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Larry Donnelly: Trump is a mess but he can still win the election because of a weak Democratic party

Larry Donnelly says the Democrats’ surrender to big donor money in the last 30 years has weakened its credibility.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

LIKE SO MANY Americans, I frequently lament the reality that we have ended up with Donald Trump as President of the United States. The wide-ranging ways in which he has dishonoured the office profoundly sadden me.

Hearing reports this morning of the latest unrest across the country over the death of George Floyd and a bunker-residing Trump declaring himself the “president of law and order” – while threatening to deploy the military – just magnifies the unease myself and so many other Americans feel with this man as our president.

Trump ridicules persons with disabilities. He treats women as sexual objects. He endorses wild and dangerous conspiracy theories. He regularly and harshly criticises political foes not on account of their views, but based on their physical appearance. He has seriously mishandled Covid-19. And he condemns or now endeavours to silence traditional and social media organisations with the guts to point out his lies.

These are unassailable truths. And to me at least, they are even more objectionable than some of his policy goals and related rhetoric. Yet notwithstanding all of this, it is entirely possible that President Trump will get a second term in the White House. This is nothing short of astonishing.

How did we get here?

I have explored the various factors behind Trump’s appeal to millions of Americans, including some of my close friends and relatives, in this space. Pundits around the world have done the same.

But speaking frankly as a Democrat – albeit a disgruntled, and in some quarters unwanted, one – the party has pivoted into an awful political space. Trump continues to benefit enormously as a consequence.

The following is my analysis of why we are where we are. It’s a perspective seldom heard in the largely left of centre American media or likeminded counterparts elsewhere.

It nearly goes without repeating that I am hugely proud of my own family’s legacy of activism and involvement in politics and as elected representatives of the Democratic Party at local, state and federal levels since emigrating from the west of Ireland to Boston. I daresay, however, that they wouldn’t recognise their progeny.

My family’s creed was that the party’s raison d’être was to stand up for people who worked with their hands for a living and lived paycheque to paycheque. They, together with many of their contemporaries, held on to this simple philosophy even after assimilating in the US and ascending the socio-economic ladder. To paraphrase a Jesuit motto, they were dedicated members of “a party for others” and they never forgot from whence they hailed.

The slow decay 

At some stage, though, fighting for organised labour and the working class became less of a priority for Democrats. The Clinton administration shamefully betrayed blue-collar workers by entering into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which rapidly exported countless well-paid jobs and helped to exacerbate income inequality.

The Obama administration also was supportive of so-called “free” trade deals. I am not a fan of Bernie Sanders and abhor the sitting president, but I honestly can’t find fault with their criticisms of Joe Biden for his backing of NAFTA or their challenges to President Obama’s partner in government when he has depicted himself as an unwavering ally of the union movement.

Additionally, women and men whose faith or non-religious conviction leads them to oppose abortion feel abandoned by the Democratic Party, especially Irish and other ethnic Catholics generally.

It may be something of a global anomaly, but many Americans vote primarily on cultural issues, with abortion at the top of the pile. Those who do are typically socially conservative and are politically significant in the most important Electoral College backgrounds.

The US is a vast nation comprised of more than 300 million individuals who are diverse in every imaginable respect. Bizarrely, there are only two major political parties. Accordingly, it was understandable that, while the platform contained a pro-choice provision on abortion, there were dozens of anti-abortion Democrats in Congress and considerably more in state and local office.

They were not ostracised. Instead, the shrewd politicians then in charge deemed them a better than acceptable presence, given that their districts would probably otherwise be represented by Republicans. But a mere handful of pro-life Democrats remain on Capitol Hill now.

And at a debate in 2020, not one of the party’s presidential candidates would answer in the affirmative as to whether the anti-abortion, newly re-elected governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, should be welcomed by the party he belongs to. One wonders if their collective reticence stems from a deep-seated fear of the pro-choice lobby or flat out political stupidity – or both.

Biden losing ground

Louisiana is among the reddest states in the country. The candidates’ shunning a fellow Democrat, who has twice managed to win a southern governorship and has been a progressive champion for a host of causes, is a reason for despair. The same can be said for Joe Biden’s recent description of abortion as healthcare.

Some medical professionals might concur. But the giant sucking sound of votes to Trump in Ohio, Pennsylvania, et al that ought to have flowed Biden’s way was audible. This sort of absolutism on abortion is a major drawback in the states that will tell the tale in five months.

Why has the Democratic Party gone in this direction? Money, money, money. Some years ago, when campaign mega-fundraising became the sine qua non of American politics, Democrats turned to very wealthy donors on the coasts. Well-educated, high-earning and socially liberal, they promoted a “modern” agenda, blending laissez faire economics and hyper-secularism.

Indeed, the party’s strategists trumpet resultant gains with suburbanites and others who previously leaned strongly Republican. GOP operatives respond that self-defined Latinos are switching allegiance. Roughly one-third approve of this president, despite his offensive comments about building a hideous and inhumane wall on the southern border of the US. Trump’s lately discovered opposition to abortion is enough to sway a substantial segment of Mass-going Catholics in that community.

At any rate, we “old school” Democrats fret that our soul has been sold to rich bidders. Lots have up and left. Some may return home to vote for Biden; others, regrettably, will seek to send a message by casting a ballot for Trump.

Those of us who stay in the fold do so because we know that the Democratic Party has always advocated for the disadvantaged and is still a determined voice for the poor and marginalised in society.

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Leaving aside my disagreements with him on multiple subjects, I will vote for Joe Biden and pray that he prevails. In the event that he doesn’t, after a brief period of mourning, there can be no further prevarication. Democrats will be forced to have a long, difficult conversation as to why things have gone wrong. And it would be a terrible mistake if leaders like John Bel Edwards weren’t allowed a prominent say in it.

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

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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