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Could former Trump strategist Steve Bannon’s radical right-wing doctrine of 'Traditionalism' offer conservative New Zealand a way out of its deep political funk?

Could former Trump strategist Steve Bannon’s radical right-wing doctrine of 'Traditionalism' offer conservative New Zealand a way out of its deep political funk?
Steve Bannon.

By Chris Trotter*

Conservative politics in New Zealand is at risk of running out of puff. Both National and Act are struggling to offer voters much in the way of original political insight.

The radical right-wing ideas that swept all before them in the 1980s and 90s have solidified into a pallid orthodoxy, incapable of refuting the arguments of recent historical experience. The capacity of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity to engage with and inspire those not already convinced of its “truths” has never been strong in New Zealand. Accordingly, the robustness of National’s “Taliban” faction offers more proof of the party’s philosophical weakness than its strength.

When a political party is fortunate enough to possess a charismatic leader, such ideological frailty counts for much less. Absent such a leader, however, philosophical cluelessness constitutes a formidable barrier to electoral success. Unfortunately for their respective parties, Judith Collins and David Seymour cannot be included in the same company as John Key and Jacinda Ardern. It remains to be seen whether Winston Peters still possesses the power to harness the political zeitgeist to NZ First’s battered chariot.

If Peters has spent the last few months scouring the conservative landscape for an ideology to match the temper of the times, then it is likely he will already have encountered the most radical right-wing movement since the rise of fascism, almost exactly a century ago. Although “Traditionalism” predates fascism by at least two decades, it shares the latter’s comprehensive rejection of Enlightenment values, liberal capitalism, scientific rationalism and democratic politics. When one considers that the leading promoters of Traditionalism in the world today are Steve Bannon – formerly Chief Strategist to President Donald Trump – and Aleksandr Dugin – long-time behind-the-scenes adviser at the Kremlin – any temptation to dismiss the ideology as something wacky from the fringe should be resisted.

Like so many of the reactionary creeds emanating from fin-de-siècle Europe, Traditionalism fetishized what it considered to be the core values of the pre-modern era: hierarchy, spirituality and the (now very rare) ability to live honourably in the moment, unburdened by the weight of material concerns. The two individuals most closely associated with the early Traditionalist doctrine were the Frenchman, René Guénon, and the Italian proto-fascist, Julius Evola. Their Traditionalist utopia combined theocratic government with what amounted to a socio-economic caste-system. In this form, it offered slight prospect of political success in the Twentieth Century. As modified by Bannon, however, Traditionalism has the capacity to act as an extremely powerful solvent of the electoral status-quo.

Bannon’s Traditionalism imputes to what New Zealanders would call the “ordinary Kiwi joker” (or, in colloquial American, “the average working stiff”) the core definitive values of the nation’s character. It is in such folk: most particularly in their faith, generosity and resilience; that the nation’s ability to endure and triumph over all manner of adversities is located. They are the bedrock: the best; the people without whose support nothing of any lasting worth can be accomplished.

In the unanticipated triumph of Brexit and Trump, the world witnessed the extraordinary political resonance of Bannon’s version of Traditionalism. It had the power to mobilise electorally groups which had, for decades, been in steady retreat from political engagement – voting in particular. It was Bannon’s strategic, and Trump’s performative, genius that caused these hitherto disillusioned and disengaged citizens to reassess the possibilities of “getting involved”. Hillary Clinton may have dismissed them as “deplorables”, but Trump transformed her insult into a badge of honour: convincing them that they were the only people who could make America great again.

Traditionalism cannot work, however, in the absence of an elite layer of effete professionals and managers who look down with disdain upon the “Ordinary Kiwi joker/sheila” and their beliefs, and who react with abject horror at the very thought of these usually biddable yobbos intervening decisively in the political process. In the eyes of the elites, this ignorant lumpen element presents itself as an army of terrifying zombies. Civilly dead, but now, by the power of political voodoo, electorally re-animated, they represent the worst fears of the people in charge. Shuffling menacingly towards them, their arms outstretched for ballot papers, these possessed political corpses must be cut down where they stand. Under no circumstances can general elections be turned into re-runs of The Night of the Living Dead.

