I have experienced a number of revelations about the state of North American democracy in the last few years. In 2016 I thought it was solid as a rock. How could it not be? We and the Americans have solid constitutions, centuries of experience with democratic governance, loyal militaries, free media and vibrant civil societies. No problems here.
Then Donald Trump was elected. Four years of a right-wing demagogue with clear fascist tendencies shook me out of my complacency. I realized I had forgotten my history. In the 1930s, fascism from naziism to the KKK developed an enthusiastic following in the U.S., complete with mass meetings and celebrity endorsements. Trump’s term ending with the big lie and the unleashing of stormtroopers made it clear the fascism may have been latent but it had never gone away.
Now we have received another warning of just how serious this is. A University of Ottawa task force insists that Canada’s intelligence community will have to address the growing influence of anti-democratic forces south of the border. It has issued a report stating, “The United States is and will remain our closest ally, but it could also become a source of threat and instability.”
According to Thomas Juneau, co-director of the task force and associate professor at the university, “There are serious risks of democratic backsliding in the U.S. and at this point, that is not a theoretical risk. So all of that is a serious threat to our sovereignty, to our security, and in some cases, to our democratic institutions … We need to rethink our relationship with the United States.”
He added that while we have our own homegrown right-wing extremism to deal with, cross-border connections between extremist groups is alarming. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News was singled out as one insidious influence.
The task force deserves close attention with authors who are people of substance. In addition to Juneau, members included former CSIS directors, ex-deputy ministers, former ambassadors and academics.
President Trump gave us a taste of what might be in store for us if he or a clone should become the next president. He insulted our prime minister and disrespected America’s traditional allies. An autocratic U.S. president may have little use for a small democratic neighbour, à la Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping.
Juneau pointed out that this is “completely new” and “calls for a new way of thinking and new way of managing our relationship with the U.S.” The report authors rejected an accusatory approach to the U.S. but rather one of “How can we help each other?” In other words, a sensible Canadian approach.
Quite an emotional and intellectual journey in a mere six years. From robust confidence in American liberty to a deep concern to recognizing a threat to our own democracy. Things move quickly in this the 21st century.