P.J. O’Rourke on American populism and optimism

By Jonathon Van Maren

For decades, P.J. O’Rourke has been one of America’s best-known journalists, reporting on friends and enemies both foreign and domestic. The author of twenty books, his work has appeared everywhere from Vanity Fair to Rolling Stone, earning him a reputation as an unparalleled humorist. Earlier this month, P.J. O’Rourke joined me via Zoom to discuss the current predicaments of the United States of America, and his latest offering, A Cry from the Far Middle: Dispatches from a Divided Land.

A disjointed but hilarious collection of essays, the book examines everything from the impact of social media (“Whose Bright Idea was It to Make Sure that Every Idiot in the World was in Touch with Every Other Idiot?”) to a tongue-in-cheek pitch to just give poor Americans money rather than trickling it down through endless sticky webs of government democracy (“Just Give Them the Money.”) What does tie it all together is American populism.

“Populism has been with us since the Whisky Rebellion,” O’Rourke explained on our call.

Populism pops up at all sorts of places on the political spectrum. I never liked Donald Trump. But then again, if I’d been around at the time, I think I’d feel equally strongly about William Jennings Bryan. We have this populist tendency, and both political parties like to take advantage of this populism if they can figure out how to work it to their advantage. It tends to be short-lived. It pops up and it pops down. Where now is the Anti-Masonic Party and what were they on about?


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