Being allies, partners, neighbors and friends, Canadians are never indifferent to what happens south of border. Our newscasts cover events in the United States unlike any other nation in the world. Presidential elections are treated as a major happening with a potential impact on our own civil society. We cried when John F. Kennedy was killed, and we applauded when America chose its first African-American President. Clearly, we admire the United States as a beacon of freedom, but we also express our alarm or consternation when we hear of gun-related violence or commercial disputes that can affect our economic vitality.
So Americans should not be surprised that we in Canada are perplexed, and many would say worried, that President Obama’s successor could be Donald Trump. The Republican spectacle of recent months began with a Trump candidacy as buffoonery and political entertainment. Now it has since degenerated into insults and personal attacks and, with it, serious concern north of the border.
We have grown accustomed to out-of-the-ordinary events in the U.S. but, at the end of the day, our American friends usually find the right mix. No one can seriously dispute that the American democracy has been the most enduring and successful democracy in the history of mankind. Moreover, American ingenuity and the capacity to lead and keep America at the center of the major currents in economic, political, social and global issues are undeniable.
The choice of the next President is therefore serious business.
To some Canadians, Donald Trump is seen as a reality TV host, a bombastic braggart, absolutely politically incorrect, a suspicious and perhaps underhanded businessman, and lacking the character and the temperament to be the next leader of the free world. To others, Trump is a billionaire who has admittedly and successfully imposed his brand and his agenda on his chosen party—the Republicans, against all expectations. After the March 1st Super Tuesday results, many of us are ready to concede that Trump could be unstoppable. The fact that he scored impressive and decisive victories only reinforces this eventuality. But with his opponents divided and still in the race, Trump will likely be in a strong position for the March 15 showdown. Polls indicate that he is in the lead in key races.
The GOP establishment seems to be in pure panic mode and some are openly speculating that a brokered convention in Cleveland next July could eventually stop Trump. This is highly unlikely. Trump’s momentum is real and the current “angry” season is in full swing. The question will soon be: Can Trump win the presidency in November?
Meanwhile, the Democrats are conducting a fairly conventional primary and caucus season. Considering the factor of the super delegates, Hillary Clinton is building what appears to be an insurmountable lead. Bernie Sanders is conducting an impressive, issue-oriented campaign but he will fall short.
To some extent, the “angry” season is not just a Republican phenomena. If the GOP is conducting an anti-Washington exercise, Sanders has led a campaign with an anti-Wall Street, anti-Citizens’ United crusade. Even Hillary in her Super Tuesday thank-you speech made reference to the Sanders’ diagnostic about economic inequality.
So we in Canada are bracing ourselves for the ultimate contest—Trump against Clinton. While latest polls (CNN) would indicate a Clinton advantage and possible victory, we must not do what most pundits and the Republican establishment did since June 16, 2015—underestimate Donald Trump. If anything, he has revolutionized the way politics has been covered. Fact-checking seems secondary to television ratings. Perpetual insults denigrating his opponents and the Republican leadership in Congress are seen as “telling like it is.” Dividing Americans is a tactic that seems to have produced dividends for the Trump brand and its support. If “angry” season prevails past Labor Day, all bets are off for the presidential elections.
Despite all the bombast, polluted rhetoric, attacks against the establishment (whether Washington or Wall Street) and bombast of this campaign season, I am still a fervent believer in American checks and balances and how they can moderate presidential politics. Before giving anyone the keys to the White House or the nuclear code, Americans will look hard at the character and the temperament of a future occupant of the White House. Emotion undoubtedly plays a role in the voters’ choice, but America has usually factored in a strong dose of reason.
General elections have rules and media coverage is far different from primary season coverage. While my fellows Canadians are perplexed at the Trump surge and fear a Trump victory in November, I would note that we are still far from the conclusion of this presidential cycle. Exciting—if perplexing and even troubling times are ahead.
John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and invited professor in the political science department of University of Montreal and Fellow at CERIUM (Center for International Studies and Research). Twitter: @JohnParisella.