Monday, March 21, 2016

Winston Peters, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump

As noted by Toby Manhire last week, "an informal search has begun to find "New Zealand's Donald Trump".

The list of contenders include, in no particular order of relevance, Chris Bishop (National), Phil Twyford (Labour), Chris Finlayson (National), Bob Jones (Curmudgeon), John Key (National), Gareth Morgan (Cat-Waller), and Peter Dunne (Also-National, Sort-of).

All of these have features which are, undeniably, at least vaguely Trump-esque - ranging from the fact that several of them are very wealthy through to the inarguable contention that one of them has awesome, comment-worthy hair.

But one name stands astride the fray like a colossus, and seemingly perches itself upon everybody's lips the moment the phrases "Donald Trump" and "New Zealand Politics" smash like a train-wreck into one another.

That name, of course, is Winston Peters.

In pretty much every article put out making direct or oblique comparison between the US Presidential Primaries and our own (inestimably superior/saner) Parliamentary politics, you'll find authors not-so-subtly suggesting that Winston is our local-Trump-equivalent. WhaleOil even presaged the trend by spending several years scurrilously alleging that Winston's hair was, in fact, a toupee - exactly the same sort of irrelevant attack about allegedly fake hair that people often used to lodge at Trump.

But whereas there are some obvious surface similarities between The Win and The Don - such as their rampant if not outrightly bellicose public style, disdain for journalists, and penchant for saying the word "China" - there's also some pretty important differences, too.

Trump is able to pour millions, if not billions of dollars (largely of his own money) into the campaign. Winston, by contrast, while I've seen him dig into his pocket to fund NZ First activities on numerous occasions ... is pretty much the antithesis of a big-money, big-media candidate. When we experienced our meteoric re-entry into Parliament in 2011, we did it not by thunderously hammering our opponents with cheque-book missiles or dominating the air-waves. We did so by mobilizing hundreds of little old ladies to run cake-stalls, and getting thousands of marginalized and downtrodden Kiwi voters to pack out community halls for meetings. We did that because we didn't have a deep-pockets financial backer - and because the only way to get around the seeming media blackout we endured for much of the campaign, was through the decidedly old-fashioned ways of word of mouth and speaking to packed crowds.

Now hold on a minute ... media blackout, packed speaking venues, and running a shoe-string campaign financed by the generous (if small-scale) donations of ordinary people.

That doesn't sound like Donald Trump.

Gosh! In fact, that sounds like Bernie Sanders!

But it isn't just a matter of some serious overlap in the way their campaigns work, or the fact that for each of Bernie and Winston, the phrase "insurgent appeal" means less "well-publicized surge" and more "steadily-growing, under-the-radar" and decidedly anti-establishmentarian appeal.

There's considerable coterminity to be had in the platforms they run on, too. Both are from what you might term the economic left of the political spectrum - furiously opposing "financial derivatives trading wide-boys" and "Wall St Bankers", while promising a resurrected and strengthened role for the state in the economy (in Winston's case, through straight-up nationalizations) ... and even both making a big deal out of restoring the dream of accessible tertiary education by making it free. They're not fans of big business, big banks, or the extant neoliberal consensus which has economically disenfranchised so efficiently so many.

As I put it in my previous piece on this issue:

"They’re both physically aging figures who yet manage to move with the levity and rhetorical grace of youth. They run things around Establishment and big-money opponents who’re often men and women closer to being half their age. They represent the fight-back and strike-back of a democratic and state-lead economic politics of the sort commonly practiced throughout the Western World for much of the latter half of the 20th Century (before we ditched it all and traded in our functioning social state for the hill of magic beans wrapped up in a Pandora’s Package promised by Neoliberalist reform).

They stands for the ordinary, common man – his hopes, his dreams, his aspirations."

Interestingly, when it comes to the issue of immigration and the economic impacts of importing foreign labour on a host economy's workers and labour force - the area in which the Trump-Winston comparisons seem to draw much of their head of steam from - Sanders and Peters don't appear to be reading off especially different song-sheets. 

Bernie Sanders has long maintained that the effects of an unchecked flow of migrants upon the American workforce would not be a positive one. As he himself said in 2007: "If poverty is increasing and if wages are going down, I don’t know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive waged down even lower than they are now."

That's rhetoric which, if one altered the demonyms in play, would sound entirely at home coming out of Winston's mouth at an NZ First campaign rally.

In terms of political bona-fides, as well, Peters & Sanders resemble each other far more closely than does Peters & Trump. Both men are hoary political veterans, who've held public office for decades and have grimoires of war-stories, famed skirmishes and campaign exploits almost as long as they are in the tooth.

This stands in marked contrast to Trump, of course, whose previous idea of putting himself into "public office", was broadcasting his business-meetings to our television screens in reality-tv format. And whose prior experience at wielding political power was done with the stroke of a pen on his chequebook rather than in drafting or enacting legislation or executive orders.

But this is not to say that New Zealand lacks its very own Donald Trump expy. In fact, quite the contrary.

It's just that it's someone whom the scrabbling press, pundits and politicians haven't thought to name yet in their tumble for an opportune sniping point.

Consider this: who's an excessively rich property developer who's attempted to buy his way into politics, having never held public office before and running on what some might term an extremist (whilst certainly anti-certain-parts-of-the-(political)-Establishment) platform, whose potentially broader appeal is somewhat hampered by his occasionally bizarre pronouncements? Pronouncements of self-aggrandizement which, I note, have involved speaking about himself positively in the third person...

Why, it's Colin Craig, of course. Who else.

I'm genuinely surprised that none of our established commentariat appear to have come out with such a direct, and easily applicable analogy. Perhaps it's because they feel there's no political value for their own agendas to be had in making the comparison. Or maybe we've simply forgotten about Craig and his multi-million dollar political eccentricities entirely.

So let's be clear about this, going forward. Pretty much every "X IS DONALD TRUMP!" comparison you hear going forward is going to be little more than a petty political barb wrapped up in current affairs like takeaway fish and chips. The only substance involved in many of them is hairspray.

If we look at the actual evidence before us, those scurrilous attacks of this nature - such as that launched by Rodney Hide in yesterday's Herald on Sunday - are quickly revealed for the baseless, politically motivated charges that they are.

And yet in this game, words have power - and persuasion has force altogether beyond the rhetorical.

Trump knows this. And so too do all the people, the politicians and the pundits out there attempting to influence your domestic political support and enthusiasm for Winston by comparing him to Trump.

Don't let them win. 

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