It’s not just politicians who are getting older; satirists are, too. Near the end of this book PJ O’Rourke lets slip the startling revelation that he is just a few months younger than Hillary Clinton and only a year behind Trump, who at 70 became the oldest ever first-time president. Long gone is the O’Rourke of yore, a Republican answer to Hunter S Thompson, travelling the world’s danger zones in search of drink, women and leftwing stupidity. Now he operates more in the mould of HL Mencken, one of his heroes, who rarely felt the need to leave his beloved Baltimore in order to lambast the idiocy of his fellow Americans. O’Rourke lives, as it says on the dust jacket, “in rural New England, as far away from the things he writes about as he can get”. This is American politics as viewed from the back room in front of the TV, feet up on the recliner chair.
It’s an approach that gives the book some of its charm but also explains its many failings. O’Rourke has a nice, world-weary way with the US’s present political follies. He describes watching the first Republican presidential debate with his elderly father-in-law, who had the benefit of being deaf and half-blind, but still managed to find Carly Fiorina an impressive candidate. Now that Trump dominates everything, it’s good to be reminded of a time when he was just one hopelessly flawed candidate among many, each of them a wholly improbable future occupant of the White House. O’Rourke spends as much time on the losers as the eventual winner, skewering Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and Scott Walker. They deserve it, of course, but somehow it feels a bit easy – after all, the voters have already done much of the skewering for him.
The one Republican presidential hopeful O’Rourke likes is Rand Paul, curly-haired ophthalmologist and son of perennial libertarian candidate Ron Paul. O’Rourke is taken with the younger Paul’s intellectual seriousness but also with his willingness to laugh at the contortions running for the presidency require of him (Paul senior is not known for his sense of irony). An early chance to meet Paul is one of the few things that drags O’Rourke on to the campaign trail and he comes away a little lovelorn, which is faintly embarrassing. He tells us that he and Rand had a lengthy “poli-sci geek yack” about Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Paper No 84, the wonders of the tenth amendment and the philosophy of natural rights. O’Rourke assumes that his readers won’t be interested in such things, but actually it would be better than hearing his complaints about the way his favourite candidate was treated. He thinks it unfair that Paul got pilloried for his agonised flip-flops on Middle East policy – O’Rourke feels anyone who has a consistent view of what needs to be done in that part of the world is the real menace – whereas Trump was allowed to get away with talking outright nonsense. We don’t need O’Rourke to tell us that politics is unfair: we need him to tell us how Trump got away with it.
The real problem is that unlike Mencken – who saw democracy as rule by fools or, as he christened it, “the boobocracy” – O’Rourke seems to shy away from sticking it to the voters themselves. Because he never gets much beyond what he picks up from watching TV or reading the papers, he tends to be limited to mocking the pundits, who are a far easier target. We all know by now that most of the people who spent the last year telling us how politics is meant to work turned out to have no idea. The voters made fools of conventional wisdom. But what about the forces of unreason at work among voters themselves? O’Rourke offers some half-hearted speculations about what’s irking ordinary Americans, but his book would have been far better if he had stirred himself to go in search of the freakier side of public opinion, as he once would have. As a libertarian, O’Rourke is committed to believing in the right of people to think what they like. But for a libertarian he seems surprisingly reluctant to call them out on it.
It doesn’t help that he comes across too often as a bit of a pundit himself. His continued harrying of the minor players in last year’s drama ends up sounding like a Washington insider’s memory test. Even American readers may be struggling to remember at this point why they are supposed to care about presidential candidates Lincoln Chafee and George Pataki, so who knows what British readers are meant to make of it all. This is symptomatic of the book’s flawed setup. O’Rourke never makes it clear whether his musings on the events of last year were written in real time – and are therefore allowed to be out of date – or have been revised with the benefit of hindsight. Is this a diary of the campaign or is it a post-mortem? By lurching from one to the other, O’Rourke forfeits the reader’s patience and simply comes across as lazy.
There are compensations. He hasn’t lost his gift for the brutally effective one-liner. Of Melania Trump’s stealing at the 2016 Republican convention of Michelle Obama’s address to the Democratic convention of 2008, he writes: “I’m sorry, but you can’t plagiarise the content of another person’s speech when the speech has no content.” He says of the futile attempts of Trump’s opponents to find the appropriate level of scorn for his behaviour: “More and more outrage was needed. In the end, demand outstripped the supply.” Still, much of the humour of this book reads more like it comes from Mad magazine than it does from Mencken: too many tired puns and cheap digs at celebrity. O’Rourke describes a list of the presidential candidates as “a law firm that couldn’t get Caitlyn Jenner off a charge of Bruce Jenner identity theft”. He supplies an appendix in which he translates what he calls “punditese” into plain English. He needn’t have bothered. Who needs to be told that what “studies show” really means is: “I’m pulling this out of my own ass”?
What the schoolboy humour does reveal are some of O’Rourke’s own foolish prejudices. One thing for which he is willing to mock ordinary Americans is their propensity to obesity. Time and again he scorns the idea that there can be such a thing as “food poverty” when so many of the people who are said to suffer from it are fat. Not only is this unfunny, it’s profoundly mean-spirited: even Trump wouldn’t make such a crass mistake. O’Rourke has let it be known that he had to hold his nose and vote for Hillary when the time came, because he couldn’t bear the idea of such a boor and buffoon as her opponent ending up in the White House. Yet there Trump is, and all O’Rourke can do is shake his head from the comfort of his New England bolt hole. That is perhaps the most depressing thing of all about this book: the nagging feeling that it’s Trump who’s had the last laugh.
• How the Hell Did This Happen? is published by Grove/Atlantic Monthly. To order a copy for £11.24 (RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.hafta-ichi.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
• This article was amended on 10 March 2017. An earlier version referred to Rand Paul as an optometrist.
Source: The Guardian