P.J. O’Rourke is worried. Having spent a career lobbing verbal bombs at political elites, the veteran satirist believes the wave of populism sweeping the world could turn out to be as important as the fall of the Soviet Union in shaping the future.
O’Rourke sees a common thread of populism across Islamic extremism, Donald Trump’s rise in American politics, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, Vladimir Putin’s reign in Russia, and even what the Chinese government is attempting in growing that nation’s middle class. He also looks back on a career covering politics around the world and struggles to see a more important inflection point outside of the Wall coming down.
A self-described libertarian conservative, O’Rourke’s writing on society, war, politics, and economics has been entertaining fans for decades. His books include New York Times bestsellers Parliament of Whores and Give War a Chance, as well as Holidays in Hell and Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages The Bastards. Last year he released Thrown Under the Omnibus, a collection of some of his published journalism and commentary.
O’Rourke is in Australia for a speaking tour with the Centre for Independent Studies. We met him in Sydney and spent some time talking about populism, Trump, Sydney’s lockout laws, and the reputation of the financial industry in the post-GFC world. He mentioned his wife had left Munich the day before the shooting rampage in which nine people were killed, and although the perpetrator there had no ties to Islamic extremism, the topic seemed like a good place to start.
* The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
BUSINESS INSIDER: We’ve seen this radicalisation of disaffected youths around the world. And they can now cloak themselves in this mantle of radical Islam.
P.J. O’ROURKE: What we’re seeing is mental illness, branded. You’ve got the usual moody loner with a handgun, who desires to kill a lot of people. But, especially if they fit into certain demographic categories, you have a brand for this thing. You have cheerleaders. So imagine those two horrible kids at Columbine High School, having a whole group of pretty well-organised, and pretty well-funded adults cheering them on. [Shivers]
BI: We’re seeing it in the likes of San Bernadino and Nice, with this horrendous truck attack from a guy who apparently spent just weeks putting the whole thing together. Is there any way that the political establishment now works, and these networks of radicalisers both on the ground but also on the internet, is there any way to fight it?
O’ROURKE: Probably no very effective way. This isn’t unprecedented. About 100 years ago, a little more, we went through a period of this with the anarchists. There were these anarchist cells, often the cell consisting of one crazy person. They had been radicalised through that relatively new and uncontrolled medium known as “print”. There were an incredible number of assassinations and terror attacks. President McKinley was killed by an anarchist. There were a couple of crown heads in corners of Europe, and most famously Sarajevo in 1914 [with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which eventually led to WWI]. That didn’t end well. In those days, before civil rights had been invented, as you can well imagine the police operations in places like Germany, and France, and for that matter Britain, were after these people with everything that they could get – and not being nice about it, I’m sure. It seemed to burn out of its own accord. One can’t say it was crushed – the only people that ever killed any number of anarchists were relatively harmless anarchists killed by the communists as they shared the good side in the Spanish Civil War.
But yeah, I don’t see a very effective way to fight this. It would be helpful to nip it off at its source. That wouldn’t make it go away. But I wonder if the time has perhaps passed for any concerted effort to be made…
BI: … given what’s happened where, for example, ISIS is actually on the run in a lot of parts of Iraq.
O’ROURKE: They are. Which only makes them more desperate, and dangerous. But, the situation with Russia and the situation with Turkey, the situation in Iraq itself makes it very hard. I suppose one could say in an ideal world, that NATO powers get together and physically invade and put this place under administration. I don’t see current governments having the nerve for that. Do they have the budget for it? And then of course there’s the outrage and chaos that it would cause. And as we know from the invasion of Iraq, there are the unintended consequences.
Sometimes, I think everybody who’s a journalist, let alone a humourist, must feel this: God I’m glad I don’t have to decide these things. I’m so glad I can just stand on the sidelines and tell everybody they’re wrong!
BI: Just tell everybody that this is what’s happening in the world.
O’ROURKE: And then take a little time to tell everybody ‘I told you so’.
