Satire is the most powerful form of humour. In the satirist’s mirror we are able to clearly discern the fundamental iniquities of society, the absurd underpinnings of social conformism and the accordant collective insanity which afflicts humankind. The most influential of satirists, like Georges Orwell and Carlin, were able to weaponise their respective forms to expose the pathetic fragilities of the powerful and the toxicity of human institutions. The satirist’s podium transcends petty political differences, casting a devastating and unflattering light on the world.
It is with much approbation then that we turn to PJ O’Rourke’s recent contribution to BBC’s News Magazine. Entitled “Are Donald Trump and His Rivals One Big Joke?”, O’Rourke has achieved the inconceivable – he has published a highly subversive piece of work satirising the cloistered ranks of subservient political journalists from within the belly of the beast itself, which apparently remains none the wiser to his insurgent attempt.
His piece opens as follows: “There’s an American saying: “Anyone can become president.” And in the 2016 election we’ve been trying to prove it.”. This is a fantastic reproduction of the romantic media frenzy which elevates the US presidential election far beyond the realms of sober analysis. Of course, O’Rourke is keenly aware that all but nine American presidents have been millionaires, all but one have been white and all have been men, drawn invariably from one of a grand total of two political parties (three if we are to charitably include the Whigs). He of course also knows that all but two of the currently campaigning prospective nominees are millionaires. O’Rourke plays to the public’s understanding of the wealth disparities of US political representation in echoing this oft-repeated myth about presidents, even going as far as to reference a number of the multi-millionaire celebrities who were at one stage ‘rumoured’ to be considering a run – yes, anyone can become president!
O’Rourke moves here to train his acerbic and withering intellect upon ‘The Donald’, who has inspired a large following amongst the disenfranchised white working classes. The Donald, we are told is, “a prank the American electorate is pulling on the American political establishment”. The effete lens of O’Rourke’s political hack would of course perceive the public as a hive of quiescent children prone every now and then to light-hearted japes at the expense of the established classes – “oh, look, there’s Joe Q Public again, pretending to be angry at this great country, rallying around a fascistic, racist demagogue set on provoking World War Three at any cost – how funny”.
It’s an obvious source of comfort for journalists ensconced within established bounds to downplay the mines of fear and malcontent which have been tapped by messrs Trump and Cruz – in the confines of the corporate media’s atomic understanding, movements are reflections of individuals and not vice versa. O’Rourke’s lackey sees the zealous and indignant group propelling Trump as gauche pranksters who will be quelled at the moment his campaign falters. O’Rourke’s poe exemplifies the arrogant liberal condescension felt towards the poor which in turn inspires the exact sort of alienation which Trump preys upon.
O’Rourke then turns to parodying the trivial social analysis proffered by corporate journalists; America, we’re told, is an “excellent place”, but somehow “almost two-thirds of Americans think the country is on the wrong track…what has got Americans so worried?”. O’Rourke’s sublime piece ascends, at this juncture, to the mantle of high artistic expression. Of course, only the most coddled journalist, living in the most softly padded ivory tower, would seriously wonder aloud why the public might not, like O’Rourke, revel submissively in the splendour of a society beyond reproach. O’Rourke’s establishment mouthpiece appeals to the ignorant naysayers, correctly, that “by world-historical standards [America is] an excellent place” – we might presumably apply this standard, mutatis mutandis, to Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia or America in its genocidal/chattel slavery period, each of which could be considered “excellent” in world-historical standards if one is to very selectively apply which indicators we choose to judge the societies by. Do we, for example, choose to apply the indicator of inequality to the equation? If so we might find that the US government presides over one of the most deeply unequal societies throughout human history, or perhaps by the same token we judge the US by its scale of racial inequality, through the scope of empire or in terms of its faltering standards of education, healthcare and life expectancy, which are all quite shocking in terms of so-called First World societies. Such indicators fall far beyond the spectrum in which O’Rourke’s inept caricature comfortably understands the way things are, and so he opts to ignore them. The world has presumably treated O’Rourke well, so why the hell should anyone stand to obstruct it?
O’Rourke provides some examples to explain the phenomena he finds so very befuddling; “The technological revolution is unsettling”, there are “rapid shifts involving everything from immigrants to gender roles and sexuality” – a quite brilliant reflection here of the smug liberal attempting to display some radical credentials by paying homage to buzzwords he’s picked up in his zeitgeist report, and then divorcing them from any meaningful application.
People are apparently unsettled on a purely existential level by ‘the technological revolution’, rather than, more directly, by the greater prospects of unemployment which accompany the increase in labour automation. We are to understand anger at ‘immigration’ as a genuine concern, rather than an expedient myth exploited so as to turn ill feeling away from the more fundamental causes of social breakdown. Most spectacularly, the American public’s irresolvable rage is caused by a government which is so “bitterly divided that we can’t get bipartisan agreement on whether the sun will come up”. You’re right PJ, Americans want an even greater degree of homogeneity in their representation, how did we never think of that before!
O’Rourke’s juggernaut polemicist now turns to a cowering Bernie Sanders, the “opposite number” to Trump. We get some jokes at the expense of Sanders’ alleged repetition of “pieties of the 1960s new left”, and the senator is described as “a bit foggy on things that have happened since Woodstock” – this joke is quite a risk, as understanding it requires the reader to be aware that some far-out stuff and a big music festival happened in the 1960s. This reader is luckily ‘in the know’ as far as constantly referenced pop-culture events are concerned, and as such the joke landed, but it will likely fall flat amongst less well-versed students of history (this feeds into the exclusive liberal milieu that O’Rourke aims towards).
