Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political roundup: The search for New Zealand's Trump

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The current US presidential primaries are compulsive viewing for politics aficionados. Pundits have mulled over the factors contributing to the rise of outsider candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and debated what it all means for the established political order. Closer to home, there have been debates over what the various outcomes could mean for this country, and comparisons with New Zealand’s political scene.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Photo / AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Photo / AP

New Zealanders are repelled by Republican hopeful Donald Trump. That's just one of the interesting poll results reported by UMR Research's Stephen Mills - see: If only Kiwis could vote for president. Here's the main survey result: "Given a hypothetical vote in the US presidential election in a UMR survey in early April, 82 per cent would go for Hillary Clinton and only 9 per cent for Donald Trump. Even among National voters, 82 per cent plumped for Clinton and 11 per cent for Trump".

The poll had some surprising results: "If the choice was between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, New Zealanders would decisively elect the socialist senator from Vermont. He wins by 77 per cent to 8 per cent and even National voters prefer the avowed socialist by 76 per cent to 13 per cent." Mills reports that New Zealanders are no fans of Ted Cruz either, with even National voters preferring Sanders to Cruz. In the Democratic race Clinton outpolled Sanders with New Zealanders, with 55 per cent to 25 per cent.

Mills questions whether the preconditions exist in New Zealand for the rise of a candidate such as Trump. He concludes that - while there are some similarities (income inequality, lack of economic mobility and a history of surges from smaller political parties) - it's unlikely. He says New Zealanders haven't been hit as hard by the global financial crisis, largely approve of Key's economic management, are less frightened by terrorism and less agitated by immigration.

Mills argues that MMP acts as a "political safety valve" and Trumps bombastic, self-aggrandising style wouldn't go down well here.

But yesterday Geoffrey Miller and Mark Blackham asked: Is New Zealand ready for its own Donald Trump? They argue that New Zealand's political elites are becoming increasingly estranged from ordinary voters, which is the scenario in which populists like Trump thrive.

Of course some argue New Zealand already has Trumpesque politicians and, in any case, few can resist a game of "Who is New Zealand's Donald Trump?"Canterbury University sociologist Jarrod Gilbert (@JarrodGilbertNZ) tweeted "Hey political pundits, it would be great to see where you think the US presidential candidates sit on a Left/Right spectrum in NZ terms." David Heffernan (@kiwipollguy) was quick to respond with "Cruz = Graham Capill, Trump = Colin Craig, Clinton = Judith Collins, Sanders = Laila Harré."

Is Winston Peters NZ's Donald Trump?

Is NZ First leader Winston Peters NZ's Donald Trump? Photo / Mark Mitchell
Is NZ First leader Winston Peters NZ's Donald Trump? Photo / Mark Mitchell

Indeed, while the rest of the world gravely ponders the implications of a Trump presidency, Claire Trevett reports that New Zealand MPs have been preoccupied with a different question: Is Winston Peters NZ's Donald Trump? "Muldoonist" has been a popular insult recently, but being compared to Trump is now the "insult du jour" amongst MPs, reports Trevett. It's also "multipartisan" and has been leveled at MPs on both sides of the House, though Peters has been the most frequent recipient.

Rodney Hide says you need to combine Peters with another outsider who "spanked the establishment. Think Winston Peters. Think Sir Bob Jones. Put those two together and imagine the result. That's Trump" - see: NZ's very own Donald Trump.

Hide makes his case: "Peters has fashioned a lifelong career on the fear of foreigners taking over. The more he is attacked, the more he appears the martyr and the more the establishment looks to be trying to hide that it has let us down and sold us out. His rhetoric is neither coherent nor consistent but he weaves a compelling spell."

He acknowledges differences - most obviously Peters has spent decades in politics while Trump is a political novice: "Peters' life is politics. It's all he knows and all he does." And Hide says that while the "crass and brash" Bob Jones shares certain qualities with Trump, Jones "ran as a spoiler and influencer. He would have been horrified to have won high office. Trump expects to win."

Is Bob Jones NZ's Donald Trump?

Is Sir Bob Jones NZ's Donald Trump? Photo / Richard Robinson
Is Sir Bob Jones NZ's Donald Trump? Photo / Richard Robinson

Satirist Ben Ufindell also nominates Bob Jones as New Zealand's Trump, pointing to his New Zealand Party electoral intervention in 1984, which won an impressive 12 per cent of the vote. Ufindell says the parallels are striking: Jones "put his own money into a political campaign that many initially wrote off as irrelevant and fleeting. Despite having no political experience he was able to turn this movement into one that would shatter the existing political order and change the face of New Zealand politics."

Ufindell tracks down the wealthy property investor with a "penchant for shocking, offending and bluntly speaking his mind" and in a very entertaining eight-minute video interview puts it to Jones whether he's NZ's Donald Trump?