A less tendentious presentation of Traditionalism may be found in the television series “Yellowstone”. In their sprawling Yellowstone ranch, in the state of Montana, live the Duttons – a powerful family in whom the best constitutive elements of the American character are embodied. On every side, however, a hostile world is pressing in upon them. From the adjoining Native American tribal reservation – in which an even older embodiment of America is stirring – to avaricious development companies, poised to turn all those thousands of acres of Dutton real-estate into ski resorts and casinos. Interestingly, those “best constitutive elements” include the willingness to defend one’s interests with deadly (and usually illegal) force – which is, at least, an honest presentation of American values!

In the lead character, John Dutton (played by Kevin Costner) the viewer is frequently presented with something approximating that living-in-the-spiritual-moment which the original Traditionalists prized so highly. The series’ general contempt for the democratic process, in favour of preserving the established hierarchy of ‘natural’ leaders, similarly echoes the ideas of Guénon and Evola.

New Zealand political leaders as different as Rob Muldoon and John Key have secured lengthy stints of political power on the strength of elevating ordinariness into something very special. Muldoon pitted his ordinary jokers against what he successfully portrayed as a rising class of over-educated academics who’d never done an honest day’s work in their lives. Key’s trick was to convince something close to a majority of New Zealanders that they were already the ones in charge – and had only to prove it by voting for an ordinary millionaire.

Few would argue that conservatively-minded New Zealanders feel like they’re in charge of anything at the moment. Quite the reverse, actually. In Traditionalist terms, all the worst elements of modernism are in the saddle and riding New Zealand hard. While no political party of the Right is currently willing (or, seemingly, able) to make a case for the current government representing nothing like the values of “Real New Zealanders”, or explaining to voters what those values might be, the conservative cause will continue to languish.

When politicians talk about “the people”, they never mean “all the people”, but only that fraction of the people whose interests they are pledged to serve. Jacinda Ardern’s “Team of Five Million” has never been anything of the sort. That the Right has failed so spectacularly to expose “Jacinda’s” ideological sleight-of-hand, is the true measure of the Prime Minister’s political genius.


*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.

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42 Comments

10
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I suggest CT is performing his own bit of "sleight of hand" in this article. Never the less I find it most interesting and enjoyable, not to mention penetrating.

I wonder how the legions of public service managers who "look down on the lumpen" will react to being referred to as "effete"?

But CT does point out some hard, difficult to digest facts, that we are increasingly ruled by a layer of elites, who do likely shudder at the concept of being answerable to those "zombie" masses. Traditionalist perspectives would see us return to a feudal structure, and indeed it is possible that we are already well along that road with the economic arguments being discussed these days.

But CT's unspoken warning to us all in this article? Beware any discussion that seeks to lengthen electoral terms, and other moves that further weaken democracy, as they are all designed to ensure that the Public Service Elite effetes are less accountable to us mere mortals.

Agree that democracy is the best considering all the others.

But it has it's own flaw; it panders to short-termism and unsustainability. So it has descended into a battle for who gets the bigger portion of what? Goes back to Whigs and Tories https://gsarchive.net/iolanthe/web_op/iol14.html , Levellers and Diggers.

Whether it can be maintained in the squeeze ahead, depends on our discussion being several levels higher than this - meaning we need to look wider than Left/Right.
https://www.thenewfederalist.eu/democracy-needs-a-copernican-revolution-...
https://degrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Deriu-2012.pdf

"as they are all designed to ensure that the Public Service Elite effetes are less accountable to us mere mortals."
I'd suggest that their managers, the politicians and specifically cabinet ministers, are the weak link in the chain. Unable to effectively query and command those whose job it is to carry out the ruling govt policies. Grant Robertson comes to mind.

Nigel - I cannot think of any cabinet minister that has demonstrated any discernible level of ability to implement successfully anything of real or lasting value to NZ generally and the abject failures of Twyford/Clarke/Mahuta have come at considerable cost to the NZ taxpayer whilst their tax $'s have been liberally sprinkled on egotistical dreams and bludgers.

