Ireland has no equivalent to out-of-touch Washington elites
But Irish party system has lessons to learn from Donald Trump’s US victory
Donald Trump’s touting of protectionism struck a chord with those desperate for some solution to their declining incomes. Photograph: Christopher Gregory/Getty Images
The denigration of mainstream parties and politicians, which has become such a feature of western democracy over the past decade and more, came to its logical conclusion this week with the election of Donald Trump.
Some of the loudest wailing and gnashing of teeth in this country at the outcome of the US presidential election has come from the very politicians and commentators whose stock in trade has been to pour scorn on our traditional party system and the politicians who inhabit it.
While that system is far from perfect, and our party politicians have their obvious human frailties, they stand in the front line of our democracy.
If public confidence in traditional politics is completely eroded the way will have been cleared for the triumph of the loose-lipped demagogue.
Trump’s astonishing victory does pose some very uncomfortable questions for politicians across the democratic world who are scratching their heads in wonder at how a rich reality television star – with no political experience whatsoever – has become president-elect of the US.
It has already become a cliché to suggest that there is a yawning gulf between elites and the majority of ordinary people.
This mood certainly fuelled the Trump campaign even if the paradox of a billionaire representing the common man did not seem to impinge on his supporters.
In Ireland, the same claim about out-of-touch political elites is bandied about even though it is patently absurd. Whatever can be said about the vast majority of Dáil deputies, being out of touch with their constituents is not one of them.
If anything, the Irish political system demands that TDs stay close to their constituents’ concerns to a sometimes unhealthy degree that paralyses decision-making.
One of the obvious conclusions from the US campaign is that Trump has been able to connect with people in a way that conventional politicians have not. He spoke the language of ordinary voters rather than the convoluted formulations which have become standard language of politics.
However, some of the lessons to be drawn from this are not very comfortable.
Trump’s racist abuse of Mexicans or his casually demeaning references to women clearly reflect widely held sentiments that most politicians either do not share or dare not speak.
Just because some of Trump’s more outrageous comments connected with large numbers of people should not make them acceptable – but there is some evidence that many of the people who voted for him found some of his utterances too extreme but still liked the fact that he spoke his mind.
Stifle free speech
This should prompt some reflection on the liberal side of the political fence about whether political correctness has gone too far and has actually begun to stifle free speech.
Some of the recent controversies in universities across America – which have seen teachers hounded for holding views or simply pointing out facts that some students find unacceptable – have helped to bring the liberal establishment into disrepute.
This fed into the more practical attraction of Trump to poorer white voters that he was promising to do something to improve their economic fortunes and lives. His touting of protectionism struck a chord with a section of the American people desperate for some solution to their declining incomes.
Again the uncomfortable lesson is that pointing the finger at foreigners, whether at Hispanics for immigration or the Chinese for economic competition, struck a chord with voters desperate to find a scapegoat for their problems.
The appeal to narrow nationalism, which was also very evident in the Brexit referendum, is a worrying trend which has the capacity not only to undo the prosperity generated by free trade but to push us back into a world dominated by conflict between rival nation states.
Whether Trump is simply a rabble-rouser who played to the mob to win the election, rather than a serious demagogue in the 1930s mould, will become clear only after he takes office.
One hopeful sign is that, while he campaigned in expletives, his acceptance speech was sober and even gracious. If that shift from the abusive language of social media to the standards of decency that generally prevail in the print media is an indication of how he intends to behave in office – everything might not be so hopeless after all.
On the economic front, the priority he identified after his victory was to rebuild the infrastructure of the US. Again, this is a hopeful sign.
A massive investment programme in infrastructure would boost the country’s economy and create jobs for the kind of people who voted for Trump.
If he can meet the needs of his supporters through a programme like that, it might take the pressure off him to live up to his campaign rhetoric about dismantling free-trade agreements.
It is worth recalling that one of the greatest US presidents, Franklin D Roosevelt, after his election in 1932, abandoned large chunks of his election platform.
Instead, he adopted many of the plans of his defeated rival Herbert Hoover and turned it into the New Deal.
While Trump is clearly no FDR, he may be pragmatic enough to focus on the things that will bring quick results, such as infrastructural investment, and put some of his more problematic promises on the long finger.
If Trump performs reasonably well in office, in four years’ time the people who will be most disillusioned with him will be his most ardent supporters. He will have turned out to be a normal politician after all.