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How the Hell Did This Happen?

April 4, 2017

Ron found a copy of P.J. O’Rourke’s new collection of essays How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016 at an airport bookstore, and we’ve been reading through it to distract ourselves from the increasing gravity of the political situation.

This past week marked the tenth Saturday that I’ve taken part in a weekly demonstration on the public square—the one with the statue of the Union soldier, the one where our farmer’s market is held every Saturday morning from May to October, and the one where the Freshwater supporters used to demonstrate (a few of them are still there, trying to harass us about their religion through a bullhorn).

Our purpose, as recently reported in the local small-town newspaper, is threefold: we demonstrate to try to get the attention of our local congressional representative, Mr. Bob Gibbs, we inform ourselves and each other about what congress is doing each day, and we support local candidates for office (although the requirement that the candidate be able to live without income for a year has been discouraging to several otherwise willing public servants).

Every week when it’s time to make my sign, I think about what I believe. This is new to me–the routine and the clarity of it, anyway. What do I believe so much that I am willing to alienate some of my neighbors by carrying my thoughts on it around in front of me for half an hour? Slogan-writing does lend itself to simplification.

And there’s the main problem I have with politics today—the simplification. People I know voted for our 45th president because they thought he would cut through the complications on issues like immigration and health care. They thought it would be enough if they voted in support of their deeply-held beliefs, like that women shouldn’t have access to birth control or safe abortion. They have not been forced to consider the complications, the up-close human consequences of such rigid thought.

And don’t think I’m not irritated with the other side, too. It galls me to demonstrate with people whose views on immigration currently consist of a “let them all in” attitude. It’s not enough to “resist.” Sooner or later, someone is going to have to compromise.

Although the sign I carried this past Saturday says “Support Public Schools,” I’ve never supported them uncritically. I’ve attended school board meetings to register my objections, several times against the dress code (wearing most of the proscribed articles of clothing) and Ron and I have never been angrier with the local public schools than when we were sitting in the bleachers at our child’s high school graduation and heard that his “senior class gift” was a security camera. There are lots of things wrong with public education in this town, and in this country, and people like me sometimes feel that we can’t make any impression on the bureaucracy…which is true when we don’t invest enough of our time and energy.

Since a small town is one of the only places in America today where people have to get along, often for years, even when they think differently about major issues, I disagree with writers like John Pavlovitz, about “losing” friends over the 2016 presidential election. I can’t afford to lose any of my friends or acquaintances. I’m feeling an urgent need to make more friends and influence more people.

I thought maybe reading P.J. O’Rourke, known as a political conservative, would be a good way to get some insight into how to mend more of the bridges that need mending in this country. And he does give me some insight into conservative thinking. For instance, he says “the Democrats are determined to elect “the first ____ American president.” African-American, Woman, Native American, Latino, Gay. They’ve checked off No. 1 and are determined to go down the list in order of historical victimhood.”

Like so many liberals, though, he is full of snark. And, of course, I enjoy that. Our new president, he says
“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.”

There’s little continuity between the essays in How the Hell Did This Happen? because, as the author notes, “in the 2016 presidential campaign, as far as I can tell, one thing didn’t lead to another. The campaign was a series of singularities….I would have preferred to write a book about the course of actions taken during this election campaign and how that course of actions led to certain results. But there was no discernable course.”

In the chapter about John Kasich, governor of Ohio, O’Rourke notes that “the conflicts in the Buckeye State mirror America’s: intransigent labor subjecting greedy management to extortion, indignant blacks clashing with angry white trash about who can behave more antisocially, illegal immigrants taking jobs away from illiterate nativists who won’t get a job, Tea Party crackpots vying with liberal dingbats for space on Internet wacko sites, and the dirty poor dumping on the filthy rich slinging muck at the grubbing-to-get-by middle class. But they all get along with Kasich.” I don’t find this last statement to be true, personally, but I guess a majority of Ohioans do, since they elected him.

In the process of eviscerating everybody, O’Rourke suggests what he believes are needed reforms for our broken political system. One of the suggestions I agree with is that young people should vote in primaries. O’Rourke believes that “Nobody votes in primaries. In 2012, when the entire country was supposedly full of the political hots and bothers, just 15.9 percent of the electorate cast a primary vote. We don’t know how old these primary-voting nobodies are, but I’m guessing their average age is dead.
Brain-dead, for certain.
Therefore I’m asking you young people to make an enormous sacrifice. I’m asking you to find a presidential primary and vote in it.”

