by Ben Sixsmith
Wednesday, 16
February 2022
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15:15

P.J. O’Rourke: a brilliant satirist undone by the Trump era

His writing lost its sting when the MAGA crowd arrived
by Ben Sixsmith
Credit: Getty

News of the death of P.J. O’Rourke was coloured by an absurd discussion on social media as to whether the writer was being confused with an Irish landscaper. One hopes he would have smiled at the comparison.

P.J. O’Rourke was a hippie who ran away to become bourgeois. As a long-haired socialist writing for National Lampoon, he went to cover the 1972 Democratic Convention and was stopped by a sceptical security guard. “I think at that moment I began to realise what I looked like,” he said later, “And I looked like an idiot.”


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O’Rourke became H.L. Mencken with a goofy side. He mocked scheming politicians and dumb do-gooders and even celebrated liberty and free enterprise. His was a conservatism of the Reagan years — one of small government and the finer things in life.

That didn’t stop him from satirising on his own side. “The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it,” he once wrote. “Wherever there’s injustice, oppression, and suffering, America will show up six months late and bomb the country next to where it’s happening.” I am sure Left-wingers who insist that conservatives are alien to humour will maintain that O’Rourke wasn’t funny but the fact that there has been such an outpouring of grief on both sides of the aisle typifies his cross-partisan appeal.

After the glistening optimism of the Reagan years, and cool complacence of the 1990s, O’Rourke struggled to find his place. He was essentially a libertarian — pro-immigration, pro-gay rights and pro-doing-whatever-the-hell-you-like-with-your-money-and-body — and he was dismayed by the nationalism and religiosity of the Right under Trump. He backed Hillary Clinton and his last book, A Cry From the Far Middle, was a rather tired plea for moderation. Even the jokes were flat. (“Everybody’s got a beef. Except the vegans, they’ve got a Beyond Meat.”)

I can’t blame O’Rourke for being disgusted by the crude sloganeering of the MAGA crowd. Like a lot of satirists during this period, though, he got lazy. Everything under the sun during the Trump era was put down to stupidity. Tribalism? Stupid. Sermonising? Stupid. Apprehension? Stupid. Well, they often are, but sometimes such deep human impulses have good sense lurking within them. Even if one disagrees, they must be understood.

Still, O’Rourke’s satire came from a serious place. “America is not a wily, sneaky nation” he wrote in Peace Kills:

We don’t think that way. We don’t think much at all, thank God. Start thinking and pretty soon you get ideas, and then you get idealism, and the next thing you know you’ve got ideology, with millions dead in concentration camps and gulags. A fundamental American question is “What’s the big idea?”

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Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
9 months ago

I am sure Left-wingers who insist that conservatives are alien to humour will maintain that O’Rourke wasn’t funny

No – they are insisting that he was the only funny right winger ever, and every single one of them mentions that he voted for Hillary and against Trump. And that’s why they’ll admit he was funny.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
9 months ago

Well, I found him funny pre-Trump by decades.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago

Voting for Hilary. Now that is genuinely funny

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
9 months ago

Nonsense… the left completely lost its sense of humor. The onion is terrible now. The bee kills the onion.

https://babylonbee.com/news/eminem-takes-a-knee-in-heartfelt-tribute-to-tim-tebow

John Murray
John Murray
9 months ago

His “Holidays in Hell” has one of the best essays about Belfast during the Troubles I’ve ever read. He brilliantly describes a scene of an “invisible” British army patrol moving through a crowded public playground with kids and mothers all carrying on as if they weren’t there, which is exactly how it was, but seldom observed in the press. RIP.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
9 months ago
Reply to  John Murray

The normal noise is fine. If it goes quiet then you grip your weapon and your a**l sphincter a bit tighter.

Last edited 9 months ago by Doug Pingel
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
9 months ago

I didn’t agree with much of Mr.O’Rourke’s politics, like many Libertarians he was little concerned with how what one chose to do impacted others,, however, I did find him funny and was sad to hear, this morning, the news of his passing. A particular piece that I found amusing was when he was test driving an Italian sports car (I forget which make) and was truely impressed by its performance, he then observed that the car made him proud to be an American . The logic for this comment, he said, was if even the Italians could make such a car, imagine what the good ol’ US could do if it put its mind to it.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
9 months ago

That used to be true. It is up to the Chinese now

David B
David B
9 months ago

The Bachelor’s Home Companion saw me right during my uni years. Sage housekeeping advice on every page.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
9 months ago

Loved O’Rourke’s writing. Don’t love that he loved Killary – so middling and ill thought through. And pleased that I didn’t know it before now. So ‘un-hippie’ of him. Hillary?

Last edited 9 months ago by Lesley van Reenen
Ian Moore
Ian Moore
9 months ago

Many such writers of various backgrounds/genres displayed similar hypocrisy.

William McClure
William McClure
9 months ago

Many have sipped from the Orange Man bad cup. P. J. Might have forgotten a few of the many accomplishments Trump provided for America and it’s people.

The current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave can continue
to enjoy the memorable phase coined by the MSM: Let’s Go Brandon…

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
9 months ago

Left wingers are notoriously po-faced and humourless – the battle against ‘privilege’ is ongoing and serious you see, so that is a somewhat strange point to make.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
9 months ago

Canada is aiming for the gulags

R Wright
R Wright
9 months ago

Libertarian stupidity is to a large extent responsible for the west’s current crises.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
9 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

Are you confusing Libertarian with Liberal?