Why Are All the Conservative Loudmouths Irish-American?

This article first appeared on the History News Network.

Just as they used to play an outsize role in the Democratic Party’s apparatus, and in organized labor, putative Irishmen are now the face of the hard Right.

Once the biggest names, faces, and voices on television were Huntley and Brinkley, Cronkite, Murrow, even John Chancellor and Dan Rather, all sober, serious Americans—and all Protestants too.

Now we have angry loudmouths with names like O’Reilly, Hannity, Buchanan, and, lurking back there with his Cheshire smile, the dissolute but scary Bannon.

Yet no one has noticed this obvious fact, and the sheer lack of attention may be the most important thing about it. Why has the ascent of a bunch of people who in an earlier period might have been called Micks drawn no notice at all?

I write from a distance. I have one Irish-American grandparent: John Edward Mahoney, a Boston Latin graduate who went to Harvard paid for by an anonymous Brahmin. He died very young in 1931. My father met him only once that year and never acknowledged himself as Irish at all; by then, his mother had changed his name to hers, the Yankee Gosse. Otherwise we’re overwhelmingly Anglo-Dutch Protestants, born and bred.

My connection to Irishness is thus self-generated, but it is real. I’ve lived there, and I care about the place, enough to notice that Irish-Americans are very different from the Irish-in-Ireland, and often have no sense of themselves as connected to the island and its history.

In fact, I’ve known dozens of Americans of Irish ancestry, and only a handful felt that connection, usually because of a direct familial tie.

What happened to Irish America, that closed, intense world I know mainly from movies and books? How could I make sense of its drying up and blowing away, unmourned?

Here’s one version of its disappearance. At some point since 2000, I noticed that the right-wing chorus pontificating from screens in bars and shops was filled by men with names like Hannity, O’Reilly, and Buchanan. Nobody else seemed to care, so I let it go as one of those oddities that interested only me.

Then came Bannon’s ascension as Trump’s eminence grise , and it seemed impossible to ignore. This can’t be accidental. Why have these white men come to the fore, rather than a more multicultural Catholic cohort —a Pole, an Italian, a German, and so on?

The origins of the sneering, baiting, biting style of O’Reilly et al are obvious. All of them can be traced to Joe McCarthy’s rise to stardom, propelled by his gift for lurid innuendo and theatrical outrage. He set the precedent for a paranoiac ethno-populism that equates conventional power elites with treasonous conspiracy, much as Robert Welch, Jr., founder of the John Birch Society, labeled President Eisenhower a “conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy” and the “Birther” movement insisted President Obama was a Kenyan Muslim infiltrator.

One thing you can say for McCarthy, however, is that he avoided attacking specific races and religions. His epigones have changed all that, beginning with Pat Buchanan, McCarthy’s self-designated successor, as he makes clear in Right From the Beginning , his 1988 memoir.

At the Republican convention in 1992, Buchanan called for a “culture war” and it was pretty evident who was in his sights. Ever since, he has trafficked in barely veiled racism and anti-Semitism.

The next stage came when the O’Reilly Factor premiered on Fox News in 1996, followed in the 2000s by Sean Hannity’s various shows. Until his defrocking last spring, O’Reilly had a fabulous career as a beady-eyed Grand Inquisitor. Beefy Hannity, in contrast, is the runner-up in viewership, but Trump’s closest ally among the reactionary pundits.

Collectively, these men couldn’t be more different from the proverbial grace of the old Irish American liberals like Tip O’Neill, full of poetic allusions and noble ideals. What motivates them is a passionate antipathy to the “liberals” who destroyed the America of the 1940s and 50s.

That vanished world created space for their fathers and uncles to achieve a modest prosperity, and it’s worth remembering how hard-won material success and social respectability was for the Irish.

Although they built enclaves of ethnic political power back in the nineteenth century, well into the post-World War II era they remained outsiders in the Ivy League, the State Department, or the White House.

By the 1960s, however, Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, had finally made it and become fully “white,” a long process indeed. Having fought their way to full inclusion, many were intent on pulling up the drawbridge.

