Trump’s tribe

Reporter Bernie Ní Fhlatharta on her way to a Bernie Sanders rally in New York.
Reporter Bernie Ní Fhlatharta on her way to a Bernie Sanders rally in New York.

Lifestyle – A visit to rural Virginia during the US Presidential election campaign proved to be an eye-opening experience for Bernie Ní Fhlatharta.  She tells how Donald Trump’s rhetoric resonated with people filled with fear and mistrust.

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since Donald Trump was elected as US President — and still harder to believe he has lasted this long! But an extended visit to the United States last year opened my eyes to the possibility that the wealthy businessman and TV personality had a chance at winning the Presidency.

Before I left Ireland in mid-March of last year for a six-week stay, visiting old friends in Central Virginia and in Long Island, New York, I thought Trump hadn’t a hope in hell. Let’s face it, most of us believed it was a joke. Comedian and broadcaster, Ruby Wax told her Galway audience last week that she had laughed in Trump’s face when he told her of his ambition to become US President when she interviewed him many years ago.

When I visited the US last year, the Presidential campaign was still a four-horse race, with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton representing the Democrats and Ted Cruz being the other Republican nominee.

My first stop was in rural Virginia, not far from Schuyler Mountain, the home of Earl Hamner Jr who created the popular TV series The Waltons –  coincidentally he died the same day I visited his former home and nearby museum which houses the original sets.

These mountainy backwoods look like hillbilly country and are a lot less populated now than they were in Hamner’s time in the 1930s and 1940s.

My first social engagement with my friends was a family birthday party, attended by four generations. I asked what they made of Trump, thinking I would get a similar reaction to the one I had left behind at home.

But no. Grandma, daughter and granddaughter (the fourth generation are children) thought he was the bee’s knees. He was speaking their language, he was the only one listening to them. He would be their saviour as he was different to the others, the politicians whom they didn’t trust. They were particularly scathing of Hillary.

They were so over the top in their praise of Trump that I initially thought it was a wind-up. I was taken aback when I realised they meant every word. Being in polite society, kept my opinions to myself.

None of these people held a passport, or had ever left the USA. They have everything at their doorstep. Holidays are spent in nearby states, North and South Carolina or Tennessee. They go to a resort called Emerald Isle on the coast of North Carolina, but looked at me blankly when I told them Ireland was often called that. It just wasn’t on their radar. These were not the green-clad Americans who come to Ireland checking up their ancestry.

My second morning was another baptism of fire. I attended a service in the local Baptist church, led by a pastor called Woody. I was initially impressed by the intimacy (there’s a Baptist chapel every few miles, with an average congregation of about 60 attending each one) but later discovered their internal community politics were as vicious as any I’ve seen in an almost four-decade journalism career.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune