This election cycle was so absurd that celebrated political satirist, journalist, and die-hard Republican P. J. O’Rourke endorsed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. As P.J. put it, “America is experiencing the most severe outbreak of mass psychosis since the Salem witch trials of 1692. So why not put Hillary on the dunking stool?”
In How the Hell Did This Happen?, P.J. brings his critical eye and inimitable voice to some seriously risky business. Starting in June 2015, he asks, “Who are these jacklegs, high-binders, wire-pullers, mountebanks, swellheads, buncombe spigots, four-flushers and animated spittoons offering themselves as worthy of America’s highest office?” and surveys the full cast of presidential candidates including everyone you’ve already forgotten and everyone you wish you could forget.
P.J. offers a brief history of how our insane process for picking who will run for president evolved, from the very first nominating convention (thanks, Anti-Masonic Party) through the reforms of the Progressive era (because there’s nothing that can’t be worsened by reform) to the present. He takes us through the debates and key primaries and analyzes everything from the campaign platforms (or lack thereof) to presidential style (“Trump’s appearanceindeed, Trump’s existenceis a little guy’s idea of living large. A private plane! A swell joint in Florida! Gold-plated toilet handles!”). And he rises from the depths of despair to come up with a better way to choose a president. Following his come-to-Satan moment with Hillary and the Beginning of End Times in November, P.J. reckons with a new age: “America is experiencing a change in the nature of leadership. We’re getting rid of our leaders. And we’re starting at the top.”
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About the Author
P. J. O’Rourke has written eighteen books on subjects as diverse as politics and cars and etiquette and economics. Parliament of Whores and Give War a Chance both reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. He is a contributing editor at the Weekly Standard, H. L. Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute, a regular panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me, and editor-in-chief of the web magazine American Consequences. He lives in rural New England, as far away from the things he writes about as he can get.
Read an Excerpt
The Campaign Begins
Ready, Set, Go to Hell
Who are these jacklegs, highbinders, wire-pullers, mountebanks, swellheads, buncombe spigots, boodle artists, four-flushers, and animated spittoons offering themselves as worthy of the nation's highest office?
Do they take us voters for fools?
Of course they do. But are they also deluded? Are they also insane? Are they receiving radio broadcasts on their dental fillings telling them they have what it takes to be a good president?
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.
Show me one candidate who, like Millard Fillmore in 1856, has the honest decency to come right out and admit being a "Know-Nothing."
At least the members of the Know-Nothing Party knew they knew nothing.
Or show me one candidate who says nothing. Calvin Coolidge had nothing to say and, in his outspoken manner, said it.
Failing that, show me one candidate who can be counted on to keel over dead thirty-two days after inauguration the way William Henry Harrison did.
The 2016 candidates do not possess William Henry Harrison's kind of gravitas. (Although Chris Christie does possess William Howard Taft's kind of gravity.)
And the candidates aren't lighthearted. None has grown sideburns as amusing as Chester A. Arthur's. Nor — so far as we know — spends evenings in frolic with as plump and giddy an intern as Monica Lewinsky.
Even the nuts among the 2016 candidates do not rise to the level of the nuts of yore.
Progressive Republican senator from Wisconsin Robert M. La Follette stood almost alone in his crusade to keep America out of World War I, pointing out that the issue of unrestricted German U-boat warfare had been resolved peacefully in Lake Michigan.
Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan thundered to the Democratic National Convention of 1896, "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." (One can hardly disagree. Although it sounds like an expensive idea and not very practical, and I don't believe anyone had actually proposed it.)
The array of 2016 presidential candidates raises two questions. Has the office of the presidency diminished in stature until it attracts only the leprechauns of public life? Or have our politicians shrunk until none of them can pass the carnival test "You Must Be Taller Than the Clown to Run for President"?
At the start of the 2016 presidential campaign (less than a minute after the finish of the 2012 presidential campaign) the outcome was foretold. The opinion was universally held, by the sort of people who universally hold opinions, that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush would be the inevitable winners of their parties' nominations.
And I trembled for my country.
Members of the electorate would go into the ballot booth, see the two names, "Clinton" and "Bush," and think to themselves, "Gosh, I'm getting forgetful. I did this already." They'd leave without marking the ballot. Voter turnout would be 6 percent.
