Nova Scotia·Opinion

Nova Scotia is ripe for a Trump with Halifax-rural divide

For a Trump-like politician to win in Nova Scotia, all it would take is someone determined to win, no matter what it took, says political analyst Graham Steele.

Politicians already exploit the province's economic disparity, Graham Steele says

The economic divide between Halifax and rural communities makes the province ripe for a politician like Donald Trump, says political analyst Graham Steele. (Dominick Reuter/Reuters)

So you think it couldn't happen here?

You think Nova Scotia is immune from the populist politics that has brought Donald Trump to within a hair of the White House?

No, we're not immune.

There is nothing that unusual about Trump. He uses old, well-worn political rhetorical tools. He taps into an American nativism that has deep roots.

What's different is that he recognizes no boundaries. To borrow a phrase from a recent piece by David Frum, Trump has knocked down all the usual guardrails that kept politicians within the bounds of decent democratic discourse.

The question is whether it could happen here in Nova Scotia.

I say yes.

'Our fault, not theirs'

One of the hardest things for Canadians to get their heads around is that lots of good, honest, decent Americans can't stand Hillary Clinton. They love their kids just as much as you love yours. And they would really rather have Donald Trump as their president.

My bias is clear. I don't get the visceral dislike of Clinton. If I were American, I'd vote for her in a heartbeat. That decision just gets ridiculously easy when the main alternative is Trump, whose values are, on every scale, opposite mine.

But the politician in me says: If we don't get what all those Trump supporters are thinking, then it's our fault, not theirs.

Graham Steele doesn't get the 'visceral dislike' of Hillary Clinton, but says support for Donald Trump has to be understood. (Craig Lassig/Reuters)

Once we start understanding who's voting for Trump and why, it's easier to say: Yes, it could happen here.

I think there's a base in Nova Scotia that is vulnerable to Trump-like populism. How big is that base? Big enough to win an election, or at least come very close.

There is an economic underclass that is sick and tired of being looked down upon by economic elites. What if someone came along to give voice to their frustration and anger? It's the emotion, stupid.

Halifax-rural divide already exploited

The Halifax-rural divide is the fundamental cleavage of Nova Scotia politics. Politicians exploit it today, but quietly. What if someone came along to exploit it without restraint? They wouldn't even have to work at it. It's already there. It's just waiting for the bandaid to be ripped off.

There are racist, misogynist, xenophobic elements in Nova Scotia. We're kidding ourselves to deny it. What if someone came along that gave Trump-like permission for these elements to step forward? It wouldn't take much. They're ready.

There is a large and growing number of Nova Scotians who don't vote, and in fact have never voted. They don't see the point. What if someone came along who said, I'm your voice. And then what if the non-voters said, Why not? This could be fun. This could be real. Let's see what happens.

Meanwhile we have a political class who have created a comfortable bubble for themselves. It is largely detached from reality. Just watch the legislature some day. They're going through the motions. That's not where the real decisions are being made.

The political class is vulnerable to a Trump-like charlatan who is simply much better at politics than they are — someone who, like Trump, takes their rhetorical tools and uses them better.

'Someone with money'

Meanwhile we have a shrinking local media that is struggling to keep their heads above water. Our sole provincial newspaper is on strike. The legislative press gallery is less than half the size it was only 15 years ago. They're doing their best, but everyone is stretched thinly.

Any one of our media outlets, big and small, traditional or digital, is vulnerable to someone with a penchant for libel litigation. And new media makes it easier than ever for a populist politician to sidestep the mainstream media entirely.

All it would take is someone with money. Someone with a ready-made profile: a retired millionaire, a hockey player, a media personality, a preacher. Someone who made their name and their money elsewhere and wants to come home to Nova Scotia.

Chronicle Herald journalists have been on strike since January. (CBC)

All it would take is someone who understands how television works and knows how to work a crowd into a frenzy. Someone who can create a social media machine and broadcast their own message. Someone with charisma.

All it would take is someone ready to take over an existing party — does anybody realize how easily a populist movement could take over any one of the major Nova Scotia parties? — or create a new one.

All it would take is someone determined to win, no matter what it took: no boundaries, no guardrails.

Could it happen here?

Oh baby, it absolutely could happen here.

Stick figure issues

All politicians shade the truth. Trump makes up facts with fantastic abandon.

All politicians simplify the issues. Trump reduces the issues to stick figures.

All politicians figure out who their base is and play to it. Trump plays a whole symphony on his supporters' fears.

All politicians promise sunnier days. Trump promises a return to an American Eden that never existed.

All politicians have to be a little bit egotistical and a little bit narcissistic. Trump's whole campaign is ego and narcissism strutting and braying nightly on the national stage.

Electoral process attacked

But the worst of all, the place that big-party politicians haven't dared to go before, is the way Trump attacks the integrity of the American electoral process.

Without evidence, he says the election is rigged. Based on no facts, he says the only way he can lose is if the election is stolen.

That's developing world territory and coup d'état country.

Accepting the results of an election is part of the glue that holds a stable democracy together. Trump doesn't care. He leads the chants of his unofficial campaign slogan, "Lock her up."

If he can't win the White House, he's going to burn it down.


Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.