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Stephen Collins: Trump values appear set to prevail at next Irish election

Trump playbook has taken firm root in Irish politics and his values look set to prevail here

There is justifiable pride in this country that Joe Biden, the most self-consciously Irish president in American history, took office with such dignity and grace. His inspiring inauguration speech was a salute to the values of decency and moderation and represented traditional democratic politics at its best.

The contrast with his aggressive, loud-mouth predecessor could not have been greater, but the scale of the challenge that faces him in attempting to heal a bitterly divided country and restore the reputation of the US at an international level cannot be underestimated.

The oldest first-term president ever elected faces an array of intimidating problems at home and abroad, but in his calm inauguration speech he recognised the enormity of the challenges from climate change to Covid-19. The biggest challenge of all will be to bring a sense of sanity back to American politics.

Winter Nights

It is no accident that the Trump social media strategy has been adopted here by Sinn Féin

Biden’s wise words had a resonance far beyond the shores of the United States and not only because he has pledged to bring the US back to playing a vital role in international affairs. There is also a message for other democracies, including our own, who face similar challenges to the legitimacy of traditional political values.


His plea to American politicians to “stop the shouting and lower the temperature” could well be applied to Dáil Éireann where aggressive grandstanding by Opposition TDs like Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and Richard Boyd Barrett have become the norm.

Trump thrived on fomenting bitterness and division, constantly attempting to create conflict between “us and them”. A key element of the strategy was to portray political opponents as part of some ill-defined “elite” as distinct from the “ordinary people” he claimed to represent.

The ludicrousness of a billionaire property developer railing against the elites, while simultaneously lowering taxes for the rich, did not prevent him from persuading disgruntled voters, some of them genuinely disadvantaged, from rallying to his cause.

Hate-filled tweets

A powerful element of his strategy was to dominate social media with a stream of abusive and hate-filled tweets, which set the tone for much of the public discourse during his presidency.

The social media companies who facilitated this coarsening of debate attempted to curry favour in his final days by censoring him but hopefully that will not stop the incoming administration and the EU from finally getting to grips with the robber barons of our age.

The lesson for centre parties here is that they need to get back to basics with good organisation at constituency level and an active role in the community at all levels

It is no accident that the Trump social media strategy has been adopted here by Sinn Féin and a variety of extremists who dominate exchanges with aggressive and hate-filled messages which tend to drive more considered voices to the margins. Irish politics has steadily become more Trumpian in recent years and there is no sign that is about to change.

If anything the signs are that the Trump playbook has taken firm root in Irish politics and, if the opinion polls are to be believed, it is his values rather than those of Biden that are set to prevail here at the next election.

Abusive rhetoric

The lesson for traditional parties is not to follow extremists down the route of abusive rhetoric as a substitute for reasoned debate but to follow the example of Biden. During the Democratic primaries he kept his nerve and refused to descend into name calling when the media wrote him off in the early stages.

In the contest against Trump he continued to follow his own path, keeping public appearances to a minimum in the face of the pandemic, leading by example by always wearing a mask and refusing to be drawn into nasty exchanges with his abusive opponent.

What Biden and his team did was to focus on the basics of winning an election and getting the vote out where it counted. That meant identifying the states necessary to win in the electoral college and focusing resources on them. He always knew he was going to win New York and California and so had a strong chance of winning the popular vote. After all Hillary Clinton had done that four years earlier.

Political strategy

The real question was whether he could win the electoral college and that is where shrewd political strategy came in during the final stages of the campaign. Biden and his team refused to waste time trying to win states like Texas, where some of his more enthusiastic followers thought he had a real chance, and instead concentrated on the states he needed to win like Pennsylvania and Georgia.

The lesson for centre parties here is that they need to get back to basics with good organisation at constituency level and an active role in the community at all levels. They cannot afford to remain aloof from the fray and give credence to the taunts that they are elitists who have lost contact with the public.

The other big lesson for the three Government parties is that they need to do a much better job of communicating what they are doing and why to the public. If they don’t the patently untrue Trumpian message that we have never had it so bad will continue to resonate with the electorate.