To get at the special role of Irishmen, we need to examine “how the Irish became white,” as in the title of Noel Ignatiev’s 1995 book (published by Harvard University Press, a nice irony).

Ignatiev argues that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Britain’s draconian Penal Codes made the native Catholic Irish into a racial caste marked by religion rather than phenotype. They couldn’t vote, practice their faith in public, or own weapons, a status resembling that of black Southerners under Jim Crow.

But stepping off a boat at Ellis Island, as my great-great-grandfather from County Mayo did in the 1850s, began an immediate whitening-up. They rapidly began voting thanks to the Democratic Party, and learned just as quickly what they were not: black .

Personas are sometimes deliberately managed, sometimes they simply come into being over time. To illustrate the profound shift in Irish America consider a sequence of personas representing Irish American masculinity across the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries, and the transition from the old to new men of power, to evoke C. Wright Mills’s 1948 book.

The old men of power represented the best-organized section of the Catholic working-class in twentieth century America. Reactionary in many respects, they articulated a kind of class power inextricably bound up with their own ethnicity.

As traced in many books, in the mid-nineteenth century, desperately poor Irish immigrant men were incorporated into the nation’s dominant political institution, the Jacksonian Democratic Party. Over time, in city after city, they made it their own. On that basis, they swarmed the lower ranks of the civil service, so that the “Irish cop” was as ubiquitous in many cities as the Irish schoolmarm.

By the late 19th century, they also commanded the most historically-rooted sector of the American labor movement, the “building trades,” where they endure today, if you look at the names of those union presidents meeting with President Trump last January: Sean McGarvey, Tom Flynn, Terry O’Sullivan, Mark McManus, Doug McCarron.

And of course they dominated the hierarchy of the American Catholic Church until recent times, bossing the German, Italian, Polish, and other Catholics just as they bossed the unions and Democrats.

From a considerable distance, this kind of masculinity was entirely about efficacy—the ability to get things done, if in unlovely ways: Johnny Friendly at the shape-up in On the Waterfront , deciding who works; a mayor ordering his police to disperse a crowd (or permit it to march); men with baseball bats at a plant gate. Even the bishop telling his parishioners how they must vote, and expecting obedience.

In the twentieth century, among the many Irish Americans exercising authority, the greatest secular names were George Meany and Richard Daley. Daley, Mayor of Chicago from 1955 to 1976, was universally acknowledged as the Democrats’ most consequential powerbroker in the 1950s and 60s, the biggest kingmaker of them all.

Meany, a former plumber and head of the AFL-CIO from 1955 to 1979, was the most powerful trade unionist in twentieth century America for a very long time, someone whom Presidents did not care to offend.

Although Daley got a law degree by studying at night, Meany never graduated from high school. Neither made large amounts of money, and neither was what we today call a “media figure.”

But they had real if unlovely weight, projecting a similar persona during the Cold War decades: bald, stocky, usually unsmiling, hard-eyed and able to command great institutions as long as they lived (resembling the tough old men who ran the Soviet party-state after Stalin’s death).

GettyImages-865538772 Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist and chairman of Breitbart News, attends a discussion on countering violent extremism, at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, October 23, 2017 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer/Getty I

Here and there were some handsome Johnnies with “Irish charm” like Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York, or James Michael Curley of Boston, upon whom The Last Hurrah was based, but these tricksters were never the real face of Irish authority, any more than was John F. Kennedy, whose father had bought his sons into the WASP elite’s inner sanctums.

Starting after World War II, a different, discordant persona appeared, prefiguring a different kind of politics, not class-based like the labor-Democratic party nexus, but “populist” in the reactionary sense, and thus based on personal charisma. I speak, of course, of Senator McCarthy, a rightwing Republican lawyer from rural Wisconsin.

Tailgunner Joe prefigured Buchanan and all the rest. He untethered Irishness and made it into a certain kind of masculine assertion, free from any institutional power. Even within his own party, he was openly an opportunist out for himself, with no base other than his direct connection to millions of Irish and Germans, especially in the Midwest.

