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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Ireland is no country for populist strongmen

The election of Donald Trump implies that anything is possible when it comes to the maintenance of democracy as we know it. His campaign was replete with un-American themes, and thick with insults. Yet all of that was apparently discounted because he purveyed a brand of change which, while fraudulent, was also irresistible to half the electorate.
His presidency will be compelling. He will have to dilute much of the agenda on which he ran, but unless he abandons it altogether there will be major ramifications for large swathes of the USA, and the world beyond.
It will be fascinating to observe how he handles power. This is a man who spent a life in business, mainly in the rough-hewn world of development. Compromise in this milieu is often regarded as weakness. Everything is the deal, every move designed to carve out a short-cut to success.

How will such a creature restrain himself while holding the levers of executive power? If family, friends or relatives approach him looking for a favour, or to be cut some slack, will The Donald respond that he can’t do a thing now as he is working for the American people? Let’s wait and see.
One thing is clear. His election follows a trend. Populist strongmen are in vogue, from Putin in Russia to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Holland’s Geert Wilders, and even Marine Le Pen, a populist strongwoman. All must be salivating at the dawning of Trumpland.
But what about us here on this windswept outpost of Europe?

Two factors that have driven the right-wing populism sweeping across the western world are thankfully absent in this country. While many have been left adrift in society, and laden with debt, there are precious few pining to go back to the future.
The Brexiteers look back to the 1970s as the optimal time when prosperity was theirs and every section of society knew their place. The Trumpeteers would prefer the 1950s, something of a golden age for white America.
Here, the economic good times only began rolling in the 1990s, too recent in the rear view mirror to be cast as a Nirvana lost in the mists of time.
Globalisation is blamed for changed circumstances in places like the rust belt of America or the north of England. Conveniently, they ignore the impact of automation, which has been a much bigger factor in the decline of big industry.

For this country, globalisation has been a boon, as foreign direct investment has transformed the economy.
The other factor driving right-wing populism is the identification of an Other who can be blamed for the ills of the world. This Other has been identified as the immigrant. The immigrant is to blame for swiping away a world that was more secure, most certain. It’s all so easy.
Apart from the racism stoked up by this wantonly warped perception, it is also illogical. How would Britain’s NHS function without the input of immigrants? How would the US economy function if the 11 million illegal immigrants were repatriated?

But logic and facts are surplus to the requirements of populism. Trump and the Brexiteers have the immigrants to blame, just as in a different, even more unstable time, Hitler had the Jews.
Even if a virulent strain of right-wing populism took hold in this country, they would have a problem identifying an Other. Immigration into the country has largely been, and has been seen to be, a positive exercise. Attempts to stoke up anti-immigrant sentiment have largely been a failure.
Not that that is any cause for complacency. Cast your mind back to the late 1990s when asylum seekers and immigrants first began to arrive here on foot of the rising economy. There was much breast-beating and not a little opposition to what appeared to be the changing face of the country.

Some politicians were not adverse to drawing a kick here and there. Michael Healy Rae, then a councillor, said at a meeting in 2000 that Kenmare, County Kerry, was in danger of “becoming like Harlem” and that most refugees were “freeloaders, blackguards and hoodlums”. He was not alone. Stories of refugees being allocated not just big houses, but cars and other various goodies, found their way into public square. Had social media’s echo chamber been around at the time, it is quite likely that things could have turned ugly.
When the economy collapsed in 2008 thankfully there were no efforts in politics to target immigrants for blame. We have been lucky, no more than that.
Recent years have thrown up other conditions that would be manna for any populist leader bearing easy solutions.

The economic collapse and the foisting of bank debt on the citizens generated unprecedented levels of anger and resentment. The political system was exposed as one part gormless, one part feckless and one part in thrall to the alleged wisdom of bankers. As austerity bit, top bankers and politicians sailed off into retirement with obscene pensions sticking out of their arse pockets.
A world that many had come to know, albeit over a short few years, was whipped away. Standards of living plummeted for most, while those on the upper rungs of the socio-economic ladder appeared to be doing just fine.
A chasm also opened up between urban and rural, city and country. Principally in economic terms, but also in social matters, a widening divide that had been masked through the years of illusory plenty, came clearly into view.
While countries like Spain and Greece reached for something new in politics, the conservative Irish electorate went back and forth between Tweedledum Fianna Fáil and Tweedledee Fine Gael.

In fact, the only manifestation of a populist uprising over the last eight years was not at the ballot box but in the campaign to oppose water charges. The ultimate outcome, this column would argue, has been a setback in terms of respect for resources and organising the provision of water.
Equally, though, it could be said that it’s been a small price to pay for the relative stability that has endured. The USA got Donald Trump. We got trade unionist Brendan Ogle. No contest.

So for now, things muddle on. No vision of a better future is offered from our leaders. Our country is still being led by a lame duck who has been in parliament since 1975. An unprecedented crisis in housing continues to be addressed only within the confines of the market. Large swathes of the young and those in rural Ireland are feeling left behind. If you didn’t know better, you’d think this was a place waiting for Trump to happen along.
Michael Clifford