Sir John Key: Now I finally understand why voters like Donald Trump


Last Sunday, at home in Auckland, I spent an hour watching on TV as President Trump gave one of his many rallies in Pennsylvania.

It was probably the first time I had watched a full rally, rather than a few clips on the news, and while some of Trump’s behaviour was unbecoming of a President, and the speech itself bereft of substance, for the first time I could see why 5000 people had bothered turning up on a freezing afternoon to watch him.

Trump was their guy.

He stands against all of what they believe is wrong with the world and, in particular, the Washington “swamp”. He is the outsider unafraid to say it as he sees it, which is how his audience also sees the world. He identifies their favourite villain, China, and he calls China out again and again.

So much of what he has said and done in his presidency, I disagree with.

He stands against multilateralism and against countries working together. He’s against free trade and one of his first actions as President was to pull out of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, robbing New Zealand of a free trade agreement with the United States. He doesn’t think that burning coal matters and he apparently has more time for the leader of North Korea than the leader of Germany – someone who I know from first-hand experience to be an exceptional and principled leader.

So why did I find myself warming to him and enjoying the spectacle of this bizarre rally of people wearing MAGA masks as a protest, despite so many of their fellow citizens dying of Covid-19?

I enjoyed it partly because he is passionate. Trump is a man with energy to burn. How many of us would have had Covid-19, spent a few days in hospital and – even if we did drink a bottle of Janola – have enough energy left to do five political rallies in the following days?

The truth is that Trump himself is not America’s problem: he is a symptom of that nation’s problems.

It’s odd to me because America is a remarkable country. I love visiting there. The energy and creativity of places like Silicon Valley are intoxicating. The American people are genuinely warm and friendly and, at some level, the American dream remains a reality.

At the same time, the US fails far too many of its citizens when it comes to basic health care and financial support in desperate times of need. There is growing racial disharmony and a complete inability to tackle issues like gun control, even though the majority of Americans want it.

The US is the world’s only superpower yet it is consumed by an emerging China that it blames, rather than embraces. It’s as if, for all its brash self-confidence, the US feels uncertain and unsure of its own ability to win in a competitive environment.

I enjoyed Trump’s rally for the spectacle, not the substance. I enjoyed it even as it saddens me that a country which I have always admired and respected, has seemingly lost its way.

The challenge for the next President – whoever it is – is to get America’s mojo back, to reduce inequality and to harness the promise of the American dream. The challenge is that instead of trying to go it alone, the next US President again wears the mantle of the leader of the free world not as a burden to be shunned, but as a badge of honour to be celebrated.

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