The political satirist frets about America’s state of “angry perplexity,” but he would be well advised to heed his own advice: Calm down.
In his latest broadside, O’Rourke decries the excesses of left and right with (almost) equal disdain. At 72, he remains a libertarian conservative, and he has no use for the mindless populism or rabid partisanship that has Americans baring their fangs at each other. The author fairly wonders when—or if—America will “emerge from its grievous health crisis, lock-down isolation, economic collapse, and material depravation with a newly calm, pragmatic, and reasonable attitude toward our political system.” Even as he sounds the death knell for classical liberalism—free enterprise, the rule of law, civil liberties, free speech, etc.—O’Rourke also hopes, with scant confidence, that we will dispense with our hysterias in favor of competence and a civil tongue. He proceeds to skewer America’s cultural and political ills in broad, superficial detail while championing a form of “extreme moderation” as the only means of addressing them. Occasionally, as the voice of common sense, he does this with sobriety; the most reasonable part of the book is the “Pre-Preface,” written on June 8, 2020. “[George Floyd] was accused of spending twenty dollars in the form of a banknote that had no actual value,” he writes. “The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are currently spending billions of dollars in the form of banknotes that have no actual value.” More often, O’Rourke employs sweeping generalizations, over-the-top screeds, unconvincing self-deprecation, and, above all, gale-force sarcasm. His meld of serious comment and attempted humor is an unhappy marriage, and even longtime O’Rourke devotees may not be sure where one ends and the other begins. The author has become a more jocular, less verbose version of William F. Buckley.
Exaggeration and absurdity are useful tools of humor but not when deployed with a bludgeon.