If you can’t beat them, call them Trumpian

Ireland’s ascendent Sinn Féin party is nothing like Trump, but that hasn’t stopped critics from levying an increasingly banal attack.

If you can’t beat them, call them Trumpian

Ireland’s ascendent Sinn Féin party is nothing like Trump, but that hasn’t stopped critics from levying an increasingly banal attack.

A couple of weeks ago in Ireland, as tensions in a general election cycle cranked up, a ghoulish young politician named Jack Chambers attacked ascendant rivals on TV with a refrain that was beginning to calcify into a party line. Irish republican party Sinn Féin’s modest social democratic-style policy proposals are, the red-faced, conservative Fianna Fáil parliamentarian squawked, “a new form of Trumpism in Irish politics.”

Chambers then doubled down, detonating about a raft of other leftwing policies he views as Trumpian and refusing to see what might be so disingenuous or, more accurately, downright confusing about his comments. Just a few days earlier, Ireland’s outgoing taoiseach (or head of government), Leo Varadkar, had arrogantly and cluelessly asserted that a vote for Chamber’s Fianna Fáil would prevent “social progress” — despite Varadkar’s own Fine Gael party being an ideologically convergent center-right facsimile presenting an equal impediment to change. The response from Stephen Donnelly, another Fianna Fáil politician, seemed to descend from Reasonable Politician Heaven. “It’s negative, negative, negative,” he bleated to The Irish Examiner. “It’s very Trumpian Nigel Farage type politics and it doesn’t have a place here.” A hysterical op-ed in The Independent suggested Sinn Féin had amassed huge support and that the party’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, “could well be the Irish version of Donald Trump.”

Okay, just so things are clear: a more egalitarian taxation system in Ireland is Trumpism, mildly criticizing political opponents is an electoral tactic pioneered by Trump, and the mild-mannered leader of a leftwing nationalist party promising affordable homes, tax reforms, and reunification is a Trump emulator. Right, got it. Makes total sense.

In a quest to lay all of the blame for American’s ills at Trump’s doorstep, pundits in the U.S. have rendered the term Trumpism useless. And inane invocations of this oafish man outside of the context of American politics, in the hope of spooking Irish voters, got me thinking about the million-or-so times a day that some variation of the word Trumpian is lazily thrown around to describe something. In Ireland especially, calling an entire political party Trumpian — especially one with a fraught history all of its own — elides crucial historical context and, ultimately, makes no sense. It’s disingenuous at best, and glibly ahistorical at worst.

For the unfamiliar, Sinn Féin has long been the public face of a clandestine paramilitary wing, the Irish Republican Army, whose republican tradition can be traced back to the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1998, after decades of sectarian violence between Protestant British loyalists and Catholic republicans in Ireland, a peace treaty called the Good Friday Agreement signaled the end of the war known, stoically, as The Troubles. Sinn Féin was front-and-center in the peace process negotiations, helping to secure an end to decades of bloodshed and, in the form of the agreement, a pathway toward reunification between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland once the time was ripe.

In the intervening years, Sinn Féin has sought to become a mainstream force in Irish politics, which has been dominated by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael since the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922. In recent years, Sinn Féin has lost its powerful figureheads — its former leader, the teddy-bear loving Gerry Adams, retired, and Martin McGuiness, who served as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, died, leaving behind them Mary Lou McDonald, a steely, confident orator from Dublin with no paramilitary links. The party’s transition into mainstream politics has been long and arduous, their links to dissident republican forces still questioned by critics, but now they’ve finally arrived: in the general election last weekend, they became the second-largest party in Ireland, winning a historic 37 seats and breaking a century-old political duopoly.

Living in a verdant village in rural Ireland, my parents, who would traditionally have voted for either a conservative rural independent candidate or Fianna Fáil, were two of many Irish voters depressed by the state of Ireland’s health service and an unprecedented housing crisis. They saw McDonald’s combative, worker-empowering, richly human performances in TV debates as a glimmer of something, anything, new. Save for their shared popularity, Sinn Féin, and its recent surge in support, bears no resemblance to anything associated with Trump.

There are doubtless occasions where comparing something to Trump can be instructive, and providing the context allows such a comparison to make sense.

As the Ireland hubbub shows, the spectre of Trumpism has become an opaque, catch-all term — like populism — that has been used to malign popular social and political movements. Trumpian or some word like it have been used to allude to art, right-wing ultranationalism, left-wing movements, fascism, racism, hostility to the press, conspiracy theorizing, lying, exaggerating, narcissism, disinformation, authoritarianism, corruption, climate change denialism, intellectual vacuity, cultish fandom, general grotesqueness, shamelessness, perceived unsavory behavior, norm-erasing, geographical places themselves, unpredictability, misogyny, and sexual harassment.

