Reflections on the Fever Season A political humorist dissects our crazy presidential election.

How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016

By P. J. O’Rourke (2017, Atlantic Monthly Press) 216 pages, including acknowledgements; no index, photos, bibliography, or notes

“Americans have a one-party system, and, just like Americans, they have two of them.”

—Political writer Alexander Cockburn on the American two-party system, quoted in How the Hell Did This Happen?


Secretly, during the 2016 presidential election campaign, I was always for Ben Carson, “the Surgeon,” as I dubbed him. There were two reasons for this: first, in order to be sure that I was not entirely in a coma or a dream state or hallucinating or perhaps dead and did not know it, I felt the first black president had to immediately be followed by another. Otherwise, I was likely to think that what I understood to have happened had not really happened at all.  There had never been a black president. I imagine it or worse I am simply a figment of someone else’s imagination that imagined it. St. Louis, in its mayoral elections, did it the right way, having Clarence Harmon following Freeman Bosley, Jr., (although neither served more than one term). In this way, we can be assured that the change was not a fluke, or at least know that tokenism must be twice in order to be valid tokenism, sort of like Jackie Robinson integrating the National League and a few months later Larry Doby integrating the American League.

Of all the presidential candidates of 2016 that moderately conservative/libertarian Republican humorist P. J. O’Rourke despises and ridicules in How The Hell Did This Happen: The Election of 2016, he dislikes Carson the least, or better put, he truly admires Carson. 

The other reason for being for The Surgeon was that he was good with his hands. Because of my urban, working-class childhood, the black men who were most admired were good with their hands, either boxers or auto mechanics or jackleg carpenters and plumbers. Being “good with your hands” was the highest compliment someone could pay you as a black man: it meant you had a real skill, had currency in the world of the working-class, could affect the world in some concrete way. It was far better than being good with words, a fallback for those who were not good with their hands. Guys who were good with their hands were “solid.” Guys who were good with words were “slick.” (Black women could be good with their hands—as hairdressers, sex workers, cooks, pianists, faith healers, and nurses (doctors too)—but it was understood as existing in another realm and not praised as it was with men.) We had a black president who was good with words—Barack Obama. I felt strongly it was time to follow that up with a black president who was good with his hands. Remember Todd Clifton in Ralph Ellison’s famous 1952 novel Invisible Man who knocks down a policeman who calls him a name and the policeman kills him. (And consider how much this resembles such cases as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown: young unarmed black man gets the better of a physical altercation with a cop or someone playing a cop and winds up shot to death.) The kid who witnesses the murder tells the narrator: “Your friend sure knows how to use his dukes. Biff, bang! One, two, and the cop’s on his ass!” Or as the narrator himself observes later that Todd Clifton had “a pair of fast hands.” For a black man to have good hands is a dangerous thing.

Of all the presidential candidates of 2016 that moderately conservative/libertarian Republican humorist P. J. O’Rourke despises and ridicules in How The Hell Did This Happen: The Election of 2016, one of several books published in the last month or so that looks back at the surprising presidential election of last fall, he dislikes Carson the least, or better put, he truly admires Carson.

O’Rourke wonders aloud, as I did, why the hell is Carson even degrading himself by running:


“Ben went to Yale and the University of Michigan Medical School and completed his residency in  neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, where he became the hospital’s youngest-ever director of pediatric neurosurgery at age thirty-three in 1984—when Donald Trump was laying the foundation for his first bankruptcy at Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza casino, Jeb Bush was chairing meetings of the Dade County Republican Party in a phone booth, Carly Fiorina was in the break room making coffee for AT&T executives, and Marco Rubio was in the eighth grade. … This was why, in November 2015, I was asking Dr. Ben Carson to please quit running for president. … Dr. Carson, you are valuable. Presidential candidates are not. Politics is the career that we Americans who, like your mother, are trying to be parents choose for our loser children.”


The press criticizes Carson for telling some very minor lies in his autobiography while not sufficiently challenging Trump on telling enormous lies, starting with the extent of his wealth. Carson is a successful doctor; Trump is only seemingly a successful businessman. Carson is criticized by blacks for being a sellout because he is running as a conservative but he was saying absolutely nothing that contradicted his bromide-filled, self-regarding, Christianity-laced speeches to black audiences who adored him as a race hero and role-model before he publicly became a Republican repeating the same speeches. What a difference a context makes. Oh well! I knew the election was going to be nuts when Carson withdrew. O’Rourke is a quicker study, according to his book: he knows it is going to be nuts when announcement season starts.

Aside from Carson, the only other candidate O’Rourke likes a bit was Senator Rand Paul, the libertarian in search of some coherent expression of libertarianism that could actually be practiced and succeed as public policy. “I agree with Rand politically, in general, usually, I guess,” O’Rourke writes with mock tentativeness.

The rest of the crowd is just the sort of people who would be running for the presidency these days, hugely unexceptional, hugely ambitious, and varyingly corrupt. About the 2016 primary field, O’Rourke writes:


“Perry, Santorum, Walker, Webb, Chafee, Pataki, Huckabee, Jindal, Graham, O’Malley, Paul, Fiorina, Biden, Bush, Christie, Carson, Rubio, Cruz, Kasich, Sanders, Clinton, and Trump.

That’s not a list of presidential candidates. That’s the worst law firm in the world. That’s a law firm that couldn’t get Caitlyn Jenner off on a charge of Bruce Jenner identity theft. These people don’t even have what it takes to be a bad president.”


Of Bernie Sanders, he writes:


“But Bernie Sanders is not merely a cynical political operative baiting the electorate with money and then switching money with food stamps. Bernie Sanders is a real socialist.