“Bernie doesn’t know the Berlin Wall fell and doesn’t know he’s still standing on the wrong side of it”. O’Rourke continues to lay the cultural references on thick here, knowing that the best way to get laughs from the elite crowd is to play to their awareness of obscure historical events. The joke is that Sanders is a communist.
Sanders’ support comes “from people who weren’t born when his ideas were in vogue” – it might be worth making here the simple observation that when taking America’s falling life expectancy rates into account, the only age group which prefers Clinton to Sanders will probably be dead within the next 10 years, and that the group most likely to generate ‘in vogue’ ideas have supported Sanders in primaries at a proportion as high as 85%. But of course, O’Rourke’s condescending liberal hack is able to dismiss the quite astounding levels of support of Sanders’ core base; “[t]hey’re too young to know that what Bernie says may sound like it makes sense during the dorm room bull session, but sooner or later you have to put the bong down and exhale.”. O’Rourke’s mask slips a little bit here, as he inserts some really incisive satirical observations of young people, and he’s spot on in them.
O’Rourke continues: “Bernie is not the right man to break America’s political deadlock. It would be worse than electing Angela Merkel prime minister of Greece.”. Here he is parodying the tendency of corporate satirists to crack jokes which are not funny and do not make sense.
O’Rourke’s coup de grace of the corporate media satirist comes when he begins his next section, in which he covers “the serious candidates. Chief among them is Hillary Clinton”. Of course the satirical conceit of O’Rourke’s journalist only extends as far as condescension of the ‘joke’ candidates so as to elevate his preferred ones, for which he reserves a measured tone – the only joke made at Hilary’s ‘expense’ is that the certainty of her securing the democratic nomination is now only highly likely – haha!
The satirist’s mirror in this case is not used to reflect any profound picture. In fact, O’Rourke’s mirror isn’t even a mirror. It’s a picture of Bernie Sanders smeared with the fecal matter of Donald Trump’s fanbase.
O’Rourke writes of Hilary Clinton as a “seasoned, pragmatic, centre-left candidate”, further debasing any notion that this piece is a work of satire and not a pro-Clinton op-ed. Most amusing is its characterisation of a corrupt and murderous servant of Wall Street – whose dynasty destroyed the last remnants of the American welfare state and ruthlessly criminalised poor black people – as “centre-left”. Shortly thereafter O’Rourke characterises Ted Cruz as a “hardline cultural conservative”, citing his opposition to gay rights – a criterion met until quite recently by Clinton, whose apparent damascene conversion happened at some point in the interim. And to think that this socialist deviant has been swindling Wall Street out of hundreds of millions of dollars in speaking fees whilst seeking the disassembly of capitalist relations!
The remaining Republican candidates (two of whom have since dropped out) are referred to in much the same fashion as Clinton, as ‘pragmatic’. Pragmatic is a brilliant word, which takes on a specialised meaning in political punditry. ‘Pragmatist’ comes to mean ‘acquiescent’ and ‘idealistic’ means ‘principled’. Unbeknownst to the idiot savants in established circles of political commentary, their designation of certain candidates as ‘pragmatists’ is a tacit acceptance that the political system is structurally opposed to socially beneficial application; we understand that acquiescence to power is proportional to the diminution of principles, but we cannot use terms that too closely approximate reality, so the sanitised forms of ‘pragmatist’ and ‘idealist’ are preferred.
According to those who favour ‘pragmatism’ the best we can hope for is some PR-trained android who can smile at appropriate moments and pay lip service to the problems faced by the masses. Said android might even throw scraps from the dinner table every few years while glutinously feasting with the engorged architects of 21st-century economic warfare.
Ever obsequious to his nation’s prestige, O’Rourke makes the counter-intuitive claim that Jeb Bush’s faltering campaign is somehow proof of America’s exceptionality; “[t]his would be almost impossible for the son of an oligarchic family anywhere else in the world”. O’Rourke, who is apparently suffering from undiagnosed dementia, manages to forget that Jeb’s brother, the son of the same oligarchic father, was president quite recently, or perhaps that Hillary Clinton is the oligarchic wife of an former president – myopia is obviously a hallmark of professional political journalism, and this is a fantastic albeit unbelievable depiction of it.
O’Rourke concludes his piece by bookending its condescension of the American public – we are given either two choices, Americans have a great sense of humour and are not serious about their favoured candidates, or Americans have no sense at all.
Perhaps we might apply a similar hypothesis to O’Rourke; either he has a great sense of humour and is not serious in this piece’s many absurd professions, or he has no sense at all, and has become an extreme caricature of every problem inherent to compliant western journalists – perceiving social phenomena from the eyes of the powerful, wilfully ignoring reasonable explanations in favour of grotesque conceptualisation of the public as stupid, entitled children who ought to be a little more grateful to the society that has accorded lapdog hacks like O’Rourke influence and prestige.
The great satirists do not shy away from criticising features of public life worthy of condemnation, but the perch they do so from is far closer to the everyman than it is to the throne. O’Rourke’s caricature might take heed of this fact.