There are doubtless occasions where comparing something to Trump can be instructive, and providing the context allows such a comparison to make sense. Using Trumpian in a sentence is sometimes effective in communicating an oppositional stance to all that he represents. Its use, however, is becoming more imprecise by the day. A policy of building social homes in housing crisis-crippled Ireland? Not Trumpism. Booing Hilary Clinton? Unquestionably not Trumpian. Bernie Sanders's entire political movement? No, definitely not Trumpian. If Trumpism can encompass so many ideas and behaviors and ideologies, then pretty much anything, or anyone, could theoretically be cast as Trumpian. Indeed, this essay is Trumpian for calling out Trumpism.

Our conversations are increasingly nuance-famished: context is rarely afforded to statements made online, everyone is a Type of Person, nobody ever admits to being wrong, cultural touchstones can be unthinkingly flattened to define our identities, and so on. Like in Ireland’s momentous election, in which Sinn Féin ended up dismantling a century-old center-right political duopoly, using Trumpism to describe something is a snide way of telling ordinary people: your rejection of the economic consensus is morally wrong. English pundits, with their knee-jerk reactions to the Irish election, confuse what is popular with populism. According to the German political philosopher Jan-Werner Müller’s 2016 book What is Populism?, for a movement to be populist it must be anti-pluralist and stake a moral claim of representation. Trump ticks these two boxes easily, while Sinn Féin doesn’t — it is now an anti-establishment, nationalist party, yes, but one whose raison d'être is Irish reunification, not a white ethnostate. The party’s latest manifesto is pro-immigration, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist, and its resounding success lies both in an intergenerational appetite for change and a desire for key issues to be meaningfully addressed. The only genuine similarity between Trump and Sinn Féin is that they’re both electoral winners.

The tell here is often how the people who love spouting Trump euphemisms use them as rhetorical crutches. This makes them feel like what they’re saying is radical and true without ever staking their politics in anything beyond an anti-Trump stance and Wanting to Go Back to the Good ‘Ol Days of Obama and Tony Blair. They claim to despise Trump’s incivility above all else, and weaponizing Trump’s name immediately asserts to listeners or readers that something is Bad and that the opposite approach is Good. It instills in liberals a nanosecond of righteous power against the rising tides of both fascism and democratic socialism, which in this telling are both dangerous and both Trumpism. And they have to alight on a boogeyman because examining structural flaws and injustices just won’t do.

It's telling that Bushism or Bushian never really caught on with the finger-wagging, planet-sized-pearl-clutching liberal media establishment. It was a different time, before rule-by-Twitter, but Bush and his predecessors were essentially non-disruptive, conventional politicians, par for the course in the American empire. Bush largely stuck to a script, playing the part of a platonic American statesman: indiscriminately bombing brown people abroad, maintaining client states and dictatorships across the world, giving bloviated, platitudinous speeches. Policy-wise, Trumpism incorporates much of what the Bush administration stood for, and is in many ways a stealthy redux of his Republican forebear’s legacy. But centrists just cannot abide Trump’s boorishness and the nakedly vulgar of his rhetoric.

In the words of writer David Roth, whose frequent psycho-analytical probes into Trump’s brain are equal parts mesmerizing and stomach-churning, there is little evidence that the U.S. president does things for reasons outside of immediate gratification. “He wants to be noticed, on television if possible, and he wants to appear impressive when he is noticed,” Roth writes. “He does not want anyone to seem to have more money than he does. He wants a big beautiful piece of the most amazing chocolate cake you ever saw. All of these things he wants very much.”

Liberal pundits, behind the hollow soundbites and all of the tediously performative resistance to the heir to the American empire, share similarly solipsistic sensibilities, albeit to different ends. They want long-lasting careers; they want decorum; they want fiercely contested debates; they want hard-nosed compromise; and, most of all, they want politically, economically and socially stratified systems to continue to prevail by any means necessary. Trumpism is a fallacy that has less to with Trump and more to do with preserving the status quo. Because don’t forget: anti-fascism and booing Hillary Clinton and housing the homeless in Dublin are all Trumpian. Change is Trumpian, whether that’s in Ireland or the U.S. Everything is Trumpian.

Colin Gannon is an Irish writer living in London.