COLUMNISTS and pundits who use The Devil’s Dictionary to debunk the stupidity and hypocrisy of politicians tend to forget that the man who wrote it, Ambrose Bierce, disappeared in 1913, on assignment to a country where politics was waged with guns, not snarky comments. A large part of PJ O’Rourke’s now rather weary schtick lies in exposing what a politician’s, or a fellow-journalist’s words “really” mean. To that end, he includes a longish glossary at the back of How The Hell Did This Happen?, packed with the cant that accompanied last year’s American presidential election. Needless to say, phrases are context-sensitive, meaning one thing if a Republican uses them, something else if a Democrat uses them. So, to a conservative the phrase “right-wing talk radio and Fox News” means “accurate and truthful reporting” while to a liberal it refers to “the voices people hear when they aren’t taking their meds”. And so on.

It’s worth noting that Bierce met his mysterious end in the very country Donald Trump wants to wall off from the southern United States. And make them pay for it. O’Rourke agrees with the last part, at least. His alternative suggestion is that America doesn’t need a wall. It needs a paying turnstile, with the price of admission pegged to that of Disneyland. This is the kind of knockabout-but-serious stuff that makes O’Rourke still readable. When he nails a point, like his confident assertion that it would be cheaper to give every poor person in the $11,000 than it is to run federal aid programmes, you know he has the numbers to hand, and reliably crunched, but his own personality (the glossary definitions for “Beltway insider”, “reliable source” and “inside source” are all “me”) looms extra-large over a campaign that was already dominated by ad hominem commentary.

O’Rourke endorsed Hillary Clinton, which must have been agony for a diehard Republican. The 2016 election was about choosing the least-worst candidate and America still got that wrong. Which leaves me, but apparently not PJ wondering why last year of all years there was no convincing third-party candidate on the scene. Where’s Ross Perot when you need him? Where’s Ralph Nader? They’re 87 and 83 respectively, but, damn!, still viable in the circumstances, surely?

O’Rourke himself seems to have a soft spot for the libertarian Rand Paul and makes a half-hearted case for Marco Rubio. He owns to a soft spot for Joe Biden as a possible successor to Obama but concedes that Joe is too white, male, straight, Anglo, sweary (“This is a big ******* deal!”), and possibly too Catholic to get the nod. And PJ rightly reserves a particularly vitriolic inkwell for Bernie Sanders, who only dopes and New York hipsters (or people off their meds) could possibly have believed in. Every time Sanders’ name came up – and it came up like reflux every time I spoke to American friends of a certain age and class – I could hear Eugene Debs spinning in his grave. If Debs, the great socialist candidate of the early 20th century, isn’t a familiar name over here, then neither will be about half the cast that O’Rourke does namecheck.

The book gets seriously interesting when PJ sets aside the stand-up routine and gets into constitutional history. The core chapter is called “Our Higgledy-Piggledy Primary System and How It Higgles Our Pigs”. This is the emperor’s new clothes section. Try joining “the Republican Party”, O’Rourke suggests, and see if there is anyone to collect your dues. Try working out what a “caucus” or a “primary”, or a “convention” is really for. Americans vote for the nicest-looking candidate (Richard Nixon excepted) and rarely espouse a consistent ideology, still less the strict terms of a manifesto.

Not even Norman Mailer could have whipped up the Trump-Clinton face-off into a metaphysical confrontation between Good and Evil, or an existential battle between God and the Devil. As another American novelist, Philip Roth, said thirty years ago, American reality is now so extreme and out of whack that it is beyond satire. That’s the shortcoming of O’Rourke’s book. The humour lags behind what passes for reality. But the cry in his title is a perfectly sincere one. Even a diehard Republican recognises that Trump is a disaster, though he may be a disaster that leads to wholesale reform of that higgledy-piggledy electoral system. The Founding Fathers spoke out strongly against the evils of party and faction, though most of them (all of them except George Washington) succumbed in the end. Read Hamilton and Madison in The Federalist Papers (it’s a Penguin Classic) and you will see that this was a serious and sane country once. But no longer. Those who the gods want to destroy are made to go mad first.

Kurt Vonnegut, yet another novelist, said forty years ago that: “The winners are at war with the losers. The prospects for peace are awful”. O’Rourke has a new and even scarier version of this when he predicts a new Civil War, or War of Incivility: “The war is between the frightened and what they fear. It is being fought by the people who perceive themselves as controlling nothing. They are besieging the people they perceive as controlling everything”. Gulp.

How The Hell Did This Happen?: The US Election 0f 2016 by PJ O’Rourke is published by Grove Press, priced £14.99