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Not quite feeling the Bern

McWilliams and Sanders at the Bord Gáis

In the foyer collected a curious mix of tattooed half-American lefties, millionaires, NAMA refugees, journalists, politicians and the plummy denizens of Dalkey. Interestingly there did not seem to be a presence from Ireland’s hard left or even soft left, though Eamon Ryan was there.

What they were there for, surprisingly, was Senator Bernie Sanders, recent Democratic Presidential candidate, on his first ever visit to Ireland speaking to the Dalkey Book Festival at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

Tickets – €35 euro including a compulsory copy of his book ‘Our Revolution, A Future to Believe In’ – had sold out in under five minutes, which was quicker than Katy Perry’s gig at the theatre.

This was because attending this event was a Cultural Statement for the Irish political classes. What they were not there for (except the plummy denizens) was David McWilliams but he was, predictably and essentially, oblivious to this. He started proceedings with a lengthy, familiar and unnecessary summary of the “magic” appeal of Bernie but really it was about the magic of how McWilliams and his entourage had enticed Sanders off his tour of Britain to Dublin. McWilliams (and Sanders) had been welcomed earlier to Áras an Uachtaráin by President Michael D Higgins. This made McWilliams proud. You sensed he feels pride every time the President has him up.

Then like a ringmaster he summoned Bernie from backstage and the audience rose to its feet.

Sanders is a brilliant speaker: never a word astray, never dull, always passionate.

On occasion he did refer to the US as “this country”, some of the speech – about terrorism for example – had been lifted from comments he must have made to British audiences earlier in the week and it was a little strange to hear an Irish audience cheer to the rafters acknowledgements of national political delinquency in another country, even if the country is the US.

But Bernie is heroic and his talk was a joy to behold, politically.

He opened with an excoriation of Trump’s policies on climate change. He said Trump’s actions in withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Accord were “incredibly stupid and short-sighted and will end up harming the American economy and the world economy”. Trump’s claim that climatechange is a hoax is “dead wrong and not believed by the majority of Americans”.

“How in God’s name do you make public policy in defiance of science?” he thundered, to applause.

Trump was “lying through his teeth” when campaigning when he said he was on the side of the working class and at this stage in the cycle was the least popular President in history. He’d duped the people into believing he was on their side. Sanders said that 28 million Americans do not have health insurance and Trump’s measures would throw a further 23 million out of health cover. Trump plans to cut $800bn from Medicaid, which helps the poor, over the next decade and to defund Planned Parenthood which serves the poor with abortion and family-planning services, while, at the same time, providing a $300bn tax break to the wealthiest two percent of Americans.

Trump’s Budget proposals are even worse, as he wants to cut $2.5tr from programmes that help the poor over the next decade while giving the same amount in tax breaks to the top one percent. He said Trump’s Budget proposals are “the ugliest and most destructive attack” ever by an American President on the working class, middle class, and poor people of America.

His most incisive attack was on those who think they can champion equality in issues of feminism, abortion, racism and homophobia while not addressing the issue of the very richest, the 1%: of social inequality.

He let loose on the very richest, particularly in America:

“The top one tenth of the top 1% has almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%. 20 people in America own more than the bottom half. The richest 1 per cent of the world’s 7.3 bn people now own as much as the rest of the world put together. Eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 bn people who make up the poorest half of humanity. After the Great Recession the total wealth owned by the top 1% of the population in the US grew from 35% to 37%, and that owned by the top 20% of Americans grew from 85% to 88%. 52% of all new income generated in America goes to the top 1%. One family, the Walmart Waltons, owns more than the bottom 42% of the American people. Under Trump’s proposals, that family would get a $50bn tax break over a decade”.

It was blistering.

And statistical.

His most memorable attack was on the Democrat party for not representing the disenfranchised, for wasting time on fundraisers, for cultivating Wall St.

After an hour of rhetoric from Bernie, McWilliams ushered him to a faux-livingroom set where he prodded him with questions, each of which necessitated a McWiliams’ hand revolution, every answer generating furious foppish nodding.

McWilliams lounged the smug lounge of the initiate, head tilted in the general direction of Bernie at an angle twenty degrees north of what anyone who doesn’t run their own hedge fund would have adopted.

However, there was an appropriate response from one of the world’s most people-attuned political practitioners: every time McWilliams asked a question from the intimate bay of yellow-lamp-lit armchairs where he and Bernie nestled, Bernie rose and addressed the audience, his back to the great man.

Much worse than the optics of having an event for a radical leftie pre-paid and over-priced for a bourgeois book festival in a lavish amphitheatre that usually hosts blockbuster musicals, was the misconstruction of Sanders’ politics. At one point McWilliams seemed to make common purpose with Sanders, both being “people on the Centre or Centre-Left”. But this is a failure of imagination. To be clear: Bernie is on the radical left; McWilliams is a clever analyst whose whole body of work has eschewed a leftist, egalitarian or socialist perspective and is notable for its smugness not its radicalism.

He did well to collar Sanders to appear at his festival but sitting on twin armchairs and chaperoning him to the Presidential Park do not make for a match of politics. Between the analytical maestro and the international hero of the left.

This event should have been chaired by Vincent Browne or Claire Daly. Even Bernie, who apparently had spent the day touring genealogy outputs with his and the McWilliams families, mostly avoided radicalism: even his pleas for equality centred on the 1%, the billionaires, the only class of wealth not represented at the event. Even when asked if he opposed Ireland’s offshore tax facilitations he fudged, failing to note the single-mindedness and egregiousness of our regime. None of the questions was radical. It should have been fleshed out that Bernie is Mr Equality of Outcome; McWilliams and the furiously clapping, and ovationing, southsiders are Mr and Mrs Equality of Opportunity, which welcomes hedge funds. There was a mismatch, which disemboweled the event, the visit.