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Fintan O'Toole: Brett Kavanaugh shows White Irish Catholic is now core of US reactionary politics

The nominee for the US Supreme Court is part of a wider reactionary mindset in which being Irish means you can dismiss your own privilege

Sometimes, the eye snags on minor details like a coat-tail caught in a briar. Last week, Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh produced for the Senate judiciary committee his calendar for the summer of 1982. It records in laconic scribbles his engagements during the period when Christine Blasey Ford says he tried to rape her at a party.

Many of these notes are archetypally American, words the rest of us learned from movies about teenagers in high schools: “Grounded”, “Prom”. But for May 8th the entry says “Gaelic Football 11:00 / PROM Donny Drives”. And for May 14th, it reads” “GROUNDED GO TO ST. MICHAEL’S / Gaelic Football 3:00 / NIKKI AT BEACH”. Gaelic football, our very own little marker of Irish identity: Sweet Jesus, this snarling, hysterical, entitled man is One of Us.

Reactionary politics

The detail is minor but not incidental. It opens an aperture into a very large change in the United States, one that has crept up so gradually that it takes these moments of dissonance to make you stand back and realise how enormous it is. WASP has become WIC. The Establishment is no longer White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. It is White Irish Catholic. Some part of the identity that so many of us on this island share is now at the centre of American reactionary politics. And what we have to face that it is not the Catholic part of this that is fundamentally corrupted. It is the Irish part.

Part of the story is one that the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers could not have imagined: the move of Catholicism from the anxious periphery to the centre. There is no Protestant on the Supreme Court. Three members are Jewish, but six of the nine justices are Catholic, if you count Trump’s first nominee, Neil Gorsuch, who was raised Catholic but is thought to attend an Episcopal church. Kavanaugh would make it seven. Even more remarkably, all the other possible candidates mentioned before Trump settled on him – Amy Coney Barrett, Thomas Hardiman and Amul Thapar – are Catholic too. And only one of these Catholic judges – Sonia Sotomayor – is liberal. All the rest are on the hard right.


The far-right is the white man's #MeToo movement: not only am I not privileged, but I am in fact a victim

There is here a wider story about the way US conservatism, traditionally anti-Catholic, realised that it could use the “wedge issues” of abortion and, later, same-sex marriage to lever Catholics away from their allegiance to the Democratic party. But with the Trump administration, something more specific has happened. It is not just about Catholics; it is about Irish Catholics. Kavanaugh is the latest Irish-American to be a key figure in the Trump nexus – after, among others, Steve Bannon, John Kelly, Mike Flynn, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and Paul Ryan.


Why is this? What does Irishness bring to this nexus that Catholic conservatism alone does not? The one-word answer is: victimhood. In the stew of far-right reaction, a crucial ingredient is the transference of victimhood: the claim that white men, rather than being (as they are) relatively privileged, are in fact victims.

Victimhood has been seen to be the currency of power – women, people of colour, ethnic minorities appeal for equality by reference to their collective suffering. The right wants to grab that power to itself. In this sense, the far-right is the white man’s #MeToo movement: not only am I not privileged, but I am in fact a victim. You could see this written on Kavanaugh’s face during his testimony last week: the rage of self-pity.

The beauty of a specifically Irish Catholicism is that it has victimhood in its DNA. It has a genuine history of suppression and trauma. Even if you’re a very privileged white boy going to an elite Jesuit school like Kavanaugh’s Georgetown Prep (fees: $58,000 a year) you can claim ownership of the Great Famine and 800 years of oppression. This can be, of course, a grounding in humility and compassion: we too were immigrants, we know what’s it’s like to be traduced and discriminated against. But in retrospect it feels like that form of Irish-American Catholic politics was cut off in its prime when Robert Kennedy was murdered 50 years ago. It is still alive, but it has been largely eclipsed by a very different mindset: we were immigrants, we were victims – and we still are, even when we’re in power.

This toxic, whiny fusion of victimhood and superiority, of self-pity and self-righteousness is not Us

The ethnic Irishness of this Catholicism is important because it keeps even Catholic solidarity at bay. An Irish Catholic, in this mindset, owes nothing to a poor Hispanic migrant who is also Catholic. An Irish Catholic can cheer while a Hispanic Catholic child is dragged from its Catholic mother. “Irish” qualifies “Catholic”. And corrupts it. There is here a devil’s bargain: in return for power, the soul has been sold. Cruelty, misogyny, prejudice and the blasphemous worship of boorish destructiveness are all masked by victimhood.

This is a strange and poisonous outgrowth of our particular history. A claim is made on one side of Irish memory. Those of us who come from that tradition have a duty to reject it. This toxic, whiny fusion of victimhood and superiority, of self-pity and self-righteousness is not Us. Past oppression should sensitise us to present injustice, not entitle us to abuse privilege.