Why Canadians can't look away from the U.S. presidential election
Published Tuesday, October 20, 2020 1:12PM EDT
It's a reflex many Canadians can't shake; watching the U.S. election campaign is like rubber-necking a car crash across the highway. It's riveting, at times terrifying. Above all, you fear the debris could actually fall your way.
Arguably no other country outside of the United States has as much at stake economically as the election campaign enters its final, dramatic weeks. And Canadians are feeling it.
"We're all watching the U.S. election with close attention because of its potential impact on the Canadian economy and on Canadians," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during a press conference last week.
Asked if his government is preparing for election disruptions or violence south of the border, Trudeau went further. "I think we're certainly all hoping for a smooth transition or a clear result from the election, like many people are around the world. If it is less clear there may be some disruptions and we need to be ready for any outcomes," Trudeau said.
But even with a smooth U.S. election process, many Canadians are feeling uneasy about the possibility of four more years with an American president who has shown personal animus toward Canada and its government. U.S. President Donald Trump threatened tariffs on Canadian steel, aluminum and other resources without negotiation or warning and walked out of the G7 summit in Canada in 2018 calling Trudeau "dishonest" and "very weak."
"We're right next to the United States, I think there is increasing anxiety, if Trump gets re-elected, he would have carte blanche for four years," said professor Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.
He recalls that in 2018, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro even said there was a "special place in hell" for Trudeau. "What kind of language is that?" Wiseman asks.
"[Trump's] not friendly to Canada, so we're almost being drawn in-—most, if not all of us—hoping to see the protagonist in this story get a dose of karma," said Flavio Volpe, head of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association in Canada, an industry particularly vulnerable to U.S. trade policy. Canada's auto assembly plants and parts suppliers depend on a tariff-free flow of parts and supplies crossing the border, and even short-term interruptions can cripple Canadian auto plants.
Canadians overwhelmingly favour former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. A recent Pew study on international views of Trump found favorable views of the U.S. at their lowest point in 20 years among Canadians and also shows that only 20% of Canadians have confidence in Trump to do the right thing regarding world affairs.
Toronto lawyer and dual citizen Mark Feigenbaum believes that many Canadians may just be culturally shocked by Trump's bombastic personality. "(Trump) doesn't share the same values as a lot of Canadians, him as a person, not necessarily the policy and I think that's triggered a lot of the anxiety, the angst," said Feigenbaum, a registered Republican who says he will likely vote to re-elect Trump.
Despite U.S.-Canada trade tensions, Feigenbaum argues that the Trump administration's energy policy could be good for Canada. (Trump, an advocate for relaxing regulations on oil, coal and gas, has sought to clear the way for the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to southern U.S. refineries.)
Feigenbaum also suspects that more Canadians support Trump than is shown in the polls. "They're just not willing to disclose it," he said.
Whomever they support, there's no pleading ignorance of America's looming choice. Canadian airwaves are saturated with the latest updates from both U.S. national networks and local American broadcasts.
Canadians have repeatedly heard their country invoked as a last resort for progressive Americans; though the so-called "Trump refugees" never materialized after Trump's 2016 victory, Canadian government statistics do show a slight uptick in Americans applying for permanent residency in Canada from 2017 to 2019.
Over the past year, Google Trends data has also shown an increase in searches for "How to move to Canada."
But many fear that America's divisive political discourse could eventually be imported north, too. Trump's corrosive, anti-government rhetoric is dangerous not just to the U.S., but as an example for Canadians, says Volpe.
"We're spectators and we're watching a society that is in relative decline," said Wiseman, adding that Canadians fear their own politics could become as polarized.
"America shows Canada its future."