Bernie doesn’t just promise to take things from people. He thinks it’s a sin not to.  His faith demands stealing. If Bernie snatches a walker from a poor old lady he’s doing a good deed.  He’s going to give that walker to an even poorer, even older lady.”


Of Hillary Clinton:


“There will always be a bull market in political power and in being ‘friends of’ the people who have it.  The way to invest is … Well, Goldman Sachs didn’t invite Hillary over to give its executives hair and makeup tips.

A lot of rich people support Hillary. A lot of rich people understand crony capitalism. Crony capitalists are like trust fund babies, except they made the baby by screwing the public.

Of course, you can’t buy Hillary Clinton. You can only rent her. Being Too Big to Fail is expensive. This is why the practice of crony capitalism is limited to people who are rich already.

Meanwhile, for the rest of Hillary’s supporters, her run for president isn’t a real campaign. It’s a bag of wishful thinking. An old bag of wishful thinking, if you will.”


Of Donald Trump, he writes in an imaginary letter to his younger self of 1968:


“Dig this: a dude who’s more of a capitalist pig than Nelson Rockefeller, exploiting the proletariat with a TV show dumber than Lawrence Welk’s, who’s got all the peace and love vibe of Richard Nixon, and is a bigger racist pig than George Wallace.

 That’s the Republican front-runner.“


Of what Trump represents:


“The American government is of the people, by the people, for the people. And these days America is peopled by 320 million Donald Trumps. Donald Trump is representative of all that we hold dear: money. Or, rather, he is representative of greed for money. We common folk may not be able to match Trump’s piggy bank, but even the most high-minded and charitable among us can match his piggishness.”


Elsewhere on the Trump’s significance:


“And how does a self-proclaimed plutocrat get away with proclaiming himself a populist?  By looking the way a poor guy would look if a plutocrat populist made the poor guy rich—so rich that he could have his own custom-made personal baseball cap to wear with his brand-new la-di-da Italian suit.

Trump’s appearance—indeed, Trump’s existence—is a little guy’s idea of living large.  A private plane! A swell joint in Florida! Lifetime membership in Hair Club for Men! Gold-plated showerheads! Gold-plated toilet handles! Gold-plated jumper cables in the trunk of the Cadillac!

Trump isn’t a boiled-shirt, buttoned-up, unapproachable real rich person. Mitt Romney is a real rich person. Trump is a fantasy rich person. … When Trump’s supporters see Trump they think, ‘That’s me, in my dreams.’”


Of the Democratic Party:


“Democratic politicians care about poverty. As well they should, since poor people vote Democratic.

In 1966, at the height of Lyndon Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty,’ the U.S. poverty rate was 14.7 percent and 28.5 million Americans were living in poverty. Now the U.S. poverty rate is 14.5 percent and 45 million Americans are living in poverty. Thus 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.”


On the Republican Party:


“Republicans talk a good social conservative game, and Rick Santorum is the Republican voice of social conservatism. He’s against abortion, illegal immigrants, and gay marriage and in favor of the church. And so are all of us Republicans—until our kid knocks up the fifteen-year-old next door, the house need painting, offending the LBGT community means coming home from the hairdresser with a skunk stripe dyed into our hair, and Christ conflicts with tee time.”


Elsewhere on the Republicans:


“Republicans are still fighting the culture wars, dug in on the front lines and courageously blazing away, never mind that the enemy has declared victory and gone home to celebrate with legalized marijuana at a same-sex wedding reception.”


How the Hell Did This Happen? is a funny book not just simply about the election but about being a pundit, although not as funny nor as good as Holidays in Hell or Parliament of Whores. The loose-jointed nature of the book, “the lack of continuity,” as the author characterizes it, reveals the occasional nature of this writing, arising as much of it does from essays, radio scripts, and the like. The book does not hide the fact that it is cobbled together but such honesty is not a sign of anything as much as the author’s indifference, laziness, or sheer hurry to get the thing to market while the election itself and its roundup, not its results, still mattered to the public. There is much filler in this book, such as the chapter on if First Ladies were presidents rather than their husbands, the Ambrose-Bierce-Devil’s-Dictionary glossary at the end, the chapter on Rand Paul, the road trip poll chapter,  and chapters 20, 21, and 22 on billionaires, tax, and what Donald Trump’s platform should be respectively. There is a sense of the book feeling forced, a bit like mediocre Mark Twain, whose humor, of course, O’Rourke’s resembles.

The final few chapters take on a more serious tone where O’Rourke talks about the American revolt against the elite which becomes, in some sense, absurd, as once the rebellion has succeeded, the rebels simply become the new elite. He warns against politics casting “its net over every little aspect of life.”

But some of the chapters are amazingly funny, such as those on Marco Rubio, on how the candidates dress, on Clinton’s crony capitalism, and especially on Bernie Sanders’s platform. The final few chapters take on a more serious tone where O’Rourke talks about the American revolt against the elite which becomes, in some sense, absurd, as once the rebellion has succeeded, the rebels simply become the new elite. He warns against politics casting “its net over every little aspect of life.” For the very people who want life subsumed by politics will have no choice but to give greater power to the government, only to find itself more and more in battle with the elite that runs it, as power, in effect, is its own reality, its own culture. The irony of trying to get rid of power many on the left aspire to do is that it takes power to do away with power. Power respects or recognizes nothing but its cognate, its avatar, its doppelgänger, its own image. The only peace we will ever have is when we decide to de-politicize many things, which the left and the right are unable and unwilling to do as conquest or the thwarting of conquest is so near. The book is a quick and diverting read that offers a bit to think about whether, and how much, our most recent presidential election reveals the country going completely off the rails.