I have a Make America Great Again hat.
I bought it as a souvenir at a Donald Trump rally when I was a correspondent in the U.S covering the last election. I went to heaps of those rallies, for Trump and all the others. At events for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Mitt Romney, and Barack Obama, I also bought souvenirs. I even had a Jeb! Bush yard sign for a while, but it didn’t seem worth keeping.
Often when I’m somewhere new I buy silly little souvenirs. When I was in China on assignment in 2008, I bought Mao Tse Tung’s Little Red Book. I bought a mug from the military shop at Guantanamo Bay prison camp, having just returned from filming the prisoners inside. On the times I’ve visited parts of Cuba proper, I’ve taken photos in front of the ‘Patria o Muerte’ signs (Patriotism or Death). I have printed out the pics of Hezbollah posters I took in Lebanon. I have photos and fridge magnets from the West Bank, Turkey, and Pakistan.
Was displaying the MAGA hat in his office the best idea Todd Muller has ever had? Maybe not. Did he handle it well? Not really. I understand some people think the hats have come to represent white supremacy. But the guy obviously bought it as an innocent souvenir. And if a political leader having a campaign souvenir from his time travelling in the U.S on official business is truly as upsetting for some people as they say it is, may I gently suggest they probably aren’t the sort of person who would vote for Todd Muller at the best of times.
I have a Make America Great Again cap. It’s a memory of a crazy story I covered. I think we owe Todd Muller the benefit of the doubt.
Besides, if Donald Trump upsets you, just wait until you hear about the leaders of some of other big trading partners. Were the people upset about a MAGA hat marching outside parliament when Jacinda Ardern didn’t forcefully condemn Muslims Uighurs being kept in re-education concentration camps by the government of our biggest trading partner? Funnily enough, no.
Wait until you hear about how many immigrant families Barack Obama deported, or how many innocent people were killed by his soldiers in the Afghanistan surge he ordered. Would there be similar outrage if Todd Muller had a HOPE poster in his office? Something tells me there wouldn’t.
We’re all hypocrites. Outrage is selective. Personally I’m much more concerned with the fact we’re staring down mass unemployment and a generation-defining economic crisis than the fact Todd Muller has a Trump hat.
And honestly, I think most New Zealanders are with me.
That’s why, on Monday night on Q+A, I didn’t ask Todd Muller about his hat. I asked what his economic plan was. It wasn’t an unexpected or unreasonable subject – he’s the one who rolled his party leadership and wants to be Prime Minister on the basis of his economic vision. So, every time he tried to deflect the conversation, I brought him back. When he didn’t answer the simplest questions, I didn’t give him a free pass to talk about whatever he fancied. I pulled him up. That’s my job. You might not like conflict, but my job and the job of other journalists is not to kindly let politicians talk about whatever they want for as long as they like. It’s not to give any leader a free platform for their empty phrases and platitudes. Our job is to try and scrutinise any political leader who sits with us, no matter what party they represent.
Do I always get it right? Of course not. On multiple occasions when I’ve interviewed Jacinda Ardern, I’ve been accused of being too tough on the Prime Minister. I’ve been called a shill for interviews with members of The Greens, and ACT, and New Zealand First. There is no pleasing everyone and few of the people accusing me and my colleagues of bias this week ever pause to consider their own. All anyone in my position can hope for, is to be evenly disliked across the board.
Todd Muller had a poor few days. I was surprised at just how disorganised he and his team appeared to be. I’m sure they learnt some valuable lessons.
But in two months, will any of this matter? Will we be discussing a few difficult moments on live TV or who does and doesn’t own a MAGA hat?
Just wait. If there are a few hundred thousand newly unemployed Kiwis, the issues that really matter will come sharply into focus.