Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power & Politics.
Way back during the Great Depression, an American writer named Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel about the fragility of democracy in the United States and how easily the country could end up being run by a fascist dictator like Italy and Germany. Most Americans scoffed at the possibility, which is why Mr. Lewis ironically titled his book It Can't Happen Here. In his plausible and chilling fable, it did happen. In real-life 1930s America, it came perilously close.
Which brings us to our own real-life reckless demagogue: Donald Trump. Mr. Trump has an excellent chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination, given the unabashed extremism of those who now dominate the party, and then has a pretty good crack at defeating Hillary Clinton.
We need to come to grips with this ugly reality. The crazier Mr. Trump's statements, the more outrageous, provocative, sexist and bigoted, the more he is embraced by tens of millions of Americans. And not just loyal Republicans. It's true, according to a recent poll, that 76 per cent of Republicans feel that the values of Islam are "incompatible with the American way of life." More appallingly, a majority of the general public, 56 per cent, agree. A dangerous sickness has taken hold across the United States and Mr. Trump is its main beneficiary and its embodiment.
As the Republican candidate, Mr. Trump would be blessed with a deeply vulnerable opponent. For all her unprecedented achievements over the decades, Ms. Clinton has always been on the very edge of landing in deadly quicksand, almost deliberately tempting fate to see how much she could get away with. We can take for granted that in the election campaign she will have great quantities of mud thrown at her every single day, deserved or fabricated. While much of the media seems mesmerized by Mr. Trump's shamelessness, many loathe Ms. Clinton with a bottomless passion. That is why she has a very good chance of being defeated. Indeed, what many of us have refused to understand is that the very shamelessness of Mr. Trump is what attracts so much support.
Canadians, at least, should grasp this phenomenon. We've been through the identical syndrome with former Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Everything that most readers of this column hated about Mr. Ford made him a winner to countless Torontonians. So it is with Mr. Trump. It's precisely his recklessness, his outrageousness, his bigotry, his ignorance, his indifference to reason and evidence that have made him a hero to tens of millions of Americans, enough to make his election as president perfectly plausible.
Then what? The American public chooses the person who, more than any other individual, runs the world. The President of the United States is our president too, even if we've not cast a single ballot. And as president, it's impossible to exaggerate how dangerous Donald Trump would be, and for the same reasons Rob Ford was so dangerous. We've seen it repeatedly from Mr. Trump in recent months.
Mr. Trump believes his own craziness. Mr. Trump has no self-doubt. Mr. Trump thrives on being outrageous. Mr. Trump doesn't seem to know when he's lying. Mr. Trump says anything that comes into his mind. Mr. Trump knows nothing more about the world than the ignorant sound bites he makes up as he goes along. Mr. Trump listens to no advisers. Mr. Trump believes his own statements. Mr. Trump has neither awareness of nor interest in the potential cataclysmic consequences of his many whims. Beyond cartoonish oversimplifications, Mr. Trump neither grasps nor is concerned with how the world works.
Yet it's precisely these Ford-like characteristics that attracts such devotion from so many ordinary Americans. Forget the class struggle. They love that he pretends to be a self-made zillionaire who can get away with saying anything he wants. They love that he can't be bought like every other American politician except Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and is indebted to no special interests beyond himself. As with Mr. Ford, all those reasons that we fear Mr. Trump make millions of Americans idolize him.
It makes the task of those who want to attack him, as Ms. Clinton must do, as difficult as it was for Mr. Ford's opponents to criticize him effectively. Like Mr. Ford, Mr. Trump can get away with murder, as it were.
America in 2016 is a frightened nation. Millions upon millions of Americans are anxious, many having never reconciled themselves to a black president and a growing Hispanic population. Mr. Trump is their man. His swagger becomes theirs, his overweening confidence their own.
As president, Mr. Trump would be capable of anything, however provocative and destructive. He's not just a clown. He is potentially the most dangerous man in the world. He must be stopped, but no one has yet laid a finger on him.
One way to expose Mr. Trump's recklessness is immediately apparent on visits to New York and California in recent weeks.
There are 54 million Hispanics in the United States, absolutely indispensable to the American economy, including Mr. Trump's own hotels. But 11 million have no proper papers, and Mr. Trump vows to ship them all back to their homelands. Besides being racist, this policy would cause America to grind to a halt overnight.
If the undocumented stayed home from work for a single day, if fellow Hispanics refused to work that day in solidarity, they would swiftly demonstrate what Mr. Trump's presidency would really mean. Poetic justice: His intended victims could become his executioners. The entire world would be grateful.