HISTORICAL MYOPIA: As a majority of Irish Americans reportedly embrace Trump, lessons hard-learned by our immigrant ancestors are evaporating

By Peter F. Stevens
BIR Staff

In politics, the word “pivot” evokes breathless excitement in the media. Now, the “Trump pivot” draws nigh, his acolytes and witting or unwitting political pundits salivating that they can pretty up the Pompadoured One and convince voters that all of his racist, sexist, religious, and ethnic bile matters not a bit, that what he says now is all that matters – even if it is 180 degrees from previous rant. “Never mind,” as arch-comedienne Gilda Radner used to say. For the true-believer Trumpite, his cant of the Wall, mass deportations, and so forth, is what counts. In short, “pivot” is merely a five-letter synonym for a four-letter word – “lies.”

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the new spinner-in-chief for the would-be commander-in-chief bears the decidedly Hibernian moniker of Kellyanne (Fitzpatrick) Conway. For months, as readers of this space can attest, this scribe has ranted and raved about the historical myopia of Irish Americans who have swallowed whole the noxious brew of Trumpism. Even though the stupendously flawed candidacy of Hillary Clinton does not sit well in this corner, a vote for Trump – a man who mocks African Americans, women, Hispanics, Muslims, and so on and so on – is out of the question. Recently he exhorted African Americans – “you people,” to quote The Donald – to abandon Hillary. “What the hell have you got to lose? he bellowed. I’ll leave that to others to unravel, but back now to Kellyanne Conway. In the Irish American community, she is one of many who are dancing lock-step behind the Pied Piper of Trump Tower.

On Irish Central, Niall O’Dowd, Tom Deignan, and others have been charting the fact that a majority of Irish Americans have embraced Trump. O’Dowd astutely points out: “The belief among many of the of 7,000 Irish Americans interviewed for a recent Irish Central poll is that America today is fading fast because of overly intrusive government, too many handouts, minority mollycoddling, and a fear of saying the wrong thing. The poll indicates that 45 percent of Irish Americans plan to vote for Trump, 41 percent for Clinton, and the rest are undecided.

“The break with traditional ties to the Democrats and Clinton comes from a culture in which pulling yourself up by the bootstraps has become a powerful belief,” said O’Dowd. “Most Irish Americans spoken with had experienced a remarkable uplift in their lives.”

From historical, cultural, and religious standpoints, a historical miasma has clouded the memories of many Irish Americans. Trump blusters that he is about change and something new, but the harsh reality is that when it comes to Donald Trump and the venom he spouts, what’s old is new. Boston Irish ancestors who first departed the old sod in search of something better would recognize and recoil from The Donald. In many cases, they would likely let loose with a tirade against their Trump-supporting descendants. The immigrants of old might remind them that back in the day, a band of “real Americans” bellowed, “I want my country back!”

Our immigrant ancestors might remind us of the coffin ships that carried them from Famine-wracked Ireland, of the “Irish Need Not Apply” signs they encountered, and of worse. In their day, the 1840s and 1850s, the Nativist Party infected the local and national landscape, a hate-filled group that not only appeared locally and nationwide, but also ruled the political roost for severalyears. They called themselves the “Know-Nothings.”

Our immigrant forebears knew all too well that “real Americans” loathed anything Irish, anything Catholic, any immigrant, anything they deemed “un-American.” They proclaimed the need to save the nation from going broke to pay for “Paddy and Bridget,” who were arriving in unprecedented waves. Sound familiar? All you need to do is substitute Hispanics and Muslims for Irish.
In Boston for much of the nineteenth century, anyone who was not native-born Anglo-Saxon was the outsider, the other. Our Irish ancestors would not be fooled by Trump’s Nativist cant and xenophobia. They might, however, be somewhere between baffled and enraged by descendants who have either chosen to forget or to ignore that once it was the Irish who were the target of the anti-immigrant and religious prejudice.

I believe that for Irish Americans, there’s a historical line from the Know Nothing/Nativist movement of the nineteenth century to the current candidacy of Donald Trump. That’s why today’s Boston Irish should think long and hard and remember their own families’ histories before buying into the bigotry of Donald Trump. It’s not really a matter of Republican versus Democrat. Trump derides Hillary Clinton as the past, a charter member of the political elite. His contention is not completely wrong. Still, Donald J. Trump also embodies the past—a dark, murky embrace of the Nativism that once poisoned the United States as the Irish arrived in droves.

As countless adages preach, we ignore the past at our peril. Hopefully, the Irish American vote will not follow Trump over the top and off the cliff.