By Chris Trotter*
It's so difficult to resist the temptation to be smug. From the distant perspective of New Zealand, the United States is fast becoming incomprehensible.
We greet the information that there are now more US troops in Washington DC than there are in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria combined, with a dumfounded shake of the head. As we witness National Guardsmen and women securing the streets of the United States capital city against car bombs and IEDs, we struggle to accept that the terrorists against whom these extraordinary measures are directed are not from foreign parts – they’re home-grown.
“Thank God we live in New Zealand!”, has become a common refrain wherever people gather to discuss the images of insurrection and political violence filling our screens. As if the god of nations has given us some sort of free-pass through the unending vicissitudes of history.
As if …
Bryan Gould who, had the dice rolled differently, might have ended up leading the British Labour Party, has an interesting tale to tell about the political tensions simmering just beneath the surface of New Zealand. Astonishingly, this Oxford graduate and former Vice-Chancellor of Waikato University had a column submitted to his local newspaper rejected. In Gould’s own words:
“In a recent column I wrote for local newspapers, I ventured to suggest that Donald Trump – in addition to being a liar and a cheat, and sexist and racist – was a fascist in the making and would probably try, if he were to lose the election, to defy the democratic will of the people. The column was deemed to be too extreme by my editor who declined to publish it on the ground that it would offend some of his Trump-supporting readers who might write letters to him to complain. So much for a free and courageous press! Our failure to agree on the issue led to my no longer writing my column for his paper.”
Gould is very far from being the first person to have his editor reject a contribution. Editorial discretion and press freedom cannot be separated without abandoning both principles. What is remarkable about Gould’s account, however, is the editor’s reference to his “Trump-supporting readers” and their potential to make sufficient epistolary mischief to give him pause.
Now, granted, all this happened well before what CNN delights in calling “The Trump Insurrection”. This event has, presumably, reduced the number of Gould’s editor’s Trump-supporting readers considerably. Nevertheless, as anybody with the intestinal fortitude to brave the commentary threads of local news-sites, large and small, will attest: the number of Trump-supporting New Zealanders is really quite astounding. There are certainly enough of them to raise the question: If a truly Trumpian figure were to emerge from our own political environment, would he or she attract a level of support comparable to the original?
The question isn’t quite as hypothetical as it might at first appear. In the general election of 2005, the Don Brash-led National Party came within 46,000 votes of winning a plurality of the Party Vote. With the support of Act and NZ First, Brash could very easily have become prime minister. And what a prime minister he would have been! The National leader and his party were committed to returning the Treaty of Waitangi to history’s glass case. The Maori seats were marked down for abolition, and all race-based references were to be expunged from the statute books. In the parlance of present-day “progressives”, Brash’s would have been a “ neo-colonialist”, “white supremacist” government.
Not to put too fine a point upon it, all hell would have broken loose.
It does not require too large a slice of the Devil’s imagination to envisage Brash and his allies being left with little alternative but to mobilise their “silent majority” of supporters against the fury his policies had unleashed in the streets. Protest action that resulted in serious property damage or, even worse, to loss of life, would have left him with even fewer choices. Calling-in the military to support the civil power would likely have become necessary quite quickly – with all-too-predictable results. A snap election, called to provide ex-post-facto validation for the emergency powers taken by the government to quell the unrest (as happened following the 1951 Waterfront Dispute) would, almost certainly, have delivered National a stunning victory. New Zealanders would have struggled to recognise the angry mess their country had become.
It didn’t happen, of course, because, as recently happened in Georgia’s run-off Senate elections, people of colour resident in a handful of crucial suburbs came through at the eleventh hour with enough votes to save the day. South Auckland’s Maori and Pasifika voters gave Labour’s Helen Clark the leverage she needed to persuade Winston Peters to keep the National Party off the Treasury Benches. (Even though NZ First had actively campaigned on an anti-Treaty manifesto no less radical than Brash’s.)
The other thing that happened over the course of the three years following the 2005 election was exactly what all moderate Republicans must be praying for in the post-Trump era. A young, charismatic and, most importantly, moderate leader of the dominant centre-right party emerged to challenge the incumbent centre-left government.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of John Key’s decade-long reign of moderate conservatism to the political and cultural evolution of contemporary New Zealand. It protected National from the creeping madness which has slowly but surely overtaken the centre-right parties of the US, UK and Australia. In the 15 years that have elapsed since Don Brash set his lance against the elites’ decolonisation project, the implacable grind of human mortality has eliminated a huge chunk of the electoral support for Brash’s “Iwi/Kiwi” dichotomy of 2005.
Racist nostalgia for the carefully camouflaged white supremacist New Zealand that endured from the end of the Land Wars in the mid-1860s until the defeat of Rob Muldoon in the mid-1980s still exists, of course, and four years of Trump’s shameless racism have given his Kiwi admirers renewed hopes of a National Party committed to making (white) New Zealand great again.
Their hopes are unlikely to be realised. A frankly white supremacist government in power – even if it had only ruled New Zealand for three or four years – could not have failed to extend its electoral base well into younger demographic cohorts. But Brash’s failure and Key’s success have limited significantly the political space available for Trumpism in New Zealand.
They’re here, of course, but not in the numbers needed to generate a politically decisive right-wing populist pulse. Gould’s editor really had no need to worry. The sixty-something-plus voting bloc grew up with Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Hell! A fair number of them wore HART badges and exchanged blows with “Rob’s Mob” on the streets. When the owners of the Steinlager brand start celebrating anti-nuclear protesters as heroes, then you’d have to say that Trumpism’s chances of doing to New Zealand what it has so tragically done to the United States are pretty slim.
Even so, it never pays to give smugness too much room at the table. While there’s precious little scope for right-wing populism gaining significant political purchase here in Aotearoa-New Zealand, the prospects for left-wing populism are looking surprisingly good. What’s more, if this government doesn’t deign to put in an appearance sometime very soon, then that left-wing pulse is only likely to grow stronger.
It might pay to strengthen Parliament’s front doors – you never know these days who’s going to come a-calling.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.