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Are Canadians Ready for the Return of America First?

Donald Trump has a plausible path to the White House in 2025

By: /
22 November, 2023
The return of a Trump administration in Washington would have profoundly negative consequences for Canadian national interests. Image by 12019/Pixabay. The return of a Trump administration in Washington would have profoundly negative consequences for Canadian national interests. Image by 12019/Pixabay.
Kim Richard Nossal
By: Kim Richard Nossal
Author of Canada Alone - Navigating the Post-American World (Dundurn Press) available here.

Donald J. Trump is the leading contender for the Republican nomination for president in 2024. There are six other candidates who are also seeking the Republican nomination at the party’s convention in Milwaukee next July, but Trump leads the field by margins of up to 50 points. Only three of the other candidates can poll between 5 and 13 per cent; the other two are lucky if their polling numbers are greater than 1. The Republican party continues to be in thrall to Trump. All but a couple of elected Republicans are, often by their own private admission, too fearful of the Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement that Trump inspires to openly criticize him — and anyway those dissenters have all been forced out or are retiring. That fear was clearly evident in the election of the Speaker of the House in October: those Republican members of Congress who refused to support a MAGA candidate received death threats from Trump’s MAGA supporters. The success of the intimidation was reflected in the eventual choice of Mike Johnson (R–La.) as Speaker: every single member of the Republican conference in the House voted for Johnson, a candidate who had been dubbed “MAGA Mike” by Trump.

Importantly, should Trump be nominated in Milwaukee, he has a plausible path back to the White House in January 2025. Public opinion polls in the United States consistently show that tens of millions of Americans see nothing at all disqualifying about Trump, no matter what he says or does or is; likewise, those same polls show that President Joe Biden struggles to have the accomplishments of his administration, which includes a significant improvement in the economy, recognized by equally huge numbers of Americans. 

And then there is No Labels, a political organization that is seeking to run a third-party “unity ticket” in the 2024 elections. Because No Labels refuses to divulge who funds it — and American law does not require such disclosure — it is widely believed that the organization is funded by mega-donor Republicans keen to help return Trump to the presidency, since it is likely that a unity ticket will attract Biden voters rather than Trump supporters — an outcome that No Labels internal polling shows. No Labels has also secured ballot access in thirteen states so far, and if a No Labels third-party ticket is on the ballot in key “battleground” states in 2024, Trump has an excellent chance of winning given how the Electoral College in the United States works.

The return of a Trump administration in Washington would have profoundly negative consequences for Canadian national interests. Because the Republican party under Trump has so clearly revealed its authoritarian, illiberal, anti-constitutionalist, and racist essence, those attributes will have powerful transborder effects on Canadian politics. We were given a preview of this during the convoy protests in Ottawa in 2022, when MAGA world in the United States actively involved itself in the protest. 

By the same token, if we see what some commentators in the United States have called the “Gileadization” of America under a Republican — riffing off the transformation of the United States bruited in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — it is likely that the response in Canada will be sufficiently negative that it will have a major souring effect on relations with the United States.

Canadians will also have to worry about the impact on our economic well-being. The America First policies that Trump and the MAGA Republican party embrace are openly protectionist, even more protectionist than the policies pursued by Biden and the Democrats. But while the Biden administration is protectionist, it actually cares about America’s friends and allies, and so it often seeks to mitigate the worst effects of American protectionism. 

Not so an America First administration: during his first term, Trump consistently demonstrated that he does not care about America’s friends or allies. On the contrary: he appears to be convinced that all America’s “friends” are no friends at all, but grubby free riders eager to “rape” the United States (as he indelicately likes to put it). In his first term, Trump accused Canada of being a threat to America’s national security, and slapped a range of tariffs on Canadian imports. He is already considering massive tariffs for his second term — measures that would seriously harm Canadians given our continued dependence on trade with the United States for our economic well-being.

Should Trump return to the White House in 2025, he will also bring back with him the shambolic and bizarre diplomacy that marked his first term from 2017 to 2021 — and this too is likely to have an impact on Canadian interests. 

We can expect that he will make good on his promise to bring the war in Ukraine to an end — by the simple expedient of abandoning Ukraine and embracing Vladimir Putin, who, not coincidentally, enjoys high levels of support among MAGA Republican voters. Trump is also likely to act on his long-standing desire to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). And we should always keep in mind that the United States does not have to formally renounce the treaty signed in Washington in April 1949 in order to “withdraw.” As president, Trump could simply leave the treaty in place, but not assign any American military personnel to the alliance or spend funds on NATO. 

We can also expect that he will mismanage the relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as badly as he did during his first term. But getting the relationship with China right at this juncture in history is of crucial importance to global peace, since the PRC under paramount leader Xi Jinping is in an assertive and truculent mood — as Beijing’s rhetoric over the future of Taiwan and the aggressive behaviour of the PRC coast guard and the maritime and aerial service branches of the People’s Liberation Army in the South China Sea demonstrate so clearly. Trump is likely to ratchet up the level of American conflict with China, and is likely to insist that Canada reorganize its defence posture to support the United States in the Indo-Pacific, including demands for a substantial increase in Canadian defence spending.

We can also expect that a returning Trump administration will abandon the Biden administration’s efforts to keep the United States engaged in global governance on such key issues as climate change. He is likely to revert to the approach favoured during his first administration, abandoning multilateral efforts to manage global problems that are well beyond the capacity of any single state to deal with.

Canadians were generally so relieved when Joe Biden won the 2020 election that we haven’t given much thought to the possibility that Trump and his America First global agenda will return to power in 2025. To be sure, our foreign minister, Mélanie Joly, admitted in a radio interview in August that the government in Ottawa has a “game plan” to deal with such an eventuality, but she provided no details – and appropriately so, since all friends and allies of the United States have to be ultra discreet about the political shifts taking place in American politics. 

But for Canadians generally, the very normalcy of the Biden administration has discouraged us from rethinking our long-standing complacency about foreign and defence policy. If Trump becomes the 47th president of the United States in January 2025, will we be ready?

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Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

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