Opinionated, self-serving, unaccountable. All authority no responsibility. That is where our bureaucracy is at. Many examples. The MoH not implementing government policy at the MIQ, but saying that they were. In ChCh the new northern motorway, the NZTA deliberately, purposefully concealing road noise data from affected residents. Bet just about every NZr could recount obstruction, obfuscation and just plain avoidance of duty by a central or local public servant in their recent time. Sorry to say that the Public Service in NZ has simply just run away with the spoons. The government, especially this one, has no say. I mean how can you control what you are frightened of. Just a look at the massive build up of HO staffing in all the ministerial functions for a start.

What to do with the report writers and communications managers? McKinsey on a percentage of savings engagement could halve the size of government over 24 months or so. But what are we going to do with those thousands of bureaucrats? They can't all be real estate agents...

That's the problem with the way we have created the public sector in NZ. basically half the county is employed in the public sector, if we got rid of half the roles in that sector the country may not notice much difference. Except a whole lot of folks would be out of a job.

rumpole294,

And could any of these comments also have been applied to the previous National government?

Bingo

Traditionalist perspectives would see us return to a feudal structure, and indeed it is possible that we are already well along that road with the economic arguments being discussed these days.

I agree. The ruling elite's hegemony is racing towards neo-feudalism as if there's no other option.

14
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Chris : it's all about the housing crisis .... whichever side can be seen to address the underlying problem of supply & demand will rule politically for many years to come .... housing is easily the core issue destabilizing our lives .... 3500 folks in motel units at the taxpayers' expense every day .... whoever can take land supply constraints away from local councils , will begin rebalancing the supply/demand ratio ....

....so far , Labours policies have backfired and made the problem much worse , and as for National .... do they even have a policy ? .... Sigh !

There are private second-houses more than capable of housing 3,500 people - and those houses sit empty most of the year.

We don't have a supply problem; we have a distribution problem.

The correct number is 3800 households...maybe 10000 people in motels?

My comment would still stand

pdk,

The figure I saw from Stats NZ is that there are some 40,000 empty houses across Auckland. I believe that is greater than the number for London.

Bingo

Bingo

13
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Labour has such tight control of the media no other party can be heard. Look at the thousands of spin doctors they employ to peddle their lies. Act is doing a great job, and is clearly the only political option. National must make a change in representation. Meanwhile labour will implode by destroying the New Zealand we all love. Interesting times?

Have you seen the news clips on NZ First? Winnie was in fine form yesterday, and I think if he stays that way NZ first has a good solid chance. the only issue I see with NZ First is Shane Jones.

Murray, this morning per STUFF, WP is describing the National Party as being sex maniacs. Well then, in the highly unlikely event of a NZF coalition with them, we would not have to guess what he was after then!

I'd agree Murray. Never write off WP and he has the ability to come back big. Fact is Lab Nat etc are not dealing with or speaking honestly and openly about housing and the associated immigration mess (amongst other thigs).

I fully expect WP to zero in on this ...he has the nose.

Shaun Jones very intelligent, smart but a balls -up as far as PR goes. Perhaps if he can eat humble pie and re invent himself he has a chance. The field is wide open for someone the public will support that's for sure.

murray86,

Really? All i saw was the same tired old mantras from a clapped out bunch of has beens. If ever a party represented some mythical past where the the Queen's portrait hung in every house, all the migrants were of solid Anglo-Saxon stock and the natives were largely out of sight and mind, then that's NZ First.

The adjectives you use are indicators of a closed mind. I saw Winnie calling the Government and opposition parties, and his critics out on a number of issues. The blunt talk is his mark, and without it in Government, the various parties get away with a lot of rubbish that they shouldn't as they are not accountable to the public until the m=next election, and even then the choices will suck!

Do you disagree with what he said? The suppressing of He Pua Pua, and then stealthy implementation of some programs certainly look like a separatist agenda to me. I might not refer to National as being a bunch of sex maniacs, but they are a mess.

I agree, David Seymour is doing a good job in opposition. National needs to move away from the center and start representing those that vote for them.

Jacinda and her party are a shambles, but have the media running interference for them. There's a lot of material available for the opposition, but they need to be heard.

No, the media is running shotgun on the greater false narrative, using ignorance as a weapon.

And the 'material' available is of no use to either major (if that still describes national).

