Graham Adams: ‘Boring’ Todd Muller sets a trap with a hat

Graham Adams: ‘Boring’ Todd Muller sets a trap with a hat

Watching Todd Muller make his first speech as the newly minted Leader of the Opposition after Simon Bridges’ defenestration on Friday brought to mind a headmaster addressing a school assembly. He showed no particular desire to ingratiate himself with his audience although the occasional flash of self-deprecating humour indicated a desire to connect with them, as did his looking up regularly from his notes to give an air of spontaneity.

In short, he looked avuncular and reassuring, a leader with a sure and steady hand who may never set the world on fire as Jacinda Ardern has, but someone who is naturally competent, commanding and genial with it. At best, many concluded, he might be capable of saving the furniture for the demoralised National Party at September’s election but he clearly represents no threat to Ardern’s spectacular dominance of New Zealand’s politics since the Covid-19 pandemic sparked a nationwide lockdown in late March.

Then suddenly the world — and particularly the world of social media — burst into flames when it became clear the new leader was not going to be shamed into hiding his red hat with “Make America Great Again” emblazoned on it. And not only was the item of Donald Trump memorabilia on show at his MP’s office at Parliament but he fully intended to transfer it to his new office as Leader of the Opposition despite the furore it had created.

Some left-leaning Twitterati and Facebookers immediately concluded his obduracy in the face of public outrage and a dismal failure to “read the room” had just sealed a landslide win for Ardern in September. Even NZ Herald political analyst Claire Trevett thought it was a rookie’s error: “It was Muller’s first lesson in seemingly small things becoming big things when you are the Leader of the Opposition.”

It doesn’t seem to have crossed the minds of the immediately outraged, however, that rather than Muller making a serious political misstep he had set a clever trap that the censorious, finger-wagging media tumbled headlong into.

As Muller pointed out, he also has memorabilia from Hilary Clinton’s campaign in his office, but the media doesn’t seem even slightly interested in that. In short, their unrelenting focus on his MAGA hat can only be a reflection of partisan left-wing sympathies.

Perhaps predictably, a member of a minority also rose to the bait. Aliya Danzeisen, of the Islamic Women’s Council, said the MAGA cap had no place being displayed in a parliamentary office. “That hat represents the denial of the freedom of beliefs,” she said. ”If [Muller] wants to be the Prime Minister of New Zealand it would be nice if he’d choose to display objects that represent the values of New Zealand.”

Ironically, it is impossible to find a photo of Danzeisen in which she is not wearing a hijab, which of course is a head covering that symbolises the denial of freedom for millions of women worldwide to believe what they like and to wear what they want.

Try taking off your headscarf in public in Iran, for instance, and you may end up in jail, flogged or fined. As Amnesty International puts it: “Under the country’s compulsory veiling laws, women and girls — even those as young as seven — are forced to cover their hair with a headscarf against their will. Women who do not are treated as criminals by the state.

“Iran’s ‘morality’ police place the entire female population — 40 million women and girls — under surveillance. These state agents drive around the city and have the power to stop women and examine their dress, scrupulously assessing how many strands of hair they are showing, the length of their trousers and overcoats, and the amount of make-up they are wearing.”

Suddenly it is the hijab-wearing Danzeisen — not Todd Muller — who seems to be the one oblivious to the contradictions inherent in a debate about a red cap sitting on the shelf in an MP’s office.

The apparent hypocrisy didn’t go unnoticed on her Twitter feed. One wrote: “Woman wearing religious headscarf tells man his hat is bad”, while another said: “You tell him to keep his MAGA hat at home yet you wear the hijab — the ultimate sign of the oppression of women.”

The most obvious message from Muller’s unwillingness to relent is that he refuses to be cowed by New Zealand’s own morality police. Greens MP Golriz Ghahraman declared herself to be “exhausted” by the debate and tweeted, without a hint of irony: “We can’t ignore the substance behind MAGA and how terrifying it is if that shrill bullying ethos becomes casually mainstream in NZ politics.”

The unspoken kicker, however, is that Ardern famously donned a headscarf after the March 15 mosque murders in Christchurch as a sign of solidarity with New Zealand’s Muslim community, with the image of her wearing it projected around the world. If you want to condemn Muller for displaying a MAGA hat in his office because you believe it is a symbol of oppression, you really have to condemn Ardern for wearing a headscarf too.

Muller is obviously far too smart and far too canny to make any of this explicit — or to wear the cap for a photo when he was asked to last September during an interview with The Spinoff. In fact, it has become abundantly clear in the short space of a weekend that anyone who thinks he is a dope who can be safely dismissed as a contender for Ardern’s crown in the election should really think again.

On Sunday in Newsroom’s literary section, he was described in a mock-heroic poem titled “The Rise of Toad” as “a suit that walks itself into the Koru Lounge… his hairless dome gleaming in anticipation of the Crown”.

Amusing as the poem is, it is hard not to see it as yet another manifestation of the lazy impulse to dismiss the Leader of the Opposition as a “pale, stale male” who is a throwback to the 1950s rather than a someone able to govern a go-ahead, exciting, multicultural nation of the 21st century.

The liberal media, of course, has already made that unfortunate mistake with Donald Trump, Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson.


Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.