Philip Cross: There’s a bit of Trump populism in us Canadians, too

U.S. President Donald Trump talks with Canada

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These repeated, massive failures of governance prepared the ground for the rise of Donald Trump. After Trump won in 2016, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan ruefully acknowledged that Trump had “heard a voice out in this country that no one else heard. He connected in ways with people that no one else did.” The disillusion, despair and exclusion felt by working-class whites was vividly reflected in their falling life expectancy.

For the past four years, Canadians have congratulated ourselves on resisting the siren call of populism sweeping the U.S. We should not be so smug. In the early 1990s, there was widespread, highly vocal dissatisfaction with a prolonged recession, soaring government deficits, and the constitutional impasse over the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. The federal government even commissioned a report on the malaise. Keith Spicer concluded there was “a fury in the land” — mostly directed at then-prime minister Brian Mulroney. The same kind of fury propelled Trump to the White House. Canadians’ anger with political elites produced regional populist movements in the Reform Party and the Bloc Québécois, which continue to roil not far below the surface of Canadian politics.

A New York Times’ correspondent observed years ago that “No other country puts such a high premium on its own virtue as does Canada.” Worse, much of our presumed virtue is hypocritical. We rail about Trump’s protectionism, while maintaining barriers to trade both with the U.S. and internally that are even higher. We sneer at the resources the U.S. devotes to its military and health-care systems, while relying on them to police the world for us and produce vaccines to stem the pandemic. We deride the low level of public debate in the U.S. even as political correctness leads us to waste time on phoney issues like the mythical 2020 “She-cession” while avoiding problems the U.S. at least acknowledges need addressing. As former Liberal foreign policy adviser Jocelyn Coulon concluded in his recent book, Canada Is Not Back, “Canada would make an original contribution to building a new world order by acknowledging the deep-seated causes of the crisis challenging the world instead of clinging to the old order.” Far from being trailblazers of a new liberal order, we are reactionaries defending institutions that seem increasingly anachronistic, from the UN to the CBC to medicare.

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