I especially enjoyed O’Rourke’s answer to the idiotic “border wall” proposal. He says
“We don’t need a wall on our border; we need gates with turnstiles and ticket-takers. The right way to limit immigration (and make people in foreign countries pay for it) is to charge admission to the United States.
Disneyland costs $100 a day. There are at least 12 million illegal immigrants in America. By my calculation we’re leaving $438 billion a year on the table. And America has many more attractions than Disneyland….Plus, think what we could bring in from the food, toy, and souvenir concessions.”
He lists a number of even more outlandish proposals after that, including “Don’t Make America the World’s Policeman; Make America the World’s Private Security Guard. And bill the world for it.”

O’Rourke asks one of the questions I keep wanting to ask, about the age of presidential candidates:. “What are these people doing running for president at my age? I’m a few months younger than Hillary and a year younger than Donald. During the campaign I had flown from Boston to Chicago. That’s all I’d done. I drove to Boston, got on a plane, flew to Chicago, and took a cab to my hotel. I was exhausted.”

In a more serious moment, he says that the mistake we made about the election “was not ‘living in a bicoastal bubble’ or ‘failure to comprehend white working-class discontents’ or ‘excessive reliance on faulty polling data.’ The mistake was not watching The Apprentice….Trump played the boss you wish you had. Not the boss you wish you had at work. He’s the boss you wish you had after work, when you’re having drinks with your coworkers and telling hilarious stories….But there’s another side to this character. From time to time on the show ‘Trump’ drops the fuss and bluster and holds forth with his business philosophy.”
This seems to me the most serious and important—albeit expressed comically—comment he makes in this whole collection.

Did you know (as I recently found out) that there’s a television in every doctor’s waiting room and in many public areas like YMCA gyms and they’re playing Fox News all day long? Who sits in those waiting rooms and goes to those gyms? Who watches television instead of reading newspapers? My neighbors.

O’Rourke says that reading books (or blogs, I guess) makes us the elite. And, he says,
“The world is a smaller place. Did the elites think this would make everyone get along? Try it with your kids. Put them in a small place, such as the backseat of your car. Now take them to see the world. Take them to, for example, Yellowstone Park from say, Boca Raton. How are your kids getting along?”

O’Rourke gives his version of the answers to our national catastrophe, and I don’t agree with many of them, but what I do like about this book is the way he puts his finger on the main problem with our country right now—we have not been paying attention.

Well, now more of us are. Are you?

23 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2017 6:42 pm

    Have YOU considered writing a book? I would certainly read it, based on your spot-on commentary here.

    I think a lot of us could offer some interesting commentary if we make it through the next few years. Or months. Or days.

    • April 4, 2017 9:09 pm

      Thanks for that compliment (of course I’ve considered writing a book…every year in February I get myself a paperback copy of the previous year’s blog posts from a website called Blog2Print).

  2. April 4, 2017 9:55 pm

    I am indeed paying attention.

    However, what do you mean by this?: …although the requirement that the candidate be able to live without income for a year has been discouraging to several otherwise willing public servants.

    That it would take a year in campaigning to run for office during which one could not work?

    • April 4, 2017 10:01 pm

      Yes. That is why so many candidates today are supported by family money. One of the potential Democratic candidates for Gibbs’ seat decided he couldn’t afford to run.

      • aartichapati permalink
        April 4, 2017 10:53 pm

        This is happening everywhere! it’s insane! In the Illinois gubernatorial race, 3 of the candidates are multi-millionaires. Our current governor put $50MM into his own campaign fund. He also put money into the funds of other republicans running for office in the state and then (I believe) pressured them to vote with him on certain issues. LIKE THE BUDGET. The budget that Illinois is still operating without. It’s ridiculous.

        • April 5, 2017 8:02 am

          Yes. Paying attention is good, but paying money is also good, in places!

  3. April 5, 2017 11:09 am

    Thanks for enduring P.J. O’Rourke on our behalf! You’re a better woman than I.

    My own take on the election and its aftermath is that it introduced the reality of all kinds of oppression to a swath of people for whom oppression has been mostly theoretical, mostly something that happens to other people. The existential anxiety expressed by a lot of progressive white people (especially economically comfortable white men) I know is something that oppressed groups of people have been living with all along. Don’t get me started on the once comfortable people who now think they’re being oppressed because queer people can get married in all 50 states. That is not the oppression I’m talking about!

