It’s easy to envy the Americans their political theatre, a theatre that a dedicated surrealist could only stare at in wonder.
Even if there wasn’t Donald Trump, bestriding the Republican race like an orange-tinted colossus, you’d still have a host of other candidates literally chainsawing the tax code, comparing an arms treaty to the Holocaust, and arguing that it’s fine to take guns to the movies – days after a lethal mass shooting in a movie theatre.
Thanks to America’s position as the richest, most powerful, and in many ways most dysfunctional democracy in the western world, we have another 15 months or so of this madness before the actual election.
Here in Canada, we have a lower insanity threshold. The average Canadian political campaign, even now that they’re being stretched out to six or seven months, can barely produce as many gaffes overall as the U.S. race is already producing per week.
Think of some of the more famous Canadian political missteps – Robert Stanfield fumbling a football back in 1974, John Turner’s “I had no option,” the mockery of Jean Chretien’s facial paralysis, Stockwell Day’s jet ski and wet suit combo, “beer and popcorn.”
These all seem like pretty small beer compared to a country in which you can apparently slam a man who spent several years as a tortured POW as “not a hero.” Yet Donald Trump said that about John McCain, and it doesn’t seem to have hurt him in the polls yet.
If Donald Trump was running in Canada, it’s tempting to say that he couldn’t be elected as a small-town councillor. But Torontonians elected Rob Ford. Multiple times.
Why can some candidates get away with spewing gaffe after gaffe while whole campaigns can be destroyed by one poorly chosen phrase or backfiring attack ad?
The most valuable thing a candidate can do is get the voters to identify with them. When you have that core who think “Yeah, that’s what I’d do if I was him!” you have your base of voters, volunteers, and die-hard supporters.
Politicians from Bill Vander Zalm to Jack Layton to Jean Chretien have all parlayed a kind of regular-guy appeal into victory. You can win without that – Stephen Harper is proof that a different approach works – but it helps.
That kind of identification between voter and politician can have a dark side, however.
Trump says outrageous, provably untrue things about Mexican migrants, his fellow candidates and Republicans, his opponents, the press… and he gets away with it.
I think that’s because there is a subset of angry people, who go through life feeling like they’re persecuted. They don’t like immigrants, legal or illegal. They feel like they’ve been held back. They don’t like that they can’t just say any hurtful thing that pops into their heads without being called out for it.
And then Trump appeared, the avatar of every bellowing, populist impulse of modern America. Here he is, think these voters, the man who says what I would say if only I had the wealth and power to not worry what anyone else thought.
He gives them a perverse hope that maybe, in Trump’s America, they too could somehow get rid of the immigrants they don’t like, call everyone they don’t like a loser, and get themselves a gold-plated toilet.
We don’t have a national-level Trump-style candidate here in Canada, and they’re rare even in the U.S. But it’s only a matter of time. After all, it’s working for Trump, so far.