BI: So, over your career, you’ve been a champion for the rejection of the political establishment.
O’ROURKE: Yes. I’m seeing my dreams come true, aren’t I?
BI: Well this is it. We’ve had what’s happen in the UK, the Republicans have found themselves in the situation that they have…
BI: … and in Australia we’ve just seen a record vote for independents.
O’ROURKE: Yes, I noticed that. It’s a world-wide populist revolt against the elites going on. You have a very mild form of it here. But Zika, too, has mild symptoms.
For those of us who have been battering the elites for their foolish policy decisions, there’s a Hilaire Belloc poem about a little boy who gets eaten by a tiger at a zoo, or a lion, and the end of it is:
Always keep a-hold of Nurse,
For fear of finding something worse.
So, bad as our political leaders and elites are, at least they’re not crazy. So we must be very careful. Yes! By all means, we should get rid of them, replace them – but we’ve got to be very careful about how we do it.
BI: I’m sure you’re going to be asked this question a million times while you’re here, but can you talk about Trump? What has happened?
O’ROURKE: Well, it is a populist frustration. The most evident part of it would be, the ugliest part of it, is obviously there are people in the United States uncomfortable with the way the United States is changing, and not uncomfortable with the bad ways the United States is changing, which for me would be the phenomenal growth of national debt, our huge budget deficit, and some central bank policy that doesn’t make any sense to me whatsoever: not quite negative interest rates, but we’re verging on it.
[Negative interest rates are] a great message to send society: save up, and we’ll take a little bit of it. I mean, after we’ve taken a bunch of it before you save it, then you save it, and we’ll take a little more. Great. Good idea!
Anyway, of course America’s changing demographically, becoming more diverse, whatever that means. All sorts of behaviour that was previouslysub rosa is now right out in the open. And certain people are being quite cranky about this. But I don’t think that’s the core of Trump’s support. That’s the noisiest and ugliest part of Trump’s support, and that’s what attracts our attention as reporters, from the “it bleeds, it leads” principle.
Underlying support, and what will actually get him the votes that he will get, is just an overall frustration with the size and scope and intrusiveness of government. When I interviewed Trump supporters in New Hampshire, they went almost immediately to things like local permitting, which the President of the United States has actually zero effect on. Some guy who owned a gas station talking about his inability to get the permits to replace his old tanks, or put new tanks in. He couldn’t do anything.
Somebody else was talking about – and this comes closer to the presidential election – such things like Obamacare. He says nobody in government, when they think up these programs, thinks about that load of paperwork that lands on my desk. He said: “It’s me and my wife. I don’t have an HR department. I don’t have a services department. I don’t have any of that. It’s time away from my business. I’ve got to sit there and figure it out.”
And this guy, he owned a tow-truck operation. Not a paperwork sort of guy.
The fury is partly about the weight and intrusiveness of government just being felt everywhere. You can’t turn around without endangering a species, without violating some new health regulation. And then at the same time, it’s also – and this is where I think you see it more over on the left, with Bernie Sanders – you build this bigger and bigger and bigger government that’s in charge of more and more and more things, so there are more ways for it to disappoint you. You’re looking to the government to fix everything.
BI: You get that sense of ‘government is everywhere’, and when you have problems you run to them…
O’ROURKE: And you can’t find them. And again, one of the Trump supporters said to me, I’ve got this problem, I’ve got that problem, and he said, “I turn on the television to see the politicians and all they’re talking about is transgender bathrooms.”
He was a timber guy. He said: “We work in the woods. We don’t have any bathrooms! Why could this possibly be an issue?”
BI: Do you know about our pub laws here in Sydney?
O’ROURKE: I don’t.
BI: A few years ago, a couple of people were killed by being punched in the head. They fell over, their heads hit the pavement and they died. The government introduced these licensing laws. You can’t go into a bar in Sydney after 1.30am, and at 3am it’s last drinks everywhere. Some people are concerned about what this says about a global city…
O’ROURKE: So if you’re in there you can stay in there?
