Trump’s popularity leads many Canadians to fear that the US may be a very different place indeed.

From Alexis de Tocqueville to Gunnar Myrdal and Bernard-Henri Lévy, there is a long tradition of foreign observers seeking to understand the politics of the United States.  Indeed, as an American scholar of American politics working in Canada, I am often called upon to explain American politics to puzzled Canadians.  This can be a difficult task, because even though the two countries are broadly similar and closely tied together, there are a host of relatively small differences (constitutional, institutional and cultural) than can produce radically different politics and policies.  From the 2000 election imbroglio in Florida, to Sarah Palin’s idiosyncratic pronouncements during the 2008 campaign, to the 2013 shutdown of the US federal government, Canadians who think they usually understand the politics of their large neighbour periodically find themselves scratching their heads in confusion or disbelief.  Donald Trump is very much a case in point.

Trump’s presidential candidacy has left many prominent pollsters and political observers in the US flustered; Nate Silver, Harry Enten, and Dana Milbank, among others, have publicly lamented their failure to understand Trump.  As the political analyst Charlie Cook put it in May 2016, “The thing that I never thought would happen is really happening. The idea that the Republican Party would nominate Donald Trump—reality TV star, real estate developer, and all-around showboat—seemed ridiculous and, as I kept saying, inconceivable.”

American academics have fared little better in comprehending Trump. Political scientists have openly admitted to failing to understand him.  According to Larry Sabato, “Trump has forced the political world to ingest a sizable dose of humility. Even many of political science’s much-vaunted statistical models that attempt to predict election results cannot account for a candidate like Trump.”

Who decides: The party or the people?   

One institutional difference between the US and Canada that goes a long way in explaining how someone like Trump could be nominated is the two countries’ different ways of selecting candidates.  In the US, the people essentially decide which candidate will represent the party. In Canada federally, party leaders generally decide. Recall that when Justin Trudeau decided to get into federal politics a decade ago, the leader of the Liberal Party had to decide whether and where to let him run.  The process in the US is much less elite-driven and more democratic, but it can also be more chaotic, as the recent Republican primaries have demonstrated.

In reality, both countries’ systems of candidate selection deviate somewhat from these principles. The US situation is muddied by the complexities of delegate selection and the phenomena of superdelegates, unpledged delegates, and faithless delegates. Canadian parties have at times permitted some party members to vote on selecting leaders (for instance, over 100,000 people participated in the 2013 contest for the leadership of the Liberal Party).  Moreover, neither country’s system is set in stone.  The US used to let parties alone determine their candidates, before introducing public primaries in the early twentieth century and further strengthening them after 1968.  And Canada has considered moving to public primaries — a proposal by the Young Liberals of Canada to switch to a primary system was narrowly defeated in 2012. Nevertheless, the 2016 GOP primaries have likely lessened the appeal of greater popular input on both sides of the border.

Placing Trump in context

An appreciation of the differences in the candidate selection process might explain how Trump was able to prevail over more traditional or mainstream candidates for the Republican nomination, but it still does not make Trump understandable.  Aside from the matter of who selected him, there is the question of why they did so.  Even if Trump was not the choice of most Republican leaders, he was the preferred option for millions of American voters, so the issue of the nature of his appeal to those voters remains to be explained.  It may be useful to invoke historical and international comparisons, in order to demonstrate that his political success is perhaps not altogether unprecedented.

For example, Trump is certainly not the first candidate to campaign as an outsider opposed to the political establishment.  Indeed, running as an outsider is a long-standing trope in US politics — for instance, Ben Carson, Jesse Jackson, Wesley Clarke, and Pat Buchanan ran against the inside-the-beltway establishment.  But this is not usually a successful approach at the presidential level.  As Harry Enten has noted, “Since nominees began to be selected mostly by caucuses and primaries in 1972, no major-party candidate without elected office experience had won.  Not since Wendell Willkie in 1940 has a party nominated a candidate who wasn’t either a politician or a war hero.”

Nor is Trump the first candidate to enter the political arena from the world of business.  For example, millions of Americans voted for billionaire third-party candidate Ross Perot in 1992 and in 1996. Wealthy businesspeople frequently run for the presidency (e.g., Steve Forbes), or for Congress (e.g., Darrell Issa), or for both (e.g., Carly Fiorina).  Indeed, more than half the members of Congress are millionaires.

In Canada, billionaires have successfully run at the provincial level (e.g., Pierre Karl Péladeau), very wealthy business people have won seats in Parliament (e.g., Belinda Stronach), and become prime minister (Paul Martin). In 1930 one of the richest individuals in Canada — R. B. Bennett — became prime minister and served for five years at the height of the Great Depression.  Beyond North America, the phenomenon of billionaires ascending to national leadership can be seen in Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Lebanon’s Saad Hariri.

Apart from his affinity with outsiders, business people and celebrities, Trump’s political appeal can be seen alongside other conservative, populist, anti-immigrant politicians.

