WASHINGTON – Despite his reputation for hair-trigger unpredictability, Donald Trump had a remarkably consistent track record for triggering paroxysms north of the border: all he ever had to do was mention Canada by name.
Whatever else life outside the White House has dealt the former president, his ability to resonate with Canadians who either love him or hate him appears undiminished.
“The Canadian truckers, you’ve been reading about it,” Trump said to lusty cheers during a weekend rally in Texas, acknowledging ongoing protests that have snarled traffic at the Canada-U.S. border in Alberta and turned life upside down on and around Parliament Hill.
“We want those great Canadian truckers to know that we are with them all the way. They’ve really shown something.”
Indeed they have: the flag-draped semi-trailers, blaring horns and maskless protesters that have swarmed the national capital since Friday offer incontrovertible proof that Canada is not immune to the bitterly angry, Trump-style populism that swept the U.S. more than five years ago.
The protest is ostensibly fuelled by Canada’s requirement that truckers be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter the country — a rule the U.S. has as well. But it’s just as much about pandemic restrictions more broadly, including vaccine mandates and mask requirements.
Trump is hardly the only one who’s noticed.
Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the most unapologetic and controversial acolytes of the former president on Capitol Hill, has repeatedly expressed her support for the protesters, describing them on the alt-right social media forum Gettr as “standing against tyranny.”
Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted her support over the weekend, while the Twitter account for Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee circulated drone footage of idling tractor-trailers, along with a rendition of “O Canada” and a single word — “Freedom!”
Fox News mainstay Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, could barely contain his delight Monday.
He castigated Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for taking a hard line with protesters — some brandished Nazi symbols, defiled the National War Memorial and harassed shopkeepers for enforcing mask policies — without acknowledging the larger group’s various grievances.
“These were working-class people. They’re the guys who deliver your Amazon boxes. And Justin Trudeau is repulsed by them,” Carlson said during the segment.
“Justin Trudeau won’t meet with them because he never meets with people like this — not simply because they are blue-collar and dirty … but because they disagree with him.”
That illustrates the danger of singling out the bad conduct and “tarring everybody with the same brush,” warned Bob Pickard, a veteran public relations expert and principal at Toronto-based Signal Leadership Communication Inc.
That ultimately alienates Canadians who might sympathize with the broader message, even if they don’t condone the behaviour of a select few, adding fuel to the fires of outrage in the white-hot kiln of social media.
“On social media, the usual suspects are all going to engage with Mr. Trudeau on the left, and that would include a lot of moderate or centrist Canadians,” Pickard said.
“But the more there is the activation of intense emotions online, the more the other side — the algorithm of Twitter, for example — will pour gas on the fire of the other side of the algorithm, almost like a knee-jerk backlash.”
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said it will be important to draw a clear distinction between informed, passionate debate and unacceptable conduct as Canada works to put COVID-19 in the rear-view mirror.
“I think in some ways it is important to have an ongoing, very rigorous debate about how to get out of the pandemic,” while drawing “some bright lines and some boundaries” around unacceptable behaviour, Mendicino said Tuesday.
“I think many of us have seen an uptick in the expressions and the incitements of hate and violence, and that is troubling, and I think … we need to really be sure that we are identifying and taking the appropriate actions that are necessary.”
The protests have conjured memories of Jan. 6 last year, when Trump supporters taking part in a massive demonstration on Capitol Hill ran amok through the halls of Congress in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to prevent the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory.
Those protests were similar in that they were attended, for the most part, by Americans with both a deep-seated antipathy toward the institution of government and a new-found interest in politics, thanks to Trump.
“Because they’re not really an organized movement, they’re just impulsive, and things get carried away,” said Sands.
“Some invariably use Confederate flags, swastikas, profanity-laden placards and other symbols that are meant to get a rise out of people, that are meant to provoke, because what they’re trying to do is get attention and vent frustration and feel that whatever it is that’s bothering them, somebody will listen.”
That’s one of the deep ironies of modern-day, fury-fuelled populism in a polarized society: the shock-and-awe tactics of certain protesters oblige political leaders to denounce them, rather than offer the opportunity of a fair hearing.
It may be time to rethink that approach, said Sands, who is counting on the next generation of political leaders to recognize the need for a new way of doing things.
“I hope that they kind of rekindle the old politics of pragmatism … I hope that they see this and come out of it saying, ‘No, that’s not what we want,’ and try to find that common ground,” he said.
“I’m hoping that future generations, the lesson they take from this is, ‘A pox on all their houses, let’s take politics in a different direction, we’re trying to practice politics differently.'”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2022.