Saturday 21 January 2017

Echoes of the Rust Belt on Irish Riviera

In true-blue Massachusetts, Clinton may have crushed Trump, but 'telling it like it is' won him support in some of the State's traditionally-held Democrat areas

Kevin Cullen

Published 13/11/2016 | 02:30

Counter claim: Regulars sitting at the bar in the Eire
Counter claim: Regulars sitting at the bar in the Eire
Bill Clinton is hoisted up high during his campaign at the bar

The Eire Pub, in the Adams Village section of Dorchester, is one of Boston's iconic workingman's bars. It is unpretentious and has standards. John Stenson, whose Irish-born father opened the pub more than a half-century ago, insists that his bartenders wear ties and foul language is frowned upon.

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As yuppies and suburban empty-nesters flock to some of the newer establishments in the neighbourhood, paying downtown prices for drinks placed on marble counters, the Eire remains stubbornly old-school. It caters to cops and firefighters, teachers and tradesmen, not to mention a sizeable number of Irish-born construction workers.

The Democrats and Republicans have fought over the Eire the way the Americans and Japanese fought over barren islands in the Pacific during World War II. Claiming it was a symbol of working-class cred, of caring for the little guy, a political attribute that has swung elections in America for generations.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan held a pint of Ballantine Ale aloft, claiming to have wrestled the lunch-pail Democrats who peopled the bar into the GOP fold.

Bill Clinton is hoisted up high during his campaign at the bar
Bill Clinton is hoisted up high during his campaign at the bar

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton held a pint of Guinness high, reclaiming the Eire for the Democrats.

And in 2008, just days before he stepped down as taoiseach, Bertie Ahern drained a pint of Bass on what they call the Irish side of the bar at the Eire.

Politics oozes from the Eire and its denizens are unusually savvy, so it seemed more than just a passing remark when Paul Elwell, a sheet-metal worker, looked up at the TV screen a few months ago. The polls showed Donald Trump trailing Hillary Clinton badly.

"The polls are wrong," Elwell said. "A lot of people won't tell you they're voting for Trump because they don't want to be told they're racist or sexist or whatever it is you want to call them."

Elwell was Hillary Clinton's nightmare: a trade unionist who didn't trust her, who didn't trust the people around her, who believed that the Clintons, like the Bushes, had their time but it was time for someone else. A union guy who believed Trump would be better for the economy than his union bosses, who told their members to vote for Clinton.

"Do you know why he'll win?" Elwell said, turning to me that day. "Because people are tired of being talked down to."

There are many reasons Trump pulled off the biggest upset in modern, if not all, American politics, but the sense among those who voted for him that those who supported Clinton looked down on them was palpable, a coalescing force - despite Trump's incendiary, divisive rhetoric. Voting for Trump was a thumb in the eye to American elites, and many of those who voted for Trump relished that.

The exit polls showed what other earlier polling had suggested: that Trump did extremely well with less-educated white males, that African-Americans and Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Clinton.

But they also showed that Trump did much better than expected with educated white women, who were not put off by Trump's history of insulting women, judging them by their appearance and an audio tape in which he boasted of grabbing women by the genitals.

And he did far better than expected with people who traditionally vote for Democrats. In true-blue Massachusetts, Clinton crushed Trump, providing Clinton with the third-largest margin of victory among the 50 states. But listening to those who hail from traditional Democratic institutions, such as the labour movement and Irish-American communities, provides an insight that wasn't captured by polling.

Dorchester lies at the very top of the Irish Riviera. So-called because that stretch of sea-coast communities south of Boston contains populations where the majority are of Irish descent, the Irish Riviera includes the seaside town of Hingham.

Sitting in a coffee shop overlooking Hingham harbour, Tim Doherty appeared to be the least likely to vote for Donald Trump.

Doherty hails from a prominent Democrat family. His uncle was a close adviser to Jack, Bobby and Ted Kennedy. But Doherty works in property management and saw Clinton as just the latest of Democratic leaders who have punished the private sector with unnecessary regulation.

He has friends who have thrown up their hands in frustration, unable to open businesses because of what he considers unreasonable government interference.

He has more than one university degree, but identifies less with the East Coast elites whose backgrounds he shares, and more with those in the Rust Belt who voted in unprecedented numbers for Trump.

"The Rust Belt folks want a shot at a job and a little attention," Doherty said. "Globalisation has made crap we don't need at Walmart 6pc cheaper but has killed thousands of jobs and the people who lost those jobs can't afford to shop at Walmart."

Doherty bristled at what he said was the Clinton campaign class-baiting, pitting the less well-off against the well-off.

He considers that insidious, institutionalised begrudgery. He also thought it the height of hypocrisy, as Clinton accepted millions of dollars in speaking fees from Wall Street, saying one thing in private, another in public.

"It's like Bono says," he said. "Americans don't hate the man in the big house on the hill. They want to be the man in the big house on the hill."

And as someone whose ancestors came here from Ireland, he doesn't believe that Trump will launch a mass deportation of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the US, or ban all Muslims from entering the country, even though Trump repeatedly promised to do so.

"He'll deport the criminals, as he should," Doherty said.

"But on immigration and refugees, he'll be more measured and moderate than most people think."

It is noticeable that many of those who admire Trump for "telling it like it is" on immigration and the threat to American security from refugees in Muslim countries don't really believe he'll follow through on his rhetoric, even as they dismissed Clinton as being a two-faced congenital liar, a career politician whose first instinct is to lie.

They also seem unfazed by Trump's outrageous rhetoric about, and alleged sexual assaults of, women, either accepting the excuse that "all men talk like that in private", or doubting the credibility of women who came forward in the dying days of the campaign to allege that Trump had made unwanted sexual advances.

Trump won the White House by riding a sea of red down the midsection and southern gulf coast of the country, while managing to pick up crucial wins on the East Coast in Florida and Pennsylvania.

The Irish Riviera was a swathe of blue, from Quincy down to Marshfield, as Clinton won those cities and towns handily.

But even in those typically Democratic strongholds, the complaints from the Rust Belt echoed.

What the Irish Riviera doesn't have in large numbers, with the exception of Quincy, are those who feel most threatened by a Trump presidency: undocumented immigrants, minorities and Muslims.

Back at the Eire, Mike Rainey, a construction worker from Galway, thought Trump was a better choice than Clinton.

"He's what America needs," he said. "Someone who tells it like it is."

But as Bill Clinton once put it, in a caveat for the ages: "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

Kevin Cullen is a columnist for The Boston Globe

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