Peter Donolo is the vice-chair of Hill + Knowlton Strategies Canada. He served as director of communications to prime minister Jean Chrétien.
It’s been the fevered nightmare of Canadian progressives for the past four years: That any day now, the pathogens of Trumpism – with all its hatred and rage – will jump the border and infect the Canadian body politic.
In fact, U.S. President Donald Trump’s very name has become a despised epithet hurled at populist politicians on the right. During the 2018 Ontario election, Naomi Klein labelled now-premier Doug Ford “our very own Donald Trump”; Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has routinely been called Trumpian, and ditto to Quebec Premier François Legault.
But the comparisons ring hollow. Neither Mr. Ford nor Mr. Kenney could be accused of playing the bald white-power politics that is at the core of Trumpism. The annual Ford Fest held in Etobicoke hosts an enthusiastic crowd as diverse as any political gathering anywhere in Canada on the left or right, while Mr. Kenney, a senior cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government, was a singularly effective ambassador to Canada’s ethno-cultural communities.
In fact, both premiers represent conservative strains that are as Canadian as maple syrup. In Mr. Ford’s case, it’s a message loop of chamber-of-commerce bromides that hark back to the Mike Harris years. For his part, Mr. Kenney, with his strident axe-grinding, feels like a throwback to regional strongmen such as B.C.‘s W. A. C. Bennett, Saskatchewan’s Ross Thatcher and Newfoundland’s Brian Peckford.
And while Mr. Legault evinces an outright hostility to diversity that might strike some as Trumpian – particularly in the profoundly illiberal (though avowedly pro-secular) Bill 21, which bans the wearing of religious symbols by Quebec public sector employees – this too has a long and particular pedigree in the politics of the province, from Maurice Duplessis’s persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses to Jacques Parizeau railing against “money and ethnic votes” on the night of the 1995 referendum. And on a wide range of issues, including climate change, the Legault government is the antithesis of Trumpist.
Indeed, the only two prominent Canadian politicians to openly embrace Trump-style populism and xenophobia – 2017 Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch and People’s Party founder Maxime Bernier – crashed and burned spectacularly, destroying the political careers they had spent years building.
So what is it about Canadian soil that makes it inhospitable to Trump-style politics? The pollster Michael Adams wrote a whole book on the subject, Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit, and found that the answer to his question was no. He and others point to Canada’s long history of compromise and accommodation (even if it’s often most accommodating to the elites) – and whatever it lacks in glamour or drama, it makes up for in effectiveness. Our broad national consensus over public health care is often cited, as is our openness to immigration. Indeed, Mr. Adams sees the latter as the fuel for continuing demographic renewal that has quite plausibly become “not only our defining feature, but also the engine that injects values of openness, tolerance and compromise into every sphere of social life.”
These and similar explanations make sense, as far as they go. They are, however, also a little too redolent of Canadian smugness – a characteristic often at play when we compare ourselves to the United States. And they miss what is likely the most important explanation of all: money and economies of scale.
Put simply, Canada won’t produce a Donald Trump for the same reason we don’t have a domestic automobile industry: our market isn’t big or lucrative enough.
By one measure, Mr. Trump is the latest manifestation of a strain of American politics dubbed “The Paranoid Style” by the historian Richard Hofstadter more than half a century ago. In this sense, the U.S. President’s lineage can be traced through populists such as Louisiana’s strongman 1930s governor, Huey Long, through Red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, to segregationist governor and presidential candidate George Wallace in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, Mr. Trump’s most recent re-election gambit – representing the forces of “law and order” against urban protesters – directly swipes from Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 playbook.
But in a more fundamental way, Trumpism owes more to P.T. Barnum and Arthur Nielsen than to Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. In fact, his election was more or less the culmination of a 30-year process in which right-wing politics was transformed into a huge and vastly profitable business.
The seeds were planted in 1987, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S. broadcast regulator, eliminated its so-called “fairness doctrine,” which required broadcasters to present contrasting views in any airtime discussions of controversial public issues. That decision opened the way to the first generation of right-wing talk radio – and stars such as Rush Limbaugh – and television, particularly Fox News. Over the past 20 years, the internet, never subject to FCC-style content-regulation, carried on what radio and television started, catering to a vast audience – and, equally important, a vast advertising base – that revels in angry, often apocalyptic, wall-to-wall political indoctrination, packaged as news and performing as entertainment.
As the historian Rick Perlstein explained in an influential 2012 essay, The Long Con, this massive politico-entertainment complex has more to do with money than it does to politics. And the profit machine works on the most reliable, time-tested technique of all in mass media: attracting eyeballs and selling advertising, ideally in huge volumes.
