Michael Adams looks at Trump and asks of Canada: could it happen here?

A new book by the founder of Environics Research Group analyzes polling data and demographic trends to explore whether a candidate like Donald Trump could rise to power in Canada

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      On November 9, 2016, Michael Adams went to bed before a winner was declared in the U.S. election for president. At 10 p.m., the cable news networks were reporting the count was still too close to call. But the Democrats' candidate, Hillary Clinton, was widely expected to win. Her opponent was a reality-television star with no experience in government and a public record of racism and crude misogyny. So Adams, the founder of the polling firm Environics Research Group Ltd., called it a night and headed to bed.

      When he awoke the next morning just before 7 a.m., Donald Trump was president-elect of the United States of America.

      “And at 9 a.m., I sat down at my computer and I began banging out a proposal for a book,” Adams told the Straight. “We were all wondering: could it happen here?”

      A year later, the book is out and that’s its title: Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit.

      In a telephone interview, Adams spoke bluntly about what exactly “it” is.

      “Xenophobic nationalism is what I am referring to,” he explained. “The identification of the ‘other’ as an enemy, and arousing popular support for xenophobia. Could that happen in Canada at the scale that we’re seeing happen in the United States and Europe?”

      In an easily digestible 178 pages, Adams analyzes both historical and contemporary polling data to compare and contrast Canadians’ attitudes with changes in the United States and Britain that he presents as driving those countries toward electing Trump and breaking away from the European Union.

      “I also thought about institutional differences, like our parliamentary system, structural differences, like the demography of Canada, and particularly how urban we are and how multicultural we are,” he said.

      Between Canada and the United States, a divergence of social values opened in the 1960s and has widened ever since, Adams continued. “That’s the divergence that we see continue to today, with Donald Trump being the most extreme expression of the divergence and, in a funny way, Justin Trudeau as a symbol or an icon of the progressive agenda in Canada.”

      This doesn’t mean that Canada is not susceptible to the appeals of populism. Adams presents instances where segments of the country have embraced candidates or policies that fit that description. But, he emphasizes, in most instances, it wasn’t long before each group returned to a more sensible, politically centred position.

      “We’ve had populism with the Social Credit movement in Alberta, populism on the left with the CCF [Co-operative Commonwealth Federation] in Saskatchewan, populism here in British Columbia with the Social Credit [party] in the '50s and '60s,” he said.

      Such movements continue to pop up, Adams added, pointing to former Toronto mayor Rob Ford as the most visible example of a recent manifestation. But Adams argued the long-term trends in Canada reveal those events as anomalies rather than precedents.

      He suggested that much of Trump’s support is rooted in thinly shrouded dog-whistle racism—for example, when he associates immigration with crime. In the U.S., that worked well enough to get Trump elected. But north of the border, the Conservative Party of Canada deployed similar tactics two years earlier, in 2015, Adams observed, and Stephen Harper was beaten by Trudeau.

      How Harper lost is largely explained by voters’ reactions to the Conservative’s proposed “barbaric cultural practices” hotline and a ban on Muslim women wearing the niqab during citizenship ceremonies, Adams shows.

      “The moment Harper chose to pander more aggressively to the Conservatives’ backlash base, he lost crucial support in the multicultural suburbs, support that cost the Conservatives an election they might have won,” Adams writes.

      The response was the same in 2017, when Kellie Leitch ran to replace Harper as leader of the Conservative party.

      “Throughout the Conservatives leadership campaign, polls consistently showed support for Kellie Leitch’s notion of a Canadian values test, a signal that there are political dividends to harvest by appealing to the more fearful angels of our nature,” Adams writes in the book. “That she was also ridiculed and ultimately unsuccessful revealed something about the location of the boundaries of acceptable political discourse in Canada and offers of precise answer to the question of whether ‘it’ could happen here.”

      Simon and Schuster

      Key differences separating Canada from the United States are immigration and urbanization, Adams told the Straight.

      “In cities like Toronto and Vancouver, we’re talking about over 70 percent of people who are first- and second-generation [immigrants],” Adams said. “In Canada, you can’t get elected and have a majority government without appealing to immigrants and visible minorities. They are too many, they are citizens, and they vote.…And so we’re pretty well guaranteed that our parties are going to appeal to more open and tolerant attitudes to visible minorities, to religious minorities, to foreign-born and their children.”

      Adams added that in researching the book, he did find Canadian susceptibilities to populist rhetoric that caused him concern. But on a smaller scale than what now exists in the United States.

      “There are people who are suffering status anxiety,” he said. “They suffer the status anxiety of a black person being elected president of the United States, and they suffer the status anxiety of a woman becoming president of the United States. Who would lose from that?…They’re going to be white and they’re going to be men. And a lot of those folks were mobilized to vote for Trump in that election.

      “In Canada, we just don’t see those levels of seething resentment.”