Captain Obvious, Oblivious

The latest book by P.J. O’Rourke, “smart” conservatism’s town crier and court jester, is How the Hell Did This Happen?. It is a short, cutting, sometimes witty, largely snarky, mostly horrified, scattershot stream-of-consciousness tick-tock of the months of the 2016 presidential election, as well as a sarcastic headmaster’s scolding of the Republican Party that anointed Trump as its idiot king. It is written in the tone, biographically accurate to P.J., not of an insider, but of a largely retired, has-been pundit observing it all from a recliner in front of a television.

Despite its author’s once incisive, cogent, and original voice, it is a totally unnecessary “me too” of a book that adds nothing to any analysis of the triumph of Trump. Spoiler alert: It was a revolt against “the elites.” Despite its claim to be funny, with a few isolated exceptions, it isn’t. Despite its brevity, it is still far too long. Despite its prolixity, the most notable thing about How the Hell Did This Happen? is not anything in it, but something that isn’t: An apology.

[T]he most notable thing about ‘How the Hell Did This Happen?’ is not anything in it, but something that isn’t: An apology.

Each summer, thousands of kids across America are packed off to church camp. These days they call it vacation bible school. I can’t think of two words more disappointing to a kid after hearing the word, “vacation.” I like to imagine the three abrupt changes in a ten-year-old’s face when he’s told by his parents that he’s going to… Vacation! (Eyebrows raising. Big smile. The anticipation. Where? Disney Land?) Bible! (Upper lip twinges. Eyebrows fall on the ends. Smile starts to turn, revealing the first stirrings of terror.) School! (Screaming. The fall to the floor. The sobs!! It’s the summer! The SOBs!)

Such prostrate protestations having inevitably failed, the kid is shipped out. Once off the bus, every church camp kid has just a day — two maximum — to get in where they fit in. In that way, church camp is just like summer camp. Except at church camp you have to talk about Jesus like he’s an NFL player who went to your junior high and also pretend you don’t cuss.

The Republican Party is like church camp, except millions of people are in it, it’s everywhere, and it never ends. There’s even the same cast of characters. There’s a few kids who are true believers, some who just like the structure, many who only are there because their parents went, and a lot who are looking around thinking, This is crazy, but that other camp is full of weirdos and the nanny’s kids go there. And I can’t tell anyone here because I don’t know who will turn me in. Who would listen anyway?! This is a nightmare. A waking nightmare!

At the national church camp of the modern GOP, P.J. O’Rourke is the cool camp counselor that a few of the older kids have, the ones in the A.P. classes at school.

At the national church camp of the modern GOP, P.J. O’Rourke is the cool camp counselor that a few of the older kids have, the ones in the A.P. classes at school. Most of the counselors at church camp are buzz-cut enforcers, the future H.R. Haldemans and Dick Cheneys of the world. But not counselor P.J. He’s cool. He listens. You’ve got doubts about the divinity of Christ? That’s cool. He does too. There’s no faith without doubt, he says. You’ve had impure thoughts about Kendra Reilly? Don’t sweat it, kid. Jesus was tempted too. You went to third base with her behind the bathrooms after volleyball? It’s alright. Counselor P.J. always has a Jesuitical defense to lay your conscience at ease. You heard counselor P.J. caught some kids smoking and joined them. Some kids from his cabin said he let them into the counselor’s lounge to play Call of Duty. He has books in his room that aren’t by Joel Osteen. He has a girlfriend. Or a picture of one anyway. One day counselor P.J. suggests that you should keep coming to camp even after you get your driver’s license. He says its not that bad. He says its pretty awesome, actually, even if you’re not that into church. You think he might be on to something. You become a counselor the next summer. P.J. spends most of his time with the new smart kids, but you still nod to each other. Then you start smoking pot, make out with a sophomore girl at camp, and quit in shame. P.J. never calls you. Being a counselor wasn’t as cool as he said it would be.

Counselor P.J.

You think counselor P.J. was your friend. But then later, when you haven’t thought about church camp in decades, it hits you — P.J. wasn’t your friend. He was just there to keep the smart kids coming to camp and to recruit more counselors! Then you call some people and realize he wasn’t even in high school then. He was like twenty-three! And outside of camp, he wasn’t cool. Not at all. He didn’t even have any friends except this guy named Tom who wore Lee jeans.

Then a few years after you quit going to church camp, some new guys take over and the camp turns into Jonestown. P.J. survives to tell the tale of the massacre. Sometimes he blabbers, a lot of the time he misses the point, a few times he is sardonic and witty. And once or twice, he gets the explanation right. But mostly, it’s a meandering, oblivious mess. The main thing is, though, he never mentions that he was the one who handed out the Kool Aid to the smart kids.