O’ROURKE: Actually don’t you think that around about 1.30am is when you’d want some new blood? The people who are in there at 1.30am should probably go home. Let the late shift come on.
BI: You’re also not able to serve shots after 11pm and all bottle sales shut at 10pm. The government has been very insistent on this. They’re a conservative government – the state premier, Mike Baird, is a very family-oriented Christian from the Liberal party.
O’ROURKE: Well, the left is not alone in wanting to make a political issue out of all sorts of private things. But you’re talking to a person who comes from a country with absolutely insane liquor laws which not only vary by state, but they can vary by county and township, and city, and every other jurisdiction you can think of. After our really ill-advised experiment with national prohibition, the price that the government payed for repealing that federal law was to cede local control over all the liquor laws. It’s straightened out a little bit, but from city to city you never know. There are places where the bars close at midnight; there are places where the bars close at 4am. You don’t know. There’s almost no place in the United States where you can take a bottle off a premise. You have to go to a special liquor store which is sometimes owned by the state! In New Hampshire, for instance. And it’s open all sort of hours that you don’t drink!
Politicians cannot resist fixing things. Two people died from hitting their head on the kerb? It’s a wonder you don’t have foam kerbs. That’ll be the next idea: people don’t kill people; kerbs do.
BI: He also banned greyhound racing a few weeks ago because there was a report that exposed cruelty in the industry.
Mike Nudleman/ Business Insider
O’ROURKE: Yeah, dog-racing people are not known for the fabulous ways they treat their dogs. There are places in the United States where it’s banned for much the same reason. And there are also sort of rescue groups to bring home tired old greyhounds that have slowed down. Apparently they make very nice pets.
The example, and I use this in one of the speeches I’m going to give, is that the abolition of slavery was almost entirely – of course, the British government got involved – but the campaign to abolish slavery was a private social movement. It was started by the Quakers at the end of the 18th century. Quakers, as dissenters at that time, could not stand for parliament so they possessed very little political influence. The abolition societies, the anti-slavery societies that were set up in Britain – their biggest supporters were working men from the new industrial revolution, and women. Of course, there were still property qualifications on the franchise, and of course women still didn’t have the vote, so neither of those of those groups had any political power. And yet, it moved forward. And it moved forward to the point where not only were all the slaves, at least in theory, in the British Empire were freed, but the British Navy was brought in to fight the slave trade where it was being conducted between countries where it was legal. So here was an incredibly important issue – much more important than people hitting their heads on kerbs after pubs should be closed – this was one of the crucial moral issues of all of western civilisation, and essentially the force that changed it was private, not a governmental force.
Nowadays, anything happens – [like] there’s not enough bathrooms for people who don’t know what bathroom to go to – and there are street demonstrations. People want the government to fix this. And of course the government does have to get involved in certain issues, but people don’t look to their own power. Certain states that failed to pass gay marriage laws in the United States have found themselves being boycotted by commercial organisations… it’s incredibly effective.
BI: You endorsed – I listened to a very funny clip from NPR…
O’ROURKE: … Where I endorsed Hillary.
BI: If she wins, America will have elected a black president followed by its first woman president. Now, even if they’re both Democrats, doesn’t that say something really great about the country?
Well, with women, no, not particularly. We’ve had plenty of strong women leaders all over the world and they’ve proved to be no different in any respect that I can recall. They’re very different from each other but were they better or worse than men? Well, Indira Gandhi. Mao’s wife…
(But) power – we know this from Queen Elizabeth I! Power doesn’t have a gender. I’m sorry. Power is power. We know this from Roman times. So I stand unimpressed.
But, being old enough to have gone through – personally to have seen and been around for the ugliest part of the civil rights movement in the United States when churches were being bombed and little kids were being killed – it was just horrible. Horrible. To see my country move from that – and this was only the early to mid-60s – to electing a black man president: that’s pretty cool. You know, I thought that was great. I’ve no affection for the guy’s policies or ideas. Not only do I think he’s wrong about his politics but he’s also wrong about – he’s worse than rational. He’s a raciocinator. He is a great reminder of why it was that Spock was not in charge of the Starship Enterprise. You know, Spock was obviously much smarter, by magnitudes, and yet notice who was captain. It was no accident.
