Fear Gives Way to Pity As Canadians Await U.S. Election Results
There is now a widespread belief that their big neighbor is headed for a sociopolitical meltdown no matter who wins.
This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.
TORONTO—U.S. President Donald Trump once inspired angst among Canadians. Modern Canada grew rich with free trade—and there was a real fear following Trump’s 2016 election victory that the United States might renounce the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and spark an economic meltdown north of the border.
But as Canadians wait for Tuesday’s election results, all that seems like ancient history. NAFTA was indeed renegotiated in 2018, but the fallout was hardly cataclysmic—a small blip compared with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Demagoguery against foreign trade practices was part of Trump’s campaign rhetoric once again, but Canada got scant mention. It’s hard to remember that, just a few years ago, Trump went on a Twitter rant about—of all things—Canadian milk.
Surveys suggest that only about a quarter of Canadians have confidence in Trump, a sharp drop from the 80 percent or more who typically said the same of Obama. That number hasn’t moved much since the early period of Trump’s presidency, when NAFTA hung in the balance. To the extent Canadians are deeply invested in the outcome of Tuesday’s election—and I assure you they are—this concern is coded in primarily moral terms. Few still worry that Canada is under actual threat if Trump is reelected.
A reflexive hostility to U.S. power has long been a defining quality of the Canadian intellectual class. But during the Trump era, that hostility has gone mainstream—and the way it’s expressed has changed. Before the age of social media, Canadians looked to their political leaders to peacock their independence and moral superiority. Liberal former Prime Ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, in particular, made a great show of opposing U.S. unilateralism, surrounding themselves with sharp-tongued cultural nationalists who hectored former U.S. President George W. Bush endlessly.
This approach is gone, both in style and substance. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, his heir apparent, generally have been professional and statesmanlike in their dealings with Trump (right down to Trudeau’s statements during the U.S. election campaign), having sensibly concluded that there’s no point in antagonizing a vain U.S. president with 87 million Twitter followers and a penchant for spite. In 2020, moreover, Canadians simply no longer depend on their public officials to criticize the United States and its leaders. They can do it themselves on social media.
As to how Canadians actually feel about the United States, the dominant sense is no longer fear. It’s something closer to pity, as there is a belief that Americans might be headed toward some kind of sociopolitical meltdown no matter who wins the election. Several snowbirds I know are selling their Florida condos—not because of COVID-19 but because they see the United States as a potentially dangerous and unstable place.
Yet, paradoxically, even as Canadians become geographically estranged from the United States, they have never had a closer connection to its internal politics—thanks to a borderless English-speaking social media universe that allows everyone to jump casually into everyone else’s feeds. This is a world in which a Globe and Mail Trump takedown can go viral as easily as a Ben Shapiro burn on Trudeau. Indeed, one of the reasons why a growing number of Canadians now question whether they still need the CBC—the Canadian public media network—is that much of its news content consists of rehashing U.S. political commentary. Canadian nationalists have long warned of the siren song of U.S. cultural hegemony. Who could have predicted that its most irresistible earworm would be crooned by none other than Trump?