And that is as good a description as any of P.J. O’Rourke’s How the Hell Did This Happen?, a collection of head-hanging, dismayed, and bafflingly unreflective essays, bits, and riffs about the 2016 presidential election and the state of today’s Republican Party (211 pages [20 good ones]).

It would be easy to engage in a polemical assault against P.J. and everything he stands for. In fact, I intend to do just that in a future essay.


But for now, I will try to stay focused on How the Hell Did This Happen?

To deal with some minor quibbles first, while this is P.J.’s eighteenth book, judging from the number of recycled jokes, quips, and stories, it’s about his tenth book worth of material. But even calling How the Hell Did This Happen? a book is generous. I read it in one afternoon and evening while tending to an infant and a dog with irritable bowel syndrome. The pages are small. The type is large. It would be more accurate to call it a hefty pamphlet or a perhaps a tract. Even so, it could and should be much shorter. P.J. obviously has the upper hand with his editor. He’s an established author with a built-in audience. If P.J. wants it in, it stays in. But a more imposing editor could have cut this book down by a quarter. There are whole chapters that are the literary equivalent of the crumbs at the bottom of the tortilla chip bag.

As for the major quibble, it is quite simply — and damnably — the remarkable ability of P.J. in How the Hell Did This Happen? to despond about the 2016 election and the state of the party that crowned our new, naked emperor without even a passing acknowledgment of the role Mr. O’Rourke has himself played in setting the stage for it all. To anyone familiar with P.J. and his work over the last thirty years, for this book to contain absolutely zero recognition of his role in the evolution (or devolution) of the GOP into a party that seemingly exists only to troll “libtards” beggars belief and is tremendous insult to Republicans and libtards alike. It’s as if Charles Lightoller, the highest-ranking surviving officer from the Titanic, had written a book about the wreck consisting solely of a description of his view from the lifeboat.

Yes, P.J. is no populist. He clearly and viciously characterizes Trump as an authoritarian fool and charlatan — if not an outright fascist —and one without an ounce in him of P.J.’s particular brand of True Scotsman conservatism to boot. In the book, P.J. even reprints his endorsement Clinton, the devil he knows rather than the devil they chose. But, to continue with the religious symbolism, it is all mere tinkling cymbal. For though he writes in literally human, and rarely figuratively angelic, tongues, without the charity of some admission of his role in tilling the political and sociocultural ground that proved so fertile for Trump, How the Hell Did This Happen? is a resounding gong.

“I didn’t do it.” — c/o Getty Images

P.J.’s role as Trump’s paunchy, gin-blossomed, yellow-toothed, Irish handmaiden should not be minimized. He and Rush Limbaugh are of a piece. Rush used his demagogic dehumanization of Democrats and cynical denial of any fact not supportive of the GOP agenda to roil the AM-radio-listening Republican rubes (including myself for about eight years starting when I was fifteen). P.J. did the same, only with a larger vocabulary, better jokes, and a more influential demographic. Rush hems and haws at Republican hayseeds who read Parade and speak in tongues at church. P.J. cracks wise with Republicans who read The National Review and only go to church if their hangovers aren’t too bad and the weather is too poor for golf. Rush rallies and enrages Republicans who check ballots while P.J. is a cheeky cheerleader for the Republicans who are on ballots. Rush speaks to the Republicans who get out and vote, rain or shine, while P.J. writes for the Republicans who get out their checkbooks and mail in their votes from St. Croix. You get the idea.

Together, Rush and P.J., those two dissimilar counselors of the same GOP church camp, created the coterie of the modern Republican base: greedy, tribal, cynical, utilitarian, eternally victimized, devoid of empathy, disbelieving of any information originating from outside their ideological bubble, and firm in their belief that anyone to the left of George Pataki is a literal threat to the freedom and survival of them and their children.

Rush’s listeners care more about guns and gender-specific bathrooms. P.J.’s readers care more about the capital-gains tax rate, the gender of their mistresses, and doing coke in the bathroom. But together, those groups form two wings of the same blood-soaked buzzard of a base — driven to hysteria by years of Rush’s daily, proletarian, cynical, right-wing jeremiads and P.J.’s more occasional, patrician, equally cynical, supply-side satire — that jumped gleefully into the arms (as buzzards are wont to do) of Donald Trump. Because to them anything and anyone — no matter how antithetical to their own professed values and ideologies — was better than a Democrat getting to replace Scalia. And any Democrat was better than Hillary Clinton, a politician that for over twenty-five years had become the personification of evil in the eyes of both Rush’s rabble-roused reactionaries and P.J.’s more respectable right-wing raconteurs.

According to P.J., though, the GOP of Trump is a party that he has watched from a distance become whipped into a frenzy of populism by forces he never identifies and for reasons he doesn’t explain. It is one that according to him nominated Donald Trump because Rubio was short, Jeb was Bush, Christie was fat, Cruz was a churchy nerd, Fiorina was bulimic, Kasich was bland, and Ben Carson was… well, a doctor I hope... But whatever the reasons, don’t look at P.J., because he certainly didn’t have anything to do with it — even though his first and still best known book is called Republican Party Reptile.