But the fact of him being elected obviously indicated a sea change in the country. And so, actually, did the opposition to him, which was mostly based on his being this smart-ass, hippy-dippie, Harvard lawyer. (Well, he wasn’t hippy-dippie, but his mother – complete crackpot; raised in Hawaii, you know.) But the opposition to him really was something I had seen coming in America: is there anybody left in America so racist that they’d be worried about their child marrying one of Colin Powell’s children? Well no. Come down to it: basically not.
BI: Your book has been an opportunity to look back at your collected works. I’m mind-reading here – crazy guess – but it gives you an opportunity to reflect on some of the changes you’ve seen. So for you, looking back over all of that, was there anything that stood out for you, in terms of the big shifts?
O’ROURKE: No. I compiled that book before we started to undergo what seems like what seems like a fairly alarming global shift. But of course there were big things – I mean who can forget the Berlin Wall coming down? That was just amazing to have lived one’s whole life in this cold war paradigm, and to see it just crumble – literally, crumble and fall down. That was absolutely amazing.
So I take that back. Yes, that was an obvious thing. But something is going on right now that I think is going to possibly prove as important. But we don’t fully know what it is yet. It’s still kind of early days. Maybe it will peter out. Maybe people will, sort of, come to their senses. Because, when you’re talking about populism: the government in China has got a populist edge to it; Putin, of course, even ISIS and Islamic radicalism – there’s a populist side to all of this. We’re in a moment – it’s like the whole world [is involved]. And you talk about the United States politics: we’re having our Latin American moment, and looking around for the strong man. And in typical Latin American fashion, we’re looking around for the hilarious strong man.
People compare Trump to – Hitler of course is out of the question – but they compare him to the likes of Mussolini or Franco, or so on. Forget about it. He’s nowhere near that. Peron is the person that he should be compared to. Franco particularly had a coherent vision of the kind of Fascist, Catholic Fascist society that he wanted to produce. And Mussolini was a little bit all over the map, but he was much more politically coherent [than Trump]. Of course communists knew exactly what they wanted, and Hitler too, I suppose.
And the hilarious thing about America, with a very large Hispanic population, having its Latin-American moment is it’s not the Hispanics’ fault! The two Hispanics involved in the race are adamantly opposed to Trump. So you can’t blame this on some sort of influence from immigrants.
BI: Just to pick up on what you said about China. China has been on this really interesting project. In some ways they’ve downloaded the communist manual and said, “Here’s how we go about running a government and a society”. But over the last two presidents they’ve begun this process of looking at whether markets are a good thing, maybe getting foreign investment and allowing people to travel might help. And they’ve engaged in this huge urbanisation of society involving eye-watering amounts of money in order to move people from the country into the city and build this industrial society. And they’ve grown the middle class pretty successfully; GDP is still is still growing at 6.7% …
O’ROURKE: Yeah, we should be half that lucky…
BI: So what do you see when you look at that? Because one of the things that history teaches us is that when those big authoritarian regimes fall, it tends to be pretty spectacular.
O’ROURKE: It wasn’t so much so in eastern Europe, central Europe. You had the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia… it doesn’t seem to be pre-ordained that communism is followed by chaos. But I actually think it’s better to put the communism aside and look at the power dynamics. Politicians want all the wealth that freedom gives, but they want all the power that totalitarianism has. Forget Peron – here we look at Germany and Italy between the wars and we see at least for a while totalitarianism and capitalism can co-exist. And this is not a happy message. My libertarian principles tell me they can’t, but my eyes tell me that they can.
Now, it can’t go on forever. Because, the rise of a class that has enormous commercial power, financial power, and no political power is going to cause [pauses] … trouble. And sooner or later, China’s going to have to face up to that.