Consider that, according to Forbes, marquee Fox News host Sean Hannity earned US$36-million in 2018. Consider too that Alex Jones, the online conspiracy maven who has posited, among other claims, that the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre was a government-planned hoax, rakes in at least US$10-million a year selling ads on his website for survivalist gear and dietary supplements. Even in the face of relentless public pressure, Amazon has decided to continue advertising on the alt-right Breitbart news site. And this summer, an investigation by the Alethea Group showed that right-wing websites “monetize the anger stoked by misleading political content” by collecting the e-mail addresses of their readers and selling them to commercial brands.
The symbiotic relationship between hucksterism and right-wing politics is vividly illustrated by the case of former Navy Seal Edward Gallagher. Fresh from being pardoned by Mr. Trump last year, after a trial for war crimes committed in Iraq, Mr. Gallagher promptly launched his own “lifestyle” clothing line and signed on as a spokesman for various dietary supplements, which appear to be inordinately popular among the right.
Right-wing media is very much a part of this profitable ecosystem. It’s a self-sustaining world also composed of think tanks, lobbyists, evangelical churches, schools and universities, all generously financed by corporations and deep-pocketed benefactors such as the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. As The New York Times’ Paul Krugman has written, if you follow the money, it leads to jobs and wealth for those who peddle right-wing dogma – an argument that he uses to explain the reluctance of elected Republicans to criticize Mr. Trump, even after they’ve left Capitol Hill.
But what sets the right-wing media apart from its broader right-wing universe is that to hold on to viewers – and keep the advertising dollars rolling in – it has to keep ratcheting up the sensationalism.
In a review of the book Network Propaganda, Jeffrey Toobin explained the process: “False stories are launched on a series of extreme web sites, such as [Alex Jones’s] InfoWars … Those stories are then transmitted to outlets such as Fox News and the Daily Caller, which, according to the authors, ‘do claim to follow journalistic norms,’ but often fail in that function when it comes to tales from the web sites.”
Once used to this steady diet of red meat, viewers lose their taste for milder fare. After the death of civil-rights icon John Lewis this summer, Fox News did what any normal all-news network would do: it ran his Atlanta funeral service live on air. But its ratings, in the words of one media observer, “fell off a cliff” when its regular viewers abandoned the coverage in droves.
As a result of this climate, an increasingly radicalized segment of the electorate was drawn to figures such as Mr. Trump, whose policies and rhetoric would have made him unelectable a decade earlier. It is an endless cycle that radicalizes viewers and monetizes that radicalization – with the purveyors laughing all the way to the bank.
That’s why the Trump phenomenon isn’t at play here: the simple demographic reasons of our population size, and as a result, the inability to generate a huge economic payout.
Just ask Pierre-Karl Péladeau. In 2011, the separatist Quebec media mogul, working with associates of then-prime minister Stephen Harper, launched the Sun News Network. The television network was a fiasco in real time, finally shuttering in 2015, having lost an impressive $46.7-million in three years. The network was attracting only 8,000 viewers at any given moment.
The sunk costs of television production (on-air talent, the technicians, studios and equipment) are considerable. Even Sun News required a staff of 200 to operate. And these costs don’t vary significantly based on audience size, at least not in the startup years. Over time, the salaries of stars – based on ratings and thanks to ad revenue – might rise, but the initial set-up costs of a Sun News and a Fox News are comparable. What’s not comparable: a U.S. viewing audience that is many times larger, and thus infinitely more profitable.
Sun News is just the most dramatic example of how Canada’s national makeup and economy of scale protect us from the most noxious manifestations of right-wing politics. The same is largely true online, even though large budgets are less essential in that industry; Rebel News and The Post Millennial both preach their disinformation to a tiny coterie of aficionados, therefore limiting advertisers’ interest.
Indeed, Canadian right-wing “personalities” who do attract a higher profile – people such as the gender-contrarian Jordan Peterson and the white supremacist Faith Goldy – tend to market themselves to the U.S. right-wing ecosystem, where the real money is.
Canadians, of course, are not a uniquely virtuous or tolerant people. Our history – which includes residential schools, the Chinese head tax, the Manitoba Schools Act, and the internment of Japanese Canadians, just to name a few – has its fair share of shameful episodes. The Quebec City mosque massacre of 2017 and this year’s mass murders in Nova Scotia show that we are not immune to the toxins of hate that infect so much of the modern world.
Good fortune – and the hidden advantages of our size – have protected us from the particular scourge of Trumpism. But it isn’t infection that poses the danger to us; it’s what Trumpism is doing to a neighbour to whom we are tightly bound. The presidential election is far from over, and as a result, so is the danger to Canada. After all, electing Mr. Trump once might have been an accident, but electing him twice would be a sign of anti-democratic pathology on the part of Americans – and it’s always a bad move to cast one’s lot with the pathological.
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