Bully Pulpits and the Politics of Nastiness.

Teddy Roosevelt coined the phrase “bully pulpit” to describe the US presidency given the position that the country occupied in world affairs. He saw it as a tremendous platform for promoting political, diplomatic, social and economic interests and agendas. Over time the phrase has been broadened to include a wider range of positions of authority and institutional platforms from which to amplify and project views and projects on a range of public and private policy issues. This can include people and agencies involved in popular culture as well as politics and business affairs, sometimes in overlapped fashion (think Elon Musk).

In years past I discounted the weight of the US presidential bully pulpit. I saw it as being more relevant to US domestic politics than foreign policy and international affairs. As a child of Latin America I did not see its influence on my daily life nor on the behaviour of local politicians even if the US was the elephant in the room when it came to Latin American politics in general and economic and security affairs in particular. Even after moving to NZ as an adult, the bully pulpit of the US presidency was to my mind more of a historical anachronism or abstract than a reality of contemporary diplomatic relations or social exchange. For all the US talk about being a “leader of the free world,” “shining house on the hill,” “world’s greatest democracy” and all that other blather, I never got the impression that a US president could use the office to project his particular vision or brand onto the international, multicultural stage. That includes charismatic presidents like Barak Obama and Ronald Reagan (as much as I hated that guy).

To be sure, the US has interests that it projects onto the world stage, but the notion that a US president could use his office to promote a global vision beyond the usual rhetoric of freedom and democracy seemed far-fetched because if nothing else, most of those type of platitudes fell on cynical if not deaf ears. For me, the bully pulpit was just a domestic soapbox.

This notwithstanding, the US has always been a bastion of cultural as well political imperialism, exporting its culture and social mores world-wide along with its economic interests, be it from Coca Cola and KFC to rap, death metal and jazz music. The synergies of economic, political and cultural imperialism are well known so nothing else need be said here other than that I used to teach about this phenomenon, noting how local societies incorporate, adopt and adapt cultural artefacts in their own style according to their native mores and narratives, often with a dominant group versus subordinate group (often ethnic minority) twist added to the mix (e.g., people of colour in the developing world have adopted rap while European descendents have adopted pop-rock, among other things). One only need think of NZ’s hip hop scene to see the process at work.

Now, I see bully pulpit and cultural imperialism being combined in a most pernicious way as manifested in the person of Donald Trump. Trump embodies what I call the politics of nastiness, and he has used the US presidency as a bully pulpit to project his vulgar full spectrum neo-fascist bigotry world-wide. At first I thought of Trump as someone who tore the scab off of racism, xenophobia and crude low brow money-grubbing in the US. But after four years of his presidency and the sequels to it, I realise that his long moment in public life has served as an invitation to and license for others around the world to follow his approach to political and social discourse. The core of this approach is to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the basest of terms, seeking to appeal to the darkest of instincts and deepest ignorance extant in a given political community. This is the politics of nastiness, and the nasty has reached NZ.

It is well known that National has been for some time looking to US rightwing spin doctors for campaign guidance and narratives (crime! waste! taxes!), but now Winston First and ACT’s David Seymour have decided to go full US conspiracy theory (Winston: globalists! mandates!) and pseudo-libertarian racist (David: free speech! bureaucrats! Treaty separatists!). The tone of politics in NZ has gotten cruder (see: Chris Bishop, Judith Collins) and more personal (e.g. treatment of Kiri Allen). The corporate media has clearly decided to go full Murdoch in approach (with a few exceptions duly noted) by stirring partisan and racial division and polemics, focusing on personal foibles and conflicts rather than platforms/proposals and going for “gotcha” moments rather than offering dispassion analyses of the policy platforms of the respective parties.

This is Trump politics 101, and it is nasty.

NZ is not alone in this. From Bolsonaro in Brazil, to Dutarte in the Philippines, to Orban In Hungary, to Milei in Argentina to Modi in India, rightwing populists have adopted nasty politics as the core weapon in their political quiver, demonising competitors and personalising attacks on their opponents in order to get them to capitulate rather than concede and to be destroyed rather than defeated. Besides their embrace of nasty politics, what binds them together and to Trump is that they all profess to be defending “traditional” values and social structures against the supposed (and imaginary) threats posed by “progressivism,” “woke” politics and the growing presence of long suppressed (and oppressed) groups in their respective societies.

In NZ it is not only mainstream politicians who have seen the opportunity of emulating Trump. The Wellington protest riots saw a number of Trump, MAGA and Confederacy references amongst the agitators. The likes of Sue Grey, Liz Gunn, Brian Tamaki and Leighton Baker openly spout conspiracist lunacy and self-serving opportunist populist tropes. The overall effect is that the scab has truly been ripped off and the extremist infection has now spread throughout NZ’s political culture. There is a violent element in it that NZ security authorities continue to be reluctant to fully address, and it is the tail that wags the rightwing minor party dogs, if not National itself.

