Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Welcome to the crazyocene era

Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Not for the first time in the year 2016 AD, the rhapsodic reflections of Mr Freddie Mercury seem to provide a fitting soundtrack to the world.

The most recent confirmation that we very likely inhabit some evil nostalgist's comic-horror dreamscape comes with the sudden emergence, around the globe, of creepy clowns, terrorising innocents everywhere, and triggering an international epidemic of coulrophobia.

This red-nosed, squirty-flower plague, which has reportedly driven Ronald McDonald into hiding in a secure brand-resistant bunker, has prompted police forces the world over to issue advice to concerned citizens.

"If you see a clown in public, relax. Call police if you feel threatened. Maybe ask them to juggle or tie a balloon animal to see if they're legit," announced the Waikato District Police last Friday, with a whimsy they might have regretted slightly the next day, when reporting on the same page an assault on two young women by "two people dressed as clowns".

From 12,000 miles away, in the Cumbrian port town of Whitehaven, came reports of a vigilante response to the clown outbreak, in the form of someone dressed up as Batman, chasing the comedy-footwear pests out of public places.

Which immediately brings to mind, of course, the mayoral race in Auckland, or, as it should now be known, in the words of RNZ's Todd Niall, Goff'm City.

Where am I going with all this?

It's hard to say, except that when you're caught in a landslide, no escape from reality, you may very well wake up in the middle of the night screaming, your head filled with pictures of Len Brown, his face painted like the Joker, leaning over a balcony atop the Sky Tower, singing Pokarekare Ana.

"If you see a clown in public, relax." Photo / AP
"If you see a clown in public, relax." Photo / AP

Whether it's a paranoid fever dream or a psychedelic VR simulacrum, there is some sort of hazy déjà vu thing going on for a New Zealander watching the US election, too.

If there was, as many are beginning to suspect, a pitchfork slammed into the matrix, it happened towards the end of our 2014 "peak cray" election.

Echoes of that strange campaign are easy to find in the American election, where the leading party today finds itself besieged by a mass leak of emails, exposing what some regard as a pattern of dirty politics - emails harvested by a shadowy figure, who may or may not go by the name Russiark.

The Democrat Party stonewalls media questions, saying the leaks are unethical and politically motivated.

And, look, there's WikiLeaks boss Julian Assange - a kind of mix of state-transparency pioneer and creepy cyberclown - weighing in from a distance.

Glenn Greenwald is agitating loudly on the matter.

Even Auckland's own cartoon fugitive, Kim Dotcom, is sticking his oar in, promising that the WikiLeaks moment-of-truth-bombs will eviscerate the Hillary Clinton campaign, going so far as to tweet this week: "'STRONGER, TO GET HER' - Trump's new campaign slogan #HillaryForPrisoner".

Sooner or later Eminem is bound to sue someone.

WikiLeaks' dumps of emails would be dominating the US election, of course, if not derailing the Democratic presidential campaign entirely, were it not for the fact that it has been drowned out by the ineffably outrageous reality that standing against Hillary Clinton is a fabulist, demagogic, man-baby sexual predator.

To grasp the odious and bizarre scale of it all, consider that in the lead-up to the last Republican presidential campaign, Mitt Romney's "binders full of women" remark was condemned for its sexism, and the height of strangeness was Clint Eastwood talking to a chair.

Actually that was pretty strange. Still, they were simpler times.

This week, following Trump's "locker-room talk" and his supporters' "lock her up" squawk, amid a Republican Party revolt, and as women came forward to recount being groped by actual presidential candidate Donald Trump - "You are a disgusting human being," he told New York Times reporter Megan Twhohey as he denied the claims - Trump told a rally: "It's a movement. But if we don't win, all it is is a little asterisk in history."

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a rally in Roanoke. Photo / AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a rally in Roanoke. Photo / AP

Maybe it will be just a footnote. More likely, even assuming he loses, it could have poisoned political debate for years.

The asterisks will come in useful, at least, for the new swear words that will need to be invented to describe these febrile months.

We have run out of adjectives. He has emptied all the astonishment. Send in the clowns.

And on byelections

In the last New Zealand byelection, a year-and-a-half ago in Northland, the Labour Party tied itself in knots to justify felling Willow-Jean Prime, giving its supporters the nod to back Winston Peters instead of their own candidate.

Today, in the leadup to another byelection, in Mt Roskill, the Greens are tying themselves in knots to justify staying out of the race to help Labour hold the seat.

In both cases, the argument is that their tactics are quite unlike those of National and Act in Epsom, and to some extent they have a point: byelections aren't really affected by MMP (unless, to some extent, if the winner has a list place already), and they're different to a strategy that exploits the loophole that exempts a party winning a seat from the 5% threshold.

But the quarrels over "rorting" the system are just tiresome - claims and counterclaims around the legitimacy of such tactics are the daytime soap repeats of election debate.

Enough already. It leads nowhere.

While the government warrants criticism for refusing to follow 2013 recommendations to bin the coat-tail part of MMP, as long as that is the system parties of all stripes are entitled to take advantage as best they can.

Voters are grown-ups and can decide for themselves whether to go along with it.

Let's do away with the cup of tea pantomimes, too, entertaining though they've undeniably sometimes been.

So as we approach another general election in 2017, begone, pestilent "rotten borough" squabbling.

And one more plea, just to save time: don't bother asking Winston Peters what his bottom lines are.

- NZ Herald

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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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