It is a campaign promise as outlandish as it is eye-catching: If elected, Vivek Ramaswamy vowed at this week’s Republican presidential candidates’ debate that he will build a wall along the U.S.-Canada border.
In part, the pledge appears to be a targeted play for votes in New Hampshire, the small border state with a key role in the GOP nominating contest. In part, it is a bid to burnish the 38-year-old entrepreneur’s nationalistic political brand by going further on border security than his rivals.
And it certainly fits with a strategy of taking controversial positions to draw attention to his long-shot candidacy.
Mr. Ramaswamy chose an exchange about the Mexican border, including former president Donald Trump’s unfinished wall there, to dramatically up the ante.
“There was enough fentanyl that was captured just on the northern border last year to kill three million Americans,” he said. “We’ve got to just skate to where the puck is going, not just where the puck is. Don’t just build the wall, build both walls.”
Mr. Ramaswamy’s proposed project would be expensive and impractical. The 8,891-kilometre frontier traverses the Great Lakes, the Rocky Mountains and vast stretches of remote forest. It cost U.S. taxpayers US$15-billion to build 1,188 kilometres of the Mexican border wall, offering some idea of the scale of necessary spending.
The amount of fentanyl that enters the U.S. from Canada, meanwhile, represents a tiny fraction of the amount of the drug seized by border guards every year.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), two pounds of fentanyl (less than one kilogram) has been seized at the northern border this year, compared with 27,000 pounds (12,247 kilos) from other locations. About 90 per cent of fentanyl is seized at border crossings and checkpoints rather than from people irregularly entering the country.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s campaign, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly’s office and the Canadian embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
“When it comes to the northern border, Americans understand that Canada is a strong partner and shares the same goals of security and prosperity,” Beth Burke, acting CEO of the Canadian American Business Council, wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Ramaswamy has been floating the idea of a wall at least since July, when he told Fox News that “we will eventually need to seal our own northern border.”
Last month, in a series of TikTok videos, Mr. Ramaswamy followed a hiking trail near Pittsburg, New Hampshire that he said provided a barrier-free way to enter the U.S. by fording a small stream. “This was a piece of cake,” he said of crossing the border irregularly. “I just literally did it in this creek myself.”
New Hampshire is the second state on the Republican nominating calendar next year, giving it outsized importance to the race. An increase in irregular crossings in recent years has become a political issue there: Three weeks ago, Governor Chris Sununu announced that the state would step up police patrols of its border with Quebec.
This year, CBP has reported 189,402 arrests and expulsions on the northern border, about six per cent of the national total of 3.2 million and a small fraction of the number on the border with Mexico.
Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, said Mr. Ramaswamy’s promise has less to do with Canada specifically than with tapping into broader-security fears among a segment of the U.S. electorate.
“There are some who don’t like foreigners and there’s a slice of voters that joins the anti-immigration side when they perceive the borders to be out of control,” he said.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s proposal, however, is seen as an extension of Mr. Trump’s attitude toward Canada when he was in office. Mr. Trump imposed steel and aluminum tariffs on Ottawa and repeatedly accused Canadians of cheating the U.S. on trade.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s communications strategy has also borrowed heavily from Mr. Trump’s pugilism. At other times during this week’s debate, for instance, Mr. Ramaswamy derided Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a “comedian in cargo pants,” called a top Republican leader a “cancer” on the party and accused the moderators of planning to “rig” the election.
“He has modelled himself after Trump in trying to be the one person in the race making the most eye-popping, outrageous kinds of attacks,” said Matt Dallek, a political management professor at George Washington University.
“It’s kind of worked for him. He’s gone from being anonymous publicly to being a well-known figure now in the Republican Party.”