Canadian politics always occurs in response to events in the United States, with some causing bigger ripples than others. Today, virtually everything in Canadian politics overtly exists in the background of Donald Trump’s presidency, as Canadian politicians attempt to determine what lessons his unanticipated rise can teach a country so similar.
Everyone’s a free-trader now
Progressive Canadians once relied on the predictable trope of casually scorning free trade with the United States. Such was the long shadow of conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s divisive victory in the 1988 general election fought over the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement — the precursor to the North American Free Trade Agreement — which the Canadian left uniformly opposed to what it called a sell-out of national sovereignty.
Trump’s own NAFTA skepticism now seems to have radicalized much of these same people in the opposite direction. Since Trump’s election, Canadian progressives have become born-again free-traders, deeply invested in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ability to salvage the deal his party once strenuously opposed. The notion of using high tariffs as a means of demonstrating left-wing Canadian nationalism now feels too uncomfortably close to Trump’s own use of protectionism to demonstrate his “America First” bona fides. Instead, open trade now signifies open-mindedness.
Progressives’ late conversion to the free-trade cause brings another irony: Partisan contrarianism might now be pushing Mulroney’s successors in a more protectionist direction. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer — who has made pandering to Canada’s protected dairy interests part of his political brand — has taken to attacking Trudeau for having “backed down to Donald Trump” on trade and being insufficiently defensive of Canada’s milk, auto and pharmaceutical sectors.
Entitlement reform is off the table
Trump’s reputation as an “unideological” Republican is overrated, but his success in the 2016 primaries nevertheless helped consolidate a narrative that a conservative politician can safely ignore a lot of right-wing dogma. Trump happily rejected the assumption of the Paul Ryan wing of the GOP that reforming America’s costly, but popular, entitlement programs should be any sort of priority. As Matthew Yglesias recently put it in Vox, Trump “ditched a couple of unpopular GOP positions that were much cherished by party elites, like cutting Medicare benefits, delivered victory, and is beloved by the rank and file for it.”
Trump’s indifference to entitlement reform was treated as strategic genius in some circles — an example of the underrated virtue of running as a “social conservative and fiscal liberal.” In Canada, where debate on pension and health-care reform is even more timid, Trump’s example seems to have dried up any lingering sense that Conservatives have much to gain from embracing such unpleasant topics. Entitlements in both countries may be on a path to insolvency, but let someone else run on that.
Everyone wants to be the anti-Trump
Trudeau’s political brand has obviously enjoyed a bump in the Trump era, as progressive voters, egged on by a sympathetic global press, gain a useful context in which to judge their prime minister. No longer a cheap Obama knock-off, Trudeau has upgraded to “anti-Trump.”
Scheer, the mild-mannered Tory leader, meanwhile gains an opportunity to demonstrate that his kinder, gentler flavor of conservatism is ultimately a safer bet than Trump’s brash populism. The GOP’s midterm drubbing among suburban voters will certainly be seen as ample evidence in support of the Tory party’s long-standing suburb-centric electoral strategy.
Scheer may also hope to learn something from the precedent of Hillary Clinton: If the 2016 U.S. election is fundamentally understood as a rejection of her as much as an affirmation of Trump, then Scheer has every incentive to make 2019 a similar referendum on his opponent. Like Clinton, Trudeau is regarded by many as a deeply grating, obnoxious figure in a way that clearly transcends his policy positions alone. Polls certainly suggest he’s every bit as polarizing.
The Bernier factor
Trump’s unexpected election validated the idea that party politics is more fluid than it seems and that even the most unorthodox candidates may enjoy better odds than expert opinion assumes. Dismissing any candidate as “unelectable” now feels unjustifiably arrogant.
People’s Party leader Maxime Bernier, who once scorned a fellow politician’s campaign as “karaoke Donald Trump,” now hopes his platform of immigration cuts and opposition to “political correctness” will propel his fringe party to power on a Trump-style populist wave. Like Trump, Bernier has already amassed a loud and devoted online following fluent in memes and trolling and intends to appeal to disillusioned conservatives craving a harsher course correction to their country’s current path.
In pre-Trump times, it’s easy to imagine the press confidently dismissing Bernier’s platform as the sort of thing liberal, multicultural Canada would never tolerate. These days, however, the Canadian media is awash in panic stories about “foreign influence campaigns” and the political power of white-nationalist subcultures. The implication is that in the era of Trump, no electoral outcome should be beyond anyone’s imagination.