Could a Trump Happen in Canada? Of Course: it already has.
As a Canadian that has spent 13 years living abroad I don’t often weigh into debates about domestic matters, but a question from a friend here in South America got me thinking: could a Donald Trump-like candidate find success in Canada?
When the thought was put to me my immediate response was “no”. After all, never in the entirety of our nation’s history has Canada’s willingness to define itself in contradistinction to the USA been celebrated on a global scale as it is today.
Justin Trudeau appears on the world stage as the antidote to the Trumpian hate-fuelled discourse. Canada is held in high regard for its commitment to compassion and plurality at a time when the US, many european countries, and others including Turkey, Venezuela and the Philippines flirt with fascist-adjacent leaders. On the surface it would seem Canada is well isolated from the maladies of its its American cousins.
However, we can only tell ourselves that Canada is Trump-proof if we forget about Rob Ford.
Rob Ford became the mayor of Toronto, Canada’s most populous city, a place where 50% of its inhabitants were born in another country, despite being an “aw shucks” racist. He referred to Asians as “orientales.” He lied incessantly. Like Trump, he refused to accept any and all responsibility for his behaviour. Eventually we discovered that he smoked crack. Rob Ford’s untimely death from cancer may have provided Canadians with the comfort that his time in the mayor’s office was an aberration, but it shouldn’t.
There are many narratives used to describe the phenomenon of Trump’s victory, and some defy careful analysis & even common sense. Though it’s easy to say “Americans are racist,” it’s hard to reconcile the wide-scale application of that label to the same electorate that gave us two terms of Obama (in addition, a majority of Americans did vote for Clinton).
While there are definitely racist elements in the United States that have found common cause with a candidate willing to say anything to get elected, we’d have to forget America’s applaudable progress on issues of race to see 2016 as a mere continuation of 1946. Much like de-mining the Afghan countryside, the work done pales in comparison to the work ahead.
Stating that the election was a rejection of “elites” could hold true, but we’d have to overlook the fact that the leader of the is a billionaire. Not only is he a billionaire, but a spoiled petulant man-child of a billionaire.
I believe it is safe to say that, more than a rejection of elites, the US election was a rejection of the status-quo.
Despite a modest recovery from the Great Recession, the fact is that real wages for the middle class in the US haven’t increased for fifty years.
A majority of Americans believe that their children will be worse off than they were.
Trump and Sanders addressed this popular angst, whereas Hillary was unable to articulate urgency.
In the end, Trump found believable targets in immigration and free trade. Despite the lunacy of his medicines, many felt he at least identified the illness. His supporters were willing to overlook his racism, ill-temper & lack of preparedness for the office in order to make a statement.
And here we return to Canada: anyone who lives in Toronto understands how the cost of living is a constant drag on the middle and lower class, creating a kind of economic apartheid where you either dedicate more & more of your wages to housing or you end up living farther & farther away, losing time and quality of life.
Similarly, a renter in Vancouver might be willing to vote for a drastic change if she were promised a solution to soaring housing costs.
We maritimers have been accustomed to commuting back and fourth to Fort McMurray, Alberta to work, going weeks on end without seeing our families.
These conditions feed the overwhelming narrative that things are getting worse and not better, and represent the seedlings of a populist surge. If we are not careful, those luny voices from the fringes of the Conservative Party could strike a nerve: indeed, one is even banking on it.
Unlike our American cousins, Canada does have some safeguards against unfettered populism. For example, the (Papa) Trudeau vision of a multi-lingual and multi-cultural Canada is stronger than ever. We lower the stakes of elections by having a less politicised Supreme Court. Our Head of Government is not our Head of State, meaning that all leaders must remember their duties & obligations to the sovereign. Even if the Queen is only a symbolic figurehead, her symbol is a useful reminder of a greater power.
Unlike America where political gridlock is the norm rather than the exception, Canadians can vote to “kick the bums out,” and can hand a clear reformist mandate to politicians.
This point should be understated: the Canadian/American conservative commentator David Frum has recently spoken of how political culture is derived from institutions and not the other way around. If Canadians want change we vote for change and we receive it. In the American political system it’s difficult to understand how a concrete mandate would manifest itself in a bi-cameral system with staggered elections, a logic-defying electoral collage and gerrymandered districts. If a system does not contain the ability to reform itself, it is natural that people will turn to those with no respect for the prevailing rules & who promise change at any cost.
In the end, an election is the equivalent of trying to express the abundance of the internet on a single postcard. The outputs far outweigh the inputs, and any attempt to reverse-engineer meaning is a Quixotic task. We will need time and debate to understand the real motivations behind Trump’s supporters. Thought it’s easier to judge than try to understand, the only road towards progress passes through empathy.
Canadians must understand that what ultimately makes a Trumpian-like candidate feasible is the dominance of a narrative that things are getting worse and not better. While the sentiment of decline existed in the United States for some time, Trump mounted it like a cowboy riding an H-Bomb. Our enemy is not the Trumpian imitators: our enemy is complacency.
To fight complacency we need to be willing to identify big problems and take them on. For example, Canada is an increasingly urban country: over 80% of the population lives in cities, and cities are the user-interfaces through which we interact with policy. Our cities need to be recognised as being equally if not more important than the provinces. They’ll require the resources and autonomy to put in place housing and transportation policies that enable citizens to experience high qualities of life regardless of their incomes. We need to create the conditions for our cities to be successful.
The world is experiencing a moment of accelerated evolution due to the ubiquity of exponential technologies. As a result of such transformation there will be winners and losers. Automation will kill more manufacturing jobs than free-trade, and our choices therefore are stark: we either become more sophisticated manufacturers, or we stop manufacturing. Whatever our choice abandoning the victims of change to their own devices will only cause resentment. Investing in training and advancement pays individual and collective dividends.
I could go on, but the point is not to develop a blueprint for a political agenda. Instead, we must insist that all Canadians are given the opportunity to succeed. If the memory of Rob Ford’s tortured period in office is fading then the US election should shake us awake.
Someone once said to me that financial markets don’t reveal truths but instead rally around specific narratives. The same could be said of elections.
I live in a region where populist leaders promising simple solutions to complex problems are the norm rather than the exception.
We in Latin America have seen that these leaders are much easier to put into office than they are to get out.
They have no respect for democratic institutions.
They prefer to take countries down with them rather than admit failure. If you think any country is safe just talk to Venezuelans: one of the oldest and most advanced democracies in Latin America is a shadow of its former self.
To conclude, though we love to look down our noses at our American counterparts, the truth is that Canadians must guard against complacency. Populists of the Trump ilk are the products of conditions. To avoid falling into the trap, we must prevent those conditions from taking root. Otherwise it is only a matter of time when an angry charlatan confounds us all & the true strength of our institutions are put to the test.
Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo is the CEO of Céntrico Digital, an agency based in Quito, Ecuador that provides services to companies around the world. If you liked this article you might enjoy “What Justin Trudeau’s election teaches us about the future of political marketing.”