His writing lost its sting when the MAGA crowd arrived
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?”