He displayed a sonorous dexterity in his abusive televised performances, and plebeian Catholics loved him as they have loved no one since. McCarthy’s anger, his contempt for the Anglo-Protestant hierarchy that still dominated the U.S., his refusal to assimilate, authorized a wider rage, which has not left us yet.

It established the pattern of a certain kind of “ethnic” man claiming working-class antecedents (and I stress the claiming rather than actual class status), who portrays himself, and is accepted, as a tribune for all white men in America, a “hyper-American.”

Jump forward to the present. Outside of the impoverished anomaly of Whitey Bulger’s Boston and some points north (think Dennis Lehane, The Fighter , Manchester By the Sea ), Irish America has lost virtually all its distinctive qualities, becoming just one more version of whiteness colored by ethnicity. The old grievances, against England first of all, and then the Anglo-Americans, are utterly anachronistic.

Nowadays, most of the time, someone is “Irish Catholic” the same way someone else is “Midwestern,” cultural markers within a sea of blended Euro-Americans. These “Irishmen” (Buchanan, Hannity, O’Reilly, Bannon) could just as easily be Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Italians, or something else, and hardly one would notice.

The only thing “Irish” about them is a talent for invective, which makes for a compelling style, a mix of pugnacity and certainty. They are smart, articulate, and not at all embarrassed, especially when their opinions are vicious.

The arrival of this cohort over the past quarter-century underlines the collapse of Irish America. In his magisterial The American Irish , Kevin Kenny has examined how, beginning in the 1950s, a closed, lower-class world suffused with devotional religiosity diffused into the unifying bourgeois culture of suburban America.

Rather than a fireman, a porter, or a building superintendent in the Port Morris section of the Bronx (where Meany grew up), or Bridgeport in Chicago (Daley’s home base), they are now more likely to be lawyers, doctors, or corporate managers in the Sunbelt or on Long Island, little different from the rest of their class.

Even as Catholics, they have broken the lock of ethnic endogamy, typically marrying Germans (so common that even my Catholic students nod their heads when I bring this up).

Suburbanization is one factor in the diminution of Irish American society, but as Robert Orsi has powerfully argued, another is the radical change in American Catholicism. Orsi diagnoses the origins of Irish white nationalism in the old traumatic anxiety about whether Catholics were truly American.

A “Catholic askewness to the modern” bred “a vein of violence and anger [that] runs through the language of U.S. Catholic citizenship and public life” so that “By the mid-twentieth century Catholic citizenship often took on a swaggering and hostile tone edged with rage and superiority.”

Regarding Buchanan and several others, not all Irish, he notes that, following the Sixties, “The combination of the distinctive U.S. Catholic political imagination with a violent fracturing of the broader political landscape and the rapid transformations of Catholic devotional culture proved to be a potent, at times toxic, mix.… Arrogance, intolerance, self-righteousness, and cruelty grew in the soil of U.S. Catholics’ sense of their transcendent superiority as citizens and citizen–victims.”

Of course these men are not all the same (and they certainly do not represent all Irish Americans) so I want to specify what each of them brings to the Irish American portrayal of white anger.

Hannity and O’Reilly both come from the same outer-borough New York as Trump, Queens County or just across the border in Nassau County, Long Island.

I don’t know much about Hannity, other than that his grandparents all emigrated from Ireland. He was educated entirely in Catholic schools, and he makes $29 million a year: his ilk care a lot about money, never a major priority of the older Irish America, where it was fatal to get above yourself.

Still, O’Reilly insists, “Whatever I have done or will do in this life, I’m working-class Irish-American Bill O’Reilly.”

Here is the slippage. He was not ever “working-class.” His father was a Navy officer who went to an excellent Catholic college, Holy Cross, and accepted a drudge accounting job, the classic, mid-century step-up for Irish American men into the lower middle-class. He bought a home in the great whites-only suburb of Levittown—not exactly The Honeymooners !

Pat Buchanan and Steve Bannon embody a different tradition among Irish-American men, with central relevance to the articulation of an explicit white nationalism.

