PresidentElect Joe Biden responding to a Maori challenge when he visited Government House in Auckland in July 2016 as US Vice President

Donald Trump has been defeated but what will matter to New Zealand about his election result is how much Trumpism has been defeated.

That will mean how much his populist domestic politics continue to inspire imitators here and whether his departure will calm the international foreign policy environment.

The Australian author, editor and political journalist, Paul Kelly, says that Trumpism has its origins in the death of the American dream; the proposition that anybody, particularly if they were white, could enjoy a life with a guaranteed well-paid job, a house, healthcare and then a comfortable retirement.

We saw our version of that dream destroyed in the late 80s and 90s.

Our system has more safety nets like free health care and New Zealand superannuation, and consequently our populist reaction was concentrated within one minor political party, New Zealand First.

And they are now, as a result of the election, a pale shadow of what they once were.

Trumpism emerged on the fringes of our election campaign.

Advance New Zealand sold red caps outside their rallies  with Trump’s trademark “MAGA” on them but conscripted by Billy Te Kahika and Jami Lee Ross into “Make Ardern Go Away.”

The New Conservatives endorsed all of Trump’s proposals to withdraw from international institutions.

But New Zealand First Leader, Winston Peters, who as foreign minister moved New Zealand closer to Washington,  and who shared many of Trump’s anti-establishment views, has always been careful to keep a distance between himself and the US President.


What was notable during this election campaign was that the political parties which drew inspiration from Trumpism; New Zealand First, the New Conservatives and Advance New Zealand, between them got only 5.1 per cent of the vote.

Nevertheless, the potential was there and remains.

That potential could easily be ignited if the new Government mishandles its economic response to Covid-19.

The emphasis so far has been on preserving businesses and jobs. That was reaffirmed in the Prime Minister’s speech in Auckland last Thursday.

But there are challenges.

In the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Update, Treasury forecast unemployment to peak in 2022 at 7.8 per cent. (It is currently 5.3 per cent).

That is well below the 1992 peak of 10.7 per cent.

A year after that peak, Peters founded New Zealand First.

The Government is obviously well aware of that correlation.

That is why Cabinet today will agree to extend both the Flexi-wage and small business loan schemes, both of which are designed to help retain jobs in small and medium-sized businesses.

There are other signals from the American elections that should resonate here domestically; most notably the coalition of voters that Joe Biden put together and the election of Kamala Harris as his Vice President.

The United States Census Bureau projects that by 2030 the non-Hispanic white population of the United States will have fallen from 61 per cent to 56 per cent.

New Zealand’s ethnic makeup is also changing, albeit less dramatically than the US.

Whites in New Zealand will be down from 71 per cent now to 65 per cent of the population by 2038.

Labour has recognised the growing ethnic diversity of the country.

Its new caucus contains 30 non-Pakeha MPs out of a total of 65.

National, on the other hand, has only three non-Pakeha out of its 33 MPs.

Final election results were confirmed on Friday, and National lost six ethnic MPs from its list who are not making it back.

The need for a stronger ethnic face, plus his own close relationship with National Leader, Judith Collins, would seem to favour Shane Reti (who lost his Whangarei constituency on Friday but returns as a list MP)  for the party’s deputy leadership which will be decided at National’s caucus on Tuesday.

Ultimately though, New Zealand will be looking at what sort of relationship it might expect to have with Biden’s America.

There are unlikely to be any radical changes.

Judith Collins yesterday suggested that Biden;’s election might make a New Zealand- US Free Trade agreement more likely.

That would seem overly hopeful.

Biden’s international trade policy with its emphasis on “Buy America” is little different to Trump’s “America First” trade policies; during the campaign, Trump even accused Biden of plagiarising his own economic policies.

Biden has stated unequivocally that he would not enter into any new trade agreements “until we’ve made major investments here at home, in our workers and our communities.” 

New Zealand officials will, however, be pleased that Biden plans to re-engage with the World Trade Organisation albeit that he is likely to be in conflict with the organisation over his “Buy America” policies.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta yesterday, responding to Biden’s election, would not be drawn into any speculation about future trade talks between the US and New Zealand.

“Once President-elect Biden is confirmed in January 2021, he’ll map out his areas of priority and then we’ll be in a position to identify what the priority conversations will be between America and New Zealand,” she said.

But where Trumpism has had an impact on the Indo-Pacific region has been in terms of our relationship with China.

In August last year, Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, speaking in Sydney, said: “you can sell your soul for a pile of soybeans, or you can protect your people.”

That was in answer to a question about an argument from Australia National University’s Emeritus Professor of Strategic  Studies, High White that, given Australia’s economic relationship with China, it would be unwise for the country to join in Trump’s confrontation with China.

It was a warning that was also heard loud and clear in Wellington.

But how far Biden would back off the confrontational approach that the Trump administration has deployed against China; and how much it would pressure its friends and allies in the East Asian region to support its China policies are open questions.

It is possible that New Zealand could find itself under more pressure to back off its close relationship with China.

And observers here believe that paradoxically, the Biden administration is likely to be a bigger problem in foreign affairs because it will attract more skilled and competent diplomats to work with it.

One area though where New Zealand might be able to make some inroads with Washington will be in the softy power that will be projected by the Prime Minister and her Foreign Affairs Minister.

Ardern is already a major figure among female politicians around the world; and Mahuta, as an indigenous person complete with a Moko Kaue is likely to join her.

Mahuta seemed to acknowledge this yesterday.

I’m not sure if I’m in the position to give her a message, but what I can say is as the first woman representing the foreign affairs portfolio here in Aotearoa New Zealand, we will do what we must do in the best interests of our respective countries,” she said.

“And I know that we will have many opportunities to share some areas of common interest.

“And I hope we can.”

So though New Zealand looks unlikely to have any lingering domestic political hangover from Trump, the relationship with the United States may not change as much as some might think. Trump’s ghost looks likely to continue to haunt trade policy and possibly even East Asian policy overall.