SINCE NOVEMBER 2016, one of the big unknowns of New Zealand politics has been: Could Trumpism happen here? Over the past week in Auckland there have been strong indications that the answer is: Yes, it could. We even have a name. New Zealand’s Donald Trump may turn out to be the independent candidate for the Auckland mayoralty, Leo Molloy.
Molloy’s tactics on the hustings, and their similarity to those employed by Trump in his quest for the Republican nomination, have been commented upon since the mayoral campaign began to pick up speed. His most serious challenger from the right, former Heart of the City boss, Viv Beck, he has dismissed as “Vanilla Viv”. Former Far North District Council Mayor, Wayne Brown, now falling back in the Curia/Ratepayers Alliance poll, is dismissed by Molloy as “The Walking Dead” – subsequently amended to the even more insulting “Shuffling Dead”.
The problem for Molloy’s opponents, as it was for Trump’s, is that these jibes make audiences laugh. Political aspirants on the stump can survive many things, but the derisive laughter of those whose votes they are soliciting is, generally speaking, not one of them. Molloy’s wicked sense of humour and unrestrained tongue are dangerous weapons.
Until last week, however, Molloy’s Trumpian stump tactics have gone unnoticed by all but the most dedicated followers of local government politics. The latest Curia/Ratepayers Alliance poll showed the Labour/Green endorsed Efeso Collins edging ahead of Molloy – a trend which powerfully reinforced the argument of the Auckland Right that the only sensible strategy was for the unserious jokester, Molloy, to withdraw in favour of the moderate and exceedingly serious Viv Beck.
Efeso Collins could be defeated, the Auckland Right insisted, but only if the numerically superior mass of conservative voters were united behind a single viable candidate. Conservative pundits further suggested that nationwide success for the Right in 2023 was contingent upon it ripping Auckland from the Left’s grasp in 2022. The time had come for all those who, in this fatally overcrowded field, could not hope to defeat Collins, to swing their supporters behind Ms Beck – the candidate most favoured by the Communities and Residents group and the National Party.
But the broadcast of TV3’s “New Zealand Tonight” on the evening of Thursday, 14 July 2022, threw all the sensible plans of the Auckland Right into the air. Comedian Guy Williams had persuaded Molloy to join him on one of his trademark forays into televised journalistic anarchy and questionable taste. The result is generally agreed to have been a gamechanger.
Any normal candidate would have run a mile from such a proposal – rightly fearing the ridicule and humiliation Williams would be straining every comedic muscle to inflict upon his hapless victim. But, Molloy is not a normal candidate. The former jockey, qualified veterinarian, highly successful businessman, restauranteur and philanthropist backed himself to beat his young woke interlocutor into a soft-cocked hat.
What unfolded was an magical moment of gonzo television. Using the sort of language generally confined to male locker-rooms, Molloy soon had Williams hanging on the ropes of his own boxing ring. It was vulgar, disreputable and extremely funny. Between them, Williams and Molloy carved out a decorum -free-zone that threw into sharp relief the po-faced puritanism of the contemporary mainstream news media. Within hours of being released by TV3, the Williams/Molloy encounter was all over social-media. The usual woke commissars were, unsurprisingly, outraged, but thousands more were delighted.
It was Oscar Wilde who quipped: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Molloy’s thinking clearly runs along similar lines. In a single stroke he had transformed an extremely dull mayoral contest into something everybody was talking about. And, as Molloy quipped to Williams: “As long as people are talking about me, I’m winning.”
What his opponents will be fearing is that the sort of bloke (Molloy’s pitch was unashamedly masculinist) who would normally not even bother to open his voting papers when they arrived in the mail, will now be sufficiently motivated to tear open the envelope and triumphantly place a tick beside Molloy’s name.
Will this bloke be highly educated? No. Will he be a member of the Professional-Managerial Class? No. Will he be culturally sensitive? No. Will he have anything much in common with the sort of people who run the Labour Party and the Greens? He will not.
Most likely the bloke who responds positively to the Williams/Molloy encounter will be one of the 63 percent of registered voters who declined to participate in the 2019 Auckland elections. A working-class man who long ago became convinced that the sort of people who control his city have absolutely no idea, and even less interest, in how he, and people like him, feel about the way their city is run. Someone who likes hearing a politician who swears like he does; despises the same people he does; and patently does not give a flying-fuck who knows it.
This bloke will cast a vote for Leo Molloy in the same spirit that so many disillusioned American workers cast a vote for Donald Trump: because, if it works, he will have delivered a very forceful one-fingered salute to the Powers That Be.
The $64,000 Question is, of course: “Will it work?” Much depends upon the size of that angry male vote. If the “New Zealand Tonight” segment induces even ten percent of those who abstained from voting in 2019 to back Molloy with their ballot-papers in 2022, then he will be Supercity Auckland’s Third mayor. More importantly, if the next Curia/Ratepayers Alliance poll shows him leaping into the lead, then Auckland’s committed right-wing voters will not need to be told to swing their votes in behind him. They will be well aware that if Labour loses Auckland, then its chances of holding the rest of New Zealand are wafer thin.
With that grim prospect in mind, Labour and the Greens must take great care to avoid giving the impression that they consider Molloy and his supporters to be “a basket of deplorables”. They need to understand that the more habitual Labour voters learn about Molloy and the causes he believes in – which will surprise many – the more their kneejerk loyalty to Collins will be tested.
It should not be forgotten that the reason Trump made it across the line in 2016 was because he embraced many of the policies that American workers had for decades been begging the Democratic Party to implement. Owing nothing to the Republican Party grandees, Trump possessed a political flexibility unmatched by former GOP nominees. It is worth recalling that it was not the American Left that nixed NAFTA, but the standard-bearer of the American Right.
Swearing like a trooper, and having no patience whatsoever for wokeness, does not ipso facto make you a fascist. On the contrary, it just might convince a winning number of currently disillusioned Labour voters that, like them, you are simply an unvarnished, straight-talking working-class man – someone worthy of their support.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 18 July 2022.