Lessons from the Trump election for progressives in Canada

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Photo via Evan Guest / Flickr

It’s been a little over a week since we were jolted by the profoundly disturbing reality of a Donald Trump US presidency. We’ve all found ourselves in many discussions about how such an abhorrent and blatantly racist and misogynist candidate could have won the most powerful political office in the world, and about how to respond.

There is no shortage of insightful analysis out there now about how this happened.1 The toxic interplay between (largely) white working-class alienation and America’s deep-seated racism brought the politics of hate to center-stage. Of course, as many have noted, for countless people of colour, who live with the reality of racial inequality and violence, this came as less of a surprise. But surprise or not, the election saw white supremacist ideas and behaviour burst more fully into the open, given license by Trump’s proudly hateful campaign.

There has been much debate about whether Trump fits the definition of a fascist. My view is that he falls somewhere on the neo-fascist spectrum. He shows either ignorance or contempt for core provisions of the US Constitution. His rhetoric appeals to violence and scapegoating. And his early actions as President-Elect—such as the appointment of Steve Bannon (known for his far-right and anti-immigrant views) as Chief White House Strategist—suggest he has every intention of turning his ugly rhetoric into policy.

Thankfully, as we are already seeing in US street protests, in so much thoughtful and heart-wrenching commentary from US activists and thinkers, and even from the late-night comedians, millions of wonderful Americans are already on guard – signalling their fierce resolve to stand together against xenophobic, racist, misogynist and homophobic attacks, and to defend core democratic principles of equality, freedom of religion and freedom of the press.

But what does Trump’s election mean for Canada? In particular, how can progressives in Canada prepare and respond?

A particularly ill-advised reaction is a smug claim that “it couldn’t happen here.”

We in Canada are not immune. To claim we are is to deny the deep racial inequities in our own society, particularly for Indigenous people. It is to pretend that the election of Rob Ford as mayor of Canada’s largest city didn’t push many of the same buttons for white people, and white men especially, as Trump is now pushing in the US. It is to ignore that we face many of the same urban-rural divides. It is to forget that a major federal political party in the 2015 election employed racist dog-whistle calls with their “barbaric cultural practices” tip line and politically targeted women who wear the niqab (no doubt because some opinion polling told them this could be a winner).

So a first lesson is for white progressives, specifically. We need to step up and work harder alongside and in support of Indigenous, queer, and racialized allies against rising xenophobia, racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant politics and assaults. That begins with heightened alert, with raising awareness of these issues among our white peers and neighbours—and it also means creating more alliances with those directly affected, bringing a stronger intersectional lens to our analysis and the policies we advocate, and diversifying traditional left organizations and movements.

Does that mean abandoning a focus on class? Of course not. Canada, like the US, has seen the hollowing-out of working-class manufacturing jobs and the rise of precarious employment. Our economic system has left hundreds of thousands of people behind, bringing more economic insecurity and family stress to their lives. Recent immigrants, women, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups bear the brunt of economic insecurity in Canada. Building common cause is harder than sowing division and hate, but now is not the time to shy away from this important work.

So could it happen here? Yes, it damn well could. It could happen anywhere that masses of working-class people are treated as economically expendable, and where racist and anti-immigrant views lie just below the surface, waiting to be activated by unscrupulous political demagogues eager to exploit them.

The great economist John Maynard Keynes warned of the dangers of economic abandonment a hundred years ago. In 1919, Keynes (then a youngish economist, years before authoring his ground-breaking General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money) was part of the British delegation sent to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War One.

But Keynes did not stay. He was so appalled by what he witnessed—by how ordinary German people were being made to pay for odious reparation debts that would cripple their economy—that he quit the meeting in disgust, returned home, and penned a short book called The Economic Consequences of the Peace. In it, he warned the treaty would not allow the German economy to recover post-war, leaving a population resentful and vengeful, and with chilling prescience, he predicted another war.

