Donald Trump's lessons for Canadian politics

We should perhaps not regard the roiling American political scene with great smugness. By comparison, Canada is a sanctuary of pleasant reasonableness. But we are not quite an invulnerable place of perfect enlightenment.

We should perhaps not regard the roiling American political scene with great smugness

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump acknowledges the crowd at the end of the Republican National Convention. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

On the morning after Donald Trump — a man that has made the writer Ezra Klein "truly afraid" for his country, a "poisonous messenger" in the words of the New York Times, a "peril" in the judgement of the Washington Post — became one of two nominees for president of the United States, the most exciting news items in Canada were the public's enthusiastic response to the latest census and the makings of a deal on interprovincial trade.

We are an adorable nation sometimes.

But though we might once again lament "American-style politics" — a phrase that might've gone out of fashion in 2008 — we should perhaps not regard the roiling American political scene with great smugness.

By comparison, Canada is a sanctuary of pleasant reasonableness. But we are not quite an invulnerable place of perfect enlightenment.

What separates the United States and Canada

There are, no doubt, factors that are distinct to the United States and its current situation: the right to bear arms; the historical fact of slavery; the weight of being the most powerful nation on Earth; the notion of American exceptionalism; the problem of illegal immigration; a deep strain of dramatic violence; the wound of 9/11.

We have our own issues (the original question of national reconciliation with Indigenous communities, for instance, or the lingering spectre of Quebec separatism), but not quite to that extent and combination.

And to all those you can add the structural characteristics and forces that shape U.S. politics: the two-party system; rampant gerrymandering; a highly politicized judicial system; poorly regulated political financing; stridently partisan media; and a legislative model that allows for paralyzing gridlock.

We have a multi-party parliamentary system that is both flexible and efficient, federal ridings that are drawn by independent commissions and strict limits on political donations. Our judges are generally apolitical. Our media is, at least, calmer.

So we might cast an eye to the United States and feel new appreciation for our democracy.

Of course, it was not so long ago that the world was looking aghast at the fact of Rob Ford's mayoralty in Toronto, a politician whose populist anti-establishment politics and uncouth manner now seem to presage the Trump phenomenon.

Warnings for Canada

An Abacus poll this spring suggested Trump would be trounced if Canadians had a vote for U.S. president, and it is unlikely that someone exactly of his appeal would succeed here.

James Moore, a former industry minister under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, says Donald Trump is not a conservative. (CBC)
"In Canada, while we have divisions and challenges economically and socially, broadly speaking, we are a healthy country and Canadians believe we are a strong country," says James Moore, the former Conservative minister who visited the Republican convention in Cleveland last week. "In the United States, people don't feel the country is racially reconciled, economically progressing or safer."

(Moore was asked about Trump's relevance to Canadian conservatives and offered two other observations. First, that Trump isn't a conservative. Second, that the Conservative Party learned in 2015 that conservatism needs to be matched with optimism.)

But even if we do not suffer from the sort of inequality, alienation and frustration that seems to drive much of Trump's campaign, we surely can't claim any kind of inherent immunity. And our general commitment to diversity could well waver if it becomes tempting to blame others for some lack of shared prosperity.

And in Trump there are hints of issues that transcend the American-Canadian border: politics treated as entertainment; cynicism about the political process and public institutions; a diminished media industry challenged to hold politicians to account; a political system that seems unresponsive to the concerns of the public; a political culture that rewards polarization and extremes; the spectre of exaggerated threats.

How should a democracy be?

It is difficult to imagine that a democratic system has ever existed without some amount of exaggeration, cynicism and frivolity. For that matter, politics should not exclusively be the domain of serious wonkery. Some amount of theatre is natural and useful. Generous amounts of humanity are welcome. Anger and conflict are inevitable.

But ideally a nation's politics would not be predominantly cynical and frivolous, would not be defined by its worst aspects. What excesses of rhetoric or action did occur would be corrected for. And, over time, the system would improve, not fall into disrepair or despair.

An untrusted or unserious system is perhaps ripe for revolt or abuse. And it was not long ago that we were wondering whether our system was broken.

It is still most likely that Hillary Clinton will defeat Trump in November. But Klein has posited that Trump is destroying the generally accepted norms of American politics, and expanding the parameters of what a politician could get away with saying in a way that will have lasting impact on the United States. That suggests our democracies are more fragile than we might otherwise appreciate.

For the United States, it is for the country's better angels to somehow see it through.

For Canada, the task is perhaps to learn from our neighbour's troubles.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.