, mer­can­tilist, big­oted, rude, vul­gar, and ob­scene crap.”

This is one of the tragic ques­tions that lurks un­der the comic sur­face. “Has the of­fice of pres­i­dency di­min­ished in stature,” he asks af­ter a sur­vey of the mul­ti­tude of can­di­dates of both par­ties, “un­til it at­tracts only the leprechauns of public life?”.

O’Rourke has fun at the ex­pense of the can­di­dates, ex­tract­ing much hu­mour from the fat­ness of New Jersey gov­er­nor Chris Christie (he gets “his suits from the guy who makes the tarps that cover boats in the drive­ways on the Jersey Shore”). But his gen­er­ous con­clu­sion is that they are all flawed peo­ple, like the rest of us.

Scru­tiny has win­nowed out the can­di­dates and left only authentic hu­man be­ings, which is to say peo­ple not ca­pa­ble of ex­er­cis­ing lead­er­ship. O’Rourke notes that Ohio gov­er­nor John Ka­sich, a con­tender for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion, came across like a reg­u­lar char­ac­ter, but “the GOP was in no damn mood for com­pe­tent, ex­pe­ri­enced politi­cians with broad pop­u­lar ap­peal”.

The next tragic ques­tion is con­tained in O’Rourke’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Joe Bi­den. The deputy pres­i­dent was writ­ten off as a nom­i­nee by Demo­crat big­wigs, but O’Rourke likes him be­cause Bi­den is a nice guy, and one gets the sense that Amer­ica would have liked him too.

Cer­tainly that tiny part of rust-belt Amer­ica that de­ci­sively voted for Trump over Clin­ton would have liked Bi­den. O’Rourke says just 14 per cent of those avail­able to vote se­lected Trump and Clin­ton as the two can­di­dates. An

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