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P.J. O’Rourke on Populism and Optimism

The famously snarky satirist has surprisingly high hopes for America's future, and some time-tested thoughts on its past and present.

A portrait of author P.J. O'Rourke, photographed at home in Sharon, New Hampshire. (Photo by David Howells/Corbis via Getty Images)

A Cry from the Far Middle: Dispatches from a Divided Land, by P.J. O’Rourke, (Atlantic Monthly Press: September, 2020), 320 pages.

For decades, P.J. O’Rourke has been one of America’s best-known journalists, reporting on friends and enemies both foreign and domestic. The author of twenty books, his work has appeared everywhere from Vanity Fair to Rolling Stone, earning him a reputation as an unparalleled humorist. Earlier this month, P.J. O’Rourke joined me via Zoom to discuss the current predicaments of the United States of America, and his latest offering, A Cry from the Far Middle: Dispatches from a Divided Land.

A disjointed but hilarious collection of essays, the book examines everything from the impact of social media (“Whose Bright Idea was It to Make Sure that Every Idiot in the World was in Touch with Every Other Idiot?”) to a tongue-in-cheek pitch to just give poor Americans money rather than trickling it down through endless sticky webs of government democracy (“Just Give Them the Money.”) What does tie it all together is American populism.

“Populism has been with us since the Whisky Rebellion,” O’Rourke explained on our call.

Populism pops up at all sorts of places on the political spectrum. I never liked Donald Trump. But then again, if I’d been around at the time, I think I’d feel equally strongly about William Jennings Bryan. We have this populist tendency, and both political parties like to take advantage of this populism if they can figure out how to work it to their advantage. It tends to be short-lived. It pops up and it pops down. Where now is the Anti-Masonic Party and what were they on about?

The difficulty with our latest iteration of populism, of course, is that nobody has quite figured out what it is about. The Anti-Masonic Party was opposed to the Masons. The Whisky Rebellion was a revolt against a liquor tax. William Jennings Bryan was an advocate of bimetallism and abandoning the gold standard. Despite valiant attempts to provide intellectual coherence to “Trumpism”—each faction of the right wing finding a mandate for their preferred agenda in the backlash against the elites (I’m partial to the National Conservatism movement myself)—the last few months have affirmed that whatever else this is or was about, it is now a personality cult with loyalty to Donald Trump. This supersedes any party or political agenda. The Trump voter appears to be just that, a Trump voter.

There are plenty of folks attempting to crack the code. Some, like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, court Trump’s base with nods to allegations the election was stolen. But hanging on to a wolf by the ears is difficult, and rioters drove the senators and their colleagues from the Capitol for their trouble. Transactionalism does not explain Trump. Trump’s coherence fluctuates, his views change, his loyalties shift—and his voters stay with him. What is Trumpism, besides the personality of a charismatic carnival barker who has managed, almost miraculously, to take millions of Americans along for the ride? It was one thing to board the Hindenburg when it was a shiny new thing. But as it turns out, plenty of people were willing to climb, or stay, aboard as it burst into flames.

Charisma, unfortunately, is a mystery. “Charisma is not something I saw emanating from Trump,” O’Rourke told me.

But then again, I interviewed Bill Clinton when he was running for president, and I was told that he was immensely personally charming. It was totally lost on me—I thought he was a jerk. I just did a review of a new biography of Jack Kennedy and he was somebody who really had charisma. It’s a detailed book, and it’s hard to read without thoroughly disliking the man. Yet, I’m old enough to have known people of his generation who knew him personally and who worked for him, people I admired and liked, people whose opinions I thought worthwhile, and they were, to a man—it was mostly men—extraordinarily loyal to John F. Kennedy. He had something that attracted flies.

In addition to Trump’s charisma factor, O’Rourke believes that our current iteration of populism stems from the “rapid and transformative change in the economy”—disruptive in the short term even if it proves beneficial in the long-term—and the accelerating expansion of government under both parties. As the government takes responsibility for more things, it inevitably fails at more things. And people become angry and disillusioned as a result. Of course, what can be done to address this is less apparent than the diagnosis, which O’Rourke renders with his usual repertoire of one-liners and dry asides.

For all the hilarity, witticisms, and keen observations, few of O’Rourke’s scattershot solutions in A Cry from the Far Middle are new. “I am calling for cogent argument,” he told me. “What I would like to see is these issues—such as free trade, immigration, regulation of big tech industries and social media platforms—argued out rationally. I don’t want people so immersed in their politics that they can’t have a rational discussion about these things. We need to argue, in some cases rather angrily, perhaps even bitterly. We need to loudly disagree. But we need to do that in the context of reason. Reason is pretty much what got us civilization. Preservation of civilization is what makes me a conservative.”

As for the Gordian knot of big tech, O’Rourke’s preferred response is likely to satisfy nobody and he knows it. The digital public square has replaced the traditional public square, and it’s privately owned. “Everything we do about this will be wrong or turn out to be wrong,” O’Rourke told me. “Leave it alone and it will get worse. Interfere and you’ll have regulatory capture, or you will have worse censorship coming from the other side. Very probably you’ll have both. Unfortunately, this is one of those things—and everybody hates these situations—that the only cure for is time.” In short, O’Rourke believes that the big tech oligopoly will eventually be broken by the market once others get into the game. It must be noted that few on the right share his cautious optimism.

Despite the current popularity of cynicism, P.J. O’Rourke isn’t especially worried about America’s future. As a journalist who both participated in and recorded the 1960s, which included thousands of bombings in the continental United States, a proliferation of domestic terrorist groups, and a string of high-profile political assassinations, he scoffs at the idea that the United States cannot weather this storm, too.

“We survived the Sixties, and they were a far more angry and chaotic period than now,” he told me.

Are things bad at the moment? Yes, they are. Have we seen worse? We certainly have. Fort Sumter isn’t taking incoming. Forget the 1960s, what about the 1860s? The fundamentally conservative thing that keeps America from tearing itself apart the way some other countries have torn themselves apart is that we are a private nation. Our fundamental concern has to do with ourselves and our families, and America is the blackboard upon which we make our chalk marks; it is the screen upon which we project our visions; it is our plot of ground which we plow. What matters most to Americans is what happens to us individually and what happens to our immediate community of families and friends.

In the meantime, O’Rourke is still bullish about America. “We have a very firm belief in private property; we’re very ambitious; we’re very hardworking; and all this junk that’s been going on lately gets in our way, and that’s one of the reasons that we’ll push it to one side and it will fade. Americans are too busy to have time for the sort of abstract ideology that leads to really crazy behavior.” I hope he’s right—the escalation of social atomization, the breakdown of the family, and the rise of identity politics as our traditional tribes break down and metastasize are reasons to believe he may be wrong. 

If O’Rourke’s solutions seem a tad stale, his writing certainly isn’t. His dispatches in A Cry from the Far Middle are well worth reading. His analyses there are frequently less optimistic than he is in conversation, but his faith that America will pull through (often disguised by an enormous amount of sarcasm) is a welcome temporary relief in an incessant series of apocalyptic news cycles. For a half-century or so, P.J. O’Rourke has seen it all. From the perspective of that historical perch, the boringly conservative response to our current chaos is an unsatisfying but, please God, accurate truism: This, too, shall pass.

Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.

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