Opinion

Saturday 19 January 2019

The diaspora who dote on the Donald

RTE's Washington correspondent Caitriona Perry has written her inside account on the rise of Donald Trump. In an exclusive extract from In America, she explains his appeal among many of the Irish living in the United States

IN AMERICA: Caitriona Perry with US president Donald Trump in the Oval Office. Below, Carolyn Welsh — better known as Sheriff Bunny
IN AMERICA: Caitriona Perry with US president Donald Trump in the Oval Office. Below, Carolyn Welsh — better known as Sheriff Bunny

Caitriona Perry

There's a meeting once a month in mid-western Massachusetts, deep in Democratic country. The club is full of older gentlemen who do good works, a sort of Rotary club-type organisation.

Many of those here worked for that great Irish-American Massachusetts dynasty - Kennedy World. Some for JFK, others for his brothers Robert or Ted. The expression 'dyed-in-the-wool Democrats' could have been invented for these men. They are hard-working, lower middle class and they value unions, pay packets and fairness. Most of them could trace their heritage back to Ireland. Some would have to go back six or seven generations; for others it's their grandparents or even a parent.

At a meeting in this community hall in late September, in that wonderful time of year that is a New England fall, several of them turned up wearing red baseball caps with the familiar Make America Great Again slogan. They were not asked to remove them.

That was only partly due to the right of freedom of expression guaranteed by the first amendment to the US constitution; it was also because, it seemed anyway, most of those in the room were Donald Trump supporters.

Massachusetts was never going to vote as a state for Donald Trump - that would really have been quite the turnaround, and actually Hillary Clinton won by a bigger margin here in 2016 than Barack Obama did in 2012. However, what is remarkable is that pockets of this blue state did like the message that Trump was selling. A great number of Irish Americans liked what he was selling.

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Although heavily unionised, members of the law-enforcement community provided plenty of support for Donald Trump - perhaps not in New York City, but in Boston and further afield - men and women in uniform who regularly stumped for Trump on the campaign trail and carried that support for him through into his presidency.

Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke was one of Trump's biggest law-enforcement cheerleaders - he even addressed the Republican National Convention in July 2016 on his behalf. So loyal was Sheriff Clarke that his name was briefly in the mix to become FBI director once President Trump had fired James Comey.

One Irish American sheriff who can't speak highly enough of President Trump is Carolyn Welsh, better known as Sheriff Bunny. She's been sheriff of Chester County, a suburb of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, for nearly 20 years. Like Boston, Philadelphia is another centre for Irish immigration. Sheriff Bunny runs Annie Oakley Gun Safety classes for women in her district and is also a proud grandmother - on the day we first speak she is brimming with pride at the success of two of her grandchildren in the World Irish Dancing Championships in Dublin. Her nine-year-old grandson came first in his category, she proudly announces. Her nine-year-old granddaughter came third, and they finished first in the 'two-hander' category for their age.

She says she's not entirely sure of the origin of her Irish blood, and has never fully traced it, but that it's on her father's side. Her mother's side is Scottish.

Carolyn Welsh, better known as Sheriff Bunny
Carolyn Welsh, better known as Sheriff Bunny

Her Trump credentials are beyond question. She rallied for him up and down Pennsylvania - the state that officially put him over the top at the Republican Convention. A petite blonde who radiates sassiness, she's been known to wear a sequin-bedazzled Trump T-shirt with the American flag fashioned into the shape of a stiletto with the words 'Trump Girl' alongside it. When sheriffs from across America were invited to the White House during Trump's first weeks in office so the new president could thank them for their support, she was not only on the invite list: she was seated right beside him.

When the president hosted a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to mark his first hundred days in office, it was Sheriff Bunny who warmed up the several-thousand-strong crowd before he came on stage. ''Oh, I'm Trump all the way,'' she says. ''I was a very early supporter because my feeling was that he, above all others, brought a different perspective to the presidency, being not the usual establishment candidate, not beholden to special interests. Not a Washington "insider" and not the usual politician.

''I found his message to be very populist, very refreshing and very focused on his theme, which is making America great again, that he really cared about the people and putting America first. To me that was refreshing because I think politicians on both sides, and I'm a Republican but I will criticise them as much as I will the Democrats, many of them have been there a long time. I fear sometimes their decisions are more focused on winning the next election instead of what's best for the people.''

