Anyone who bet at the outset of 2016 that Donald Trump would win the White House is smarter—as well as richer, perhaps—than most of the “all-knowing” media, pundits, and pollsters in the world. An even longer bet, however, might have been that an inner Trumpian circle of Irish Americans would prove key in electing a man who stands for nativism, racism, religious bigotry, and misogyny.
Kellyanne Conway, retired US Gen. Michael Flynn, Speaker of the US House Paul Ryan, and Steve Bannon – all with blood ties to the old sod, and all of whom have helped bring smiles to the face of Vladimir Putin – are poised to help Trump “drain the Washington swamp” and replace it with a reeking bog of corruption by billionaires. That the majority of Irish Americans cast their votes for Trump is yet more proof that they are paying lip service to the misty-eyed, Danny Boy-esque heritage of their “Irish-Need-Not-Apply” forebears.
If John Kasich, Jeb Bush, or another conservative not consumed with hatred was about to take the oath of office later this month, I’d wager that many Democrats would not be somewhere between apoplectic and suicidal. Still, Trump won, and that’s the fact to be dealt with.
The Irish-American acolytes behind Trump all wear their Irish Catholic heritage with pride. Born in Camden, New Jersey in 1967, Trump’s future mouthpiece, Kellyanne Fitzpatrick Conway, is the daughter of an Italian mother and Irish immigrant father who owned a small trucking company. There’s no mistaking Conway’s formidable political acumen as shown by her ability to rein in Trump at crucial moments of the campaign; there’s also no mistaking her near-nonexistent relationship with facts and the truth. In short, her tortuous interpretation of reality makes her the ideal outlet for Trump’s lies and con game.
Flynn was born in Rhode Island, and his military service to the nation has been both brilliant and controversial. His penchant for re-tweeting fake news stories and promoting conspiracy theories makes many US intelligence insiders nervous about his being Trump’s security guru, but elections have consequences, and in this case the general is literally “in like Flynn.” He is the grandson of Charles Flynn, was born in 1889 in Blacklands, Co. Tyrone. An emigrant to the United States in 1913, Charles Flynn carved out a life for himself and future Flynns in Rhode Island.
Steve Bannon, co-architect with Conway of Trump’s 2016 campaign push, is a political lightning rod because of his alleged racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and ties to the murky Alt-Right world of extremism and hate. In an interview with Bloomberg News in 2015, Bannon said, “I came from a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, pro-Kennedy, pro-union family of Democrats.” His views have veered onto a starkly different path.
Paul Ryan is a man who speaks with pride of how his Irish Catholic heritage has shaped his views. To The New York Times and numerous other outlets, the speaker waxes nostalgic at how James Ryan of Kilkenny survived the Great Famine and reached America in 1851 to settle in Wisconsin. The Irish immigrants of the 1840s and 1850s came in search of their own piece of the American Dream, in search of a chance. While true that Ryan was a late boarder on the Trump Train, he is all in now that he has the chance to repeal Obamacare, the only way millions of Americans can keep healthcare and stave off the financial ruin that uncovered medical bills bring. It would be one thing if Ryan and his crowd actually did have a plan to replace Obamacare so that people will keep their insurance while the new plan unfolds, but no such blueprint exists. Ryan’s church teaches that the sick—all the sick—must be taken care of. Of course, he will claim that the free market and the insurance companies will take care of that. He knows they never have, and they never will.
On March 15, 2014, in the New York Times, Timothy Egan wrote about the time he ran into Ryan in Ireland and spoke at length with him: “His great-great-grandfather had fled to America. But the Republican congressman was very much in evidence, wagging his finger at the famished [in present-day America]. His oft-stated “culture of dependency” is a safety net that becomes a lazy-day hammock. But it was also England’s excuse for lethal negligence [during the Great Famine].
“There is no comparison, of course, between the de facto genocide that resulted from British policy, and conservative criticism of modern American poverty programs. But you can’t help noticing the deep historic irony that finds a Tea Party favorite and descendant of famine Irish using the same language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy.”
As Egan notes, historian John Kelly, one of Ireland’s experts on the Famine, wrote of Ryan: “[His] high-profile economic philosophy is the very same one that hurt, not helped, his forebears during the famine — and hurt them badly.”
Does that majority of Irish Americans who cast ballots for Donald Trump really believe that their Irish immigrant ancestors made their way out of poverty with not a whit of help from anyone, and certainly not any from state or federal government? If so, Trump mania has clouded their vision. Deep down they know that, unless one is born into wealth, success comes with a good measure of luck and support, from inside and outside the government.
Trump, with the aid of Ryan and the others, vows to make America great again and to put America back to work again. Ryan submits wholly to the adage that wherever anyone is in life is exactly where they deserve to be. Egan’s words from some two years ago should give pause to the president-elect’s inner and outer Irish cohort:
“Where have I heard that before? Ah, yes — 19th-century England. The Irish national character, [Sir] Charles Trevelyan [the infamous Assistant Treasury Secretary who was supposed to administer relief to the Irish of the Famine] confided to a fellow aristocrat, was ‘defective.’ The hungry millions were ‘a selfish, perverse, and turbulent’ people, said the man in charge of relieving their plight.”
In an 1884 speech, Patrick Collins, destined to become Boston’s second Irish mayor, set out a political credo for Irish Americans in his own generation and for those to come: “Those of us born in Ireland or who sprang from the Irish race are here to stay. We and our children and children’s children are here merged in this great, free, composite nationality, true and loyal citizens of the state and federal systems, sharing in the burdens and the blessings of the freest people on the earth.”
Trump’s Irish cadre would do well to heed those words from a wise Irish-American Catholic patriot.