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Larry Donnelly: Too many observers have been unable or unwilling to come to grips with Trump’s appeal

I still find it difficult to believe that he is President Trump. I wish it weren’t so. But it is.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

NONE OF WHAT follows here should be construed as an endorsement, explicit or implicit, of the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump.

President Trump – some despise him so much that they resent his merely being called by the title he obtained by vanquishing Hillary Clinton to nearly everyone’s surprise – is not a person I hold in any esteem.

I disagree with many of his policies and find his character reprehensible. He is a serial liar who is temperamentally unsuited to the job. More than one listener noted that my voice was audibly shaky when evaluating the extraordinary events of the previous night in November 2016 a few hours later on Morning Ireland.

At times, I still find it difficult to believe that he is President Trump. I wish it weren’t so. But it is.

His intention to declare a state of emergency in order to bypass the Congress and build a wall on the United States’ southern border underscores my sentiments.

Unpredictable antics

I outline my stance as prologue because this piece will be greeted by the same highly charged attitudes that undeniably permeate mainstream media coverage of and social media commentary on Donald Trump. In short, hatred of the president himself and virulent disagreement with everything he stands for far too often colour all that we see, hear and read about him.

It has progressed to such an extent that even-handed political analysis is rare.

Far more widespread are collective revulsion at his now predictably unpredictable antics, shrieks of outrage at his apparently being entirely serious about his controversial campaign promises and, perhaps most troubling from a journalistic perspective, an inextricably intertwined eagerness both to believe any rumour with or without evidentiary foundation about President Trump and to will the Mueller investigation on to a conclusion that leads to his removal from office.

This is prevalent in a majority of media outlets in the US, with the continued exception of Fox News which, on the other hand, is downright farcical in its unconditional embrace of the network’s perpetually embattled most precious commodity. It is common in Ireland. Reaction to his recent state of the union address is instructive in this regard.

Upon reading it carefully in full and watching several clips the next morning, my immediate take on the state of the union was that it was objectively good and may have been the best political speech the New York businessman has ever delivered. He returned to all of the pivotal themes that resonated so deeply with vast swathes of America and garnered him the votes of millions of atypical GOP backers.

It was the first political foot he has put right in months and – notwithstanding his lies, distortions and his unjust, electorally unwise rhetoric about immigration and the wall – Trump was not un-presidential.

The viewers concurred with my assessment. A CBS poll showed that 76% of Americans who watched approved; just 24% disapproved. Of course, it is true that more of a president’s devotees than his detractors ordinarily tune in. And 43% of the audience identified as Republicans, as opposed to 25% in the news organisation’s most recent national survey.

Even with that caveat, the president’s speech was well-received by many who either did not vote for him or did so reluctantly. And this is the key demographic ahead of the 2020 campaign. Indeed, Trump’s overall favourability rating has ticked steadily upward since the state of the union.

Although it may be undone by the political chaos and constitutional crisis that may ensue from a questionable state of emergency, it was a badly needed boost in the aftermath of a precipitous decline engendered by the government shutdown, a by-product of his colossally misguided judgment about immigration and elections. The president got back “on message” in his delayed speech. It worked.

‘Incoherence, weakness’

The media reaction in many quarters, however, was on a very different page. In an op-ed, The Irish Times first branded the state of the union “weak, divisive and incoherent” and asserted in conclusion that its underlying messages were “incoherence, weakness, division and disingenuousness.” Insofar as these adjectives represent the paper of record’s editorial position on the substance of Donald Trump, they are fair enough.

But it will come as a shock to absolutely no one that The Irish Times newspaper abhors this president. Saying so again is arguably redundant and not that informative. Looked at through the prism of politics, the op-ed could not have been further wide of the mark.

Back in the US, New Yorker columnist Susan Glasser proffered that it was “utterly forgettable” and, despite the contrary figures from the CBS poll, repeated the Democrats’ mantra that the 76% of voters who watched and liked the speech “were almost all Republicans.”

Tweets from each side of the Atlantic were similarly dismissive. “Divisive, hateful, pathetic, far-right” were just some of the adjectives usually employed. Broadly speaking, “red meat for the base” and “won’t improve his numbers” was their summation of the state of the union. Of course, Trump’s enemies are entitled to their low opinion of him and to espouse why they feel the way they do.

While I often side with them, I simultaneously fear where this is all headed. Too many prominent observers, in traditional and social media, have been unable or unwilling to fully come to grips with Trump’s appeal. Moreover, they do not discern what is good and what is bad politics. They have lost sight. Theirs is an important function. And myopia on this front is another sad consequence of Trump’s rise.

Whether one likes or loathes, agrees or disagrees with the merits of what he says and does, the following are potent political truths at present. It matters little if they are facts or perceptions. In politics, it actually never has. They are probably a bit of both.

In short, the main economic indicators in the US are pretty solid; sizable segments of the citizenry in Electoral College swing states dispute the thesis that free trade deals are a good thing and reject internationalism generally; a considerable majority is against the deployment of American troops abroad unless the country’s vital, narrowly defined self-interests are imperilled; and many think the Democratic Party has moved way too far to the left culturally, especially on issues like late-term abortion.

‘It frightens me’

Because President Trump reiterated these efficacious talking points – capably, for a change – his state of the union address was successful and popular. Where it leads and how significant it will prove remain uncertain. Count me as a doubter in light of his determination to go to the wall on the wall.

Nonetheless, that so many otherwise reasonable individual pundits and respected news organs writ large couldn’t see or acknowledge this small, possibly short-lived political victory is suggestive of another unfortunate and inconvenient truth: hatred of Donald Trump has become a blinding, all-consuming, widely-held and ultimately counterproductive preoccupation.

On one level, it frightens me as much as he does.

At the outset and throughout, I have reaffirmed my opposition to this unprecedented president. I have done so because experience has made me cognisant that those whose animating impulse is Trump hatred will still be suspicious.

What on earth will they do if he is re-elected? I really hope he isn’t. At this stage, it’s more for their sake than mine.

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

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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