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Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.

Jeffrey Simpson

Canadian and U.S. conservatives make odd bedfellows Add to ...

Canada’s conservatives, in their various iterations, have always drawn at least some inspiration and suggestions from U.S. Republicans.

Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney was chummy with U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper wasn’t chummy with anyone, but he did pop up on Fox TV, followed U.S. conservative think-tank views and, as opposition leader, thought Canada should have lined up behind U.S. president George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion.

Conservatives paid attention to campaign strategies and techniques of U.S. Republicans. Mr. Harper’s government was dotted with staffers who went to U.S. schools known for their right-wing or religious agendas, or had spent time at conservative U.S. think tanks. Obviously, important differences remained between the two parties, such as Canadian conservatives largely favouring public health care and equalization payments to poorer provinces. A Progressive Conservative government introduced the GST, which Republicans would have found abhorrent.

But as conservative-minded people gathered over the past few days for the annual Manning Centre confab in Ottawa, what must they think of their Republican friends now? Is there any inspiration they can draw from a party that increasingly seems likely to nominate Donald Trump to run for president? Much can happen between lip and cup, but the Trump phenomenon currently shows no signs of flagging, certainly not before, or any time soon after, the March 1 cluster of primaries, mostly in the Deep South.

The party establishment wants someone to Thump-the-Trump, but those candidates still on offer – Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich – don’t seem up to the task. Of these, Mr. Rubio stands the best chance. However, he is a young senator from Florida, hasn’t won in Iowa, South Carolina or Nevada, and he trails Mr. Trump in polls almost everywhere. The indispensable poll-tracking website RealClearPolitics.com shows that Mr. Rubio would stand a better chance than Mr. Trump of defeating would-be Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Will that possibility (probability?) eventually tip the scales in his favour? It hasn’t so far.

The Trump phenomenon just steamrollered through the Nevada caucuses – a state where Mr. Rubio, a Hispanic, had spent some time growing up. Mr. Trump now leads, often by large margins, in the polls in Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, Mr. Rubio’s home state. Outside the old Confederacy, Mr. Trump leads in New Jersey, Ohio (Gov. Kasich’s home state), Massachusetts, Illinois and Michigan. So far, Mr. Trump has won in the west, northeast and south.

Those of us who believed that the more Americans saw of Mr. Trump and listened to his empty but sometimes dangerous rhetoric, non-answers to policy questions, and occasionally insulting language would see him for what he is: an egotistical blowhard populist without the temperament, experience or personality to be president. The New Yorker magazine’s recent cover captured the horror and amazement of the Trump phenomenon: Past presidents of renown grouped around a television set incredulously watching Mr. Trump on television.

This Republican contest is obviously not about policies, ideas or preparedness for high office based on experience. Or even at this stage about electability in the November campaign. It is, rather, a roar of inchoate anger in which a whole lot of people are dismayed by their country’s economy, political system and standing in the world.

Part of the anger flows from the perception of threats: to jobs from illegal immigrants, to borders unsealed, to ordinary Americans from “terrorists,” to the economy from foreign cheaters, to American values from people with strange backgrounds. The anger also swells from the sense of people being ignored while attention is focused on particular groups – blacks, feminists, Mexicans, Muslims – who are not seen as mainstream in their assumptions, beliefs or loyalties. And the anger is directed at “elites” of every stripe (except perhaps religious pastors) who have not just let down the country but are somehow bent on subverting it, starting with President Barack Obama.

From these swirling discontents and hurts, and the justifiable frustration with intensely dysfunctional government in Washington, surges the desire to find a Great Man to cut through the complexities of the disorienting present, to speak only for and to the forgotten People, to roll back the boundaries of fear by smiting adversaries at home and abroad and to Make America Great again.

What could Canadian conservatives possibly draw from this movie?

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