English was diplomatic, but Kiwi opposition to Trump runs deeper than a single raised finger
OPINION: Bill English did his best to downplay it.
"New Zealanders," the prime minister said, "have for a long time not liked various presidents of the US and disagreed with their views about our anti-nuke policies for 30 years."
That didn't stop us confirming our shared values and co-operating on security and defence, he said.
Well, sort of.
But he must know that this time is different.
Kiwis laughed at "B-grade movie actor" Ronald Reagan for a while, watched Bill Clinton with the mix of attraction and repulsion normally reserved for reality TV, and shook their heads in dismay at George Bush Jr until the 9/11 attacks changed that dynamic.
Of course, a section of the population has long rejected the United States' military campaigns. A bigger group kicked against its big country-little country bullying over the anti-nuclear policy.
But it has never before got to the level of visceral opposition shown towards United States President Donald Trump.
The last time there was anything approaching this level of antagonism was during deep divisions over the Vietnam war that came to a head 47 years ago during Vice-President Spiro Agnew's visit here.
Yet this time it is deeper and more general. It is not bleeding-heart political correctness but a deep rejection of the man and his methods.
While protesters may have been the most enthusiastic bird-flippers, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sped through Wellington on Tuesday, they were expressing a view held by both the liberal and conservative wings of our society.
The policy reasons are well known enough.
Having wrung a good deal out of New Zealand and other nations over the Trans Pacific Partnership, and sharply divided public opinion in the process, it has abandoned the TPP.
Having finally drawn together virtually the whole world, with the exception of those bastions of US support Nicaragua and Syria, it has walked away from the Paris climate change accord.
Having talked up a storm about the pivot to Asia under Barack Obama, it is ceding leadership to China.
Those on the ground in the Pacific are critical of the US down-grading its presence and dragging the chain on disaster relief.
Of course on one level the US will remain a far more attractive room-mate, as a fellow democracy, than bedding down with China.
But opposition to Trump is nevertheless boiling over into attitudes towards the United States itself.
It was no surprise that a Stuff/Massey survey this week recorded scant backing for Trump; 15.2 per cent in a theoretical world where Kiwis could vote in the US. Defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton scored 51 per cent and others – probably Bernie Sanders in the main – took the rest.
Polls last year showed a similar trend. Given New Zealand's political spectrum starts somewhere to the left of the Democrats, that would likely be replicated in any Republican-Democrat run-off.
But the biggest surprise was respondents' views in a three-way test of where our bilateral efforts should be aimed. About 42 per cent picked the UK, reflecting our historical links, 42.5 per cent went for China and only a paltry 15.6 per cent for the US.
Put in the context of New Zealanders' (anecdotal?) suspicion of Chinese immigration, investment and land purchases – and the political hay made on those issues by NZ First and more recently Labour – that is a stunning finding.
If New Zealanders are looking to China for leadership and bilateral links over the US (in a conservative and male-heavy sample) then something profound is going on.
Tillerson did his best to address the policy issues and assert the US's commitment to the region and rules-based solutions.
He reaffirmed its interest in trade deals – albeit bilateral ones where New Zealand will be well down the pecking order or, even more ephemerally, multilateral deals in the future.
He stressed how much the US had reduced greenhouse gas emissions since 1990, even as its economy grew by 50 per cent, and said no-one should interpret US actions as stepping away from those issues or as seeking to isolate itself.
Indeed, one of the reasons he and other senior figures from the administration had visited the region was to reaffirm how important it was to US security, and economic interests.
"I think you can expect . . . to see an elevated level of engagement to that which you saw in the past eight years."
Some even detected that Tillerson was subtly differentiating the US body politik from the person of Trump.
But talk is cheap, and New Zealanders will be looking for something more concrete to put the lie to Trump's rhetoric and actions on climate change and trade pacts – both so important to the region.
The next litmus test will be whether Trump turns up at the Apec meeting in Vietnam in November or – more tellingly for the Pacific – Apec in Papua New Guinea in 2018.
Meanwhile, Tillerson cannot have left Wellington without a sense of the dismay – at Government, Opposition and public level – over the US's direction and the Trump phenomenon.
English didn't address the latter directly in his talks with Tillerson, but Labour leader Andrew Little did.
Trump was ham-fisted, his actions "weird" and he was bringing the office of president into disrepute.
In fact, his schoolroom bullying, most recently of London Mayor Sadiq Khan after his city had suffered an horrific attack – by taking some of his words wildly out of context – read more like the comments section of a blog or the "trolling" of a partisan social media ninja than a statesman leading the most powerful of nations.
It is not a problem that exists in a vacuum for New Zealand governments.
The next time it is inclined to participate in anything that can be seen as "Trump's war" it will face a heightened level of opposition and not just from those flipping the bird at Tillerson's speeding motorcade.