As an American student at McGill, many of the things I’ve heard some Canadians say about the United States—particularly its politics—have been false, absurd, and, on occasion, hypocritical. More concerning, however, is the apparent failure of many Canadians to understand American politics and learn from our mistakes. In my experience, Canadians distance themselves from the wave of populism that swept the U.S. during the 2016 election, but this isn’t indicative of Canada’s moral superiority—it's suggestive of unpreparedness. To understand the challenges they might face in this era of post-truth politics, Canadians need to step outside of their ivory tower and treat Trump as a lesson, not a punchline.
I first noticed the trend of condescension toward Americans during my orientation week in 2014. A girl I had met at Frosh complained to me about how she wanted to visit Vermont, but was seriously concerned about the risk of being shot in the United States. She was worried about Vermont, the state that has consistently scored the lowest per capita violent crime rate in the entire country.
It only became worse as classes began. As an aspiring political science major, I enrolled in a number of introductory courses, excited to learn about Canadian government and politics. Yet it seemed not a day went by without my professors disparaging, satirizing, or criticizing the United States. Quips about climate change denial, American jingoism, and worsening race relations in the United States became regular. It wasn’t that I hadn’t heard these criticisms before, nor that I disagreed with most of them. But, they were recycled and uninsightful, and hearing them from Canadians forced me into a defensive position.
Then, along came Trump.
It felt as if my political science courses had been moved into an actual echo chamber. I heard the same stale remarks about Trump’s spray tan, hair, unusual cadence and speaking style, and Twitter infatuation on a daily basis. The aspiring comedians of the department were everywhere. Sometimes they were funny. More often, they were aggravating and condescending. I was asked on numerous occasions by Canadian peers to “explain Trump,” as if Canada were a stranger to populism and xenophobia.
It’s easy to mock something, but it’s much harder to actually explain it. It’s important to note that only approximately 27 per cent of eligible American voters voted for Trump. If you include the entire U.S. population, that number drops to less than 20 per cent. Although talking heads and political columnists alike have offered their theories, none have stuck. Several months later, the majority of Americans are still grasping at straws to explain Trump’s election.
This isn’t a #NotAllAmericanVoters plea, nor is this a call to stop criticizing Trump. Trump is beyond worthy of criticism. But, while Canada’s politics haven’t become quite as vitriolic, symptoms of the same kind of populism that elected Trump are present north of the border.
A June 2017 poll of 5,568 Canadians by The Canadian Press found that 71 per cent believed that populist ideology was on the rise in Canada. The nationalist, anti-immigration tones of Kellie Leitch’s short-lived Conservative leadership candidacy are a case in point. Moreover, 20 per cent of the poll respondents saw this trend as a good thing; that’s the same portion as the fraction of Americans who voted for Donald Trump.
The smug condescension I’ve experienced while discussing U.S. politics with many of my McGill peers is reminiscent of the tone journalists took in the early days of Trump’s bid for president. Trump was almost welcomed with open arms to the race by liberals, if for no other reason than the comic fodder he provided. Envisioning a Trump presidency, many Americans thought, “That could never happen here.” Then he started moving closer to the centre of the platform in the Republican debates. Then he won the nomination. Then he won the election.
I’ve found that many Canadians view U.S. politics as a similar kind of comic fodder: Alarming, but distant and absurd. The only difference is that Americans are no longer laughing. Canadians ought to take note.