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U.S. President Donald Trump walks between lines of riot police in Lafayette Park across from the White House, in Washington, on June 1, 2020.

Tom Brenner/Reuters

Last spring, Ottawa was in the news over a controversy that erupted in the House of Commons during a stretch of late-night sittings.

A Conservative MP stood to accuse the Prime Minister of an egregious breach of the rules: scoffing down a bagel during the late-in-the-evening proceedings. Eating food in the chamber is strictly taboo and Mr. Trudeau had to get on his feet and apologize but not before setting the record straight.

It was a chocolate bar, not a bagel.

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The moment became a viral smash, with news networks such as CNN and the BBC getting a few laughs at our expense. No doubt, there were more than a few of us proud that this is what constituted a political firestorm in our country while at the same time knowing our politicians are capable of far more serious and concerning derelictions of duty.

One couldn’t help think that the same CNN hosts chuckling over what constituted scandal in Canada were imagining how lovely it must be to live in a place where this type of misconduct got the head of the country to apologize.

This story is something to ponder as we head into Thanksgiving. We all know this will be a holiday like none other in recent memory. Many of us will not be with our families, opting to enjoy our turkey dinners and toast our good fortunes virtually. But I don’t think there has ever been a time, at least in my years on this earth, for which we, as Canadians, had more to be thankful for. What’s happening to our southern neighbour reminds us of that every day.

It is not hyperbole to say that we may be witnessing the end of the United States as we know it. It is a sadly broken country, presided over by a wannabe strongman who has disgraced the presidency and fuelled a dangerous divide along lines of class and race. American institutions, meantime, are failing, with distrust in many of them, such as the police, at all time highs. In recent months, there have been record sales of firearms, almost as if people are expecting full-on anarchy where it becomes each person for himself or herself.

Many communities, but mostly Black and immigrant, have eroded further into decay, diseased by poverty, overrun with crime and too often governed by corrupt local authorities. Meantime, their President has accorded status to white nationalistic gangs, which is the type of kindling that can provide the foundation for potentially explosive and deadly racial clashes.

“Donald Trump is in the process of shredding every norm of decent behaviour and wrecking every institution he touches,” U.S. conservative commentator David Brooks writes in this month’s Atlantic.

“[Finally] he threatens to undermine the legitimacy of our democracy … and incite a vicious national conflagration that would leave us a charred and shattered nation.”

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It would be natural to lay all of what we are witnessing at the feet of Mr. Trump. But the reality is, the conditions were ripe for his arrival and the subsequent chaos and destruction he has sown. If he is somehow to defy predictions and win re-election in November, the consequences for the U.S. – and the world – are almost too terrifying to contemplate. A violent internecine war of some description isn’t impossible to imagine.

We here in Canada, of course, have a ringside seat from which to watch the deterioration of this once great country. And it’s easy to be overcome with a certain smugness as we do.

Much younger as a country, with fewer citizens to manage, we are far better off than our friends to the south. Our health care system alone ensures we are a more compassionate, more equitable society. But we have our problems, too. We have racism, we have entrenched poverty, we have poor neighbourhoods with problems similar to ones in the U.S. We have trust issues with some of our institutions, including the police. We have politicians who have adopted some of the populist rhetoric and tactics that Mr. Trump rode into power on.

We have to be concerned about all of that. And we have to insist our political leaders be held to a high ethical standard and be prepared to accept the relentless scrutiny that comes with the privilege of holding their positions. Which is why the media has such an important role to play in a properly functioning democracy.

“For centuries, America was the greatest success story on earth, a nation of steady progress, dazzling achievement and growing international power,” Mr. Brooks writes. “That story threatens to end on our watch, crushed by the collapse of our institutions and the implosion of social trust.”

We have much to be grateful for in this country. But we should never take our good fortune for granted. A great country takes enormous work and diligence and must be built on an unassailable moral foundation.

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We must never lose sight of that.

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