Canadians who were shocked by the election of Donald Trump in 2016 have been comforting themselves since then with two thoughts: it can’t happen again and it can’t happen here.
It didn’t happen again; not quite. But the fact that Trump gained more votes in 2020 than he did four years ago — roughly seven million more, so far — should serve as bracing evidence that Trumpism is more than a blip on the political landscape.
So by the same token, it’s probably unwise to continue assuming that Trump’s brand of politics can be somehow contained south of the Canada-U.S. border, any more than a virus can. While Canadians of a progressive bent may be still basking in relief over Joe Biden’s victory, complacency doesn’t seem like the best idea over the long haul.
The win, in short, was too close a call.
When you think about it, Canadian Liberals in particular have experienced two jolts to their comfortable assumptions in the past couple of weeks.
Two by-elections in Toronto, in some of the safest Liberal ridings in Canada, saw erosions in support for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. These were the first electoral verdicts on the prime minister since the pandemic hit Canada, and the first chance for voters to weigh in on all of Trudeau’s very deliberate efforts to handle the crisis in a way opposite to Trump.
Trudeau won those by-elections, but not resoundingly. Nor was Trump resoundingly defeated last week, even if Canadians — like many pollsters north and south of the border — were expecting a slam dunk.
Frank Graves, the EKOS pollster who has been doing an intense study of populism and its potential to surface in Canada, was not feeling complacent at all as the results rolled in from the Nov. 3 vote. Graves and Michael Valpy wrote a piece in the Star on the eve of the vote last week, and the conclusion of that article was a warning and a prediction wrapped up in four words: “Trump is still competitive.”
Quietly, methodically, Graves has been analyzing the component pieces of Trump’s appeal and what feeds the political culture of grievance that the president championed. Much of Graves’ findings were published earlier this year in a paper for the University of Calgary’s public-policy school — a paper that should be required reading for any Canadians of the “it can’t happen here” way of thinking.
Graves has coined the phrase “ordered populism” to describe the Trump phenomenon and the paper’s summary describes it this way:
“Ordered populism rests on the belief in a corrupt elite, and the idea that power needs to be wrested from this elite and returned to the people. Oriented toward authoritarianism, ordered populism emphasizes obedience, hostility toward outgroups, a desire to turn back the clock to a time of greater order in society, and a search for a strongman type to lead the return to a better time.”
Does that type of politics exist in Canada? It sure does, Graves says, and it’s been on the rise for the past few years. His research says that view is shared by as much as a third of the population and its ascent is accompanied by increases in polarization, inequality and a decline in the middle class.
This is all a bucket of cold water on the wave of relief in Canada at Trump’s defeat, but Graves is blunt. “If you think anything has been solved in the United States with this election, it’s not,” he says. “Our response is typically in Canada to either sneer at this or deny that it’s happening, and that’s really not particularly helpful.”
Some of that denial is rooted in the fact that we really don’t have a northern version of Trump in Canada, though that label has been tried out on everyone from Ontario Premier Doug Ford to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to Maxime Bernier, tleader of the new People’s Party — who hasn’t so far managed to win a seat for himself or his party. Nor has Canada polarized, at least not yet, around the pandemic, as the U.S. did.
Just because we don’t have a Trump here, though, doesn’t mean that we’re immune to the political forces he whipped up in the U.S.: whether that’s opposition to global trade and immigration, or grudge-fuelled resentment of institutions, big business, elites and experts. Any glance at the Canadian political conversation on Twitter demonstrates daily that this anger simmers on social media.
Allan Rock, former senior minister in Jean Chretien’s government who also served as Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, has been urging that this country keep up its guard against the spread of Trumpism. He spoke about some of those concerns on CBC Radio’s The Current last week, and afterward obliged me with some further thoughts.
Rock says he’s been troubled for a while about what dark forces Trump seems to have unleashed, not just in the U.S., but in Canada too.
“I think the most damaging aspect of his awful tenure has been the voice he has given to white supremacy and racism generally,” Rock said.
He points to what he cites as the “dramatic uptick” in hate-motivated crimes in this country, up 47 after Trump came to power. “Although the numbers went down in 2018, they remain higher than before Trump took office (they were on a downward trend 2014-16,)” Rock notes.
“Beyond those stats, one can cite the general coarsening of the language used in public debate, the frightening aggressiveness on social media, and the steep rise in the number and activity of extreme right-wing groups in Canada — all evidence of lowered civility, more confrontational behaviour and the increasing boldness of the hatemongers.”
It’s not just words, though.
Rock didn’t mention it explicitly, but many Liberals are disturbed by how blithely people seem to have skipped right past a chilling incident last summer, when a Canadian Forces reserve member, Corey Hurren, crashed through the gates of Rideau Hall with a truck full of weapons, headed for Trudeau’s residence. As the Star has reported, Hurren has a well-documented connection to far-right conspiracy networks and the alternative-news universe. The “sausage-maker from Manitoba,” as Hurren has been described, was actually due in court last Friday, but the case was held over for another month, awaiting a possible plea.
The day before this incident, a “Freedom Rally” took place in Ottawa, complete with pandemic deniers, anti-mask and gun advocates, and yes, placards in support of Trump. It was by no means a large civil disturbance — the national capital kind of rolls with protests of all kinds — but it was enough of an event to show that Trump’s brand of grievance politics exists in Canada, too. Bernier made an appearance at the rally, but it would be a stretch to call him the leader of it.
Canada’s complacency about Trump-style politics is also fed by the absence here of two other major ingredients of its power in the U.S.: binary choices and Fox News (a mass-market media amplifier for Trump and his base).
In Canada, voters have more than two, either/or options at the ballot box and more citizens float between political parties, making it more difficult to cast the choice on election day as one between good and evil. There’s no equivalent of Fox News and viewership for it here is minuscule, say sources familiar with the Canadian ratings. An attempt at setting up a Fox News North, Sun TV, collapsed several years ago because it wasn’t profitable.
All Canadians who were riveted to the extra-long vote count in the U.S. — the ones who were hoping for Trump’s defeat — have no doubt floated between optimism and pessimism over the past week: hope for the way it turned out and despair that it was that close. It’s been said before; the hardest place to be in politics in these polarized times is right in the middle.
The centre is an even more uncomfortable place, too, after the past week in U.S. politics, which proved that it’s no longer possible — or wise — to see Trump as a passing or containable force.