Donald Trump’s campaign started off as an Apprentice sequel. A bit of car crash television that viewers watch to enjoy a good laugh and then end up emotionally involved. Then it veered and swerved wildly into attacking the mother of an American soldier killed in Afghanistan then onto sexual assault. As his R-rated campaign has turned from reality television into a slasher film, complete with racial slurs and stereotypes, it has become apparent that Trump could use a few politicking lessons from the wily gombeen men of Irish politics.
Who would have thought that the Healy-Rae political dynasty would make a U.S. presidential candidate look backwards and provincial for his lack of policy platform, general knowledge and eloquence?
Who also would have thought that a presidential candidate would share a penchant for puzzling hair and bad hats with the original gombeen man, Jackie Healy-Rae?
On the surface there are no similarities between the Irish political dynasty of the Healy-Raes in County Kerry and empire of Donald Trump, but under the cap is a different story. Political watchers will be surprised to learn they share more than just spectacular comb-overs.
If you’re not familiar with today’s Irish politics you may not know the infamous political dynasty that is the Healy-Rae family of Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry. The term political dynasty conjures up images of tanned Kennedy’s romping on rolling lawns of their Hyannis compound in tennis whites. Think rumpled suit jackets, mucky shoes, paddy caps and heavy machinery and you have an accurate mental image.
Modern Irish politics has many gombeen characters (remember Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach who was so calculatedly pedestrian that he avoided bribe accusations by claiming he didn’t even have a bank account. He slithered right out of the spotlight after his Celtic Tiger came crashing down and bankrupt Irish banks and taxpayers)
Gombeen is one of those great Irish words adapted from the Irish language but embedded with cultural meaning that makes it difficult to directly define. The Irish word ‘gaimbín’ is a noun meaning interest as in the actual interest charged on a loan. It then became used to define a money-lender and then specifically a shop-keeper or business man who sold gods and food to the poor on credit and charged crippling interest rates.
In general, it refers to shady ‘wheeler-dealer’ type of business men who accepts bribes or looking to make a quick buck at someone else’s expense.
It’s now generally used to describe politicians and businessmen involved in self-serving activities, and more specifically Irish politicians involved in Daly-style vote getting in exchange for pursuing personal favors for constituents. Gombeen men skillfully make insider deals while convincing their supporters that they are actually outsiders, like them, and hence more straight talking and capable of representing the common man’s interests.
The concept is really that despite being wealthy because of your political connections (Healy-Rae and Trump wealth is of course relative) and having no skills, experience or knowledge of public policy or government, you are the more trustworthy candidate because you are a regular Joe-sop just trying to look out for the other honest Joe-sops that no one in Dublin (or Washington) gives a shite about it because they are too sophisticated and corrupt to care about the rest of us. Regular Joe-sops are always honest when it comes to elections.
So while gombeen men make it seem easy to convince voters that they are more trustworthy than the usual politicians, Trump has shown us all that it takes a considerable (and possible uniquely Irish) skill set to maintain the line between straight-talking and ranting without alienating the media and less extreme voters.
Trump began his campaign in gombeen style with virtually no policy interests and lots of controversial ‘straight talking’ air time. Although he was technically a party nominee, he never really felt like a member of any party. He has no policy platform based on facts, plans or experience. Statements about terrorists, immigrants and plans to build a wall on the U.S. – Mexican border with Mexican funding are as far removed from public policy as Danny Healy-Rae’s claims that global warming is not real or Michael’s claims that the Gardaí should dole out drink-driving permits to rural pub drinkers because drink-driving is a made-up problem in Ireland (the Healy-Raes own a rural pub).
Many Irish politicians and commentators have argued that Healy-Rae style politics is damaging to the national interest by ultimately blocking policy decisions that might benefit the Ireland as a whole in favor of local interests. Their ‘local’ interest is to expand their voter base in Kerry and translate this into increased local and national offices. To be fair to them, most international political commentators now argue that Trump style politics is damaging to the U.S. national interests for far worse reasons!
Of course he had a different schtick than the Healy Raes because he’s not hiding his wealth but we have to factor in the cultural differences here. Trump’s number one asset in the U.S. is that he’s rich but his boastful wealth would be a hindrance in political life in Ireland and would it make it impossible for voters to buy the “I’m one of the guys the locker room” talk and trust him (especially while suffering from the Celtic-Tiger champagne hangover).
Trump has now left the likable gombeen track and is completely off-roading in uncharted political wilderness in the U.S. He made some crucial mistakes when he went from calculated ignorance to galvanizing hate and bullying. Gombeens have to carefully calculate how controversial their outrageous publicity seeking statements are in order to maximize press coverage and unmanaged non politician image but rather a regular honest man who just says what’s on his mind. Danny Healy-Rae has received international coverage for outrageous and incorrect statements about climate change being a hoax which he claims is proved by the story of Noah’s Ark (Please look this up, it’s brilliant) and Michael Healy-Rae put forward a motion to make drunk driving legal in certain circumstances where old men and rural pubs are involved (for example their own pub in South Kerry).
Trump has lost the art of being controversial and straight talking by being hateful towards groups that are generally seen as easy targets by a bully. Gombeen men make ignorant comments, but they save their ire for the smug politicians and elite of the Pale in Dublin and certainly know better than to bully vulnerable groups like those pesky people with disabilities and victims of sexual assault. How unfair that the media and public tend to take their side!
Trump is shockingly less calculated then the Healy-Rae boys with his late-night tweets, rants and general buffoonery. The Healy-Raes don’t even have a real office – they hold clinics in a pub and their public relations management puts him to shame. Maybe he and his professional political advisers and strategists (assuming he hasn’t had them all beheaded or locked in a tower by now) could use a trip to Kilgarvan in order to see how you win elections without addressing any real policy issues. A few pints and easy singles slices might just be what this election needs to turn things around.