Imagine that you were a TV baseball sportscaster, and had been one for, say, forty years. All you’d ever done was baseball: you knew the rules backwards, you knew the plays backwards, and you knew everything about the teams — their franchise histories, their rosters, their managers, their fans and their cities.
Now imagine that you were asked, at a moment’s notice, to deliver TV commentary on a game of Calvinball on the planet Mars.
That was the feeling I got when I read P.J. O’Rourke’s aptly-named How The Hell Did This Happen?, his take on the 2016 elections.
I’ve always liked P.J.’s writing, by the way, because he uses just enough humor to make a political point insightful without being boring or snarky. But after reading this, his latest political work, I got the feeling that P.J., always something of a journalistic outsider but possessing a keen political sense, was almost in the same boat as the liberal mainstream media when it came to the 2016 results — he was caught between his distaste for Donald Trump as a person and his knowledge of our political system. The only thing that set him apart from the rest was his intense dislike of Hillary Clinton and most things Democratic, but in the end, he was betrayed because like our hapless sportscaster above, he only knew one game.
And if there’s a better analogy of last year’s election than Calvinball (for both political parties), I can’t think of one. The only difference between the parties was that on the Democrat side, the party bigwigs changed the rules as they went along (the Clinton campaign essentially cheating Bernie Sanders out of fully participating in the nomination process), whereas on the Republican side, the rules were constantly being changed by the voters — and as Trump was the only one who caught the “toss ’em all out” mood of the electorate, he was able to play it all the way to the White House. Nothing says “Change” like “Drain the swamp”, after all.
So all the way through P.J.’s book, I could see his complete inability to understand what was going on — why was Trump winning, how could voters not vote for Rubio / Bush / whoever wasn’t Trump, and so on. The fact that NJGov Chris Christie and OHGov John Kasich — mere distractions both — merited more than a few lines in the book was, I think, symptomatic of the media’s problem in general: they got caught up in personalities when what was really happening was a sea change in voter attitudes towards the whole political structure.
The same is true with P.J.’s casual take on the U.K.’s Brexit vote: a side issue, a non-issue even for America, when in fact what it meant was a fundamental shift in the polity — an advance warning of what was likely to happen in the U.S. when it became our turn to express a similar sentiment.
P.J. was always good when he stepped outside the country to look at the attitudes of foreign people, then applying those lessons to our local politics with devastating accuracy — which is what made his strikeout on the 2016 elections so unusual. (The same, in microcosm, is what happened to the rest of the media in the U.S.: by not venturing outside the coasts, they never saw the tidal wave coming.) But in How The Hell?, P.J. only seems to get a vague idea right at the very end of the book — and even then, he can’t bring himself to accept the fact that only a rank outsider like Trump was ever going to win the election — and because the Stupid Party has only ever nominated known political figures, their candidates of choice (Bush, Rubio et al.) never stood a chance. It’s telling that the only serious “insider/outsider” (political maverick Ted Cruz) got even close to the eventual nomination — but even that fact escaped the media, and P.J. O’Rourke.
Afterthought: What I find interesting is that the “outsider” on the Democrat side is Bernie Sanders, a self-confessed Socialist, whose interest is in changing American society into a socialist one, and who is finding favor with the Democrat version of “throw the bastards out” — only in his case, “the bastards” includes anyone earning more than $100k a year, hence his appeal to the Young & Stupid Set on the Left.