Diarmaid Ferriter: Civility has withstood Trump’s assault
In dealing with the incoming US president, Ireland should not let self-interest rule
’Notions of community and civility have taken a battering during this election but that does not mean they are dead, given that Trump also managed to generate much disgust and distress in the US.’ Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
In February 2008, three weeks after Barack Obama’s inauguration as the first African-American president in the United States, I listened to Noam Chomsky, renowned linguist and liberal intellectual, giving a lecture at Boston College.
He acknowledged the historic nature of Obama’s victory, and expressed the belief that “the country has got a lot more civilised” as a result.
But he also maintained that, in most respects, it was going to be business as usual: that for all the attention devoted to the small internet donors funding Obama’s election campaign, the reality was that 75 per cent of his campaign financing had come from the usual super-rich who decide elections through their donation decisions.
He added: “When you’re put into office by the financial-services constituency, that’s your constituency and you are going to do what you can for them.” Obama’s comment in 2007 on CNBC during the election campaign – “I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market”– was also cited to suggest that for all that had changed, much might remain the same.
The degree to which the Obama era brought enough change will be much debated, as will assessments of what Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election means for Obama’s legacy and the extent to which the US is on the precipice of a dangerous new era. But whatever about the super-rich, there is little doubt that notions of unity, civility, dignity and idealism during Obama’s rise to the top also carried much weight.
Such sentiments were temporarily strong enough to withstand Sarah Palin’s mocking of Obama in 2008 as a “community organiser” in the same speeches that decried the Washington elite.
Versions of these themes of elites, grassroots and vested interests swirled around during the recent presidential election in a manner that mortally wounded conventional politics.
When Trump made his acceptance speech on Wednesday morning he said that his election roadshow was not a “campaign” but a “movement”.
That was true, in that it was devoid of a practical, detailed programme and instead was built on stoking fears and resentment and fuelled by raucous rallies, soundbites, tweets and yelps of hate.
But it was also about what has frequently been described as “a coalition of the dispossessed”, genuinely hurting, giving the “establishment” a kicking, which has become an international theme but can also be vague and therefore open to numerous interpretations.
In his book about UK politics, The Establishment, published in 2014, Owen Jones wrote “You don’t have to go far to find strongly held and widely differing opinions about what the ‘Establishment’ is, what it represents, who constitutes it – and who is excluded from it.”
Whether Bernie Sanders could have beaten Trump will remain an intriguing what if; he too demonstrated a remarkable ability to mobilise and energise the grassroots, and was able to connect with young voters in a way Hillary Clinton was not.
The Sanders campaign also revealed that many younger American voters are not afraid of the word “socialist”.
Sander’s supporters probably would have been emboldened to resist an inevitable “red scare” if he had secured the nomination, as well as building on the idea of community, all wrapped up with an anti-establishment bow.
Clinton’s campaign had many weaknesses, but it was the “establishment” theme that did her most damage. In keeping with the new mood inspired by Trump and Sanders, the insistence of Obama and others that she was “the most qualified candidate ever to run for president” became a serious liability.
If there was any election not to be so qualified, it was this one. Clinton also had to suffer the bald reality that many still do not want a female US president; this was often dressed up as being the result of Clinton not being “likeable” enough, but the issue of likability seems especially to apply to a woman candidate.
One of the core messages of Trump during this election process – that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer” – was powerful in its simplicity and accompanied by misogyny, bile and racism.
He traded on a new cocktail of old ingredients, including nativism, and the slogan “Make America Great Again” in reality meant “Make America White Again”.
Notions of community and civility have taken a battering during this election but that does not mean they are dead, given that Trump also managed to generate much disgust and distress in the US.
We also need to look at our own values. Why has there been criticism of Enda Kenny’s description of Trump, when answering Dáil questions, as a dangerous racist?
Surely it was commendable to react negatively to the extremism of the vile Trump, especially given that too many politicians ignored or indulged his tirades?
The Irish response to US politics and Trump should not be guided primarily by the questions of US financial investment here, and the delivery of the bowl of shamrock there.