By now, it’s trite to say that the rise of Donald Trump as a political figure has been a travesty for American democracy.
Although the United States was already polarized prior to Trump becoming president, the country has increasingly veered into “pernicious polarization” territory since 2016, with partisan hostility at the highest it’s been in decades.
Despite lying thousands of times, flouting basic standards of human decency and showing little respect for American institutions, Trump has managed to shape the Republican Party in his image to the extent that loyalty to him now forms the litmus test for public legitimacy on the right.
Meanwhile, the attempted coup on Jan. 6, 2021 solidified what Democrats have feared since Trump announced his presidential campaign: that Trump and the MAGA Republican Party he’s birthed are a grave threat to American democracy.
Cultural sociology examines the role of symbols, narratives and meaning in social and political life. It begins from the assumption that everything is a matter of interpretation. People say and do things on the basis of what those things mean to them, and meanings vary from one person or group to the next.
So cultural sociologists like me are interested in the stories and scripts people have in their heads because they affect how they act.
As sociologists William Isaac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas famously put it: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”
Canadians and Trump
As Trump fuelled polarization in the U.S., he was having a much different impact on Canada. A cultural sociological perspective helps explain why.
Two things need to be noted to make sense of this:
First, anti-Americanism has long been part of the Canadian national identity. As American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote in his book Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada: “Canadians are the world’s oldest and most continuing un-Americans.”
Canadian nationalism often takes the form of pride over not being American.
Second, since the launch of his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump has been almost unanimously disliked and disavowed by Canadians on both the left and right.
Polls taken in August 2016 showed that, if given the chance, only 15 to 20 per cent of Canadians would have cast a ballot for Trump, while 73 to 80 per cent would have voted for Hillary Clinton. And a poll taken just prior to election day in November 2016 found that more Canadians would support a third-party candidate than Trump.
This helps explain why, between 2016 and 2020, Canadians were united in their contempt for Trump, who served as a bipartisan symbol of evil they rallied against regardless of their political leanings.
This is evident in Canadian media coverage during this period. Upon analyzing mainstream print media articles published between 2016-2020 for an ongoing research project, I identified common themes: Canadian media increasingly associated “America” with “Trump,” and both of these with authoritarianism, selfishness, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, ignorance, irrationality, dishonesty and a lack of concern for the least advantaged.
Friendship on the rocks?
These attitudes were also reflected in public opinion surveys.
The Pew Research Center found that the number of Canadians who favourably viewed the U.S. fell from 68 per cent in 2015 to 43 per cent in 2017, and then again to 39 per cent in 2018 – the lowest percentage ever recorded.
In 2020, polls found that the number of Canadians who said they consider the U.S. “a friend” declined 29 percentage points since 2013, when pollsters first began asking the question.
These shifts suggest that Trump really did change how Canadians regard the U.S. But he also changed how Canadians regard themselves.
I would argue that Trump led Canadians to be more receptive to progressive policy orientations — if only as a means of distinguishing themselves from Trump’s America.
The ‘Trump’ problem for Conservatives
Consider that nearly all attempts by conservative politicians to brand themselves as the Canadian Trump between 2016 and 2020 led to failure.
Not long after announcing he was seeking the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, business mogul Kevin O’Leary’s campaign was dead in the water — in part owing to the obvious similarities between him and Trump.
In 2018, the leader of the Parti Québécois at the time, Jean-François Lisée, channelled his inner Trump by floating the idea of building a fence at a Québec-U.S. border point to prevent asylum-seekers from crossing.
Lisée’s party was rewarded with a pitiful fourth-place finish in the 2018 Québec general election, forcing him to resign as party leader.
These examples show that being seen as Trump-like in Canada became a death sentence happily exploited by more progressive parties.
The Trump card was so potent that when Andrew Scheer’s replacement, Erin O’Toole, took over the party in 2020, he made a point of emphasizing that he was not a Canadian version of Trump.
O’Toole’s starkest departure from Scheer, his predecessor, revolved around social issues. Scheer identified as a “pro-life” social conservative whereas O’Toole publicly identified as “socially progressive.” And these words weren’t just rhetoric.
In early 2022, Canadian parliamentarians unanimously passed landmark legislation to ban conversion therapy in Canada — a bipartisan success story that O’Toole was instrumental in securing.
Finally, consider the dramatic differences between the Canadian and American response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Canadian politicians were more willing to follow the directions of public health experts, and Canadians were more supportive of vaccine mandates. Canada’s death rate is significantly lower, while its vaccination rate is higher than that of the U.S. Some have argued that’s because America’s response got snared in partisan politics, unlike Canada’s.
So, not only did public recognition and respect of members of the LGBTQ+ community increase in the wake of Trump’s election, but lives were saved as a result of the leftward shift among Canadian conservatives.
And in all cases, the Trump effect was at play.
Trump in 2024?
This isn’t to suggest Trump’s continuing influence over the Republican Party is good for Canada. If America descends into civil war, Canadians will suffer with them.
Trump’s rise has also helped radicalize the Canadian far right. StatsCan found that hate crimes rose by 37 per cent in 2020, and, per capita, Canada is among the greatest global sources of extreme right-wing online content.
The ascent of Pierre Poilievre to the Conservative Party leadership suggests there’s a Canadian audience for Trump’s brand of toxic partisanship and crude populism.
If Trump runs again in 2024, his pugnacious style and anti-democratic ambitions could continue to appeal to some Canadians.
But it’s likely he’ll motivate Canadians to continue to work towards a more inclusive and egalitarian society.