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Is Conor McGregor the Irish Trump?

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The flamboyant, ridiculous mixed martial arts fighter Conor McGregor is considering a run for the Irish presidency. ‘Potential competition if I run,’ he tweeted yesterday, along with a picture of Gerry Adams, Bertie Ahern and Edna Kenny, the three septuagenarian current favourites for the job. ‘Each with unbreakable ties to their individual parties politics… Or me, 35. Young, active, passionate, fresh skin in the game. I listen. I support. I adapt. I have no affiliation/bias/favoritism toward any party. They would genuinely be held to account regarding the current sway of public feeling. I’d even put it all to vote. There’d be votes every week to make sure. I can fund. It would not be me in power as President, people of Ireland. It would be me and you.’ No less a person than Elon Musk, the owner of the X platform, replied: ‘I think you could take them all single-handed. Not even fair.’

Like Trump, McGregor is energetic, unpredictable and a born fighter

It’s tempting to dismiss McGregor’s bid as a typically absurd PR stunt from an athlete who, while young enough for politics, is past his prime as a fighter. He’s a publicity addict who spends a lot of time promoting various businesses on social media. But that would be to overlook the madness of global politics at the moment, the appeal of wrestling to the popular psyche, and the strangeness of what has been happening in Ireland in recent weeks.

More than Gerry, Bertie, and Edna, Conor appears to have his finger on the Irish pulse. Shortly after a deeply distressing incident in Dublin two weeks ago, in which a mother and three children were stabbed, he took to social media in bombastic fashion, writing: ‘Ireland, we are at war’. The city then experienced its worst riots in recent history, with anger at suggestions that the attacker was a foreign national. Authorities are now examining McGregor’s social media posts to determine if his colourful comments could have incited hatred.

That is, of course, up for discussion. What can’t be denied is that many of my countrymen are fed up. Ireland has already lost faith in its religious leaders. Now it is losing faith in the ruling political class. Recent polling found that half of the republic no longer trusts its government. Meanwhile, immigration into the country has increased by 50 per cent year-on-year, now at a higher rate than even the UK. McGregor knows what he thinks of this, telling his followers: ‘You reap what you sow’. 

Michael D. Higgins, the current president, has historically been a popular figure. In 2019, he was found to be the third most admired man in Ireland after David Attenborough and Barack Obama. However, he has started straying into more politicised territory, contentious given the president is the head of state and, as such, is expected to sit above politics. Last year he pointedly called the country’s housing market a ‘disaster’, echoing Sinn Fein, whose leader described that intervention as ‘noble’. The next presidential election takes place in 2025 and Higgins, who by then will have finished his second term, will not be permitted to run again. 

Of course, it would be a huge leap for McGregor, who has had a large number of legal troubles in the past, to even get into the ring of a presidential showdown. He himself seems to realise that. Earlier today, he responded to Musk’s praise, with a fairly detailed description of the qualifications he’d need just to get on the ballot. ‘Then the waffle begins,’ he said. ‘Hope all is well bro, congrats on the App and rebrand to X, it is flying like those rockets!’

McGregor’s election would not be all that much more ridiculous than that of Donald Trump to the White House in 2016. Like Trump, McGregor is energetic, unpredictable and a born fighter. He is a can of Monster in human form. Both men love to trash talk. And, like Trump, McGregor is excellent at insults.

Ireland is renowned for its stale, spineless politicians, the type of people who spend their entire lives dodging important questions and ironing their pants. McGregor is different. He’s a wild man – and when it comes to the Irish political scene, there’s a growing desire for something different, something wild.

To understand why McGregor could defy all odds to become the next president of Ireland, it helps also to go back to 1957, when Roland Barthes published an essay titled ‘The World of Wrestling’. The general public, he wrote, is well aware of the distinction between boxing and wrestling, which is a sort of semi-scripted act. The former is – or at least was – seen as a noble sport, with a set of specific skills and rules that all participants must master and abide by. Boxers can train in order to improve their technique and fitness. Wrestling is an entirely different animal. It is, by design, almost lawless and contestants are encouraged to improvise, even cheat, to win matches. Wrestling, Barthes wrote:

Is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function… a sort of unrestrained fantasia where the rules, the laws of the genre, the referee’s censuring and the limits of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant disorder which overflows into the hall.

In 2015, the journalist Judd Legum noted that Trump, a member of the WWE Hall of Fame, deploys this wrestling psychology. ‘In the current campaign, Trump is behaving like a professional wrestler while Trump’s opponents are conducting the race like a boxing match. As the rest of the field measures up their next jab, Trump decks them over the head with a metal chair.’

Mixed Martial Arts is more real than WWE – but the theatre is not dissimilar. And its viral online appeal is vast: McGregor’s tweet yesterday has already had 3.7 million views. While Higgins and Varadkar perform monotonously on the likes of RTE, the state broadcaster, McGregor can be found on Instagram and Twitter, swinging around the metal chair. Most Irish politicians excel at speaking boring, PC-friendly language, while McGregor speaks like a real Irishman. He is full of passion, confusion and rage. In his madcap way, he is the voice of an increasingly unsettled nation.

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