The unreal deal

This coun­try had its own Trump-like leader in Prime Min­is­ter Rob Mul­doon, and that didn’t end well. Now, the last Mul­doon­ist has a key role in the new Govern­ment.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Paul Thomas

This coun­try had its own Trump-like leader in Prime Min­is­ter Rob Mul­doon, and that didn’t end well. Now, the last Mul­doon­ist has a key role in the new Govern­ment.

He dis­dained con­ven­tion and pro­to­col even as he harked back to a myth­i­cal golden age that he alone could re­store. His con­stant as­ser­tions of his own ex­per­tise swayed a sec­tion of the pub­lic into see­ing him as a saviour, so his con­duct and meth­ods were ir­rel­e­vant. He viewed the po­lit­i­cal class, in­clud­ing many in his own party, the ju­di­ciary and the bu­reau­cracy, with sus­pi­cion, if not con­tempt. Al­though he led the party of the Es­tab­lish­ment, he was op­por­tunis­ti­cally non-ide­o­log­i­cal and unashamedly pop­ulist, pre­sent­ing him­self as the cham­pion of the “or­di­nary peo­ple” looked down on by the metropoli­tan elite. He prac­tised low­est-com­mon-de­nom­i­na­tor pol­i­tics, de­mon­is­ing il­le­gal im­mi­grants as crim­i­nally in­clined ­job­steal­ers who, over time, would dis­turb the de­mo­graphic bal­ance to the white ma­jor­ity’s dis­ad­van­tage.

He made ad­ver­sar­ial pol­i­tics more ­ran­corous, re­spond­ing to le­git­i­mate ques­tion­ing with ad-hominem at­tacks. He rev­elled in the hu­mil­i­a­tion of un­der­lings and ri­vals and in petty point-scor­ing. He por­trayed the me­dia as the en­emy within: de­vi­ous, dis­hon­est, out of con­trol and out of touch with main­stream opin­ion.

His­to­rian James Belich de­tected a “cer­tain mad­dog qual­ity in Mul­doon, in­clud­ing an in­abil­ity to dis­tin­guish the sig­nif­i­cant from the triv­ial”.

He re­garded dis­sent as sub­ver­sive­ness and dou­bled down on his di­vi­sive­ness in the face of civil strife. Seem­ingly obliv­i­ous to the dam­age to his coun­try’s in­ter­na­tional stand­ing, he took a wil­fully con­trary and back­ward-look­ing stance on the defin­ing is­sues of the day.

He was Robert Mul­doon, Prime Min­is­ter of New Zealand from 1975 to 1984 and men­tor and role model to our new Deputy Prime Min­is­ter, pup­peteer ex­traor­di­naire Win­ston Peters.

One has to won­der how many of the young pro­gres­sives who cheered Peters’ de­ci­sion to anoint Jacinda Ardern ap­pre­ci­ate that its sec­ondary ef­fect is to em­power quite pos­si­bly the least lib­eral, most Machi­avel­lian fig­ure of real sig­nif­i­cance in con­tem­po­rary New Zealand pol­i­tics. Ardern’s state­ment that “through­out the ne­go­ti­a­tions, I cer­tainly had a sense that there was more that united us than di­vided us” sug­gests she’s not dwelling on the im­pli­ca­tions of en­ter­ing an al­liance with the last Mul­doon­ist.

Labour’s will­ing­ness to ig­nore Peters’ ­il­lib­er­al­ism is in strik­ing con­trast to the Greens’ fas­tid­i­ous re­fusal even to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­ity of a deal with Na­tional.

DE­NOUNCED STATE BROAD­CAST­ERS

I’ve made the Mul­doon-Don­ald Trump con­nec­tion be­fore ( Lis­tener, Jan­uary 28), as have Bloomberg colum­nist Tyler Cowen and writer and car­toon­ist Tom Scott, whose ­cov­er­age and satir­i­cal de­pic­tions of Mul­doon in this mag­a­zine got him banned from the weekly prime min­is­te­rial press con­fer­ences. But the more you ex­plore the com­par­i­son, the more strik­ing the sim­i­lar­ity.

Trump re­fuses to take ques­tions from cer­tain re­porters, scorns CNN, the Wash­ing­ton Post and the New York Times as pur­vey­ors of “fake news”, and finds his safe space on Ru­pert Mur­doch’s faith­fully con­ser­va­tive Fox News. Mul­doon re­fused to take ques­tions from cer­tain jour­nal­ists, picked fights with news­pa­pers, no­tably the Christchurch Star, de­nounced state broad­cast­ers as bi­ased, left­ist hot­beds and wrote a col­umn for the tawdry, ra­bidly right-wing tabloid Truth.

Trump reg­u­larly lashes out via Twit­ter, which, among other things, fans spec­u­la­tion about his men­tal health. His­to­rian James Belich de­tected a “cer­tain mad-dog qual­ity in Mul­doon, in­clud­ing an in­abil­ity to dis­tin­guish the sig­nif­i­cant from the triv­ial”. As a re­sult, he “wasted his time writ­ing in­sult­ing an­swers to in­sult­ing let­ters

“Mul­doon was a much smarter per­son, far more in­tel­lec­tu­ally cu­ri­ous. Mul­doon wasn’t a liar; Trump is a patho­log­i­cal liar.”

and send­ing threat­en­ing tele­grams to uni­ver­sity lec­tur­ers who crit­i­cised him in their cour­ses”.