Trump’s status as a celebrity might also explain some of his political appeal.  As political scientists John Carey and Matthew Shugart noted over two decades ago, celebrities are often successful candidates: “the national celebrity enjoyed by movie stars or athletes can translate into valuable personal reputation in some electoral systems.”  Other successful celebrity-politicians at the federal level in the US include former actors and entertainers like Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono, Clint Eastwood, Al Franken, Fred Grandy, Fred Thompson, and Ben Jones, as well as athletes like Bill Bradley, Jim Bunning, and football players Jack Kemp, Steve Largent, Tom Osborne, Heath Shuler, J. C. Watts, and John Runyan.  In Canada, celebrities who have been elected to Parliament include musicians like punk rockers Charlie Angus and Andrew Cash; radio host Andre Arthur; astronaut Marc Garneau; and athletes like hockey great Ken Dryden and paralympic medallist Carla Qualtrough.  Prominent international examples include the Italian adult film star Ilona Staller, Australian musician Peter Garrett, Brazilian soccer star Romario, and Pilipino boxer Manny Pacquiao.

Apart from Trump’s affinity with outsiders, business people and celebrities who have gone into politics, his political appeal can be seen alongside other conservative, populist, anti-immigrant politicians, some of whom enjoy considerable popularity in Western Europe.  Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France is perhaps the most prominent example, but there are similar politicians and parties in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Identity by comparison

Likening Trump to these broad categories of other politicians does not altogether render him comprehensible, and the widespread perception of Trump as incredible and inexplicable largely persists.  It is of course clear why Americans want to understand Trump, but he is also a pressing concern for many Canadians, given the enormous importance of the relationship between the two countries.  As Pierre Trudeau said in 1969, “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Canadians have reason to be concerned.  Trump has proclaimed, “I love Canada” and has denied any plan to build a wall along America’s northern border to match the one he wants on the southern border (Gollon).  But he has also said he wants to tighten the border with Canada, has voiced protectionist sentiments and has repeatedly criticized international trade deals like NAFTA.  Commerce with the US is, of course, a serious issue for Canadians, as over 400,000 people and some $2 billion in goods and services cross the border on any given day.

Apart from such pragmatic, self-interested concerns, there is also the more amorphous issue of national identity.  By many accounts, Canadians’ national identity relies in part on an implicit comparison with the US.  When the two countries’ leaders clash, as they often did during the 1960s, Canadians are reminded of their differences; when they get along well, as Trudeau and Barack Obama did at the March 2016 state dinner, Canadians are reassured that their neighbours are not so different.

Trump’s popularity leads many Canadians to fear that the US may be a very different place indeed.  For example, Macleans published a cover story in March 2016 called “Trumputin,” which explored Trump’s troubling affinities with anti-democratic strongman leaders, charging that “America’s arch-capitalist doesn’t just admire Vladimir Putin, he resembles him.”  And an editorial in the Toronto Star in April said that Trump’s political success is “unsettling from a strictly Canadian point of view,” and that “it defies belief that someone so recklessly naïve, ignorant and incoherent can come this close to the presidency.”

The sense of puzzlement that many people have about Trump is especially acute for non-Americans (for example Canadians), many of whom would usually have a positive image of the US.  This is because Trump is seen as the personal embodiment of several unfortunate anti-American stereotypes: brash, crass, greedy, uninformed, parochial, and — contrary to a fundamental Canadian stereotype – profoundly impolite.  That such a person could be the standard-bearer of the proud party of Abraham Lincoln — and potentially the next president — is hard to fathom, as he stands in tension with many aspects of the US that Canadians admire.  In short, Trump’s popularity may feed Canadian anti-Americanism (described by authors such as J. Granatstein, J. Gibson and Kim Nossal).

Trump is seen as the personal embodiment of several unfortunate anti-American stereotypes: brash, crass, greedy, uninformed, parochial, and profoundly impolite.

For example, an editorial in the Globe and Mail expressed alarm and disbelief about Trump but found some solace in the fact that Canada does not have a large group of alienated white, working class voters of the sort who have supported Trump: “We have not developed a large, angry underclass of ‘old stock’ voters.”  The editorial said this constituency was lacking in Canada because of superior Canadian public policy: “the rich and powerful can’t buy federal elections in Canada.  We embrace diversity.  We have universal health care, and a stronger and better-funded social safety net than the US.”  In short, Trump supposedly could not happen in Canada.

Canada also seems to think that Trump will not prevail in the US.  When pressed by a journalist to articulate some concern at the prospect of a president Trump, Justin Trudeau demurred and expressed confidence in the wisdom of the American people, saying, “I have faith in what Lincoln referred to as ‘the better angels of American nature.’”  If Trudeau is wrong, Canada may soon face a host of difficulties, including its own immigration crisis, as 19 percent of Americans have said they would consider moving to Canada if Trump gets elected — assuming of course that there is no wall.

Photo: Andrew Cline/


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