Conor McGregor And The Politics Of Mean

The only feature film I happened to see this year was The Banshees of Inisherin. Not to brag, but it was playing on an Aer Lingus flight back from Ireland in the spring. I’m not much of a cinema guy, and I’d bet I wouldn’t have liked or even finished watching the movie had I not been spoiler-ed by a tidbit that the film’s main characters and feuding former friends, Colin Farrell’s broken-hearted Padraic, and Brendan Gleeson’s fingerless Colm, are metaphorically the nation of Ireland a century ago during the civil war that for a time tore the fledgling country in half. As it was, I was gripped. Never more so than during a scene where Padraic hits his ex-bestie with the meanest insult he knew: “You used to be nice,” Padraic says. “And now, do you know what you are? Not nice.”

The biggest takeaway from my trip was that niceness was a far more serious matter on the island than back home in the U.S. So I’ve been thinking about that movie, and that scene, a lot since seeing footage from the Dublin riots of November 23, which seemed to show a country a whole lot more fractured and less nice than the one I observed during my trip. Following the stabbing of three kids and an adult minder, a mob converged downtown to burn buses and police cars and loot stores while shouting anti-immigrant slogans and carrying signs with right-wing agitprop (“Irish Lives Matter” among them). Rumors about the nationality of the perpetrator of the attack were part of the spark that lit the flame of the riots, while police have a suspect in custody they have not released details about the individual. When the fires were put out and the glass and debris cleaned up, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar put the property damage in the tens of millions of euros

Incalculable but massive damage was also done to the psyche of the country, much of which seemed to be blindsided by the anger and hate that ruled that night. Yet the awfulness hasn’t subsided. It’s being exploited and spurred on by awful people outside Ireland. A report in the Irish Times this week asserted that much of the hate was being shipped in from abroad. A study of social media posts found that the three most popular slogans adopted by the right-wing groups pushing the anti-immigrant fervor since the riots—“Ireland is full,” “Ireland belongs to the Irish,” and “Irish lives matter”—were more likely to show up in posts from U.S. and U.K. posters than Irish accounts.

But these same ugly battle cries are also being heard within the Republic. And the man in the middle of Ireland’s mean mess? Former MMA star and Dublin native Conor McGregor.

McGregor, who has won just one fight since 2016 and hasn’t fought at all since a knockout loss in 2021, put himself at the epicenter of the awfulness by using X, or what we used to call Twitter, to post populist cliches and nationalist nonsense (“Ireland, we are at war,” “You reap what you sow,”) and stoke anti-immigrant fires. He went on to write:

“I do not connect crime with migration. I connect crime to your governments many failed policies in protecting and securing the inhabitants of Ireland. There is a real lapse in national security. We need a brand new task force founded to assess all entrants into Ireland. Our natives and our visitors will all benefit with this peace of mind. We need deportation of those here illegally or that have committed a crime here. There needs to be a brand new unit founded specifically for this task. Call it ‘Ireland Protect’”

Drew Harris, the commissioner of the Irish police force known as the Garda, said the rioters were driven by a “lunatic, hooligan faction driven by a far-right ideology,” and announced a Republic-wide investigation into those behind the violence. The Independent and other European news organizations reported that McGregor was among those being investigated for crimes including “incitement to hatred.”

McGregor hasn’t been arrested or charged with any crimes related to the riots. But he almost overnight became the face of Ireland’s hate. If word that he was under investigation for being a bad guy caused McGregor to do any self-reflecting, well, he sure liked what he saw. This week, he revealed, again via Twitter, that he’s considering running for national office. McGregor surveyed the potential opposition for Ireland’s presidency, a largely ceremonial but high-visibility position in Ireland’s parliamentary government that will open in 2025 with the end of Michael D. Higgins’s second term, and amid lots of boilerplate populist pitches (“It would not be me in power as President, people of Ireland. It would be me and you”), he proclaimed he could beat them all

When Elon Musk cheered on McGregor’s potential run, he apparently got out a civics book and went over the logistics of actually getting on the ballot. It would all be laughable were it not for the, well, lack of niceness behind McGregor’s political pivot. 

McGregor had become something of an embarrassment back home before this latest sad chapter. The only memorable punches the ex-champ has thrown in years came outside the cage. In April 2019, McGregor was caught by a security camera inside a Dublin pub cheapshotting a man identified by the Irish Mirror as 50-year old Desmond Keogh, as he sat at the bar with his head turned away. Turns out McGregor tried to KO Keogh for declining a sample shot of a whiskey the fighter was hawking. McGregor was arrested and pleaded guilty to assault. After paying the €1000 fine assessed by the courts, McGregor bought the bar and banned Keogh. 

And during the 2023 NBA Finals, he took things too far during a scripted tussle with Burnie, the Miami Heat mascot, who ended up hospitalized while performing what was supposed to be a bit promoting a pain relief spray the fighter’s also selling. McGregor knocked out the guy in the costume with what sure looked like a full-power left hook.

He’s also faced several accusations of sexual assaults in recent years, including in Ibiza, Corsica, Miami, and twice in Dublin. Criminal charges were dropped, or prosecutors declined to take up the case in each incident.

So far it appears his countrypeople are resigned to the fact that none of his bad behaviors will disqualify him from at least making a play for elected office. The headline of a deadly serious story in the Irish Times this week asked, “Could Conor McGregor be Ireland’s Donald Trump?”

The paper’s answer? “Absolutely.”

“Ireland does not have a Marine Le Pen, a Giorgia Meloni, a Geert Wilders,” the Times’ Fintan O’Toole wrote. “But I think we are looking in the wrong place. The model that might work in Ireland is American, not European. It is Trump, not Viktor Orbán.

“[McGregor] occupies a similar space now to the one Trump inhabited before 2015: immensely famous, with a fervent fan base, a persona forged in cod-gladiatorial show business, a genius for personal branding and a toxic narcissism that is the political style of our times.”

Meanwhile, the Garda investigation into McGregor’s social media habits will continue, and plenty could happen between now and an election in 2025. It’s entirely possible he’ll move on to the next hustle, or finally make his way back into an MMA ring. But if America’s recent past serves as any sort of Irish prologue, you can’t rule out the possibility, or inevitability, of a bully with a microphone ascending to high office.

One Irish guy unlikely to vote for McGregor, should it come to that, is Desmond Keogh, the old dude he sucker-punched in the Dublin pub. After news broke about the federal investigation into inciting terror, Keogh told the Irish Mirror that McGregor’s recent behavior and words “didn’t come as a surprise.”

“He’s not a very nice person in my opinion,” he said.

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