Now that the election is over we can examine one of the most intriguing aspects of it. Late polls showed Trump leading 51 percent to 39 percent among white Catholics, which I presume would be a fair assessment of Irish American voters too.
But why would they vote for such an anti-immigrant bully, a misogynist, a man who mocked the disabled and prisoners of war? Why would he get the Irish Catholic vote when he appears to stand for so many anti-Christian values?
The answer I heard most often was that these voters could stomach those flaws because, they believed, Trump would do greater good by “draining the swamp,” that is Washington.
There was also a laundry list of FOX News-pushed complaints they wanted addressed – suffocating political correctness, hatred of Hillary Clinton, admiration for what Donald Trump has achieved and a deep sense that America is slipping backwards and others – that seemed to dominate feelings among Irish-Americans who voted for Trump.
It was eerie to watch, say, Sean Hannity on Fox and the following day hear people exactly parroting his remarks and accusations, many of them blatantly false.
Underpinning it all was the belief among many I spoke with that America today is fading fast due to over-intrusion by government, too many handouts, minority mollycoddling and a fear of saying the wrong thing.
Trump seemed a relatively simple solution – the sheriff riding in to clean up the town – except his faults were studiously overlooked.
The break with traditional ties to Democrats and Clinton is from a culture where pulling yourself up by the bootstraps has become a powerful belief. Most Irish Americans I spoke with had experienced remarkable uplift patterns in their lives. Many were sons and daughters of second World War veterans, dubbed “The Greatest Generation”, who came home and signed up from the GI Bill and earned college degrees, unheard of in so many families.
Then they moved into the professional classes and out from the crowded cities to the suburban tracts, such as Long Island, where they had their own homes and neighborhoods that were mostly crime-free.
Their jobs, especially union ones, paid well, as retirement was hugely aided by social security and two-car families became the maxim. In a generation their worlds leaped forward generations.
Now they believe they see America moving backwards at a rate of knots. Quotas in universities, firehouses and police stations have affected them in once traditional Irish professions. Getting money for no work offends them (many strongly believe Mitt Romney’s claim that 47 percent of Americans are on welfare). Government handouts are all seen as pecking away at what they considered their once-idyllic lifestyles, certainly in the rear-view mirror.
They’re also aware that in the recent bank meltdowns they got left holding the baby, while bankers prospered despite the crash. A strong feeling of lost identity in a vastly changed world has now become a powerful populist movement, amazingly mirrored on the left by Bernie Sanders supporters. America left and right is mad as hell and wouldn’t take it any more.
Then along came Donald Trump, who seized the moment perfectly and ran an amazing campaign that articulated their prejudices and their dreams and catapulted him to the Republican nomination, a scenario that top commentators openly laughed about six months ago. Along the way he convinced millions of Irish Catholics he was the real thing.