Forty-seven years ago this week, acclaimed Irish American journalist Pete Hamill wrote an article for New York magazine. The headline read: “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class.”
“It is imperative,” Hamill wrote, “that New York politicians begin to deal with the growing alienation and paranoia of these people. They can’t wait much longer; it’s almost the point of no return.”
Ladies and gentleman, I believe we have reached that point.
Hamill outlined for us the first act of a show decades in the making, and which will culminate in Donald Trump’s nearly-guaranteed victory in the New York State Republican presidential primary on Tuesday, April 19. The only drama that remains is what will unfold at the Republican convention in the summer.
But before we get there, it’s important to debunk the myth that the Trump phenomena is unprecedented in American politics. It is definitely strange, mainly because he is more of a celebrity than a politician. But that says more about the utter weakness of the field of Republican candidates.
As for a loudmouth saying foolhardy things to exploit the anger of the populace, let’s not forget a reactionary like George Wallace, who surely received a vote or two from Hamill’s subjects back when he ran for president in 1968.
Indeed, the Trump train is not powered merely by good ol’ boys and other gun-totin’, backward-thinkin’, tooth-missin’ rednecks. For better or worse, Irish Americans and other Catholic ethnics have probably saved Trump from the GOP establishment that wants to dump him.
“It’s well established that (Trump) fares best among less educated voters,” Nate Cohn noted in The New York Times recently.
“Yet his strongest performance so far wasn’t in Mississippi, where he got 47 percent of the Republican vote, but in Massachusetts, a famously liberal state, where he won 49 percent of Republican voters.”
Massachusetts is also a heavily Catholic state, with plenty of Irish Americans as well as other white ethnic Catholics.
As the Times notes, in Massachusetts, “Catholics made up a majority of the Republican electorate and provided Mr. Trump with a big primary victory. He drew 53 percent of Catholics in the Massachusetts GOP primary, while Mr. Kasich and Mr. Rubio combined for just 35 percent.”
Cohn concludes: “(Trump’s) appeal in historically Democratic areas is a reflection of strength among new Republicans -- whether they be white southerners or white Roman Catholics and working-class voters in the north who would have had no place in the Republican Party a half-century ago.”
Which brings us back to Hamill’s article. Those angry men throwing the n-word around were not straight outta Compton. Or even a racist backwater town in Alabama.
They were drinking at an Irish bar named Mister Kelly’s in Brooklyn! And not just Brooklyn, but Park Slope. Back before the Whole Foods army invaded.
Many observers have noted the conservative drift of the Catholic vote since the late 1960s. Richard Nixon’s famous “southern strategy” -- to exploit racial divisions but more subtly than an arch-segregationist like George Wallace -- had a strong northeastern component. Nixon did well with Irish Catholics and Italian Americans -- mainly former Democrats -- as did Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
But a word about that arch-segregationist. In 1968, Wallace ran a slash-and-burn campaign aimed at restoring racial apartheid in the south. How else do you think he won five states in the deep south, even though he ran on a third party line?
But as Kevin Phillips notes in his landmark study The Emerging Republican Majority, “Urban Catholic precincts also gave Wallace fair support in northern New Jersey, Philadelphia, New York City, Connecticut and Boston.”
Those Irish and Italian guys drinking at Mr. Kelly’s in Park Slope have long moved out of Brooklyn. They and their kids and grandkids moved to Long Island or suburban New Jersey or upstate New York. They may no longer even be members of what Hamill called the “white lower middle class.”
But they’re still angry. And they’re voting for Trump.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)