IOWA ’23, SOUTHIE ’74 

Donald Trump was just indicted on four counts regarding attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Yet he remains the heavy favorite for the Republican 2024 presidential nomination. A pollster and a novelist offer insights.

On Tuesday, GOP pollster Frank Luntz told Dana Bash on CNN’s “Inside Politics” that conservative, faith-based Iowa voters “like Donald Trump. They think he’s a victim. They think he’s being persecuted.” Still, some want a different candidate. “They don’t believe in these indictments, but they don’t want that to be a side show. They want to move ahead . . .”

Luntz describes—and somewhat sympathizes—with Trump’s supporters. “The less educated you are, the more likely you are to support Donald Trump. Lower income. People who’ve been unemployed at some point in the last five years. . . . They feel ignored, forgotten, even betrayed. And there’s a level of anger there that brought them to Donald Trump because he . . . offered to be their voice.”

Trump enthusiasts resemble the characters of Dennis Lehane’s new novel, Small Mercies, a crime thriller and more. Working-class Irish-Americans, they live in 1974 South Boston—Southie. The novel’s backdrop presents the busing of white and black high school students to integrate Boston’s public schools. Southie is up in arms, although students seem less bothered than adults.

The core story involves Mary Pat Fennessy, a feisty 42-year-old, who lost an adult son to heroin and doesn’t want her 17-year-old daughter bused to the Roxbury neighborhood. She connects with homicide detective Bobby Coyne, a decade her junior and veteran of early Vietnam. He’s working a murder case. I won’t give you plot points, but I can offer the author’s take on Southie. (He grew up in adjacent Dorchester.)

Lehane is not unsympathetic. He presents collective hopelessness produced by run-down housing projects, dead-end jobs, alcoholism, drugs, a revolving door to prison. For order, residents look to the Irish-American mob leader Marty Butler. They also take comfort in ethnic solidarity. With each other, they’re extraordinarily, kind, helpful, supportive. 

In a changing America, most residents want to keep Southie white. They reject any presence of Negroes in their neighborhood. Lehane indicates that this may be offensive and ultimately self-defeating but reflects basic human nature that rejects “the other.” Then again, some Southie residents simply hate Black people. Small Mercies condemns that. Lehane writes of Mary Pat’s second, estranged, husband: “Since birth, Ken Fen had no choice but to buy into the violence. He just never bought into the hate.”

Is busing really Southie’s biggest issue? Not if residents open their eyes. Neighborhood “champion” Marty Butler enriches himself at their expense. Mary Pat begins to see that things aren’t as they seem. She tells Bobby, “When you’re a kid and they start in with all the lies, they never tell you they’re lies.” 

Republican conservatives, including evangelicals, long have circled the wagons, fearing America’s ethnic and economic changes. As in 1974 Southie, many feel free to hate. Lies go unchallenged.  

Donald Trump, who may end up in prison, gleefully stokes fires he didn’t start. He claims martyr status as he stands up to the Deep State. His approach? Ignore or overturn American political norms and democracy itself—while he enriches himself.

Southie then, Iowa now. The more things change . . . 

The Short (Pun Intended) Redemptive Life of Little Ned is now available in softcover or e-book from, and Or order from your favorite bookstore.

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