Could it happen here? No Canadian could have avoided that thought as we watched the Prime Minister hand-wrestle Donald Trump, then lead the White House in an interlude of rictus smiles between outbursts of presidential abomination. Are we going to get something like him?
We like to think not. Canadians are more attuned to diversity, less prone to ethnic nationalism. Our parliamentary system prevents demagogues from gaining a foothold. And we've generally voted for moderate parties of centre-right or centre-left.
Better to ask: When it happens, what will it look like? Being Canada, if the new extremism catches on here, it probably won't have the same complexion.
This week, the marketing agency Edelman released its annual "Trust Barometer" survey under the headline Canada At Populism, Trust Crisis Tipping Point. That might be an overstatement, but their numbers do show a rise in the same factors that have led Americans, French and Britons to support Mr. Trump, Marine Le Pen and the Brexit politicians.
The survey found large and growing numbers (eight in 10) believing that distant "elites" are out of touch with regular Canadians and are causing harm; almost half believe that "globalization" is hurting Canada; more than a quarter fear immigrants rather than regarding them as neighbours. And, tellingly, on trust in institutions (government, media, business) there is a 15-per-cent gap – twice as high as last year – between the "informed public" and the "mass population."
We tend to assume that this "mass public" must be the core Trump constituency of angry, older, undereducated, non-urban, middle-income white people. After all, we did see just such people rallying behind some of the more extreme Conservative Party leadership candidates this week.
But Canada is different.
Canada's most dramatic recent triumph of Trump-style politics occurred in Toronto, where nearly half the city's voters (and Toronto has more voters than most provinces do) cast a ballot for a wealthy, unpredictable, populist, anti-immigration, anti-elite, racist-mouthed guy named Rob Ford in 2010, and a third voted for his movement in 2014. Many note the similarities between the late mayor and the current President. Others point out the big difference: Ford voters weren't generally, or even mainly, white.
An analysis by University of Toronto geographer Zach Taylor found that the Torontonians who voted for Mr. Ford overwhelmingly lived in inner-suburban wards whose populations were mainly racial and ethnic minorities, mainly lacking university education and mainly getting by on family incomes of less than $100,000 a year. Those voters are what the journalist Naheed Mustafa, in an analysis of their backgrounds, called "the non-white suburban poor," whom Mr. Ford pitted against an unseen, well-paid downtown elite (and sometimes against newer immigrants) – "Despite his personal wealth, he gave the impression that he spoke the language of the marginalized." Sound familiar?
Since the eighties, new Canadians and their families have tended to live in the low-cost, poorly transit-connected high-rise suburbs; they are more likely to be excluded from the housing boom and the secure new-economy jobs that have buoyed Canada; they are generally not white. Mr. Ford spoke their specific language of outsider resentment; he stoked the anger felt by many marginal Caribbean, African, South Asian and East Asian Canadians, and worked their Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. He knew their sense of exclusion could be turned into angry intolerance and he gave his voters a mythic "them" to be angry about. And it worked.
Likewise, the 2011 federal election was the first in which most ethnic and religious minorities voted Conservative. The Harper Tories certainly weren't a populist far-right party, but they didn't attract these new voters by moving leftward.
This doesn't mean minorities in Canada have turned to the far right – they haven't, any more than anyone else has. It does mean that anger and exclusion and paranoia in Canada, and even racial intolerance and xenophobia in Canada, are just as likely to entrap minority Canadians. The places where I most often hear overtly pro-Trump opinions are on Toronto's black-music radio station or in the suburban flea markets: His outsider message works there.
Canada has traditionally avoided extremism by offering hope: If you start on the bottom rung, you can make it higher. But the second and third rungs are no longer so secure. If they fail, we could wind up electing the world's most diverse form of self-destructive intolerance.