There is a risk when you’re conducting research for an opinion piece that the facts might cause you to change your opinion. Very inconvenient.
That’s what happened to me when I started collecting some info to support my belief that a bombastic demagogue like Donald Trump could get elected in Canada. I still believe that Canada could produce such a political figure, but I discovered that some of my assumptions were wrong.
Similar to many other people who like to think of themselves as political analysts, I have have been known to give some information too much weight, and not pay enough attention to what I personally observe.
Initially in this piece I was constructing an argument based partially on the issue of trust in government. While overall trust in government has declined in the US and Canada since the 1960’s an EKOS survey earlier this year found trust in the Canadian government is higher than it’s been in years. That’s not too surprising given we have a new and upbeat government. But these gallup numbers suggest a large number of Americans trust the executive branch of their government (the president) and Barak Obama has an approval rating of over 50%.
So, if millions of Americans are generally happy with their government (at least right now) why would they be interested in engaging with a guy like Trump?
Perhaps my assumption about trust was wrong.
Perhaps it’s something more than dissatisfaction. Perhaps it’s cultural.
The economic and social reasons for Trump’s rise have been examined in detail and I find it unsettling that now all of the focus is on the presidential “horse race” and not on solutions to problems that gave rise to so much unhappiness to begin with. And I don’t believe enough attention has been given to two important factors: the role of US popular culture (particularly reality TV) in creating an atmosphere for a demagogue to thrive, and how notoriety and popularity are now commonly driven by celebrity. Celebrity itself seems to be enough to drive popularity, not who you are or what you’ve done.
In the past 20 years music, movies, social media and particularly TV have fed us a heavily dystopian diet. The topics for dramas include everything from terrorists, zombies and aliens to wall street fraud and unfaithful spouses. So called reality TV seems to reward unremarkable personalities grounded in narcissism and vulgarity.
So, popular culture reinforces the idea that society is broken, the little guy is getting screwed and often the storyline makes an uncompromising lone wolf the hero.
When awful stuff actually happens in real life (economically, socially) that subliminal message of doom feeds into the perception that the world is going down the tubes and our political systems just aren’t up to the job. If it wasn’t for the years of dystopian noise in the background, I don’t think Trump would be as successful. And Canadians have been hearing the same noise.
Last month I took a road trip from the BC Coast to Saskatchewan and back. I repeatedly asked people what they thought of Donald Trump. I’m talking to strangers at a gas bar in Princeton, customers in a Sport Chek in Calgary, motor heads at a car show in Rosetown a business owner from Sidney BC, among others. Probably 100 people all together. Almost everyone I believed Trump was loopy but they also felt that he raised important issues and that he was the only choice outside the status quo. These are Canadians remember. Some said they weren’t too worried about his many gaffes, because it was part of his schtick and he behaved that way on reality TV too.
I recognize there is no statistical value in these conversations but like the 2013 BC election, my observations don’t match what the polling is saying.
According to an August poll by my friend Mario Canseco at Insights West a majority of Canadians can’t stand the idea of Donald Trump as president. Perhaps I just talked to the ones who might consider voting for a Trump like leader.
The paradox of all this is if you don’t rely on data or facts for you arguments you fall into exactly the sort of trap ensnaring many American voters.
They don’t care that Trump is factually incorrect again and again and again. His comments support their perception of reality, a reality not based on facts, but on perceptions shaped by the background noise of popular culture.
The Peace Arch at the border in Blaine declares Canadians and Americans to be “Children of a Common Mother”. Culturally we share everything. There are social and political differences to be sure, but the swing of our political pendulum tends to follow that of the Americans, even if our pendulum usually swings farther left than right.
So, to me almost as disturbing as watching the rise of Trump in the United States, is watching the conceited smugness displayed by many Canadians when they proclaim, “At least it can’t happen here!” To which I conceitedly reply, “Wanna bet?”
We’re already consuming the same cultural material as Americans, all that’s necessary is the right external ingredients to prompt voters to look for a simple answer.
And once you’ve made that emotional decision, you’ll never let the facts change your opinion.