Trump and Muldoon

Tyler Cowan writes at Bloomberg:

What would you think of a Western democratic leader who was populist, obsessed with the balance of trade, especially effective on television, feisty and combative with the press, and able to take over his country’s right-wing party and swing it in a more interventionist direction?

Meet Robert Muldoon, prime minister of New Zealand from 1975 to 1984. For all the comparisons of President to Mussolini or various unsavory Latin American leaders, Muldoon is a clearer parallel case.

Berlusconi is another good comparison.

Some of the similarities are striking. Muldoon often made rude or unusually frank comments about foreign leaders (including U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the Australian prime minister), and his diplomats worked hard to undo them.

Muldoon insulted numerous world leaders. He once told the Commonwealth Secretary-General to do something he is qualified at, and take the minutes and shut up.

His most significant initiative was called “Think Big,” and, yes, it was designed to make New Zealand great again. It was based on a lot of infrastructure and fossil fuels investment, including natural gas, and it was intended to stimulate the country’s exports and remedy the trade deficit.

And his protegy is Winston, of New Zealand First – Trump’s slogan is America First.

Muldoon’s biographer, Barry Gustafson, noted that the prime minister ended up being criticized for his “apparently dogmatic arrogance of executive power”; Gustafson also tells us Muldoon “was often reluctant to take expert advice.”

Sounds very Trump like.

Like Trump, Muldoon faced some controversial race issues. The all-white South African rugby team was scheduled to tour New Zealand in 1981, and even after extensive protests Muldoon refused to ban the team. Muldoon’s critics called him a racist, and charged that his intentions in the matter were not entirely benign. Muldoon also continued his predecessor’s policy of arresting and deporting Pacific Islanders who had overstayed their visas.

If we were not an island, would Muldoon have wanted a wall?

It was his philosophy not to bother to appeal to his opponents. The more critics he generated, the more his supporters — known as “Rob’s Mob” — loved him.


To be sure, significant differences between Muldoon and Trump can be seen. Muldoon assumed office with political experience in Parliament and the cabinet, and, consistent with his background in accounting, he was renowned for his mastery of detail. For all his bullying, he was not regarded as a threat to democracy in the manner that Trump’s critics have alleged. Muldoon called for tougher policies toward the Soviet Union, and didn’t give his family a Trump-like role as advisers.

This is where Trump and Muldoon were very different. Muldoon actually knew stuff.

One lesson from the comparison is that a leader like Muldoon can be fairly popular, as he stayed in power from 1975 to 1984, winning three terms despite mistakes, antagonisms and policy failures.

And Muldoon, like Trump, won despite losing the popular vote.

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