In summary: Trump is a cultural imperialist phenomenon that has used the US presidential bully pulpit to export his style of nasty politics world-wide. For all their talk about centrism, it is evident that the right side of NZ’s political spectrum has been heavily influenced by the Trump effect. Voters need to be cognisant of that not only when deciding who to elect, but when considering the prospects of how the potential “coalition of chaos” (ACT, National, NZ First) will approach governing once installed. Mutatis mutandis, the model for that approach could well be Trump.

Things could get nasty.

6 thoughts on “Bully Pulpits and the Politics of Nastiness.

  1. A good analysis but remember we had much nastiness exposed in NZ in 1981 and subsequently applied in 1991 with the ‘mother of all budgets’ and hostile rhetoric towards minority groups and poor people.
    One wonders why the media amplify the negative without presenting facts, evidence and the right of reply to those people being pilloried.

  2. Glad to see you’re back in the fray, Pablo :-)

    Its good to be reminded of where this stuff comes from – I know little about the US and its ways apart from mainstream news sites, have never been there; so cannot normally see the relationships between what is happening here, with what is happening there. Only that Trump and his ilk are an anathema to all who care about anything – anything that is good and just and right for the world.

    I look at the candidates here, and generally am turned off by the right. Reminded of Hager’s book, The Hollow Men – for these guys like Luxon have already developed that hollow-eyed look from having to tell lies, justify their unequal policies, give to the already-rich and take from the poor.
    Meanwhile Seymour just looks like one of those old fairside clowns that you pop ping-pong balls into the mouths of, to easily win some trashy cheap sideshow prize – I used to do that when I was a kid, it was the only time you won anything! They have these weird, big smiles – I see them every time he does likewise in his odd, peculiar way.

    Perhaps these ‘free associations’ are more telling than we imagine.

    I am being unusually frank and unkind here, we are all human beings after all (aren’t we?) but I do believe that you can look into people’s faces and see their souls … Hipkins I find more frank and honest, if a little wide-eyed. Hell, he’s only been in what must be the worst job in NZ since the beginning of the year, you’ve got to cut him some slack … And I like James Shaw. He is always honest with his green credentials and a social conscience though I’m sure he’s had to swallow some rats to be part of the last/latest Labour govt.

    Sorry about the rant!
    Completely unscientific.

    And in. reply to Carolw above, nothing is the same since the advent of social media.
    Everything has become so much more complicated and intense.
    But the right always beat up on the poor and underprivileged, nothing has changed with them. So last century. Or should that be 19th century, even.

    And I won’t even get started on the party political donations, what a crock!

    Take care. Arohanui :-)

  3. Indeed Carol,

    NZ has deep vein of racism and bullying in its culture. What is different is that although having systemic roots, it used to largely be an undercurrent that episodically and opportunistically surfaced in times of social conflict or as micro-level hate crimes and discrimination. But Trump has made hate and nasty an “acceptable” part of modern political and social discourse and practice, which is why I referred to him ripping the scab off of the pent-up rot extant in polities around the world. He has made it “cool” to publicly parade one’s ignorance, prejudice, bigotry and loathing of others, something that gets mainstream varnishing by corporate media and establishment politicians (as we have seen in the US GOP, Australian conservative parties and NZ’s ACT, NZ First and even some elements within the National Party). This is cultural imperialism of an ideological sort, and of the worst kind.

  4. I suspect NZ has a somewhat similar problem to the UK where journalists tend to come from ‘posh’ backgrounds. NZ may not have a Rupert Murdoch running its media outlets, but all the same it hasn’t been immune to the gentrification & cutbacks of newsrooms, a side effect of Big Tech gobbling up ad revenue.


    What NZ needs is a Royal Commission into the media sector, following up an earlier one from 1986 which was largely ignored, and quite possibly inspired by the Leveson Inquiry in Britain & the Finkelstein Inquiry in Australia.


  5. Hola Pablo

    A very timely article. A few random thoughts

    New Zealand will always be a trend follower than a trend setter due to
    the tyranny of distance and lack of size so the politics of nastiness in our local scene here is just a mirror of what goes on elsewhere. A ” Me too sydrome ”
    They’re doing it over there so it is permissible here.

    It is a tedious bore and reflects the lack of vision and courage of our staus quo political masters

    I received a political pamphlet in the post and promptly discarded it .. in part thanks to your article due to the whingeing, negative tone and vague promises of what they could do better.

    You mention that chap Melei in Argentina. First up… he could do with a haircut! I was speaking with a friend of mine in the Argentine a few weeks ago and he explained it that there is no real alternative to vote for in their upcoming elections

    ” Conspiracy lunacy ” A few years back I stumbled upon a definition of Conspiracy theory given by a Russian.
    ” An expression coined by the CIA to denegrate those who question or seek alternative ideas.
    It sidelined people as being quirky or different.
    Now the term has been adopted by MSM and is used as a weapon to indoctrinate the populace

    The irony is not lost on me because it is precisely during times like this we need different ideas.

  6. Hola Eduardo,

    I would be careful with dismissing conspiracy theories as a CIA invention, e specially when the claim is made by a Russian. Conspiracy theories have been around for eons, but have now been amplified and broadened by social media. Mind you, real conspiracies do exist, but things like nano-chips in Covid vaccines and 5G broadband towers frying people’s brains are definitely not some of them.

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