‘The desire of Democrats to deny Trump a second term animates them above all’

Larry Donneely, an Irish-American and a Democrat, on the challenges of the upcoming US Presidential election

He may be rank alongside James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover as the worst ever president of the United States; his country has the highest levels of Covid-19 cases (+6 million ) and deaths (+183,000 - higher than the number of US soldiers killed in Vietnam ), which has led to a severe spike in unemployment levels.

He is a climate change denier and leads the most right-wing US administration in living memory; his utterances and actions have allowed racism, sexism, and xenophobia to find a space, a platform, almost an acceptance, within mainstream discourse.

And yet, Donald J Trump, could well be re-elected for a second term in November. Polls carried out by various sources throughout August, show Trump averaging between 38 to 49 per cent. All this, despite, as The New Yorker said, “some seventy per cent of Americans currently believe that the country is on the wrong track”.

Joe Biden, vice-president under Barack Obama, and the Democratic candidate for the 2020 US presidential election has no easy task in unseating Trump, and the Republicans will not be afraid to get personal. As Trump's vice-president Mike Pence said last week: “The hard truth is, you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America. No one will be safe in Biden’s America.”

Biden’s challenge

In such a climate, and given all that has happened over the past four years, will it be possible to defeat Trump? This is the question that Larry Donnelly, Lecturer and Director of Clinical Legal Education in the School of Law at NUIG, and a registered Democrat, will discuss with journalist Marian McKeown in the Galway International Arts Festival’s First Thought Talks event, ‘Will Trump Win Again?’ in the Black Box Theatre on Saturday September 12.

Mr Donnelly is well aware of the challenges facing his party’s candidate. “Biden [pictured above] won the Democratic nomination because – consciously or subconsciously – the party’s voters thought he was best placed in their field of candidates to defeat Trump, and that desire to deny Trump a second term is one that animates them above all,” he tells me.

'I know Irish emigrants who voted for Trump in 2016 and plan to do so again. To the extent they still consider themselves Irish, they have very short memories'

“Despite Biden’s weaknesses as a candidate - age and related concerns about his stamina/capacity and propensity for gaffes maybe foremost among them - they were probably right in that respect, but I understand why people scratch their heads and say, ‘Is a 77-year-old white man who’s been in Washington DC for almost 50 years the best you can come up with?’ They have a point and there definitely was neglect by Presidents Clinton and Obama in terms of nurturing new talent and potential successors.”

Trump and Irish-America

Trump Pence

Mr Donnelly has been living and working in Galway since 2001 and for him, it was a kind of homecoming, since his paternal grandfather’s family were from north Galway, while his mother’s people were originally from Cavan. Mr Donnelly himself grew up in East Milton, Massachusetts.

“The majority of my friends’ parents were Irish emigrants – and most of them were from Galway,” he says. While he is fiercely proud of his Irish roots, he does not let sentiment cloud his judgement over his fellow Irish-Americans.

'Many remain very faithful Catholics, to a greater extent than here in Ireland, and cannot abide the Democratic Party’s lurch to the left on social and moral issues'

The Trump administration is notable for the number of Irish-Americans who are (Vice-President Pence ) or who have (Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn ) served at high levels, and many Irish-Americans support Trump. Surprising as this may seem to people in Ireland, it comes as no surprise to Mr Donnelly.

“A lot of my first, second, and third generation Irish-American friends are staunch Trump supporters and generally conservative Republicans,” he says. “I even know Irish emigrants – young and old, male and female – who voted for Trump in 2016 and plan to do so again. I think that, to the extent they still consider themselves Irish, they have very short memories.

“But one of the things I try to do over here is to explain where they are coming from. There are two primary factors: first, a lot of them have enjoyed great financial success and prefer the Republican low-tax, minimal social welfare state, philosophy; second, many remain very faithful Catholics, to a greater extent than here in Ireland, and cannot abide the Democratic Party’s lurch to the left on social and moral issues. I think the Democratic Party has made a huge mistake in making people like these feel so unwelcome.”

Divisions and challenges

In opinion polls, Biden [with vice-presidential running mate Kamala Harris] has a seven per cent lead over Trump. However, as USA Today pointed out “larger leads disappeared in 1948, in 1968, in 1976, in 1988, and in 2016...Further, in both 2004 and 2012, campaigns saw late swings of over five per cent”.

Problematic for the Democrats and the Biden campaign is how divided the party is between the middle-ground/centre-right (as represented by Biden-Harris ) and the progressives (Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, pictured above, and Ilhan Omar ). How dangerous is this division to the Democrats winning the election?

'The Lincoln Project online ads are powerful and effectively highlight the reasons why so many of us think that President Trump is ill-suited to be President of the United States'

“The intra-party division is definitely a big challenge,” says Mr Donnelly. “Those on the left will disagree with me, but I still think American presidential elections are won in the middle. And I think this time – despite fears that Bernie Sanders’ supporters and others will stay at home and not vote because Biden and Harris are too moderate and establishment-oriented – the overpowering desire to defeat Trump will mean that they will get out and vote.”

Key to a Democrat victory will be encouraging moderate and anti-Trump Republicans to back Biden in November, and cruciually, to get African-Americans out to vote, especially after the 2016 election, when Black voter turnout declined for the first time in 20 years.

Trump NOPE Poster

First, the Republicans. How realistic is it to think GOP members could actually vote Democrat? “The Lincoln Project is the most prominent group of Republicans who cannot abide Trump and are working to defeat him,” says Mr Donnelly. “The problem for them is that their brand of traditional Republican conservatism has been overwhelmed by Trump. Their party is now Trump’s – at least according to the polls.

“There will definitely be some slippage from Republicans who take this view, but I don’t think they will be a huge factor. Leaving aside purely political considerations, however, the Lincoln Project online ads are powerful and effectively highlight the reasons why so many of us think that President Trump is ill-suited to be President of the United States.”

Racism and America

George Floyd Mural Black Lives Matter

The question of encouraging African-Americans to vote in the 2020 presidential election inevitably raises the question of what Mr Donnelly calls “America’s devil” - Race and Racism, and its place in the socio-political-cultural fabric of American life - issues which have come into focus again through the Trump presidency, police brutality, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

'I am heartened by the national conversation about race that is ongoing. A lot of white people are having frank discussions that are long overdue'

Indeed, Trump’s handling of Covid-19 has damaged him far more than his “good people” comments about Far-Right activists following the events at Charlottesburg in 2017 or the endorsements of white supremacists like David Duke.

“The US is a polarised place,” says Mr Donnelly. “Sadly, race is one of the fault lines in the division. It doesn’t actually surprise me because a far higher portion of the citizenry is affected by the pandemic than by what happened in Charlottesville or the racial discrimination that persists.

Kamala Harris

“I should say, however, that I am heartened by the national conversation about race that is ongoing. A lot of white people are having frank discussions that are long overdue. That won’t lead to dramatic change overnight, but it is still to be welcomed. There is an awful long way to go, but I am guardedly optimistic that we are starting to take some important first steps.”

Mr Donnelly believes that Biden, especially now with Kamala Harris, as his running mate, “will do extremely well with Black voters and better with female voters than Hillary Clinton did”.

That said, he feels Latinx-Americans are “the bloc to watch”. “Astonishingly, after what Trump said about Mexicans, and about building a wall on America’s southern border to keep them out,” he says, “polls show that more than one-third of Latino voters intend to vote for Trump this year. Not unlike Irish Catholics, the Democrats’ lurch to the left on issues like abortion helps to explain this. Accordingly, Democrats cannot take them for granted – this year or in the future.”

 

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