Review of P.J. O’Rourke’s How the Hell Did this Happen?

There are only a few writers still writing who I have been reading religiously for over 30 years.  O’Rourke is one of them, and the reason is that he is a gifted writer, a brilliant humorist, and more than anything else, enables his readers to digest politics with a perspective that is all-at-once cogent, convicting, and right-sized.  O’Rourke is an equal opportunity humorist, generally smacking around Democrats and Republicans with his libertarian-shaped paddle and overall cynicism around the political process.  His newest book is not a new book, per se, as much as a compilation of 2016 writings that were being composed throughout the dumpster fire of a campaign we all endured.  For those who found the 2016 campaign unbearable (which at the very least includes the author of this book, and the author of this book review), O’Rourke’s book is both a fun trip down memory lane, and a painful reminder of all the things wrong with our primary process, our two major political parties, and the state of the electorate.

There isn’t a lot I would say critical of this book.  O’Rourke’s humor is not for dumb people, which means a lot of people may not find him funny.  The truth is that he is the funniest political satirist in history, mostly because he just tells the truth, and the truth of our political lives has to be made funny for therapeutic reasons, or we all die.  The book is highly readable and highly entertaining, and yet there is no sense in which the reader will feel it is light-hearted or silly.  There is serious editorializing embedded in the constant exercise P.J. O’Rourke is committed to – namely, reducing the American citizen’s relationship to the state (and vice versa) to absurdity.

I will exclude the Trump-bashing and Hillary-detesting from my review.  O’Rourke provides plenty in this book, captured from the 2016 real-time versions of the same, and I have said plenty on both subjects myself.  But if there is a serious takeaway from this book, and there is, it is not merely that we should reflect on how truly awful both of our leading contenders were in this election cycle.  His concluding chapter is an utter masterpiece critique of, and surrender to, the forces of populism.  He adds sociological acumen to his portfolio in explaining how the elites have invited this revolt upon themselves.  He also does so without vindicating the revolters, who, despite having a perfectly legitimate enemy in the forces of elitism, are themselves so often totally incapable and unworthy of individualism.  Our society does not merely face a crisis of confidence in elite institutions; it faces a crisis of fear.  The populist revolt is afraid of personal responsibility and freedom, and yet totally unsatisfied with the performance of those who have dared to rule them.  And so here we are.  Readers who care to better understand this phenomena will do well to pick up this book.

(I might add by way of shameless self-promotion, O’Rourke concluded his recap of 2016 with the aforementioned powerful critique of elitism and populism; my own book targeted for later this year, Making Responsibility Matter Again, happens to dig right into this hole.  What it comes up with is a whole different story).