She says first and foremost she was attracted to Donald Trump's messages as an individual, but wearing her sheriff's hat, he was the best option for the law-enforcement community. ''He has a very strong law and order message. His message was that he supports local, state and federal police. In other words, he was endorsed by the Federal Border Patrol, which was very unusual. His position on supporting federal agencies, state agencies and municipal and township, whether they're police or county sheriffs, was that he was a very strong supporter. He really has great respect for law enforcement."

That ''respect" for law enforcement has been missing of late, she says.

Although she is a card-carrying Republican, on the issue of law enforcement she plays straight down the line. She's been a sheriff since the year 2000 so has been there through two Republican presidential terms (George W Bush) and two Democratic ones (Barack Obama). In recent years, the behaviour of local sheriff's department personnel and police officers in urban areas has been brought into sharp focus with the officer-related shootings that have been captured on social media. The highest-profile cases that have resulted in protest marches have been race-related. In some instances, charges have been brought against officers, and in some cases, controversially, they have not.

Sheriff Bunny says the handling of those cases by the Department of Justice and wider administration under Barack Obama was not well received by many working in law enforcement.

''They were too quick to judge in many cases, with cases that were made public. And before facts were even out they were too quick to judge the law-enforcement officer. I'm not saying that there aren't law-enforcement officers that aren't all perfect, and there are certainly some bad apples. I'm not saying that. But before facts were out, often the law-enforcement officer was the one… was the one criticised or… well, criticised is the word I'll use. So with someone criticised first in circumstances before the facts were even out, that's very, very bad for the morale of law enforcement. It's very, very bad for men and women. My guys every day put on a bulletproof vest and a badge and a gun, and they go out to protect and serve, and they need to know that somebody has their back. And for many years, from the top down, I think the feeling was that law enforcement was not supported."

Donald Trump provides a safety net for Sheriff Bunny and her officers and the sheriffs across the country. The Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union in the US, which has over 330,000 law-enforcement members, endorsed Donald Trump ahead of the election, even though it caused much internal debate, particularly among African American officers. One of the industry magazines, Police Magazine, surveyed its subscribers ahead of the election and found that 84pc of law-enforcement officers intended supporting Mr Trump.

Caitriona Perry Book
Caitriona Perry Book

Sheriff Bunny is not surprised.

''He has our back and, of course, we have his. It's good to hear from the top that he will put people in place that have respect, not only for law enforcement but for the military and for the citizens. He believes in the citizens first. He puts America first. That has been his position all through the campaign and it's his position now as commander-in-chief."

Chester County is one of the three original Pennsylvania counties established by William Penn in 1682. It's the wealthiest county in Pennsylvania and one of the top 25 wealthiest counties in the US.

The sheriff describes it as "a safe county". Just about half a million people live there. ''We have some pockets of challenging places with some higher crime than others but we have a good county," she says. ''We don't have the challenges that Philadelphia has, but so far I'm very pleased. And we look forward to much greater support from Washington."

As a sheriff and supporter of the second-amendment right to bear arms, she was also impressed by Trump's position on firearms.

''I think he's a great supporter of the second amendment. I think he's a great supporter of the constitution. So I think all of those things are pieces of what his campaign was about and it certainly is what his presidency is about."

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In my experience, Irish Americans mostly tend to be Catholic, and tend to be more devoted Catholics than perhaps the modern Irish population as a whole. For example, I've met far more people in the US who observe meat-free Fridays, adhere strictly to Lent and attend Mass regularly than I know in Ireland. Many Irish-American events still begin with some sort of prayer or blessing. I've also met a reasonable number of young Irish Americans who will not move in with a romantic partner unless there has been a marriage proposal. That decision is not to appease their traditional parents, as it perhaps might be in Ireland, but is to meet their own exacting standards. These are obviously anecdotal observations - no survey exists to chart it.

But it is these strict Irish Catholic viewpoints that drew some Irish American Democrats to Donald Trump. In election 2016, as in every US election, the issue of abortion came front and centre. Where a candidate stands on abortion will make them attractive or seal their fate in the eyes of voters.

Much furore was caused with Donald Trump's candidacy, as it initially appeared that he had an equivocal position on abortion. He was pitched alongside Hillary Clinton, who had the traditional Democratic liberal viewpoint of a woman's right to choose. Quickly Republican leadership whispered in his ear, metaphorically speaking, that his position would have to change and he would have to become staunchly pro-life. For some people, turned off by both candidates, this became the deciding factor.

Democrats are viewed as the 'abortion party', and while this attracts many voters to them, it turns many off.

Thomas Groome is a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College. Originally from Co Kildare, and a former Catholic priest, he's been living in the US for almost half a century. He says when he moved to the US originally, he was advised by a cousin that Irish Catholics voted for Democrats.

