The histories of the United States and Canada are inextricable. From their founding, the development of each was greatly shaped by events in the other. One of the proximate causes of the American Revolution was the Quebec Act, much resented in the Thirteen Colonies as an intolerable obstacle to westward expansion. The American experiment, in its turn, was very much on the minds of our own founding fathers as they met, mid-Civil War, if only as an example to avoid.
The United States is not just our neighbour. It is in many ways our raison d’être. Resistance to the economic and cultural pull of the American colossus was an early force for national unity. And yet proximity to the same colossus has also yielded enduring benefits, from access to American markets to the assurance of American military protection to the opportunities it afforded ambitious Canadian emigrants.
Indeed, it is impossible that Canada could have developed as it has without it – without the immense expanse of our southern border having been secured, not by anything we might have done, but by the extraordinary luck that situated us next door to the United States. Generations of Canadians grew up in the sunny certainty that our neighbour to the south, as trying as it could sometimes be, would always be stable, democratic, and peaceful. If you had to live next to a superpower, as it was said, whom else would you choose?
The growing sense that none of these qualities is still assured – that the United States seems on course for some combination of instability, autocracy, and political violence – is therefore not just a problem for Canada to manage. It is existential. If we can no longer count on sharing a border with a stable, democratic, and peaceful partner, then all of the other assumptions on which the Canadian nation-state is based are in doubt.
As the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol approaches, the warnings of where America might be headed have grown darker. The darkest forecasts seem too fantastical to be likely. But if the collapse of American democracy, or at least its degradation into an authoritarian semi-democracy, is not inevitable, neither is it impossible. Several intermediate propositions can be stated with some confidence:
- that Jan. 6 was not, as many people expected at the time, the last gasp of Trumpian extremism, but the start of something new, and even more sinister;
- that the threat to democracy is no longer, if it ever was, confined to Donald Trump himself, but rather has metastasized to include much of the Republican Party;
- that the grievances of the Republican base – against foreigners, against immigrants, against racial minorities, against Democrats, and against the liberal cultural elites they view as being in cahoots with all of them – have hardened into a kind of laagerism: a sense that they are an embattled minority whose very existence is in peril, and that as such all tactics are justified in the name of self-defence;
- that a significant share of Republicans, the polls tell us, have accordingly persuaded themselves that democracy itself is expendable – or at least that, as it has already supposedly been undermined by their Democratic opponents, so they are entitled to respond in kind, even extending to the use of violence;
- that, large numbers of Republican voters having been convinced against the evidence that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen,” large numbers of GOP officials at the state and local levels are now working to ensure they cannot lose the 2024 election, whether by means of old-school voter suppression laws or by new-school laws empowering state legislatures to set aside the popular vote in favour of a slate of presidential electors of their own choosing;
- that Mr. Trump is likely to be the Republican nominee in 2024, but that even if he is not, the GOP has passed the point of no return – their base has become so unhinged, the party elite so corrupted, they are simply unwilling, or unable, to accept electoral defeat.
Put all these together, and it is difficult to see how the Americans avoid a crackup in 2024: a Democratic victory at the polls, followed by attempts to overthrow it, followed by some violent incident of one kind or another – after which anything is possible. The country is in such an agitated state, with such a tradition of settling disputes by force of arms, that it would be more surprising if it survived the next few years intact than if it did not.
Which again raises the question: how will Canada respond? Not just how will we deal with the possible aftershocks and spillover effects: what will we do, who will we be, when we are no longer safely nestled in the lee of America’s Gibraltar?
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.