Of course, as Hide points out, in a sense Jones was the anti-Trump. The superficial comparisons are there but, unlike Trump, Jones passionately believed in the policies he was pushing, and clearly didn't do it for the pursuit of power. Jones immediately disassociated himself from his movement once he realised David Lange's Labour Government was implementing his free-market policies.

Bob Jones himself considers Peters "the local Trump parallel" as he ponders "How to explain the Trump insanity?" - see his opinion piece, On Trump and his Kiwi counterpart. Jones says "People generally disinterested in public affairs would view Winston Peters as attractively anti-establishment, just as plainly motivates the Trump-ites. Winston/Donald will sort things out is the faith".

The Rise of Trump

John Armstrong writes that "Anyone who was living in New Zealand in the mid-1990s will have noted a marked similarity between Trump's campaign themes and those stressed by one Winston Peters - see: Winston Trump or Donald Peters? To forge his NZ First vehicle after his split from National, Armstrong says "Peters banged the same drum as now being used by Trump - anti-foreigner, anti-migrant, anti-establishment and anti-free trade" albeit less blatantly than Trump.

His blogpost is an interesting examination of why Trump resonates strongly with many Americans. Armstrong argues "What voters are doing is using Trump to deliver a message in the strongest possible terms to the political and economic elites that something has to change in terms of the rich getting richer while not only the poor are getting poorer. This is also why Bernie Sanders is causing headaches for Clinton on the other side of the political spectrum."

Although New Zealand may not be as far down the track in terms of the public losing faith with politicians and corporations, Brian Gaynor argues that there are some faint signs that we are headed down the same path, and voters are beginning to react in the same way - see: 'Free market' failings fuel the Trump movement.

Gaynor recommends Robert Reich's book Saving Capitalism as "an excellent read for those wanting a better understanding of the Donald Trump phenomenon", arguing it shows "why New Zealand could also have a "Trump experience."

He says "Reich, who was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, is a strong supporter of capitalism but he believes that its rules are strongly skewed in favour of a number of elites and against the majority of ordinary citizens. Reich believes that when individuals consider that neither they nor their children have a fair go, they will find ways to protest against the unfairness of the capitalist system." Gaynor concludes "The clear message is that the "free market" needs rules and regulations that give everyone a fair chance to participate and prosper."

Martyn van Beynen also believes "The question that we should... be asking ourselves is whether the Trump recipe would work in NZ" - see: Time is ripe for NZ's Donald Trump.

He writes eloquently of the experiences of an economically precarious and "uneasy part of the population" that has been left behind: "But their place in the economy is one thing. Their place in a rapidly transforming society is another. They are increasingly feeling they don't fit and are not sure why. They are made to feel bad about some of their not particularly well thought out or even strongly held views. Their discomfort at the influx of migrants and trends like foreigners buying up the country is made to seem backward and unjustified. They are told they are racist, sexist, intolerant and stupid. These are Trump's people and they are a big slice of the population. He is making them feel a little more powerful and understood."

Van Beynen says that population exists in New Zealand too and it is also looking for "a leader and for a voice... They are looking for a home. Come forward NZ's answer to Donald Trump. Now is your time."

Comparing Trump's appeal with that of the "lazar kiwi" flag, van Beynen believes while it can be satisfying to flirt with the idea of sticking it to the establishment, sanity will prevail when an actual choice must be made: "America is many things but collectively it does not want a complete loose cannon in charge."

Gordon Campbell concurs, arguing while Trump is likely to be the nominee, it is highly unlikely he will overcome the huge negatives he brings as a presidential candidate - see: On whether Donald Trump has peaked.

Trump strikes a chord with disgruntled middle America because of "the emotional intent of what he says, not the literal meaning" points out Mark Blackham - see: The Trump Thing: emotion.

He elaborates: "All the intellectual smartiepants mock Trump because he says he'll build walls and stop Islamic people coming into America. They mock the sort of people who like him as being stupid to agree with these things. Yes, the illiteracy of the words, the phrasing and the concepts is unusual for a modern candidate...

Few voters seriously think a wall is viable. Few voters seriously think to ban religions. Few think Trump can magic-up 'millions' of jobs. They want these things, and know they can't get them. But at the very least, they want a President who also them. They believe they are more likely to get those issues that matter to them dealt with under that sort of President. It may not be a wall - but it will be an attitude and set of rules that amount to a metaphorical wall".

Blackham accuses the elite, intellectuals and the left of having "an ego-concept of themselves as smart, thinking people. They believe their opinions are based on logic, reason and altruistic intentions" and so they are "appalled at the Trump appeal to base emotions." And yet, he points out, "how easily they themselves followed the base emotion of hope when they cheered on Obama's empty and nonsensical "change" rhetoric during his first campaign. Where is that "change" and wonderful world that Obama promised?"

