Monday, March 6, 2017

How the Hell Did This Happen?, by P.J. O'Rourke

No political writer living is as funny or as insightful as P.J. O'Rourke.  With great anticipation I picked up his reflections on the recent presidential election, How the Hell Did This Happen?: The Election of 2016, in which he asks the question all of us asked throughout the debacle of an election season.  As expected, he is hilarious, and he has some serious moments of insight.  But given the amount of ridiculous material he had to work with, I don't feel like he capitalized sufficiently on the opportunities for skewering Trump and Clinton.

The Democrats presented the electorate with Hillary Clinton.  This fits the trend started with the election of Obama.  "The Democrats are determined to elect 'the first ______ American president.'  African-American, Woman, Native American, Latino, Gay.  They've checked off No. 1 and are determined to do down the list in order of historical victimhood."  The GOP just wanted someone who could win.  They were "in no damn mood for competent, experienced politicians with broad popular appeal" like Kasich or O'Malley.  And even though Trump, in many ways, didn't fit in the GOP, he proved "you can't get kicked out of an American political party no matter what you say or do."

Where O'Rourke really shines is boiling down political philosophies.  For example, his summary of America's "two vague political tendencies."  "One tendency is to favor a larger, more powerful government to make things better.  The other tendency is to favor a smaller, more limited government to make things less worse."  On Trump and Clinton specifically, neither will lower taxes: "Elect Hillary, and we'll get obvious higher taxes--on our incomes, investments, and businesses.  Elect Trump, and we'll get hidden higher taxes--in the form of worthless U.S. dollars being printed to fund the deficit and debt."  In both cases, the "exact answer to the question of how much money would be required to fulfill campaign promises is that there isn't that much money in the world."  Truth.

One platform issue that divides the parties and the candidates is the approach to poverty.  "Democratic politicians care so much about poverty that--far from warring on it--they have become a kind of conservationist group, devoted to preserving it forever.  Democrats are the Sierra Club of Poverty."  That's a classic O'Rourke line!  In a more specific policy proposal of sorts, O'Rourke writes, "Giving poor people money is a simple and straightforward way to eliminate poverty.  But the government is spending 46 percent more money to eliminate poverty than it would cost to eliminate poverty by giving poor people money."  Makes you wonder. . . .

O'Rourke makes clear throughout How the Hell Did This Happen? that he thought little of both candidates (and their primary contenders didn't do much better!).  He finally gave his endorsement to Hillary, albeit reluctantly.  O'Rourke sees Hillary like The Grinch, a la Dr. Seuss: "You're a smug one, Hillary, . . . you're cuddly as a cactus, . . . you're a limousine liberal, Hillary, your heart's an empty hole, . . . I endorse you with a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole!"

How the Hell Did This Happen? is an equal-opportunity offender.  O'Rourke doesn't really have much nice to say about any of the candidates.  However, he either overlooks some of the worst offenses and accusations of the campaign, or treats them very lightly.  It's almost like he felt that he knew he would alienate partisans on both sides, but didn't want to do so irrevocably and drastically.  This is a fun read and valuable keepsake of memories of Election 2016.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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