Humorists, Groucho Marx tells us, save people psychiatric visits by giving them both an outlet to cope and vent. For those wishing for to do both in today’s political world, there is P.J O’Rourke, who gets the joke even if those who govern don't.
Most comedians have a persona. Groucho’s was essentially the fake placed, inexplicably, in a position of authority, who was constantly on the make. O’Rourke’s is that of a former sixties radical who went over to the Right.
But O’Rourke has spent decades applying the same libertarian standard to Republicans as Democrats. “Democrats are the Party who thinks government can work,” he writes, and from this comes bad results like Hiroshima and affirmative action. “Republicans say government doesn’t work, and get elected and prove it.” As a result, he is critical of overreaching Republicans. Richard Nixon was a “paranoid” maniac he taped himself; Oliver North was mentally deranged; and George H.W Bush reacted to the collapse of communism as if it were “some new dance craze.” All suffer from an inability to realize the importance of individual liberty.
The source of his venom, like Mencken’s, is directed at those who don’t know their limitations—as politicians, but most importantly as humans. “We don’t know how women tick,” he writes in another context, “because we don’t know even know how ourselves tick.” Those who think they do, and this includes Republicans as well as Democrats, make irretrievable errors. O’Rourke is fond of citing Warren G. Harding as the perfectly aware politicians of all times: “I am not fit for this office and never have been.” One suspects he is not being entirely facetious.
But the target that draws the most fire from him is the sixties Left. O’Rourke has used acres of paper proving, in a more humorous manner, Orwell’s oft-repeated (and most hated in some quarters) quote that socialism “attracts inhuman types.” Like any good humorist, his jokes are funny because they hit upon a fundamental truth. “You’ve never been bored,” he writes while on a trip to the Soviet Union with communist-worshipping oldsters, “as when a grandmother lectures you about the glories of the Soviet Union and shows you pictures of her grandchildren.” The type of people who flock to the Left aren’t necessarily inhuman—although their delusions about knowing how they “tick” veers toward that; instead, they are the all-too familiar types the rest of us ran into in high school and today at work. They are, for O’Rourke, the hall monitors, teacher’s pets and list organizers who, wanting to tell the world how their live their lives, cannot, as a result, connect with it. No one is better at highlighting the essential joylessness of the Left than O’Rourke. “I hope you’re not one of those who are going to see the Soviet Union through the bottom of a bottle,” another grandmotherly leftist admonishes a hung-over O’Rourke on that same trip to Brezhnev’s Russia. He does, and as a result, is able to connect with more of the proletariat, who narcotize themselves from communism with liquor, than his Marx-quoting travel mates. Those who obsess about the “big wrongs”--racism, war, poverty--make life even more absurd with their “big mistakes.” This interrupts the good time, which one suspects is the point anyway. Like individual freedom, fun is messy and disorderly (Hillary Clinton recently voiced her opposition to school choice because people might use tax money to fund Islamic school--in essence, people might chose wrong).
But one can see how absurd the political world is by simply transporting even the most ardent New Dealer from his era to ours. This time traveler would see the “permanent narcotic” of welfare in place, activists' right to burn stolen America flags enshrined, and television airing enemy snipers shooting down American soldiers. The New Dealer’s response would to run screaming into the night, exclaiming that this is not his country anymore. But if he made his way to O’Rourke, he would learn that it is, simply because authority-loving humans, the enemy of libertarians since they began trying to organize the cave-dwellers into a more orderly tribe, are in charge.