The shuttle from the local old-age home would send a few senile Republicans to the polls. A Democratic National Committee bus would collect some derelicts from skid row. And we would have the first president of the United States elected by a franchise limited to sufferers from Alzheimer's disease and drunken bums.
What happened to Jeb Bush? He had everything. He's young (for a Republican), a Phi Beta Kappa, and a successful businessman. And he'd been a two-term governor of Florida, where balloting incompetence and corruption are vital to the GOP.
Jeb is fluent in Spanish. His wife is Hispanic. He's got a bunch of kids and they're Hispanic too. Maybe he'd choose Marco Rubio as his running mate. Kiss the Latino vote good-bye, Democrats.
Plus Jeb was rolling like a dirty dog in campaign contributions.
Yes, Jeb Bush did have one problem. We political pundits were slow to grasp it. Political pundits are under professional obligation to regard the obvious as being too obvious. If it were the job of political pundits to state the obvious, there — obviously — wouldn't be any need for political pundits. However, even we pundits were able to take a "Bush-league" guess at what Jeb Bush's problem was.
Yet we continued to believe Jeb would get the nomination right up until he placed fourth in a three-man race in the New Hampshire primary and shortly thereafter suspended his campaign with a total of four pledged delegates.
Even then I kept predicting he would win. I said, "Don't worry, Jeb is all set to legally change his name to 'George Herbert Walker Bush.' Everybody likes him. And he served only one term so he's constitutionally eligible to run again."
Meanwhile, Hillary Rodham Clinton maintained her position as the person the Democrats most wanted to nominate for president. Unless someone — anyone — could be found to replace her.
Hillary had an iron grip on second place. Whoever was ahead of her was so far ahead nobody knew who it was yet.
It is to be remembered that at this point in the 2008 election cycle, Barack Hussein Obama was about as likely to be nominated for president as some small-time community-organizing junior senator from Illi-wherever with a name like a man who tried to sabotage an airplane with an underpants bomb.
Speaking of airplanes, Hillary carries more baggage than the Boeing she used as secretary of state visiting every country in the world that later blew up in her face in her quest to fulfill the mission of the U.S. secretary of state, which is to accumulate frequent-flier miles.
She had Julian Assange set up her State Department e-mail server. She put the Dalai Lama on security duty at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The geopolitical conflicts of interest at the Clinton Foundation were so large they had to be weighed on Chris Christie's bathroom scale. And at any moment her horn-dog husband might slip his leash and get up to old tricks chasing nubile squirrels.
On the upside, Hillary is familiar with the White House — knows where the extra toilet paper is stored and where the spare key to the nuke missile launch briefcase is hidden (Truman Balcony, second pillar from the right).
Maybe the candidate who was ahead of Hillary was Joe Biden. Biden is a savvy guy. Biden once gave what is probably the most insightful and accurate assessment ever of Hillary's talents and abilities. He told a September 2008 Democratic campaign rally in Nashua, New Hampshire, "Hillary Clinton is as qualified or more qualified than I am to be vice president of the United States of America."
In 2016, however, we already had a vice president and, unfortunately for Joe, he was Joe. Thus Joe lost his edge facing someone who was as qualified as or more qualified than he was to be him.
Maybe the candidate ahead of Hillary was Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Warren has Native American ancestry.
As well you may ask. But it would be a fund-raising plus — if she got her own casino.
Warren is an expert in bankruptcy law; this gives her a vision for our nation's future.
She masterminded the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It's working. You can tell it's working by the 7 million student loans that are currently in default. Students would probably be making some loan payments if they didn't feel so well protected by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
And Elizabeth Warren turned left — the only direction that GPS units give in the hybrid cars that vegan aroma therapist Democratic primary voters drive.
But, in fact, the candidate who was so far ahead of Hillary that we didn't know who it was yet was the screwy-kablooey commander of the Vermont-Cong, Senator Bernie Sanders.
Bernie says he wants to make America more like Europe.
Great idea! Europe has had a swell track record for a hundred years now — ever since Archduke Ferdinand's car got a flat in Sarajevo in 1914.
Make America more like Europe? Where do you even go to get all the Nazis and Commies and 90 million dead people it would take to make America more like Europe?