Even Charlie Sykes, the Wisconsin conservative radio show who has recently joined P.J. among the ranks of conservative anti-Trump Judases, has accepted some blame — albeit not enough — for his role in creating the cynical, fact-free culture that allowed Trump to flourish. But not P.J.

Sykes’s role in Trump’s rise may have more proximate than P.J.’s, considering his locus and influence in Wisconsin, the state that helped put Trump over the top by the slimmest of margins (with help from undeniably racist voter-suppression tactics by Governor Scott Walker and rest of the state GOP). However, P.J.’s role was national, longer standing, and focused on a much more influential audience. While Sykes was riling up Milwaukee area suburbanites, P.J. was providing College Republican virgins across the country with a cool and funny veneer to put over their erstwhile decidedly uncool enthusiasm for Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises. Sykes’s audience delivered Racine county and brought us the mini-Trump, Scott Walker. P.J.’s audience delivered the whole Congress in 1994 and 2010 and brought us the tribe of Laffer Curve lieutenants and culture-war captains intent to win-at-all-costs and destroy all “others” that is today’s Republican Party, ready to support Trump to the bitter end so long as they can cut taxes and put Allison Eid on the Supreme Court when Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies. Paul Ryan probably would have never heard of Charlie Sykes if he didn’t broadcast in his district and most likely hasn’t listened to Limbaugh in fifteen years. But I guarantee he has a hard cover of Eat the Rich in his office and a beer-stained paperback of Republican Party Reptile at home.

What makes P.J.’s role in all this all the more effective and insidious is his decidedly insider status. Sykes and Limbaugh and their ilk have always been personae non grata outside the GOP’s self-contained party-media bubble. But P.J. is and has always been a polite-society darling. He gets to be on NPR and 60 Minutes. He wrote for Rolling Stone. He was once married to Sidney Lumet’s daughter. He has a Masters in English from Johns Hopkins, a few steps above Sykes’s alma mater, UW-Milwaukee, and a leap and a half above the directional Missouri college Limbaugh dropped out of. P.J. has long been embraced by the mainstream, Sunday-morning media as the smart, smart-alecky spokesman of country-club conservatism who gets invited to all the best Georgetown cocktail parties. Plus he’s a legitimate, well respected war correspondent and car writer on top of it all. So who has had more influence in preening Trump’s nest in the upper echelons of the Republican Party, P.J., the modern H.L. Mencken, or a couple of radio blowhards from the provinces?

This makes P.J.’s lack of any mea culpa in How the Hell Did This Happen? all the more glaring and infuriating. It’s not that he’s pleading not guilty — that would at least be honorable, if not honest — it’s that he’s failing to show up to court at all. And on top of that, he’s claiming he was never served with process and was at his summer home in New Hampshire at the time of the accident even though there was a bottle of scotch with his fingerprints on it found on the wrecked car’s floorboard.

To call this book an evasion of responsibility would be too kind. He doesn’t evade responsibility. That’s Judas (or Jeffrey Epstein) hanging himself. This book is more akin to a gospel by Judas where he blames Peter for the whole crucifixion thing, never mentions the thirty pieces of silver, throws in a bunch of tired jokes from some old books of his, and blows the advance on a new Range Rover.

This book is more akin to a gospel by Judas where he blames Peter for the whole crucifixion thing, never mentions the thirty pieces of silver, throws in a bunch of tired jokes from some old books of his, and blows the advance on a new Range Rover.

Or, perhaps its like an autobiography by the navigator for the Donner Party wherein he deplores all the cannibalism, but never mentions his idea about taking that shortcut though it was getting a bit snowy.

P.J. and this book of his lend themselves easily to such similes and analogies because they’re both so predictably bad and wrong for a reason that is at once prosaic and profound, personal and universal, minute and momentous: Pride. P.J. and his politics are utterly infused with it. To admit in this book or elsewhere that he is and has been wrong about a lot of what he stands for, and that he has some hefty share of blame for the rise of something and someone he so clearly detests, would require a lot of humility. And that is something he, and most others in similar positions, simply lacks when it matters.

P.J.’s utter lack of reflection and humility in How the Hell Did This Happen? for his role in bringing about the rise of Donald Trump and the party that made him possible would be poignant if it weren’t so predictable and tragic if the harsh judgment the book will — or should — bring him weren’t so deliciously deserved. And to top it off, it’s not even funny.

The author was a young Republican in the vein of Alex P. Keaton from when he was a young teenager until he was about twenty-three, when he applied newly acquired critical thinking skills to one of Rush Limbaugh’s rants and decided he was full of shit. Today, his politics lie somewhere between FDR, Eugene V. Debs, and Thomas Piketty.



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