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'Listening to Trump voters, I am surprised, disappointed, bewildered, fascinated and enlightened'

In overlooking certain perspectives, the media is committing its gravest error in this undeniably frightening time of political upheaval, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THE IRISH ACADEMIC, journalistic and political classes – and those who follow them closely – have been embroiled in a debate recently about just how, and indeed whether, insurgent movements in the West (that many find offensive) should be covered in the press.

Assorted arguments have been proffered with respect to the limits of freedom of expression in the context of so-called hate speech, the appropriate role of media organs in determining how information is disseminated and why an individual or group should be granted or denied a platform to articulate controversial (to put it euphemistically) viewpoints.

In an intellectual sense, this debate has been stimulating and thought provoking. Yet perhaps because I am an American who abhors curtailments of the freedom of speech or because, for me, nearly everything ultimately comes down to the cold, unforgiving realities of politics and elections, I can’t help but feel that the myriad of contributions that have been made as of late are shedding more heat than light.

They are missing the mark.

For instance, there is virtually nothing in Nicholas Pell’s now infamous piece in the online edition of The Irish Times that could have not been gleaned from a perfunctory Google search for the ‘alt-right’. And the responses of his numerous vociferous critics have run the gamut from compelling to hysterical.

Neither Pell nor his legions of foes here in Ireland, however, directly address the quandary that precipitated their debate:

Why did the American people do what most of us deemed highly implausible and elect Donald Trump to be their next president on 8 November?

Instead of allowing the men and women who voted for Donald Trump an opportunity to outline their reasons for doing so, much of the focus in the media over the past two months has been on the shadowy “alt-right”, the racism that sadly persists in the United States and the potential that the president-elect’s unexpected triumph may prove a harbinger of the return of fascism to the West.

The lack of attention paid by the media and the global intelligentsia more broadly to Trump supporters since his election suggests that those who cannot abide the fact that he will be president either don’t want to know why the American people elected him or are afraid to hear why they did.

This seeming indifference, when coupled, as it invariably is, with condescending derision, only confirms to tens of millions of Americans that they were right to cast ballots for the GOP nominee, despite the deeply troubling and potentially explosive rumours that are now in the public domain.

In truth, as was sagely observed by Boston Globe columnist Thomas Farragher immediately after the election, many Trump voters “are our relatives, our friends, our neighbours…they are not haters. Some are the most decent, kind, unselfish people I know”.

I wholeheartedly agree. Among them are several of my closest friends back in Boston.

On a post-Christmas family trip there, I sought to comprehend why they did what they did in November. While I did, I was alternatively surprised, disappointed, bewildered – and fascinated. But unlike after reading Pell and his attackers, I was actually enlightened by our, at times, fiery conversations.

What did my friends tell me?

First, they are not under any illusion that Donald Trump is a good person or someone they would want their children to emulate. They largely admit that he is not a man of strong character. Additionally, they recognise that Trump does not have all the answers.

Nonetheless, they believe that the system is broken and that the leaders of both parties have lied to them repeatedly.

Even if they don’t always agree, they like that Trump speaks his mind and doesn’t care about being politically correct.

They are seriously concerned – some are very pessimistic – about the future and consider him well-placed to shake things up.

In the main, they don’t think their own financial successes or struggles are closely linked to the contents of the Democratic or Republican Party platforms.

To a person, they are extremely critical of Hillary Clinton and were repulsed in equal measure by her attempts to portray herself as a champion of ordinary working people and her “basket of deplorables” remark.

Mindful of their young children, they lament that neither party has done anything about the skyrocketing cost of third-level education. Some want the Affordable Care Act repealed.

From the different points on the ideological spectrum they occupy, they embrace President Trump’s pledge to put the US and its people first. In particular, they reject the idea that it is either incumbent upon or in the best interests of the country they love to be the world’s police force, especially given that so many brave soldiers have been killed or returned home with wounds that will never heal and that military interventions have engendered so much anti-Americanism, which they regard as totally unfair.

They have a heartfelt sympathy for the men and women in ‘Middle America’ who have been left behind by the forces of globalism. They raise the question as to why Democrats seem to have abandoned blue-collar workers for “identity politics and Silicon Valley”. And certainly, there is a general notion that, while they work very hard for what they have, others, including racial minorities and immigrants, do not.

One can agree or disagree with the relative merits of these justifications offered by a small group of Trump voters. In most instances, however, I found myself at least understanding where they were coming from, if seldom concurring.

Tellingly though, they never mentioned the “alt-right” or voiced any desire for Trump to bypass the other branches of government and run the US by fiat like a modern day dictator.

I could be wrong, but I suspect that they are representative of millions of Americans who backed Donald Trump. As such, it is a terrible shame that their sentiments – and those of similarly minded citizens in our nearer neighbours in Europe – aren’t heard more often and more widely.

It is in overlooking their perspectives, while simultaneously according prominence to malevolent, far-right provocateurs such as Nicholas Pell, on one side, and to those who compete to shout “fascist!” the loudest, on the other, that the media is committing its gravest error in this undeniably frightening time of political upheaval.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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