Though you’ll rarely see it discussed in the popular press, one of the more troubling aspects of Donald J Trump’s soon-to-be-finished presidency was his ability to attract voters who previously disdained the Republican Party in the United States. Or indeed any party at all. This is perfectly illustrated by the case of Ashli Babbitt, the former US military veteran fatally wounded by armed security officers during the storming of the US congress building by Trump supporters on January 6th. Like many others in the violent mob, the middle-aged woman was a passionate believer in the conspiracy theories that have become the norm on the reactionary right in the United States; from a supposed “deep state” seeking to prevent the re-election of the president to the White House in cahoots with the Democratic Party and the liberal media elite to the fantastical cult-like beliefs of the internet-born QAnon movement.
However, that was only one aspect to the political beliefs of Ashli Babbitt: albeit the one that contributed most directly to her tragic and futile death. As the investigative website Bellingcat notes, she herself claimed to be a former Barack Obama voter who turned away from the Democrats due to her antipathy to Hillary Clinton, eventually moving to Trumpism – and anti-establishment sentiment in general – through the gateway drug of right-libertarianism. Yes, the ex-air force member was undoubtedly radicalised through her prolonged engagement with some of the more deplorable corners of the world wide web. But the roots of her radicalisation, of her ideological madness, partly lie in the dysfunctional nature of contemporary American politics and the lack of democratic choice and accountability in what was and remains effectively a corporatist two-party state.
For those with a keen interest in US politics this is not exactly a brand new revelation. The phenomenon of Obama–Trump voters has been the subject of in-depth study and debate for the last four years. Much of it quite acrimonious. Were the Obama supporters of 2008 and 2012 borrowed Republican voters? Or the Trump voters of 2016 and 2020 borrowed Democratic voters? What of independents and traditional non-voters and the political journeys they took over the last two decades? And how much of a factor did all this play in Trump increasing his support in last November’s presidential election by a shockingly large margin?
There is no doubt that there is an ache in the American electorate for a revolutionary change in how politics is done in the country, a demand for reform from a significant part of the population that feels disenfranchised by the current, institutionally incestuous system. A feeling that is not just confined to one demographic or category of people; though in some cases it puts the disenfranchised in perceived – and for ethno-racial chauvinists, actual – opposition to each other. Equally there is just as great a demand for a return to the rose-tinged status quo ante of the pre-Trump years. For the “civil” domestic politics of the Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill era, when the two power blocs in Washington DC found a way to peacefully coexist and prosper – both at the polls and in their pockets.
A general dissatisfaction with democratic accountability is not just confined to the United States. Nor is the disdain expressed by those in power when faced by calls for reform among the electorate. Here at home we have seen the animosity directed by the news media towards Sinn Féin and other parties of the centre-left and left. Yes, the historical legacy of the so-called Troubles plays a part in that feeling and the post-war opinions of many Irish journalists were shaped by wartime observations. But that does not adequately explain the sneering witnessed in our national newspapers towards even vaguely progressive policies put forward by SF and other parties on the social-democratic and socialist spectrum. Though it does explain the unprecedented coalition in 2020 of the old Civil War parties that traded governments back and forth with each other for nearly a century, exorcising the ghosts of ancient enmities to keep hold of the reins of power when faced by an electorate in democratic revolt. And cheered on in their closed ranks response by an equally established press.
That is why in recent days a bevvy of reactionary commentators in Ireland have tried to compare the Trumpists’ storming of the US Capitol with Sinn Féin and the anti-austerity campaigns of the Troika period or the unprecedented general election results of 2020. There is a fear in the ranks of Official Ireland that the cosy order established in the 1930s, of a Continuity State led by a Golden Circle, could succumb to the plebeian masses. Of those unfit to lead or to be led. In Ireland populism is the ideology of democratism, of those who wish to see government of the people by the people for the people. And not just the right kind of people.