I remember waking up one morning last year, lying awake for a moment, feeling warm, contented and normal. Then memory and grief kicked in: my mother was dead, and my world had changed forever. My anaesthesia had worn off.
I had a similar moment on Thursday morning when I remembered Trump had won the US presidential elections. Of course, my adult brain then took over from those primal feelings and I began to reason with myself: “Don’t be so ridiculous! How bad could it really be? It’s just another day. Democracy hasn’t died, and neither have you, sunshine. It’s not the end of the bloody world, toughen up. Who cares anyway? Maybe he’ll be just the kind of orange change-agent that could really cut through the smug Washington bubble … ”
Oh, who am I kidding? I was afraid. I’m still afraid. I’m not really afraid of Trump’s racism, sexism, narcissism or any other of his other charming personal qualities.
Really, it’s his permission-giving that’s problematic.
Maybe tyranny is in all of us. We just need someone to give us permission to give in to it. Social media is swarming with accounts of Trump-loving idiots carrying out hate-based attacks (some accounts have been made up, some not so).
Those things are awful, but in a way, I don’t feel viscerally afraid of them, as many US residents now do. Maybe I’m just too removed.
I am scared that our planet is screwed because a climate denier is in the White House. I’m scared that more wars will come because of the significant geopolitical shifts that might happen because of the isolationist in the White House.
Whatever you believe about ISIL, and the cancerous instability of the Middle East being all the fault of US foreign policy, the world is a less violent and less war-riven place than it ever has been. (Read this if you don’t believe me).
Consider how many old rivalries U.S. alliances have put to rest. Japan and Korea are now bound under the American aegis: so too are Germany and France, Greece and Turkey, Poland and Germany, Italy and Austria, to name just a few. While Europe was once the world’s most warlike continent, today it is the most peaceful (Ukraine notwithstanding). That is entirely because the U.S. has secured Europe in a way that Europe never could.
Planet Earth is considerably safer with the United States as the dominant power precisely because it keeps vast swathes of humanity disarmed. It isn’t so much a matter of it being the United States as the geopolitical system being dominated by a single power that has already reached the natural limits of expansion — that last part being key because a rising power that hasn’t yet learned when to stop conquering is quite dangerous. The U.S. is out of the empire building business; its best leaders are those who tend to its network of alliances and trade deals with an eye for stability.
So that’s been interesting. I had never thought of myself as a fan of US interventionism at all. It is only my fear of the forthcoming vacuum that exposes me. Better the devil we know. Or maybe I’m just a doomsaying fraidy-cat, who needs more geopolitical education. Quite true, I’m sure.
So what do we take from this new set of realities for us here in Aotearoa? Our Māori politicians are uniformly dismayed about the rise of Trump. On the other hand, many Māori are probably happy, no doubt, that TPPA is dead.
I tweeted on Wednesday night about how happy I was to be here in New Zealand. It was the silver lining to my night. But are we at risk of the rise of the Trump-style demagogue here?
There are two main bulwarks, or defences, against it that immediately come to mind. One is our level of electoral participation. And perhaps there is a lesson in here for Māori, Pākehā and tauiwi alike.
I firmly believe that Trump was not voted in by a pack of racist, sexist xenophobes. That’s just too glib. I think what happened is yet to be fully explained over the coming weeks and months. But one thing is clear: Trump became possible because 10 million Obama supporters decided not to vote at all, compared to 2008.
In fact, only 56.9 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot at all in this US election. This compares with 77.9 percent of New Zealand registered voters turning out in our last general election in 2014. This includes 67.59 percent of Māori eligible voters.
So, while Māori voter apathy is a real problem, perspective is interesting. US voter apathy can lead to a failed change-agent such as Obama and an ignorant strongman like Trump coming to power on the back of resentment of “the elites” and a yearning for revolution. A yearning for someone who promises what they simply cannot deliver.
So what happens in our country as far as the housing crisis, growing discontent and income inequality is concerned matters from this perspective too. The danger is not just that people who are powerless and angry vote for someone like Trump. The danger is they don’t vote at all.
The second bulwark against Trump NZ is ongoing connection between our “elites” — our educated, liberal, politically engaged, high-income urbanites — and the rest of us. In this article in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan, an English writer and blogger, cautions against the wholesale jettison of the elites in a mature democracy:
The freedom in that democracy has to be experienced to be believed — with shame and privilege in particular emerging over time as anathema. But it is inherently unstable. As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.
But maybe we are already there. There are arguably growing gaps between Māori elites and the rest of us — just as there is growing mutual incomprehension between Pākehā elites and the rest of the Pākehā population. If this trajectory continues, we too will one day throw the baby out with the bathwater in a fit of mutual self-loathing, and surrender to demagoguery.
So what to do? For one thing, depending on where we sit on the spectrum, we have to resist the temptation to heap scorn and contempt on those we perceive to be different (culturally, socio-economically, politically) from us.
For another: engage with those selfsame people. Talk to the people you loathe the most. Whanaungatanga. Our future depends on it.
Let me finish with an ancient story: one of Aesop’s fables.
According to the story, a group of frogs lived happily and peacefully in a pond. Over time, however, they became discontented with their way of life, and thought they should have a mighty king to rule over them. They called out to the great god Zeus to send them a king.
Zeus was amused by the frogs’ request, and cast a large log down into their pond, saying “Behold, your king!” At first, the frogs were terrified of the huge log, but after seeing that it did not move, they began to climb upon it. Once they realized the log would not move, they called out again to Zeus to send them a real king, one that moved.
Annoyed by the frogs, Zeus said, “Very well, here is your new king,” and sent a large stork to the pond. The tork began devouring frogs. In terror, frogs called out to Zeus to save them. Zeus refused, saying the frogs now had what they’d wanted, and had to face the consequences.
As the US is learning … be careful what you wish for.
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