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John Armstrong: ACT leader David Seymour's tweaking of Trump's war-cry a half-baked idea

How could a politician as sage, shrewd and streetwise as David Seymour have got things so hopelessly and horribly wrong?

David Seymour has announced a "Make Aotearoa Great Again" event for Waitangi Day - a clear reference to Donald Trump's theme for his 2016 presidential campaign. Source: 1 NEWS / iStock

What possessed ACT’s lone MP to borrow Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan and create a New Zealand variant in the form of “Make Aotearoa Great Again”?

If the adaptation was meant to be some kind of early April Fool’s Day joke, then nobody is laughing — and the only person who has ended up looking the fool is the one who initiated the prank.

As an opening gambit in election year, Seymour’s tweaking of Trump’s war-cry runs the gamut from plain dumb to utterly stupid.

No sooner had the Epsom MP flagged his intention to deliver his scheduled Waitangi Day “state of the nation” address under the “Make Aotearoa Great Again“ banner than he was not so much on the back foot as flat on his face, having been trampled into the dust by the predictable overwhelmingly negative reception that followed his announcement.

Seymour tried to claim a victory of sorts by arguing that the idea had garnered far more attention than his speech next month is likely to get.

That is probably true. The problem is that the attention was of the kind that no politician would want to get.

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David Seymour under fire for adopting Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan for Aotearoa

Taking on board a revision of Trump’s “MAGA" is the kind of half-baked idea that bubbles to the surface during brain-storming sessions that all the political parties in Parliament will have been holding as they thrash out their respective strategies for increasing their slice of the party vote in the months leading up to the general election which must be held on or before November 21.

It is an election which Seymour will hold high hopes of doubling (at the very least) the number of ACT MPs in the House.

With a bigger intake of MPs comes greater leverage to get more of what ACT wants done. That would be even more the case should the number of ACT MPs prove to be the difference between National being able to put a functioning administration together rather than being consigned to the opposition benches in Parliament for a further three years.

Still, it is going to take a herculean effort to hike ACT’s support above its current rating of around 1.5 per cent. There is little margin for error, so to speak, in the means Seymour adopts in order to make a vote-changing impact in coming months. It has hardly been the best of starts, however.

Not only has Seymour totally misread the New Zealand public mood. He seems to have been beguiled by his assessment that Trump’s MAGA message ranks as probably the most successful campaign slogan of the last few years.

Seymour is not wrong in making such a claim, even if Trump-haters might point blank refuse to admit that is the case.

Most, if not all of the slogan’s success came from the context in which it was uttered, however. It struck a raw nerve during America’s 2016 presidential campaign. It encapsulated the feeling of frustration and powerlessness abounding in middle America at the diminishing diplomatic clout of the United States in its supposed role as the prime global superpower.

The crucial element in Trump’s slogan — and what made it so alluring— was that he was not only promising to make America great. He was promising to make America great “again”.

Such a combination of nationalism and nostalgia can be a highly potent political weapon. But it is not necessarily one that exports well.

The context in which New Zealand politics functions is very different from what goes down in Washington and across the rest of the United States.

In particular, ACT’s mission in life has been to eschew populism — not to pander to it and most definitely not to embrace it. The good news for Seymour is that most voters will likely forget he has made a gaffe, assuming they have noticed he has done so in the first place.

But not all voters.There are two key pockets of the nationwide voter base which are crucial to any renaissance of ACT. And they did notice.

The first group are what might be termed as “urban economic liberals”. Their view of Trump goes as far as supporting his programme of tax cuts and his shutdown of Washington-based bureaucratic entities of questionable purpose and value in terms of the common good.

These voters otherwise share the wider public opinion that finds the almost-daily and infantile display of megalomania by the current incumbent in the White House as enticing as a proverbial cup of cold vomit.

The other group of voters annoyed with Seymour were hardline conservatives who were suspicious of the ACT’s leader co-option of the word “Aotearoa”, fearing that it might be the first step in a surreptitious campaign to change the nation’s name.

That would be the last thing on Seymour’s mind. But the uproar — as brief as it might have been — serves as warning of the dangers in dabbling in such deep waters without thinking through the possible consequences.

Seymour’s last line of defence has been to suggest that replacing “America” with “Aotearoa” in the slogan was the result of deciding “we'd have a bit of fun".

It is a pretty safe bet that the near-universal view of New Zealanders is that Trump is no fun at all. The message to politicians is simple. Don’t go there.