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The ever-increasing dichotomy of America
It applies to Canada too
Seven years ago, Donald Trump was elected 45th President of the United States. And he’s trying to come back for another round. The forces that brought him to power in 2016 have not disappeared, and they are not unique to the United States; they’re very much relevant to Canada as well.
Weighing in on American politics is both a national hobby and totally taboo in Canada. As an MP, I had to spend my years of overlap with Trump with my tongue firmly bitten so as not to complicate already difficult relations with an unfortunate headline, always mindful of the fate of Carolyn Parrish, who was kicked out of the Liberal caucus in 2004 after criticising president George W Bush.
In private, I had no such compunction.
Shortly after Trump’s election, I wrote an email to a handful of rural colleagues expressing my interpretation of his win, and what it meant for us. It was in the midst of the Conservative leadership race that elected Andrew Scheer, and many candidates in that race were looking to President-elect Trump for inspiration.
I have not been able to sleep for the past week.
Last week, 60 million people, nearly twice the population of Canada, put an X next to Donald Trump's name and made him the 45th president of the United States.
I warned friends since he got into the primaries that he had a real prospect of winning, that Sanders was the only option the Democrats should consider if they wanted to beat him.
The American mood, I told people all year, was to dump the establishment. Sanders and Trump represented the anti-establishment. Clinton could not possibly have been more establishment if she tried – and she did try, by appointing the lamest, most establishment vice presidential candidate possible in Tim Kaine, killing off her last chance of capturing the anti-establishment sentiment. At the end, American voters, for the most part, did not vote against Muslims, they voted against the establishment.
In a Sanders fight, the question would have been how to dump the establishment, not whether to. Trump vs Clinton, the ballot question was simply: dump the establishment? Yes or no.
So what is the establishment that people are against? And could it happen here?
You're goddamn right it could happen here, folks. Kellie Leitch knows it. Maxime Bernier knows it. Kevin O'Leary knows it. Do we know it? I do.
What it is is the revenge of the working class. We talk a good game about the middle class. In urban Canada, the middle class appreciates the message. But urban Americans who bothered to get out and vote voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, for the establishment.
Urban is, once again, not the problem.
Rural America voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Rural America is pissed off at being forgotten. Small towns' economies are constantly being devastated as we off-shore all the wealth-producing parts of our economy and give the savings to the people who came up with the idea as a bonus for their brilliance.
That Trump is also guilty of doing that is completely irrelevant to the voters. All Trump voters saw was someone willing to tell it like it is. When he swore or said or did things that the urban establishment found deeply offensive, small-town folk said: yep, you tell 'em! Thank god someone in politics is willing to tell it like it is, he is not like the others!
But here is the real problem, friends: rural Canada is not as far along as rural America, but the sentiment is the same. Free trade agreements are good for Bay St and for Wall St, but they royally screw main street. I believe in free trade, I just don't believe we actually have it. So watching the TPP about to flame out under Trump is, for me, the best news to come out of this election.
Colleagues, if we keep ignoring the working class and rural and small town Canada, we will find ourselves joining the rest of the western world in having a demagogue autocratic anti-establishment candidate come out of nowhere to take over. Trudeau won't be change in 2023, and if people outside the major and largely liberal urban centres feel forgotten, they will take their revenge at the ballot box. Canada voted for Harper 6 years after the US voted for Bush. Canada voted for Trudeau 7 years after the US voted for Obama. The social waves south of the border do come north, but they take time. Where will we be 7 years from now?
Let's get ahead of this issue. We cannot solve it by lame attempts to modestly adjust dials in the tax code and invest in repairing a handful of potholes. Medicine Hat-Cardston-Warner, the by-election a few weeks ago, saw us go from 17 to 25 percent of the vote. The Conservative percentage also went up – all our gains came at the expense of the NDP. But more importantly, our actual vote total dropped. We have come to accept that places like that don't vote Liberal. Conservatives take them for granted and Liberals take for granted that they are Conservative. But it is not by making 100,000 phone calls that they will start voting Liberal; it is by taking care of small town problems.
We need nation-building infrastructure. We need to take care of rural and small town Canada. We need to promote domestic innovation and industry in real terms. Promoting Amazon's automatic fulfilment centre, which neither employs a significant number of Canadians nor keeps the profits in Canada, is just shooting ourselves in the head. Closing the immigration office in Vegreville Alberta is a strong and unmissable message to rural Canada that the government does not believe in them, does not want them, does not think small towns can or should succeed. It is precisely that type of office that keeps small towns alive. Taking out an office like that will destroy a whole region of a province that already feels forgotten by us for no tangible gain. It is one of the most disturbing and tone-deaf decisions yet of our young government.
Our middle class tax cut does not affect the majority of people in rural and small town Canada, who don't make enough to take advantage of it. But our trade and investment policies do, favouring big companies, big investors, and big importers rather than small business, small town, and domestic manufacturing.
If we want to solve working class angst, we can take significant measures now, in the upcoming budget, that get us there.
Raise the basic personal exemption to a properly calculated and indexed poverty line. Why on earth should someone who does not even meet the poverty line pay a dime in taxes? Don't describe the universal child benefit as a childcare programme replacement; it is not. It is a family allowance replacement. A national childcare strategy is still essential and years overdue.
Nationwide, integrated public transit is essential. It used to be you could take Greyhound-style buses all over rural Canada on regular, quite frequent, subsidised schedules. Now those buses are much rarer and more expensive and many towns have lost them altogether. Passenger trains are all but dead outside of the Windsor-Quebec City corridor. And of course Internet and cell phone service is a pleasant fiction in rural Canada. The odds are stacked against people outside the cities. We don't need better messaging, we need concrete action.
Nobody is watching out for the working class. And they will have their revenge if we don't start. Just ask Hillary.
Seven years later, as I asked rhetorically in this essay, Pierre Poilievre is filling the exact role I was describing. Democracy, my friends, is fickle.