The income divide in that country: you go 50 miles outside of any Chinese city, you’re in another millennium. There are people still living there, in houses the size of this couch, with the pig! The poverty’s incredible. It’s African. Not as disorganised – because it’s China – not as disorganised or as violent, but the actual per capita income in rural China is down around Tanzania. And so, sooner or later, you’d think, that they’re headed for trouble. And they of course are trying to figure out some formula where and totalitarian power co-exist.
BI: It’ll be interesting.
O’ROURKE: Yeah. I wish them really ill. I really hope that doesn’t work out for them.
BI: One of the things that Australian conservatives love is the monarchy.
O’ROURKE: You know to an outsider – what earthly difference would it possibly make whether you were a republic or you weren’t? I mean, you’re fully self-governing. The Queen has no say on anything except I guess your honours list. Doesn’t she sign off on that or something? You know, look at some of the stupid things that other people have on their coins. You’ve got something to put on your coins. A picture of a lady – got it covered. You’ve got a cool flag – I mean, look at Canada. They gave up their flag, and what they got was a beach towel.
So yeah, I’ve no sympathy for the republican side of things. I can’t imagine what benefit would accrue from not showing respect to this utterly powerless monarch far away.
BI: One of the things you’ve written is that part of conservatism is about not liking change.
O’ROURKE: As one gets older, even very left-wing people become conservatives as they get older because all change – it all comes with a price. You’ve got this damn phone you don’t know how to work, the kids won’t get their faces out of them – all change is annoying. So yeah, there’s an element of conservatism that says “be wary of change”.
And this is one of the reasons that I’m a conservative libertarian. Precisely this rise in populism – theoretically from a libertarian point of view it could be a great thing – but I’m not seeing the actuality of greatness.
Also, if you become a republic: “For Queen and country” – what do you replace that with? “For country and country”? “For country and som’n”? “For country and whatever”? It doesn’t make any sense.
BI: Do you think the digital age and the way that the way that markets and consumers have been connected – including whole ability for ideas to travel – do you see there’s been any great social change out of that?
O’ROURKE: Not any great good social change. It seems like the only ideas that travel are stupid ideas. It seems to be as hard as ever to transport intelligent ideas. I was talking to somebody last night about this: when I wrote my book about Adam Smith, which was about 10 years ago, I was arguing that people still didn’t seem to get what Adam Smith was saying. And it gets worse than that now. It’s like everybody’s going to have completely re-learn Adam Smith. They’re just. Not. Getting it. So has the internet done anything to disseminate really good ideas? Not that I can see.
BI: So what is the main thing Adam Smith laid out that people need to re-learn?
O’ROURKE: First and foremost, that the attempt to better one’s own condition is a good thing. And it’s amazing how many people don’t really think it’s a good thing. Bernie Sanders, just to start. The desire to improve your material condition – there’s no sin or taboo involved there. The second thing is division of labour. And again – not so much Bernie Sanders because he’s an old-fashioned Marxist – but there are a lot of idealistic young kids that think it would be great to go make your own apple sauce and grow your own goats and make your own cheese and make your own energy and so on. They’re nuts. There’s somebody out there who knows about goats. There’s electric wire, right over here.
And of course the third is free trade. And we’re seeing this angry rebellion against free trade right now. I’ve got a friend who’s a risk manager for a big insurance company back in the United States. He thinks what’s going on in the world has to do as much with anything with not so much what has been happening in the economy and what has been happening in technology, but how fast it has been happening. He said, “We don’t want to stop it.” But he said, “Maybe we should thing about how to slow it down, because things are happening so fast that people cannot adjust to them.” And jobs can seemingly disappear, and other jobs come on. And I agree with him, but I don’t see any practical way to slow those things down. I can see how you could try to stand in their way, but we all know that trade protectionism is just disastrous. It just makes people poor.
I’m not someone to advocate government action in most cases, but governments do have to be alert about the dislocations these things cause. And how to help is always a serious problem.