    I think the traits you attribute to a small town are true for any small community that hasn’t been homogenized. One of the reasons I continue to call myself a Christian is to stay in contact, even if only through the label, with people who practice their religion in ways that try to annihilate and dehumanize me. I need the daily reminder of the diversity of thought and practice. I need the daily reminder to claim my own truths and understandings out loud.

    For my part, it’s less that I haven’t been paying attention than it is that I haven’t been as vocal before as I am now. My personal goal is to spend the rest of my days doing whatever I can to dismantle white supremacy. We white folks created it, with a long history of help and reinforcement from the mainline Christianity to which I belong. White people are the only ones who can destroy white supremacy. It means speaking up when I’d rather someone else point out racism. It means reducing my blind spots. It means filling my head and heart with works and words by non-white writers and artists and musicians.

    It requires a lot of focus and intention to live as a white person in a way that doesn’t play into the idea of white as the default, with everything else under the banner of “diversity.” It’s uncomfortable,and I don’t always have the energy for it. But the alternative is, to quote Claudia Rankine, “Racism without racists. Misogyny without misogynists. Homophobia without homophobes. Anti-Semitism without anti-Semites. Bigotry without bigots. In short, America without Americans.”

    I second the motion that you should write a book. No, I second and THIRD it!

    • April 5, 2017 9:20 pm

      Yes, “it introduced the reality of all kinds of oppression to a swath of people for whom oppression has been mostly theoretical.” That’s one thing that is making people like me pay more attention than they used to.
      I say thank you to you… for enduring contact with those who try to practice their religion on others. You’re a better woman than I!
      It’s interesting to hear what seems most urgent to people in different parts of the country. So many of us are trying to reach out to others in ways we didn’t before, and I’m hoping we can be more vocal in a more coherent way than before. Rather than producing a cacophony of different voices saying different things, maybe we can make a few unified points.
      Thanks for your vote of confidence about the book. You inspire me.

  4. April 5, 2017 6:21 pm

    Part of my problem is that I think O’Rourke is a bit funny, but mostly just kind of beside the point. Although yes, people should vote in primaries and they definitely should have watched the apprentice before voting for him. I guess. I think the problem may have been that people did and thought it was true. But then I read something like this — For instance, he says “the Democrats are determined to elect “the first ____ American president.” African-American, Woman, Native American, Latino, Gay. They’ve checked off No. 1 and are determined to go down the list in order of historical victimhood.” — and I just want to punch him in the head. Yes, ass face. Believe it or not, there are more of us than of you, and we have waited for our turn long enough. So, that makes it hard for me to take anything else he says with much interest. Sorry, I think like most of the other middle aged women in the country, I have had just about enough of white male blowhards trumpeting their opinions all over the place. Shut up and sit down, is what I would like to say to them.
    Maybe tomorrow I will have more patience.

    • April 5, 2017 9:30 pm

      For me, the perspective of humor is what can give me more patience.
      And I think we all need a lot more patience.
      It’s alarming to me how people are reacting and emoting–we’re on a low simmer, all the time. The emotional reaction designed to lead to anger and fear is what the Fox News types have been stirring up all over the middle of the country, so I don’t like to see west coast liberals like you responding in what looks like the same way now. As Yoda says “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

      • April 6, 2017 1:38 pm

        Nicholas Kristoff just said this better than I did in his NYTimes column entitled “My Most Unpopular Idea: Be Nice to Trump Voters.” He says “I’m afraid that Trump’s craziness is proving infectious, making Democrats crazy with rage that actually impedes a progressive agenda.”

  5. April 5, 2017 7:38 pm

    I am definitely paying more attention, but I’m not always sure what to do with the information I’m gaining when I do pay attention. I live in such a solidly liberal community (no Fox news in doctors’ offices here) that demonstrating is usually preaching to the choir, for example. But I am trying to pay attention to races in other parts of the state, especially those where I have family and friends, so I can better support good candidates in those areas.

    I’d like to be better at dialogue with people I disagree with, but just about the only opportunities I have for that are online, and I don’t find that particularly useful these days.

    • April 5, 2017 9:35 pm

      I agree; online dialogue is not particularly useful because it can be so compartmentalized–we talk among ourselves here, pretty much.
      A friend of mine pointed out (in a private conversation) that I wasn’t characterizing the bullhorn people fairly because I didn’t mention that the reason they stand across the street with their gory pictures of fetuses is because they believe abortion is murder.
      My response is that they don’t care about the mother (or so it seems to me) so I get pushed back to the point where I don’t care about the baby. Over-simplification by emotional reaction and lack of communication.