Buchanan grew up in Washington DC and Bannon in Richmond, Virginia. Both have a strong identification with the white south and the Confederacy. Buchanan has a life-size portrait of the mythic Confederate hero, General Robert E. Lee, in his home, and Bannon’s own brother Mike calls him “a son of the South.”

These references evoke one of the most shameful aspects of Irish American history. From the 1790s on, various famous Irish exiles in America became ardent pro-slavery Democrats. This culminated in the 1850s when Fenians like John Mitchel and Thomas Meagher openly attacked abolitionists and black leaders like Frederick Douglass.

Buchanan, O’Reilly, Hannity, Bannon—none has any connection to Ireland or organized Irish-American life. They are conspicuously absent from the pro-Sinn Fein milieu of the Irish Echo , or even the Ancient Order of Hibernians. I doubt whether any of them would recognize Gerry Adams if they ran into him.

As close as they get are a few throwaway lines, as in Pat Buchanan using the Irish as an object lesson for how black Americans should suck it up: “Only when the Irish buried their resentment and hatred of the British in the soil of their new country, America, did they get on with building their dreams,” or Bill O’Reilly telling his biographer that “I’m one hundred percent Irish, which is very unusual, you know, for an American this day and age. My bloodline is all Celtic, which is frightening. I mean, you know, I have all of those Irish tendencies, the blarney, which has really served me well, I must say.”

All that’s left of their Irishness is the bitter core of resentment that for most of its history, America was a Protestant nation for a Protestant people, who saw people like them as “pagan, pre-modern, and perverse,” to again quote Robert Orsi.

It may well be that all the white ethno-religious subgroups, Catholic or not, are now melded into a single mass with only residual traces of the once-distinct neighborhoods (or parishes) with their own newspapers and foodways. The death of Irish America, if that is what it is, has special significance, however, because the Irish really were the first “other” group of whites with national significance in Protestant Anglo-America.

Although they came in large numbers at the same time before the Civil War, the Germans, Catholic and otherwise, weren’t the target of mobs and cultural vilification like the Paddies. No one burned their convents, as happened in Charlestown outside of Boston in 1834.

They did not occupy a distinct segment of the proletariat, like the gangs of Irishmen who dug the canals of antebellum America, famous for fighting with each other. The Irish played such an outsized role that if they no longer figure except in a ritual, tokenistic fashion, we should ask why. I would hardly be the first scholar to argue that only after 1945 did all whites become first of all “white,” and only secondarily everything else.

Mixing on factory floors and in the military (the sixteen million men who served in World War II would be forty million today) broke down religious and cultural barriers like a scythe, leading to widespread intermarriage between Catholics of different nationalities, then Protestants and Catholics, and finally Christians and Jews.

The millions of young working- and lower-middle-class people entering higher education after 1945 completed this churn, so that by the 1970s traditional ethnic endogamy was on its deathbed. Meanwhile, the old barriers in the professions, the academy and business broke down, making the old ethnic hierarchy seem absurd.

Where does this leave us? There is another, radically different heritage if anyone cared to pursue it, a very different kind of Irish American. During the past century, William Z. Foster came out of Philadelphia’s Irish slums to become the most important figure in the history of the American Communism, buried in the Kremlin Wall after a state funeral in 1961.

Foster’s longtime comrade and successor as Chairman of that Party, like him a veteran of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, New York City’s “Rebel Girl,” also buried in Moscow. Another old Wobbly and then Red, James Patrick Cannon, left the Communists to found the Trotskyist movement in the late 1920s, and remained their major leader until the 1960s.

It’s not just among Marxist radicals where the Irish are prominent, however. Daniel and Philip Berrigan personified the “Catholic Left” from the 1960s into its later incarnation as Ploughshares. Tom Hayden, founder of the Students for a Democratic Society spent his later years rediscovering himself as “Irish on the Inside,” a rebel in the tradition of James Connolly (and Gerry Adams).

When I think of Hayden and Flynn and the Berrigans, that’s an Irish America I can embrace, warts and all.

To the devil with Bill O’Reilly and Bannon. They’re no more Irish than I am.

Van Gosse teaches history at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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