Bernie is a socialist. He says so himself. He thinks the Eighth Commandment, "Thou shalt not steal," doesn't apply to him, at least not when he's in public office. Bernie thinks our society should "share." He wants to take your flat-screen TV and give it to a family of pill addicts in the backwoods of Vermont.
Perhaps Bernie feels the same about the other nine Commandments. He and his supporters certainly don't have much use for the Tenth, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass ..." Especially if the ass in question is a Democratic Convention Hillary Super Delegate.CHAPTER 2
The Abominable Showman
June 16, 2015
But then — from the bottom of the campaign barrel with the lees, dross, and dregs — came Donald Trump.
I have a campaign slogan for Trump; maybe it's a slogan for the entire 2016 presidential race, perhaps a slogan for all of America right now. It's a quotation from the English essayist and poet Charles Lamb.
Trump will need to Google "Charles Lamb." Trump has written eighteen books, leaving himself with little time to read any.
Charles Lamb said:
If dirt was Trumps, what hands you would hold!
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.
The Clinton Foundation accepted a $500,000 donation from the government of Algeria.
To cite Amnesty International's 2014/2015 report on Algeria:
Women faced discrimination ... and remained inadequately protected against violence. ... Impunity prevailed for perpetrators of gross human rights abuses ... and acts of torture.
And the other thing that we hold dear is us. We, ourselves. In this era of the great and cherished self, admiration for which has become so fundamental to Americanism that self-esteem is taught in our schools, we can all match Trump's opinion of his own worth. Trump claims to be worth billions, seven of them as of 2012.
In 2004 Forbes magazine estimated Trump's net worth to be $2.6 billion. New York Times reporter Timothy O'Brien looked into the numbers and came up with a net worth figure between $150 million and $250 million. Trump sued O'Brien. Trump lost.
In June of this year Adam Davidson, a founder of NPR's show Planet Money, wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine with similar import.
Davidson notes that Trump is no longer even a minor player in the luxury resort and gambling business. He owns no casinos. Nor is he the principal owner of his own reality TV production company. Trump's Manhattan real-estate operation does not even rate a mention in the industry's "major rankings of developers, owners or property managers."
Trump's election filings showed $165 million in liquid assets. This makes him a rich man in my world but hardly a financial behemoth in the world where Trump claims to live. Davidson says, "His scattershot approach to branding might also hint at cash-flow issues."
"When you try to weigh Trump's record as a businessman," Davidson says, "you quickly find that there's nothing of substance. ... His true calling seems to be acting like a successful businessman."
Many a political candidate has fibbed on the subject of his or her economic circumstances. For example, DOA President William Henry "born in a log cabin" Harrison. He was a former governor of Indiana Territory and a major Hoosier land speculator.
Or Hillary "dead broke" Clinton. Big shout-out to Algerian president-for-life Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
But Trump is the first candidate to — like the American legend that he is — tell tall tales about all the money he's got. Trump is a financial Davy Crockett, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and Babe the Blue Ox rolled into one, according to Trump.
If Trump's critics don't think this is typical of modern Americans, they haven't looked at our online dating profiles.
Also typical of modern Americans is Trump's bad taste. True, he doesn't dress the way the rest of us do — like nine-year-olds in twee T-shirts, bulbous shorts, boob shoes, and league-skunked sports team caps. And Trump doesn't weigh 300 pounds or have multiple piercings or visible ink. He puts his own individual stamp on gaucherie.
Trump's suits are expensive, according to Trump, but they have a cut and sheen as if they came from the trunk sale of a visiting Bombay tailor staying in a cheap hotel in Trump's native Queens and taking a nip between fittings. Trump wears neckties in Outer Borough colors. And, Donald, the end of your necktie belongs up around your belt buckle, not between your knees and your nuts. Trump's haircut makes Kim Jong Un laugh.
Americans appreciate bad taste or America wouldn't look the way America does. And the way America looks is due, in no small part, to buildings Trump built.
In the 1970s he ruined Grand Central Station's Commodore Hotel, turning it into a "Grand Hyatt." Built in 1919, the handsome neo–French Renaissance tower was covered by Trump with cheap glazing — a giant seventies smoked glass coffee table to snort cocaine off, except, Trump being a jerk, all its surfaces are vertical.
Then there is the brassy-déclassé Trump Tower with its horrible huge pleated facade threatening Fifth Avenue with a cacophony of sheet metal accordion music.
And Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City bears the same relation to the noble white mausoleum in Uttar Pradesh as a turd bears to a prize in a Cracker Jack box.
Trump's grandfather, a German immigrant, changed the family name from Drumpf to Trump. This was a mistake. We could have had Drumpf Tower, Drumpf Taj Mahal, Drumpf Plaza Hotel, and President of the United States Donald Drumpf.
Trump does have a certain Drumpfkopf understanding of the American economy. The average American household debt is now more than $225,000. The average American family's credit card debt is almost $16,000. Trump restructured $3.5 billion in business debt and $900 million in personal debt between 1991 and 1994. "Restructured" being the Trump way of saying he didn't pay it.
We Americans know a leader when we see one. We can assume that Trump will further America's economic growth the same way he's furthered his own — with bad debt, bad debt, bad debt, and more debt.
We love debt. Otherwise America's national debt wouldn't have gone from $15 billion in 1930 to $18 trillion today. With Trump in the Oval Office we'll be headed for ... I just asked WikiAnswers, "What comes after trillions?" There's a thing called a "quattuordecillion," which is $1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000.00.
But are all those zeros a reason not to vote for Donald Trump? No. We have to consider what kind of president he would make. What would his foreign policy be? What domestic priorities would he push?
This is what makes me a Trump supporter. I support Trump because of something the political satirist H. L. Mencken said. He said, "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it — good and hard."
Trump's chief domestic policy will be to be on TV. As president, Trump can be on TV all the time, 24/7. This might not be a bad thing. Just doing his hair in the makeup room during commercial breaks should keep him too busy to push other useless, expensive, and unworkable domestic policies the way some recent presidents have done. Obamacare. I'll name no names. And Trump can yell, "You're fired!" as much as he wants. It will make for a healthy turnover in Trump cabinet appointees such as Dennis Rodman, Larry King, and Vince McMahon.
Trump is under the illusion that he's thirty-five times richer than he is. He thinks childhood vaccination caused the movie Rain Man. He believes Obama was born to the queen of Sheba in Karjackistan and raised by Islamacist wolves in the remote forests of Harvard Law School. Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Ayatollah Khamenei, ISIS, the Taliban, and Hamas will be paralyzed with fear. Trump is crazier than all the other candidates put together. Who knows what this lunatic will do?
What he'll do is build thousands of Trump casinos, Trump hotels, and Trump resorts in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Raqqah, Kandahar, and the Gaza Strip. Then all of them will go bankrupt the way Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Plaza Hotel, and Trump Entertainment Resorts did. He'll destroy the power of our foes, leaving Russia trying to palm off eastern Ukraine on angry bondholders and China auctioning distressed property in the Spratly Islands.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "How the Hell Did This Happen?"
Copyright © 2017 P. J. O'Rourke.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author's Note xi
1 The Campaign Begins 1
2 The Abominable Showman 8
3 The Horror! The Horror! 14
4 A Huck So Unlike Finn 18
5 Always Look on the Bright Side of Life 24
6 So Much for That 32
7 The Last Damn Republican Presidential Candidate Debate I'll Ever Watch 39
8 Say It Ain't So, Joe 45
9 A Better Way to Choose a President, Part I 51
10 The Walking Dead 58
11 Time to Pull the Plug on Ben Carson's Campaign 63
12 In Memoriam 69
13 Our Higgledy-Piggledy Primary System and How It Higgles Our Pigs 77
14 A Halfhearted Case for Marco Rubio 85
15 The Case Against Marco Rubio 90
16 Cruz Control 91
17 Fashion Notes 99
18 What They Stand for, and Can We Stand It? Part I 113
19 What They Stand for, and Can We Stand It? Part II 118
20 Paying for What We Can't Stand 124
21 Another Attempt at Paying for What We Can't Stand 130
22 What They Stand for, and Can We Stand It? Part III 135
23 Letter to Myself in 1968 140
24 A Better Way to Choose a President, Part II 149
25 The Last Damn National Political Convention I'll Ever Watch 158
26 The Democratic National Political Convention 164
27 I Endorse Hillary 165
28 The Nowhere Leadership Is Headed To 170
29 The Campaign Trail of Sneers 176
30 The Revolt Against the Elites 187