Well, Labour have dropped their traditional working class supporters as many tend to be reasonably socially conservative. Labour appealing more to the academic, public servant & professional with a liberal view.
However, there are some interesting bedmates in politics now, eg Russell Brand finds some things in common with Fox News
https://youtu.be/79xQW-jrcKA
Eg As they both deplore Big Tech monopolies/no tax/suppression of speech mode.
So protestors of ‘global corporate wedded with woke evangelism’ are now quite diverse!

labour are appealing to the people that choose mediocrity.

Dave Rennie,

While national appealed to those who in the interests of fisal probity, didn't mind seeing an escalating housing crisis, rampant immigration and no acknowledgement of our mounting infrastructure problems.

Labour appealing more to the academic, public servant & professional with a liberal view.
Add NGOs & Big Tech.

https://youtu.be/Oxdr8pxJC5g
- an USA view.

The here & now:
What do you call undeclared political sponsorship of writings in MSM?
https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/mediawatch/audio/2018800326/un...
- surely more than a headache?

It's the housing, stupid!

Labour promised to fix housing. That's why they got my vote in 2017.

- Kiwibuild programme of building 100,000 high quality and affordable homes over 10 years
- Establish an Affordable Housing Authority to help the private sector get new homes built faster
- Remove the Auckland urban growth boundary and free up density controls
- Ban foreign speculators from buying existing homes
- Extend the bright-line test from the current two years to five years and stop property speculators from offsetting tax losses on their rentals
- Turn Housing New Zealand into a public service, and increase the number of state houses

They have made some meaningless progress on this list to be fair, but I note increasing the cost of housing 30% is missing from these aspirations.

I hope you learned your lesson!!

10
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:) indeed I have, last time I voted TOP (yes I was the one).

Pleased and surprised to see CT willing to introduce this political doctrine to his readers. It's the mark of an intellectual to engage with counter-arguments and seek to understand their advantages as well as disadvantages.

Of course there is a generally disparaging tone and no attempt to sieve the doctrine for take-ways that he might add to his "best doctrine set" but I give him due credit for discussing this political doctrine which is far removed from his own.

What the crux of the article boils down to is that National has no political wind vane and seemingly no interest in the disenfranchised voter base that might be interested in some mix of these stoic values into their mix.

Its been amazing to see what a flick of the hair,a frown and a toothy grin can achieve.

I don't think David Seymour would be described as a "conservative" or a "traditionalist". ACT has qualities that appeal to many that have those leanings, given their stance against language policing and gun regulations for example. Given that, this makes them different to the run of the mill rhetoric from parliament in general. But they have policies that your average conservative/traditionalist type wouldn't like too (if they bothered to look)

They're libertarians. Being pro-relatively-open border and pro-choice is definitely not conservative!

I'd argue traditionalism is on the rise thanks to radical left. Ask any citizen that's lived in a communist country and they'll say how great it is living under an iron fist.
Everyone wants to live in the west.
My opinion is the "sustained propaganda" of Labour will push voters away.

signed KJH?

In Traditionalist terms, all the worst elements of modernism are in the saddle and riding New Zealand hard.

Yeah, right. Ardern has shut the border and doubled house prices.

Another elegant essay from Chris Trotter, but I fear he has been watching too much American tv. Conservatism in NZ hasn't got much to do with what is described as "Conservatism" in the USA. Perhaps slightly more similar to that in the UK but even they have quite different traditions underpinning their Tory party.
And to suggest that Italian fascism was in any way "radical right wing" is quite bizarre.
All this "left/ right", "taliban", "fundamentalist evangelical", etc., etc., is all just name dropping unless defined, to form a basis of a coherent debate about the NZ electorate and political establishment.
No Chris, I think you have spent too much of your life amongst politicians to know much at all about the..."ordinary kiwi joker".
In contrast, the comedy "Yes Minister" was an incisive examination of power and politics. Oh that we could produce something similar in this country.

I reckon a party that can deliver Houses, reduce Poverty in a meaningful way and create real employment that captures all those underemployed and not 'looking' for employment, might have a chance at becoming government in 2023.
It worked for the current government in the 2017 general election.
Oh and the environment and world peace.