  6. April 6, 2017 11:23 am

    I think more people need to vote period, not just in primaries. I mean when a high turn out election is something like 58% of eligible voters, wtf? Politicians are so concerned about voter fraud when they should be more concerned with getting people to vote in the first place. There are so many big things that need to be fixed and people rightly feel overwhelmed by it. I am beginning to suspect that the fixes will start to happen on the small scale local level in neighborhoods and cities and work their way up to the states. Enjoyed your review!

    • April 6, 2017 11:55 am

      Around here, you get automatically put in the pool for jury duty when you register to vote, and that can mean having to drive an hour to a nearby city every week for two months, with no way to change the timing if your number comes up during a time you’ve planned to be out of town and already bought the plane tickets.
      I’m not against jury duty, of course, but I do think that’s one small example of what’s wrong with our voting system.

      • April 6, 2017 3:08 pm

        Oh ouch, that’s a harsh jury duty system! Here they use driver’s licenses and state issued IDs. I’ve only ever been called once in over 20 years, same for my husband. They give you one deferral good for 6-9 months and then you can’t say no unless there is some kind of dire circumstance.

  7. April 10, 2017 2:47 pm

    Oversimplification…yes. Dumbing down. Too much television. Not enough reading and critical thinking. People want simple answers. Cable news is the downfall of our society, I’m convinced. Well, part of it, along with not as many chances to get to know people who are different than you are, since we’re all inside our little houses watching television! So we demonize the “other” more easily. It’s hard to be nuanced in 2017, to try and see things from multiple perspectives. People on both sides want you to choose. And proclaim your ideas on social media! I’m just tired. And I’m just turning 40.

    I have my good days, though, when I make calls to my representatives. I’ve subscribed to my local newspaper and the New York Times, which i’m enjoying very much. And I always take my son to vote with me, yes, in primaries. So hopefully he will see that it’s important. Little things, but positive steps.

    • April 10, 2017 3:32 pm

      “…inside our little houses watching television” makes me think of this passage from Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: “That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.”

      • April 10, 2017 4:37 pm

        I am going to reread The Handmaid’s Tale as one of my goals for 2017, but I haven’t had the heart for it just yet.

        • April 10, 2017 4:44 pm

          I so get that. I taught it for years, so have many of the lines half-memorized. The hopeful thing about it is the ambiguity of the ending, which I argue means that it’s not a novel, but a satire. A novel would tell you what happened to Offred. A satire leaves you wanting resolution–which you have to create in real life.
          Also, the Historical Notes at the end are an important part of the satire. At some point, you should reject what the Professor is saying.

  8. April 15, 2017 10:34 am

    What a great post, Jeanne. I am very proud of you for getting involved. When we were in the midst of the Brexit fallout last year I thought I would post regularly on politics on my blog, but I find I haven’t the heart. Mind you, reading P J O’Rourke is a great way to do it. He’s someone I find funny when I feel that I probably shouldn’t. But like you, I really need the comic perspective, because it’s often very true and it doesn’t always have to express itself with political correctness. Somehow we need to get less picky on the small things because there are these HUGE issues about to rain down on our heads.

    Here in the UK, the media is responsible for a lot of the trouble as it spreads a very contagious way of looking at things that is based on outrage. And I think white people really really ought to stay far away from outrage. That sense that others are behaving badly, unacceptably, and need a sharp smack on the wrist, that we belong to a minority who knows how to behave (and may just be a teeny bit superior because we do), that we must have zero tolerance for misdemeanour and that it is okay to judge without compassion anything that messes with our tidy view of how the world ought to be, has been at the basis of the worst colonising attitudes over the past centuries. I just…. no. Now’s the time to roll our sleeves up, get out as much compassion and patience as we can muster and see what can be done creatively, generously and kindly to as many people as possible.

    • April 15, 2017 3:19 pm

      Just came back from our demonstration (we call it Signs on the Square) and found this comment, which–thank you–articulates better than I could why I especially need humor right now, from O’Rourke and anyone else.
      And yes, you also articulate why the outrage alarms me. In this country we don’t think of ourselves as having colonising attitudes as much, although people are increasingly pointing out that a nation founded in rebellion can also do things that other countries rebel against. That ought to be as much a part of our compassion as anything–it’s all a mess, so it’s time to stop name-calling and work on cleaning up what we can.

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