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 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