What Donald & Hillary can teach New Zealand

It's easy to play the anti-establishment and change cards or go on the attack. But the real challenge for our politicians and journalists is to allow voters to hear balance

Whether we like it or not, Donald Trump is now president of the United States. We have no choice but to deal with that fact, and with him. But it's hard to find any New Zealanders who have much good to say about him.

After Obama, who, whether you agree with him or not, always came across as gracious and considerate, Trump seems a singularly unattractive personality. Rambunctious, egotistical, self absorbed, abusive, you name it.

Regardless of ideology, I can’t see that type of personality appealing in this country. The fascinating question this begs though, is not about Donald Trump, but how come so many people in America voted for him. What is going on in their lives and brains that they see this man as the solution to their problems? The issues driving the Trump vote have been analysed aplenty and that analysis will no doubt continue. It’s worth taking stock, however, to see if there are any parallels between what is going on there and if the same things are happening here. Two thoughts come to mind.

In America, the Democratic alternative to Trump,  Hillary Clinton, was seen by many as a seriously flawed candidate. Part of that was that she was seen as the “establishment” candidate in an environment where anti-establishmentcandidates thrived. This “establishment/anti-establishment” distinction is very artificial. American politicians seeking office like to sell themselves as anti-establishment when they start out; Barack Obama did in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2000.

For Obama, it worked in 2008 because he was new; now he has been there two terms he cannot use that line any more. Same person, but because he has served for eight years he is now “establishment”.

Being a “change” candidate, as Obama also was, is the other platform guaranteed to appeal to superficiality. Change will be good or bad depending on what it really means – change for it own sake is purposeless. We should be debating what they will do.

Taking the anti-establishment line is dead easy in America. The US is a huge country; Washington is very distant for most and very easily vilified. New Zealand is too small for that feeling to build the same way here, but essentially this anti-establishment notion is drawing on the all too common anti-politician feeling that many here and in other Western countries nurture.

We need to be more balanced. I spent five terms in Parliament; most New Zealand politicians (not all, but most) are workaholics who do their best in what are often very difficult circumstances. We should never defend them automatically – when a politician takes a position or behaves in a way we do not agree with we should say so. Being judgemental about individual politicians is totally called for, but we should resist the superficial and unjustified blanket vilification of all politicians we hear all too often.

Hillary Clinton made it worse for herself in the American election.To her critics she had spent near a lifetime – far too long in Little Rock, New York and Washington DC enriching herself at the public trough. Her husband was an ex-president. The huge fees she earned from her off the record speeches to Wall Street investment banks; the continual salacious dribble from Wikileaks (apparently hacked emails released by the Russians); and the scandals that arose from her use of her private server while at the Department of State coupled with the FBI on-again off-again investigation painted a very unflattering picture of her modus operandi.

There is a bit too much money flying around in American politics; mixing money and power creates too many temptations for corruption. Mercifully, our politics are remarkably clean. Let’s keep it that way.

The Trumpians were not just aggressive against so called “professional politicians, the beltway and Washington DC and all it stands for. They went over the top attacking the media. At his rallies, and now as president, Donald Trump has described the media as amongst the most dishonest people on earth. We regularly see those various occupations surveys that unsurprisingly/predictably have doctors, nurses, rescue workers and that ilk at the top in public esteem. Inevitably not just politicians, but also used car salesmen (sales persons), real estate agents and journalists are around the bottom (not far above paedophiles!).

That low esteem makes the media an easy target to beat up on. But we need to keep this in proportion too. Don’t judge by the few. Like politicians, most journalists do their best, albeit they have different styles and appeal to different sectors. MediaWatch each Sunday on RNZ critiques and frequently calls a particular journalist out for getting it wrong. 

The media has a role in addressing these esteem issues. Last Tuesday on Checkpoint, the new Opportunities Party’s Gareth Morgan told John Campbell that the reason he called Winston Peters an Uncle Tom was that he needed to say something like that to grab media attention for the debate he was trying to draw out on the Treaty issue. Campbell clearly saw the weakness therewe should be able to get attention for important issues without any need to resort to such base hooks. The whole thing didn’t work for Morgan anyway – Peters made mincemeat of him on it but it should not obscure the real point.

Being moderate and sensible is not a sin such views should be given a profile in their own right. The media should not play into the hands of the controversialist simply because they say extreme (and sometimes idiotic) things.

Our last election was somewhat hijacked by Kim Dotcom and his ilk. Let’s this year concentrate more attention on the parties that have a real chance of being part of a government. Their actions and policies will effect us. A working democracy needs an effective free press and good analysis of what is going on.

That should be the target.