Trump called pres­i­den­tial ri­val Hil­lary Clin­ton a crim­i­nal and ac­cused Pres­i­dent Barack Obama of il­le­gally wire­tap­ping Trump Tower. In Par­lia­ment, Mul­doon ac­cused for­mer Labour Cab­i­net min­is­ter Colin Moyle of hav­ing been ques­tioned by the po­lice for ho­mo­sex­ual ac­tiv­i­ties, which were then il­le­gal. Trump is dis­mis­sive of po­lit­i­cal al­lies, in­clud­ing his staff and Cab­i­net mem­bers, as well as op­po­nents. A year be­fore he re­tired from Par­lia­ment, Mul­doon sug­gested his fel­low MPs should be sold off as pet food, if that wasn’t too un­fair on pets.

RACIST DOG WHIS­TLES

Trump has a reper­toire of racist dog whis­tles, promis­ing to “make Amer­ica great again”, build a wall along the Mex­i­can border and de­port il­le­gal im­mi­grants, in­clud­ing “Dream­ers” whose par­ents took them to the US when they were chil­dren. Mul­doon’s cam­paigns against other­ness in­cluded ac­cus­ing for­eign-born trade union­ists of eco­nomic sab­o­tage, de­port­ing Pa­cific Is­land over­stay­ers and crack­ing down on Maori ac­tivists.

Trump with­drew from the Paris cli­mate ac­cord, plac­ing the US in an ex­clu­sive ­so­ci­ety with Syria and Nicaragua. He la­belled cli­mate change a “hoax” and ap­pointed a de­nier to head the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. Mul­doon an­tag­o­nised world opin­ion and flouted the Gle­nea­gles Agree­ment by re­fus­ing to re­quire Kiwi sport­ing bod­ies and ath­letes to com­ply with the ­boy­cott on sport­ing con­tacts with South Africa un­der the apartheid regime.

Trump has ex­plic­itly con­doned po­lice bru­tal­ity. Mul­doon’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to “main­tain the rule of law” dur­ing the 1981 Spring­bok Tour ex­tended to en­cour­ag­ing heavy-handed and some­times bru­tal polic­ing to en­sure the rugby com­mu­nity could con­tinue its ri­valry with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of an ide­o­log­i­cally racist pariah state.

But there are sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences. Mul­doon came from a hum­ble back­ground. His home in Chatswood on Auck­land’s North Shore was com­fort­able enough, but a far cry from Trump Tower or Mar-a-Lago or, for that mat­ter, John Key’s $20 mil­lion Par­nell man­sion. Trump was born with a sil­ver spoon in his mouth and de­voted him­self to the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of wealth, by what­ever means he could get away with.

Mul­doon could be a mav­er­ick, but he’d joined the Na­tional Party as a young man and was a loy­al­ist there­after. Trump was a reg­is­tered Demo­crat un­til 1987 and has since changed his of­fi­cial po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tion at least five times. Mul­doon was a ca­reer politi­cian: when he be­came Prime Min­is­ter, he’d been an MP for 15 years and had stints as Min­is­ter of Fi­nance, Deputy Prime ­Min­is­ter and Leader of the Opposition. Trump hadn’t served in govern­ment or held elected of­fice be­fore be­com­ing Pres­i­dent.

GEN­UINE SYM­PA­THY

Al­though there was a dark side to Mul­doon’s pop­ulism, he had a gen­uine con­cern for and affin­ity with or­di­nary Ki­wis. As Belich writes, he “placed him­self at the head of ‘Rob’s Mob’ partly for po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage but partly also from gen­uine sym­pa­thy”. His com­mit­ment to “the way we were”, ar­gues Belich, was philo­soph­i­cal as well as prag­matic. Trump has no an­i­mat­ing cause bar the grat­i­fi­ca­tion of his ego; to the ex­tent that he em­braces pop­ulist nos­trums, it’s out of a de­sire to se­cure the un­shake­able loy­alty of an in­fin­itely cred­u­lous base and a delu­sion, born of ig­no­rance, that the prob­lems con­fronting the US Pres­i­dent are eas­ily solved.

In Scott’s as­sess­ment, “Mul­doon was a much smarter per­son, far more in­tel­lec­tu­ally cu­ri­ous. Mul­doon wasn’t a liar; Trump is a patho­log­i­cal liar.”

Trump has a smart-arse smirk, whereas Mul­doon had a sense of hu­mour. When I was a press of­fi­cer at Air­bus In­dus­trie, the Toulouse-based air­craft man­u­fac­tur­ing con­sor­tium, in the 1980s, Mul­doon paid a visit. He was in­ter­ested in avi­a­tion and, in those days, the na­tional car­rier was a govern­ment de­part­ment. There was a mid­morn­ing sum­mit meet­ing at which the two del­e­ga­tions met across a long, nar­row ta­ble. Mul­doon sat op­po­site Air­bus’s pres­i­dent, in front of whom was a tall glass, a small bot­tle of Per­rier and a large bot­tle of scotch.

Ges­tur­ing at the bot­tle, Mon­sieur le Prési­dent, a func­tion­ing al­co­holic, ex­plained to Mul­doon that he had a cold. Most politi­cians would have feigned sym­pa­thy while res­o­lutely ig­nor­ing the scotch. Mul­doon, who didn’t mind a bev­er­age him­self, smiled, emit­ted his slightly sin­is­ter chuckle and said, “Well, that should kill it stone dead.”

Trump was a reg­is­tered Demo­crat un­til 1987 and has since changed his of­fi­cial po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tion five times. Mul­doon was a ca­reer politi­cian who’d been an MP for 15 years.

Strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties: Prime Min­is­ter Robert Mul­doon (left) in 1982 and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. Far left, NZ First leader Win­ston Peters, the last Mul­doon­ist.

Ac­cu­sa­tions were made against pres­i­den­tial ri­val Hil­lary Clin­ton and Pres­i­dent Barack Obama (above) by Trump, and against for­mer Labour min­is­ter Colin Moyle (left) by Mul­doon.

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