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Larry Donnelly: One year after Trump's supporters stormed the Capitol, the US is still divided

Our columnist looks at US politics a year on from the infamous storming of the US Capitol Building.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

Updated Jan 6th 2022, 1:00 PM

WRITING FROM BOSTON, my wife, son and I were supposed to be in the capital of the United States today. Mother Nature had a different plan, however, and a winter storm hit Washington, DC, a place that bizarrely has no clue how to deal with snow.

As such, our flight was cancelled and we instead are “trapped” in the city that remains the hub of my universe. What harm?

The thought of our being in Washington on the first anniversary of an attack on the physical edifice of the Capitol Building and, in my view, on the lofty ideals upon which this nation was founded hadn’t actually hit me when I booked our trip. That said, I, like millions in the US, in Ireland and around the world, cannot forget the events of 6 January 2021.

Polarised

I have written before in this space about the senses of shock, horror, anger and, above all, sadness that consumed me on that infamous day. Watching vox pops conducted by Kerry’s own Donie O’Sullivan in December on CNN over here has left me scratching my head.

Clearly, legions of disciples of former President Donald Trump continue to believe that the rioting and looting on Capitol Hill were engendered by a hostile FBI, elements within the Democratic Party and other unnamed co-conspirators. It is truly astonishing to observe how divorced their convictions, regardless of how sincerely held, are from reality.

On a related note – and for reasons I can’t fully explain – I have felt compelled to tune into Seán Hannity, one of Trump’s most obsequious and downright nauseating sycophants, on more than one occasion in the past week on Fox News. In short, everything President Joe Biden has done has been an abject failure and is the product of a socialist, far left-wing ideology that his party is captive to.

Meanwhile, Trump was great, and all the bad that has happened since his tenure ended is proof positive of just how wonderful and underappreciated a leader and human being the New York billionaire was and is.

Biden’s USA

It is depressing in many respects to bear witness to where the US is 12 months on. Yet I take serious exception to the often smugly or gleefully delivered prognostications of doom and gloom for my first homeland.

I love it too much and am too loyal to it to let despair reign. Moreover, I have always been far more enthralled by the twists and turns of electoral politics, which I will never lose faith in.

I am happy to leave the longer term theorising about the future of the “American project” to others. So in this spirit, let’s consider a few things about the political year just gone and the year ahead.

First, Joe Biden and his vice president, Kamala Harris, are not in a good position at the moment. A new CNBC-Change Research shows that 56% of the citizenry disapprove of the president’s job performance. Specifically, 60% don’t like how he has managed the economy. 55% think his response to the omicron variant has been lacking. Perhaps most damningly, 72% find fault with President Biden for the upsurge in price of consumer goods. Meanwhile, a USA Today/Suffolk University poll reveals that only 32% of voters approve of Harris’s time in office.

President Biden has made mistakes, the tragically botched withdrawal from Afghanistan being the most obvious. His critics also allege that the measures that have been utilised to stimulate the economy in the wake of Covid-19 are responsible for rampant inflation. The hugely high, by American standards, price of gas and groceries <chrome_find class=”find_in_page find_selected”>animates daily conversation.

But on the flip side, unemployment is down and the stock market has been doing well. And although the claims of his foes about inflation are not wholly without merit, an awful lot of families would be hurting worse in the wake of the pandemic if money had not been distributed. The undeniably seismic rise in the costs of necessities is largely attributable to factors beyond the Biden administration’s control.

The messaging from President Biden on this front – and the people need to hear it directly from him – has been weak to non-existent. That it has been so inadequate again brings up a question that his strident opponents dwell on and even his allies ponder silently: Is the 79-year-old really up to the task? It looms and, I suspect, either explicitly or implicitly helps to inform the answers of those surveyed as to how President Biden is executing his duties.

Political divisions

Second, all the president’s eggs are in the Build Back Better basket. The roughly two trillion dollar package, which includes expenditure on programmes that Europeans take for granted, as well as hundreds of millions to combat climate change and grow the green economy, is stalled because one Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin, refuses to sign on to it.

The left assails Manchin for betraying their party’s progressive values. Bernie Sanders et al should reflect upon the truth that only a conservative Democrat could win a seat representing West Virginia, where Donald Trump won by nearly 40 percentage points in 2020.

Manchin has for decades walked a political tightrope: a blend of social conservatism with support for policies to aid the struggling residents of his state, the second poorest in the US. In addition to legitimate concerns about the further inflation Build Back Better could precipitate, Manchin strenuously objects to the child tax credit contained in the legislation, reportedly in part because he fears parents may not use the extra cash wisely.

I think Manchin is making an error here and is veering off his tightrope. Countless families in West Virginia would benefit tremendously from this tax credit. What’s more, his centrist or conservative hesitation about government spending misapprehends the popular mood. Polling indicates that substantial majorities favour more investment in programmes intended to assist those who have been displaced by technology, globalisation and so-called free trade agreements.

In this context, and notwithstanding some apparently bad blood recently between the men, I think President Biden can talk Senator Manchin into a watered down version of Build Back Better. He must do so; the fate of his presidency and of his party in the 2022 mid-term elections may rest on it.

And lastly, it is the mid-term elections that will dominate this New Year in American politics. With the Democrats holding a slim advantage in the House of Representatives and the Senate on a knife-edge, I expect that the Republicans will win both. Historically speaking, given how the incumbent president’s party typically fares in a first mid-term, it would be surprising if they did not.

Whether the GOP reclaims the two houses narrowly – the Democrats’ keeping the House is still a possibility, albeit remote – or romps home will come down to President Biden getting Build Back Better passed, upping his game in an overarching sense and catching a bit of luck on coronavirus and, crucially, inflation. Do not underestimate how many Americans will vote on the price of gas and groceries in November.

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A fascinating political 2022 lies in store in the US. It’s been an education to get a flavour of it here on the ground.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie. His new book – “The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family” – is available for purchase at all Irish bookshops and is being launched in the US tomorrow at the Irish Cultural Centre of New England by Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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