America has a two-party system, of course, while Canadian elections are fought by at least three, but the existence of multiple parties can be as much an indictment of weak political leadership as a monument to open-mindedness. President-elect Joe Biden and Trump both deserve praise as coalition-builders, given the size and diversity of the electorate they’re working with.
Canada’s Conservatives should certainly be taking notes. In the years since the party’s 2003 founding, the Tories’ popular vote share has fluctuated little, from a low of 29.6 percent in 2004 to a high of 39.6 percent in 2011, to their popular vote plurality (but not parliamentary victory) of 34.4 percent last year. Pundits conclude the Conservatives have the “highest floor but lowest ceiling” in Canadian politics; a party that will never finish worse than a strong second but can only achieve a parliamentary majority if the stars align perfectly — usually thanks to vote-splitting among the parties of the left.
The Tories are conservative in more ways than one. Campaigns often seem resigned to the party’s broad unpopularity with voters, begetting a cautious style of campaigning that’s hyper-defensive about imagined liabilities (chiefly abortion and LGBT rights) while narrowly focused on safe “pocketbook issues” (their propensity for “boutique tax credits” now something of a punchline).
To be sure, cautious tactics of this sort are not unknown among Republicans, but as Sean Speer recently wrote in the National Post, Trump’s surprising viability in two back-to-back elections may permanently discredit them.
Trump, writes Speer, proves “transactional politics cannot compete with the politics of enthusiasm.” He anticipates campaigns of the future will employ Trumpian tactics that “galvanize voters with a combination of big-picture ideas (including non-materialistic appeals such as solidarity and belonging) and sophisticated social media efforts to reach segmented parts of the electorate.”
“The Canadian political party that learns this lesson,” he concludes, “will have first-mover advantage.”
Is Erin O’Toole, the new leader of Canada’s Conservatives, equipped to head such a campaign? A footnote politician with a friendly but rehearsed manner, he possesses little of the megawatt fame or window-rattling personality that ably suited Trump for the style of party he wound up leading. When it comes to pitching economic populism, however, parallels between the two men become more apparent.
In a stiffly delivered but well-received speech before Toronto’s Canadian Club last month, the Tory leader described a Canadian middle class “betrayed by the elites on every level” through deindustrialization, Chinese outsourcing and callous number-crunching.
“Canada is a community, not a corporation with 37 million shareholders,” he quipped in one of many lines that would have felt at home in a Tucker Carlson monologue.
Yet being the thinking man’s Trump will only take O’Toole so far, given Trumpism has never been strictly ideological.
Both Trump campaigns represented extraordinary high-risk gambles on a shameless candidate’s style and behavior that frightened seasoned political observers who predicted far more disastrous outcomes than actually occurred. Trump’s freewheeling, vicious insults of politicians, celebrities and journalists; his grandiose, vague promises; his indifference to gross or cruel language; his embrace of conspiracy theories and dark stereotypes — all are inescapable parts of the Trump appeal, as well, and have clearly helped play a decisive role in building what Speer calls a “conservative working-class coalition that is multi-ethnic, geographically diverse and big enough to win elections in large and fast-growing jurisdictions.”
It is possible to imagine the Canadian Conservative Party winning a Trump-like share of the popular vote if it was able to make itself more synonymous with a certain class and cultural sensibility that’s far less deferential to norms and conventional wisdom than Canadian parties usually are. In theory, this could allow the Tories to make inroads in certain working-class, rural districts of Ontario, British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces — Canada’s equivalent of the Democrats’ “blue wall.”
Many Republican elders were (and presumably still are) unnerved that it took a man like Trump to make this electoral strategy viable. His 2016 success and strong 2020 showing exposed many unsettling and embarrassing things about the conservative id that have done considerable damage to the intellectual respectability of the Republican Party without hurting it much with voters.
There are doubtless many Canadian conservatives willing to make that trade-off, given their familiarity with the alternative.