Thursday 12 December 2019

Trump tactics could win a lot of votes over here

Donald Trump with wife Melania. Photo: Reuters
Donald Trump with wife Melania. Photo: Reuters
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

If President Trump fails to become a reality, there is an opening for the Republican contender in a much smaller Republic where he has business interests. Here in Ireland, he could reinvent himself as a political strategist.

Donald Trump's tank warfare campaign has been a surprise success in the US, but it works not just because it flattens opposition, but because status quo politics is leeching support. And that's a common factor in both the US and Ireland.

In the US, we are seeing the rise of the anti-politician. In Ireland, it's the rise of the anti-Establishment politician.

Trump is unscripted and unrehearsed. Voters may not like what they hear - and no doubt some are aghast at the ugliness of his message - but he stands for change.

When Irish citizens went to the polls yesterday, many were uncertain about what exactly they wanted. Except that they wanted change, not continuation.

While political anoraks today may be able to forecast seat numbers won with a good degree of accuracy, predicting the shape of the 32nd Dáil is beyond anybody. One thing is clear, though. Independents and smaller groupings will be a more substantial bloc than ever before.

At first glance, they have little in common with Mr Trump, who flaunts his wealth with such gusto that it's only a matter of time before he wears suits made from $100 bills stitched together. But like him, they tap into a vein of dissatisfaction with the professional political class.

During the General Election campaign, a credibility problem for all of the main parties emerged. Equally, their response - a vote for Independents is a vote for instability if not chaos - wasn't particularly convincing. It smacked of scaremongering.

When citizens feel ignored or left behind, it sharpens an appetite for change.

An instinctive, almost atavistic, reaction against the major parties has emerged as people grew increasingly resentful of politics-as-usual. Nepotism and jobs for the boys have rankled, and the professional political class was seen as feathering its own nest while putting the squeeze on the population at large.

No wonder Trumpery is in the air. Or to put it another way, there are parallels between Trump on the crest of a wave in the US, and the disenchantment with the mainstream in Ireland. It hinges on the loss of faith and trust. A seam of discontent is running through the country: people feel unrepresented in the corridors of power and Trumpery taps into that.

Ireland is as disillusioned with party politics as the US, and that dissatisfaction is not particularly following any direction on the political spectrum here.

Independents, even when they coalesce into groupings, are untried and untested in government. We know they can be adept at squeezing out cash for local issues, but there is no national strategy.

Does that matter to voters? Not as much as you might expect. Strong leadership is something people long to rally round, no matter how daft some of the soundbites. Trump is advancing ideas he can't make good on - and probably doesn't even intend to deliver. A wall around Mexico which Mexicans will pay for? And that will keep the US drug-free? Some Independent promises look equally pie-in-the-sky.

Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again" charms many. Simple, memorable, visceral. It seems to mask the ugliness of his politics. Such a call is close to Gerry Adams's appeal for another Rising, this time a peaceful one, in 2016.

Both sentiments express the hope of recapturing something elemental and valuable from the past. But whether that can bring about stable or good governance is a story with an unknown ending.

The word 'revolution' has echoed through the Irish General Election and the US primaries - Trump is even bounding onstage to the strains of the Beatles song by the same name. The irony of its lyrics are lost on him: "But if you want money for people with minds that hate/All I can tell you brother is you have to wait."

He out-Simpsons a character from 'The Simpsons' with his bent for outrageous statements. But they give him leverage. He comes across as strong, tough and decisive - and that is reassuring to people in a world that's increasingly frightening.

There are lessons for mainstream parties to take from his campaign. Trump gives the appearance of being his own man.

He is rich and his campaign is self-funded - so if he's elected, the narrative goes, there will be no laws implemented to pay back funders. Anxieties about vested interests have also cropped up in Ireland, and rightly so.

With a series of primary wins behind him, Trump trundles across the landscape, seemingly unstoppable, like something out of 'The War of the Worlds'. His premise - that ordinary Joes have been sold down the river - is hitting the mark. It's not a million miles removed from the campaign strategy of a fair number of election candidates here in Ireland.

Such a message has broad appeal. Trump even scores relatively well among women, despite attitudes that suggest he's really a caveman who was frozen during the Ice Age and was recently unthawed. The latest preposterous claim to emerge is that he could have slept with Princess Diana.

His supporters put faith in his business track record as a self-made billionaire. Undoubtedly, the 69-year-old father of five is skilled at building a brand round his own personality.

A number of the Independents elected here in recent years have also become brand names in their own right, such as Mick Wallace - a developer who somehow manages to appear as if he stands up for ordinary people.

The simple solutions of Trumpery play well with those in the margins who have been neglected.

The substance of the arguments is not given much consideration - this forgotten cohort of poorly paid or unemployed people is simply grateful to be remembered, finally. They flock to the call of an alternative, not because it is compelling, because the mainstream no longer stoop to conquer there.

Irish Independent

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