I'm fond of protests. Beyond playing an indispensable role in any democracy, they can also be a lot of fun. Of the dozens I've participated in, some have focused on specific grievances, such as workplace safety or wages and conditions; others, broader concerns around social justice or peace and security. But, large or small, they generate a particular kind of energy – a spirit of shared purpose and camaraderie – that's hard to emulate anywhere else.
What's most striking, as I cast my mind back, is the degree to which major protest movements in New Zealand and elsewhere have been vindicated. Whether on the subject of Apartheid in South Africa, women's and gay rights, environmental justice or Treaty claims, what was once heterodox was ushered from the fringes of the discourse into the mainstream by people willing to take to the streets.
In fact, the worldview espoused by your average hippie of the 1970s counter culture is pretty much indistinguishable from Establishment thinking today.
In short, comrades, we won.
But I don't just support my own team when it comes to protests. Farmers affected by climate change measures have every right to air their grievances in the most public way possible. Even if I deplore some of their tactics, the same goes for anti-abortion activists. We're a robust, pluralistic democracy. If you feel unheard, grab the nearest loud-hailer and away you go.
So why did I find the scenes from Wellington on Tuesday so unsettling?
Watching flags for QAnon, Donald Trump and the slave states of the US Confederacy vie for attention with those for tino rangatiratanga, the utter incoherence of it all was jarring.
This wasn't a case, as it might be with farmers or anti-abortion activists, where I diverged on policy or ideological grounds with the protesters. What we saw on vivid display on Tuesday was not a case of worldviews in conflict, but something far more troubling: a collapse in our shared sense of reality.
I could not for the life of me figure out what these protesters were going on about. They seem to occupy some alternate plane of existence where Jacinda Ardern – Jacinda Ardern! – is a tyrant and life-saving vaccines are in fact tools of oppression roughly analogous to the Holocaust.
They think we're brainwashed sheeple; we think they're nuts. How do you even begin to repair divisions in society, or anywhere for that matter, when both sides are convinced the other has entirely lost its mind?
Conflict resolution, even peaceful accommodation, is only possible when each party accepts the underlying facts of the situation.
How, for example, might we have stitched New Zealand society back together after 1981 if we had convinced ourselves that our adversaries weren't just wrong about the Springbok Tour, but were in fact lizard people in league with a global child sex trafficking and blood-harvesting cabal?
Two minutes on Google will confirm that analogy is way less outlandish than it ought to be. The extreme, hateful rhetoric and fantastical claims fuelling this strange uprising are unlike anything we've seen before on this scale, certainly in New Zealand.
The one nugget of good news from Tuesday's protest was the refusal by the Act or National parties to speak at the demonstration. (If you think that was an easy call, you've obviously never stood between an Opposition MP and a riled-up crowd baying for the government's blood).
By resisting the lure of that stage, New Zealand's centre-right are refusing, for now, to chase these energised voters down rabbit holes from which there may be no escape.
Conservatives elsewhere haven't shown as much discipline. Australian PM Scott Morrison, winking to the QAnon crowd and at the behest of one of its loudest proponents, famously wedged the term "ritual abuse" into his national apology to victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. In the US, the Republican Party has all but capitulated to those same forces, turning a blind eye to the January insurrection at the Capitol while presidential wannabes like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ban private companies from imposing vax and mask mandates.
Make no mistake, this is a truly international effort. Who disrupted the PM's recent press conference with anti-vax nonsense but the "chief medical correspondent" of a far-right outlet funded by Steve Bannon, Trump strategist and self-styled Godfather of the global populist resurgence?
The most galling local variant is the appropriation of tino rangatiratanga into the messaging here. While the vast majority don't want a bar of it, organisers get the favourable optics that come with even a symbolic smattering of Māori support. When you consider the racial hostility and, in some cases, explicit white supremacist ideology that animates much of the movement, it is beyond disappointing (if not surprising, in the case of Brian Tamaki) to see any Māori play along.
I'm worried about where this is going. The common ground we rely on to function as a pluralistic democracy is shrinking beneath our feet. If actions catch up to the rhetoric – and history tells us it will – we can expect Tuesday's protest to be the prelude to much worse.
• Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a company director at Mega Ltd, a commentator and blogger and a former Labour Party activist.