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Letter from America: 'Trump isn’t perfect but voting for him sent a message – and I’m still glad I did'

Donald Trump’s central animating impulse in public life has long been that his country gets a raw deal, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

GROTESQUE, UNBELIEVABLE. BIZARRE. Unprecedented. These are the four words used by Charles Haughey in 1982 that were subsequently turned into the now infamous acronym – “GUBU” – by the writer and politician Conor Cruise O’Brien.

Before the halfway point of his first term in office, there are already numerous incidents in Donald Trump’s presidency to which the GUBU label could appropriately be affixed.  Monday’s press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, truly took the proverbial cake.

Supine and obsequious

The proudly bombastic and supremely self-confident 45th President of the United States could not have been more supine or obsequious in his demeanour and language while in the company of a person Maryland’s GOP Governor Larry Hogan, along with dozens of his fellow Republicans, has called a “thug” and worse.

President Trump also stated that he accepted Putin’s word that Russia had not meddled in the 2016 presidential election, notwithstanding the contrary evidence unearthed by American intelligence agencies.

In a pathetic attempt to pull back from a colossal misstep that even he could not deny or claim to be “fake news,” he offered an excuse, about a misplaced double negative, of a calibre that a primary school teacher would laugh off if were it offered by a 9 year old who hadn’t completed his homework.  Of all the low points, this was the most GUBU to date.

Trump supporters

Watching events transpire here in Ireland this week caused me to think of what ardent Trump supporters – some of my closest relatives and friends, people I love dearly, among them – made of it.  For I spent much of the past month eating, drinking and talking politics with them back in my native Boston.

Unlike some Americans I have met or read about, their decision to entrust the White House to an individual I find abhorrent does not approach a good enough reason to terminate a wonderful relationship. We agree to disagree profoundly on this one, but far more unites us than divides us.

My unconfirmed suspicion is that they didn’t pay the summit meeting in Helsinki much attention at all. And having been stateside for President Trump’s NATO engagements, there was little reaction to and fairly broad agreement with his rhetoric about America’s allies needing to pull their weight and his desire for the US to be less active in the world, despite the dismay and outrage that were so prominent in international media coverage.

The US pays for everything

Donald Trump’s central animating impulse in public life has long been that his country gets a raw deal. To his way of thinking, the US pays for everything, simultaneously protects and gets ripped off by its allies, is expected to send its young men and women overseas in disproportionate numbers to defend the values and interests of the West when the unfortunate time comes – and yet gets criticised continually by friends and foes for, among other things, being overly militaristic, too religious and culturally unsophisticated.

Millions of Americans, not all of whom cast a ballot for the billionaire from New York, share this perception. In a provocative address in South Africa on Tuesday, Barack Obama noted that “too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth.”

The reality, though, is that perceptions have always mattered considerably more in electoral politics than truths. A potent mix of perception and truth featured in my conversations with Trump adherents.

Irish Americans

What did these Irish Americans – and they were nearly all Irish Americans – have to say about their president? Three of the most interesting comments, as close to verbatim as makes no difference, follow.

I’m tired of typical politics and politicians who are good talkers and play by all the rules set by the media and both parties, but do nothing for the people. Obama [who I voted for] talked a good game. What did he do? Did he make my life better? No. Did he make the lives of black people better? Most I talk to say no. Trump isn’t perfect and he probably won’t help us all either, but voting for him sent a message that we are sick of the establishment – and I’m still glad I did.

“My union endorses candidates who say they will support us and asks us to vote for them.  In 2016, I voted mostly for Democrats. But how could I vote for Hillary Clinton when she and her husband turned their backs on us and signed up to NAFTA, which my union and all of organised labour opposed and which has been a disaster for us? I voted for Trump because he recognises that American workers are getting screwed and cannot compete with people who get paid nothing in Mexico, India, China…everyone else sold us out.”

I don’t like those scenes of parents being separated from their crying children either.  But we have got to secure our borders. These people are breaking the law. Citizens of this country – when they break the law under difficult circumstances – are separated from their children when they go to jail.

Of course, elements of these observations are open to challenge and engendered vigorous debate and heated discussion. Nonetheless, similar sentiments are sure to persist in pockets of liberal Massachusetts and beyond. I do not accept that those who espouse them desire fascism as the solution or that this is what President Trump intends.

What made America great

They are undeniably angry and deeply concerned about the direction of the US, however.  They believe that Democrats and Republicans in recent decades have paid scant attention to what made America great.

Reassuring these men and women that they get it and will fight to preserve treasured institutions and values – while at the same time convincing them that the country remains great in an era of rapid change – are daunting tasks for Donald Trump’s opponents across the ideological spectrum.

This will require real leadership and coherent messaging. The incessant bashing of Trump and belittling of his backers presently on offer is easy and tempting, but it will not cut it as an election strategy in the short or longer term. It just could facilitate a second term. Perish the thought.

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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