He has argued on the pages of The New York Times that the Democratic Party needs to soften its stance on abortion if it is to attract Catholics back. He was also an adviser to the Hillary Clinton campaign, contributed to many speeches she made on abortion and other religious issues and wrote a position paper ahead of the presidential debates on abortion, counselling her to take a more nuanced position. He's now involved in advising the Democratic party ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections, and is giving them the same advice: develop a 'nuanced' position on the landmark abortion case of Roe v Wade.

Thomas Groome's opining promoted scores of letters to the editor of The New York Times, many of them from Irish American Catholics agreeing with him. They had found it very difficult to vote for Hillary Clinton, even as Democrats themselves, because of her view on abortion - that reproductive rights were the purview of the woman involved and that states had no role in regulating them. She vowed to defend the Roe v Wade judgement; Trump vowed to campaign to have it overturned and return decision making to the individual states, as it had been before.

As James Phelan from New Jersey put it: ''I'm an Irish Italian Catholic who would normally vote Democratic, but the incessant and strident pro-abortion stance of the Democratic Party sickens me and perhaps many others in the country."

Or Gabriel Moran from New York: ''Hillary Clinton's loss of the Catholic vote was tragic and unnecessary. Many Catholics were put off by the tone and emphasis of Mrs Clinton's answer to the loaded question of 'partial birth' abortion in the third presidential debate.

''She could have affirmed everything that she did while acknowledging a context of moral sensitivity."

That attitude plays out in the voting records from 2016. Hillary Clinton lost the white Catholic vote by 23 percentage points - a massive margin.

Overall, Catholics make up about one-quarter of the available electorate, a sizeable voting bloc. The cities with the highest percentages of Catholic voters are Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego - all cities with high percentages of immigrants.

Given the statistics, we can deduce that a good portion of those voting 'white Catholics' were Irish Americans. She lost the overall Catholic vote by seven percentage points. In those states where the election was extremely close - Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania - she lost by such a narrow margin that every factor has to be looked at. For all the voters that sided with Trump because of his tough-talking position on jobs and economic renewal, did others side with him because he was pro-life?

Thomas Groome is convinced many did. He argues that by blindly offering unconditional support for the Roe v Wade decision, Mrs Clinton left herself 'no wriggle room'. He argues that it is the 'defining issue' in many swing states, and that there are strong pockets of Catholics in Pennsylvania and Florida that were turned off by her stringent position - states that Obama, with a more nuanced position, won, and states that Clinton lost.

While many Irish people in Ireland may identify with the Democratic Party, as does much of Western Europe, the Irish American community is no longer quite so black and white, or rather red and blue. Apart from the Catholic belief system, the Republican Party also stands for low taxes, personal responsibility and individual liberty, and a smaller, less intrusive role for the federal government - all viewpoints that perhaps resonate with those of Irish heritage or who grew up in homes listening to tales of the Civil War and Irish republicanism.

In addition, the Irish in America have long had a strong sense of civic duty and public service. That is demonstrated in the 22 US presidents who claim Irish ancestry (there are no indications of Irish blood in President Trump yet, but his mother was Scottish so there is Celtic blood) and the myriad of Irish surnames in successive congressional rolls on Capitol Hill. In America, Irish ethnicity is not solely the preserve of either party.

More Medal of Honour winners have claimed Irish heritage than any other ethnic grouping. The Irish American Democrats, particularly on the east coast, are far more organised, and therefore far more vocal, than the Irish American Republicans are, but that is not to say they are not a solid presence.

The Irish American Republicans grouping was incorporated in 1868. The group currently known as the Irish American Democrats was founded in 1996, but various organisations existed in different formats before that.

Election-planning and vote-management officials in both the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee agree that there is no 'Irish vote' anymore. Of course there once was. In the mid-19th century, when large numbers of Irish arrived to concentrated areas on the east coast, and in particular were courted in Boston and New York, there was a voting bloc. But now the vote is split. Irish Americans vote based on their other value systems, not the fact that they're Irish. They vote as Americans, whether they favour abortion or taxes or same-sex marriage or trade or economic policy. They've assimilated - that is what happens with immigrant populations over time. The policies that defined the Irish in Ireland dissolved in the great melting pot of US culture. The literature, the music, the dance and some of the cooking was preserved, but the outlook on life and political views were impacted by their environment. Donald Trump won 60pc of the white Catholic vote, and many of those are Irish Americans.

This is an edited extract from In America by Caitriona Perry, published by Gill Books on Friday, October 27, priced at €22.99

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