Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway's Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column highlights the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.
The drab, grey sky hung like a morose fog over the hustle and bustle of New York City, reflecting the mood of the day below. The usually upbeat, rhythmic ebb and flow of midtown Manhattan appeared more sluggish than any other normal day in the concrete jungle. However, this was not just any other day. This was the scene a few weeks back, in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s stunning victory in the recent United States Presidential Election. In years past, the city might have been jubilant following the victory of one of its most well-known native sons, whose high-style and business savvy often made him a quintessential figure in the metropolis’s depiction in pop culture. However, the days of ‘The Donald’ reflecting New York’s image and values have long since passed.
On the day in question, my girlfriend and I found ourselves traversing the gloomy city streets, trying to enjoy the many sites while avoiding the mix of angst, disappointment, and uncertainty that had undoubtedly enveloped the majority of those that we encountered. After grabbing dinner a few blocks from Rockefeller Plaza, it seemed like the mood had lifted. The Christmas lights, though perhaps a bit too early for the season in fairness, were out in abundance. The accompanying festive garland and bows decorated many of the storefronts, and one would nearly expect to see shades of Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl, God rest her, harmonically arguing away, singing about a ‘fairytale’ in these very same urban environs.
However, far from the waxing sounds of the Pogues’ holiday classic, we were met with the words of a very different tune on our stroll back to Penn Station: “Donald Trump, not OK, racist, sexist, anti-gay!” These, and a number of other like-messages were the ditties chanted by hundreds of protestors, mostly young students, who had taken to the streets in thronging waves to voice their frustration at the values espoused by the new President-elect over the previous months. Their destination lay uptown, at the lavish, emblematic Trump Tower.
We stood for a while, gawking at the spectacle and remarking about what was truly a historical moment, before continuing on to catch our train. However, after observing Trump’s recent cabinet appointments in the past few weeks, and chatting about both the protest and the nature of the impending Trump presidency with Cormac Ó hEadhra on Ráidío na Gaeltachta, I began to revisit the scenes of that evening, and think back upon the nature of the many issues that had driven such a diverse group to take to the streets of not only New York, but all of the major cities across the breadth and width of the country.
Donald Trump became a pop culture phenomenon in the United States as the host the ‘The Apprentice’, a show in which aspiring moguls competed for his approval. Each episode ended with Trump dramatically telling one low-performing contestant, “You’re fired”. Now that Trump has been ‘hired’, what kind of country will he lead, and how will he lead it? His popular support stemmed mostly from Americans who wanted a change from the status quo. Some are driven by a belief in limited government, others by a desire for conservative morality, economic reform, or tougher polices on immigration and terrorism. Meanwhile, opponents challenge these positions, and argue that strong policing in the name of immigration and terrorism will also severely curtail the rights of native-born non-white Americans in the name of safety. As reports of neo-Nazi meetings, swastika-laden graffiti and verbal and physical attacks on everyone from women to immigrants pour in day by day from around the country, I sit here wondering what this means moving forward.
In a recent sit-down interview with the New York Times and on the television programme ‘60 Minutes’, Trump was challenged to comment upon such claims, and in particular, the despicable acts carried out by some supporters in the name of his campaign. In the latter interview, seated atop a gold, throne-like chair amidst the other members of his family, the President-elect noted, “I am saddened to hear that”. He then looked directly into the camera, making a stern plea to anyone engaged in such intimidation to “stop it”. But is this message too little too late? Trump couldn’t really be that out of touch with the reality of the situation, could he? He’s not a clueless guy. In fact, he is quite clever. Therefore, there is no way that while out on the campaign trail in recent months, the billionaire businessman turned politician could have been unaware that his rhetoric had been fueling intimidation and attacks upon immigrants, minorities, and Muslims. Seen in this light, Trump’s order to “stop it” seems more like a calling off of the dogs, or an acknowledgement that, “it’s OK. The fight is over, we won.” However, assuming for a moment that his plea was genuine, this presents a larger issue. The fact that such acts have continued, and in some cases heightened, even after Trump has so clearly distanced himself from some of the more sensational elements of his campaign rhetoric, indicates that he has perhaps opened a Pandora’s box with regard to race relations amongst subsections of the population in America. Unfortunately, such cannot be stopped now by simply issuing a command on network television, as might have worked on his previous gig.
Further criticism has come from those who claim that Trump’s election may threaten the rights of those Americans whose lifestyles seem dangerous to the conservative Christian values of some of Trump’s closest allies, including vice president-elect Mike Pence. Pence’s outspoken views on homosexuality, which in the past have included the proposed diversion of public funds to provide ‘conversion therapy’, appeared to be amongst the central motivations of many of those that we saw marching on the night of the protest in Manhattan. This has remained a popular talking point. In light of last year’s marriage referendum, it was such views held by Pence that recently drew the ire of the public after Enda Kenny, following a conversation with the former Indiana governor, tweeted that he “certainly knows Ireland and the issues that matter to our people.”
For his part, Trump has stated in the past week that he will not challenge the legality of gay marriage, and will not seek to prosecute his former opponent, Hilary Clinton. The distance between his campaign rhetoric and the reality of his administration remains unknown, but tellingly, those protestors who took to the streets the night of his election continue to march. What’s driving their steps might be Trump’s selection of controversial figures to serve on his staff and in his cabinet. Steve Bannon, editor of a far-right newspaper known to publish anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and racist views, will serve as Trump’s chief of staff. Jeff Sessions, a Senator from Alabama, whose 1986 nomination for federal judgeship was rejected because of racially charged comments and actions, will serve as his Attorney General. However, perhaps most concerning is Trump’s appointment of Myron Ebell, a noted skeptic of climate change, as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Such an appointment falls in line with Trump’s noted desire to dismantle many of the environmental policies put in place by the previous administration.
Ultimately, Trump will have many campaign promises to keep to his supporters, and fears to allay among his opponents. A Trump presidency will likely continue to inspire controversy, and will present an (at least four year) answer to a question posed by ‘The Apprentice’ itself. What happens after you’re hired?