In Yes, He Can: Why so many Americans are voting for Donald Trump? Chris Trotter voices similar sentiments: "They are not looking for someone who understands the system. They hate the system. They're not in the market for a constructive candidate, they want a President who's ready to go after the system with a wrecking ball!"

The two main parties only have themselves to blame according to Trotter: "For three decades they have either crudely inflamed, or, loftily dismissed, the people they call 'Trailer-Trash' and 'Rednecks': the very same people who are now turning out in their tens-of-thousands for the man who openly proclaims that he 'loves' the 'poorly educated'. The Donald loves you guys - and he wants your votes. Why? Because your votes, and the votes of those assholes up at the Country Club carry exactly the same weight. That's right: exactly the same. And you know something else, fellas? There are way more of us than there are of them!"

Trump appeals because "he's so rich he doesn't need to go cap-in-hand to the Koch brothers (like 'Little Marco' Rubio)." And, like them, he "knows what it means to be ridiculed, excluded and hated - and isn't afraid to say so out loud. The man who wears the scorn of the Establishment as a badge of honour, and who revels in its all-too-obvious fear."

"The barbarian is no longer at the gate" writes Paul Thomas, "He's inside the castle and heading for the throne room." Thomas believes Trumps extreme rhetoric gives him ownership of issues and "shows he's not just another politician trotting out talking points. Many pundits viewed his blistering attacks on George W. Bush and the Iraq war as damagingly disloyal and a strategic blunder. In fact... Trump sent a clear message that he's uncompromised by any sense of obligation to an unloved party hierarchy."

He says his previous assessment of Trump didn't go far enough and he now sees that Trump not just an outsider but a renegade outlaw: "Trump's vulgarity and the undercurrent of violence in his rhetoric - this week he declared he wanted to punch a protester in the face - locate him in popular culture rather than politics. American popular culture is full of outlaw figures whose appeal derives from their ability to get things done via decisive, often violent, action while the system pussyfoots around."

In Thoughts on Trump's messaging, Danyl Mclauchlan argues that political insiders are so busy geeking out and imagining themselves among the pantheon of great political orators when they communicate, they lose sight of the fact normal people do not talk in that way. In contrast, "Trump, famously, doesn't talk like a politician. He talks like a reality TV show star which is what he is." Master of the "killer line", Mclauchlan says no doubt much of what Trump says is scripted but "at a time of tremendous anger towards the political elite he happens to be a master of communicating in a way that is the total opposite of that hated elite."
Bob Jones says the message from Trump supporters is clear: "In his brazen way, Trump alone was shouting out loud about the deep-felt concerns everyone was expressing in private and promising wham-bang (albeit ludicrous) ways of dealing with them... In short, in an uninspiring Republican line-up, Trump alone is upfront about the major concerns on people's minds."

Jones argues "We have a parallel political situation in New Zealand with legislated favouritism toward Maori, which is both an indisputable fact and a huge source of bitterness, constantly expressed privately." He says that Winston Peters' and Don Brash's positive polling after "coming out punching" on the issue exposed a deep vein of discontent and believes that begging is another issue "which, due to race sensitivity, people feel strongly about but only discuss in private" - see his Trumpesque What Wellington and Auckland mayoral candidates could learn from Donald Trump.

David Farrar recently wrote a thoughtful blogpost attempting to explain The appeal of Trump. Farrar says there are multiple factors in operation, including the unhappiness of Americans with the direction of their country, Trump's promise to make America great again, a backlash against political correctness, free media coverage, Trump being free from traditional political relationships, and the lack of an effective Republican establishment leadership.

Trump's lone visit to New Zealand

Kurt Bayer has the story of Trump's single day in New Zealand in 1993, when he made a failed attempt to lobby to build a new casino on the site of Auckland Railway Station - see: When Donald Trump visited New Zealand.

"But what might he make of our great and our good were he to pop over today?" asks Toby Manhire. "In the cause of further futility, let us pause to ask: what advice might he have for prominent New Zealanders?" - see: Donald Trump's top tips for Kiwis.

Matt Heath says although "logic suggests we should hate him", there is just "something about the guy" - see: Why I'm in love with Donald Trump. Sure, Heath admits, Trump "will kill us all if he gets his finger on the button", but until then "It's craziness. Very entertaining craziness."

Finally, Scott Yorke has Ten reasons why a Trump presidency might not be so bad, and Mike Wesley-Smith wonders whether New Zealanders have been too hasty in their mockery of Trump, and says "Mr Trump has had a few ideas we could borrow - namely the wall he wants to build between the US and Mexico. Wesley-Smith asks "Do we need a new divide - between those who live off the lattes and those who live off the land" - watch: Taking a leaf from Trump: Building the Bombay barricades.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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