I was down in Mexico – not really covering, because you couldn’t really find them – but hanging around in Chiapas when the Zapatistas were in rebellion. And I never did manage to get in touch with the Zapatistas, and since all they would do would be talk my ear off with harebrained Trotskyism, that was fine. The one thing I discovered, hanging around indigenous people in Chiapas, who I’ve gotta say didn’t seem very different from anybody else – but I was assured by people who were supposed to know that they were indigenous people – well, NAFTA had just crapped on them. And it was corn prices.
Those of them who were not involved in growing drugs – the nicer, more decent, perhaps a little dumber people – were still growing their corn. And they were getting wiped out by cheap corn imports from the United States. And I thought, should they be compensated? How would you compensate them? Mexico (a) doesn’t have any money and (b) is terribly corrupt. Even if you set aside money for the Indian corn-growers in the mountains of Chiapas, it’s not going to get to them. [I realised] What they need is one of those marketers that come down from some fancy restaurant in San Francisco and talk to them about GMO food, heritage breeds of corn, loc-avore, etc. “We can make this corn so expensive… ”. That’s what they needed! But how do you get government to do that?
BI: Economists, and the reputation of econometrics, took a huge pummelling for a few years.
O’ROURKE: For good reason.
BI: How do you see where the reputation of Wall Street, high finance, and economists as a species?
O’ROURKE: Alfred Marshall said: Use mathematics only as a shorthand. Translate the mathematics into English. Use examples from daily life to illustrate the points that you’re making, in English. Burn the mathematics. We forgot to burn the mathematics.
So many things look good on paper, and one was collateralised mortgage obligations. Great, great idea. You take this melting pot – and people have to have a house, housing prices may go up and down – but you take these higher risk mortgages, mix them all together from different regions and different economies, and you should end up with a product with a very low volatility. And you should have a high-yield product.
Somebody wasn’t thinking about the human tendency to cheat. And the fact that, one of the problems with mixing mortgage obligations on an investment circumstance, let alone turning it into a collateralised product, is that transparency is absolutely necessary in the mortgage business. You have got to who has got that house, and what kind of care they’re taking of it…
BI: … and what they’re doing when they’re not sleeping …
O’ROURKE: Precisely! Everything. A mortgage is just not a good blind investment. It’s not a commodity. But because mathematically, you could treat it like a commodity, they would just – it’s a little bit like the VIX index, the volatility index. I’ve got a friend on commodity exchange in Chicago and he took down, invited me to come speak at a convention with all of these people involved in the volatility index, all the analysts and stuff. All Greek letters and [I had] no idea what they were talking about. In fact, I didn’t really realise until he explained it to me, that you could buy and sell volatility. And I said: “Jay, I didn’t understand what any of these people were saying, and all these way of measuring risk – I didn’t understand them.”
And Jay said [in a darkened voice]: “If you could measure risk, it wouldn’t be risk.”
Somebody forgot that where we were thinking up all these derivatives. You know people think derivatives are so complicated – it’s not complicated at all. Once you make a contract with somebody, you can then buy and sell that contract. And you and I can make a contract that’s as elaborate and complicated as contracts sometimes are. But then, once we’re done, we can sell that contract. But to start doing these deals where you don’t know where the correspondent is, they’re utterly opaque… I guess to judge from The Big Short, some bells did go off in some people’s minds, but not enough. People were just making so much money off these things.
BI: P.J., thanks for a fascinating chat.
O’ROURKE: You’re welcome. I’ll leave you with this. I met a guy in the States, who was another one of the few people that saw this coming. He bet heavily against the mortgage market. He made $1 billion for himself, and about $4 billion for his clients. He says next is currency collapse. I mean, he’s only been right once, but he was very, very right.
BI: Does he mean not the US dollar but other currencies?
He’s not even happy about the US dollar. You know, fiat currency doesn’t really make any sense whatsoever, and they’re just pumping it out. And you ask them: “Why is a dollar worth a dollar?”