More recently, we’ve seen how Greece’s treatment at the hands of European financial interests has wreaked havoc on its economy and society, and in turn how this has fed neo-Nazism there.

Extreme examples, perhaps. But in both the subject of debt figures centrally; debt that ordinary people are made to pay, stemming from larger economic choices not of their making. Rising levels of household debt serve as a warning – a proxy for the economic anxiety weighing upon so many families, both in the US and here in Canada.

Are most white working- and middle-class people in Canada on the cusp of voting for a proto-fascist like Trump? No, not most. Nor did most working- and middle-class Americans. But elections are won and lost by relatively small shifts on the margins; it doesn’t take all white middle- and working-class people feeling abandoned by their traditional parties, just a few percent of them.

Trump’s election victory should be a wake-up call to rethink all those neoliberal policies giving rise to economic insecurity and job precarity: corporate trade deals, tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, cuts to social programs and protections for those who have fallen on hard times such as welfare and EI, the erosion of employee rights, the undermining of workers’ ability to act collectively through unions, and the increasing use of temporary foreign workers (rather than granting immigrants full status so they can exercise their full employment rights).

Surely a fundamental lesson for our current government is to walk away from new trade and investment deals—like CETA and the TPP—that bestow yet more rights and mobility to corporations. And we should seize on this opportunity to re-visit or abandon NAFTA (which suffers from the same problems).

The Trump win provides progressives in Canada with a clear and urgent message to a Trudeau government that has been persistently pursuing these trade deals – stand down!

And what of climate change? On this issue, a Trump administration is truly terrifying. The President-elect is a climate denier who seems prepared to condemn us all, but especially the billions of people around the world who contributed little to the problem yet who will bear the worst impacts.

For a Trudeau government that claims to take climate action seriously, now comes its greatest test. Will we expand oil exports to a country that is walking away from its global climate treaty commitments? Will we invest in new fossil fuel infrastructure when our neighbours seem hell-bent on blowing through what remains of their small share of a global carbon budget? This moment calls for a climate leadership reset – this new terrain demands that we re-double our efforts.

After all, in the face of another existential threat, when Nazism was on the march in the 1930s, Canada did not wait until the US finally joined the war effort in 1941; we retooled our entire economy and threw ourselves into the fight two years earlier.

If the US is to go rogue on climate, it is time to scale back our fossil fuel exports to the south. Of course NAFTA binds us to maintain oil exports to the US in proportion to our production levels. But now, NAFTA’s provisions are up for re-negotiation.

The election does re-enforce one important warning when it comes to climate action: as with the trade deals, if governmental climate actions consign many working-class people to the scrapheap—if their economic security is seen to be expendable by “elites” making the decisions—then climate action risks producing the same backlash we’ve just witnessed. Indeed, Trump tapped into such sentiments in his climate rhetoric.

And so, as we re-double our climate action efforts, we must also re-double our commitment to climate justice. We need comprehensive just transition policies for workers in the fossil fuel sector (ensuring they receive training and income support as they shift to new clean energy industries), and we need a government-led job creation program that will produce thousands of new jobs in green infrastructure and the low-carbon economy. Again, the WWII analogy may be apt – we need to retool our economy, and as we experienced then, with real leadership, we can do so with full employment.

We’ve been at the crossroads before; a choice between fascism, the suppression of core rights, and the devastation of societies, on the one hand, versus joining together across race and class to make common cause in an existential fight. One path leads to division and ugliness. The other to hope. We may be approaching such a crossroads again. I still believe there is a progressive majority in Canada, even if it too often operates in silos. The Trump victory calls on all of us to animate and mobilize our best selves.


Seth Klein is Director of CCPA’s BC Office. Follow Seth on Twitter @SethDKlein.

[1] I recommend in particular this excellent analysis from Jacobin magazine on how Trump won, and the complex interplay between race and class. And, as usual, Naomi Klein nails it with this piece on how the Democrats’ embrace of neoliberalism did them in. US writer Thomas Frank and filmmaker Michael Moore were issuing similar warnings for some time.

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