Every Canadian knows the analogy about living next door to the United States: “like sleeping with an elephant,” we are “affected by every twitch and grunt.” The analogy may be well-worn, but the challenge of who we, in Canada, all live alongside has never been more relevant.
Two new books address the proverbial elephant in the room that has, since Trumpism and the historical forces he represents, been rampaging rather than twitching, bellowing rather than grunting. Each book asks not how to live with this changing beast, but how to separate ourselves from it.
America is a democracy in decline, Rob Goodman writes in his immensely readable Not Here: Why American Democracy Is Eroding and How Canada Can Protect Itself. America is no longer a place from which democratic ideas and practices flow to our benefit. Our situation in Canada has fundamentally and irrevocably changed.
If our democracy is to survive the erosion of democracy next door, we need to come to new agreements as a nation about what we will, and will not tolerate from the noisy neighbour we share our continent with.
“Canada’s democracy depends on refusal—serious, targeted, and creative,” he writes. “Asserting our difference—asserting it in a way that shapes our culture, our diplomacy, our domestic politics, our sense of ourselves—matters in this generation in a way that it has rarely mattered before.”
Goodman, American by birth, and a Canadian immigrant by choice, is asking us to do what Americans do so well: tell ourselves a story that is our own. We need to think less about the beast (or Donald Trump) and more about ourselves and the larger historical processes that underpin our complex and multinational democracy. To do this, Goodman examines the ways in which Canada’s history diverges from that of the U.S. He points out the “Real People Principle” (the idea that there is one singular, authentic American from whom others can steal an election, or a country) invoked by Trump on Jan. 6, 2021, as “the ideological heart of America’s democratic instability.” By contrast, Canada’s embrace of multiplicity, attitudes toward charismatic leaders, and support for the material infrastructure of our society, give our democracy resilience. In defining our distinctions, we can protect ourselves from being absorbed into a new and undemocratic future.
A former speech writer in the American House and Senate, now a political theory professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, Goodman is a thoughtful and entertaining guide on this journey toward a new understanding. The book is both a delightfully written memoir – Goodman has a light touch, referencing everything from Star Wars to Lament for a Nation – but also a serious look at how Canadians can, through introspection, take a moment of crisis and begin the process of building an identity that is truly their own.
It is time to turn our attention to ourselves as a nation, examine our founding and our failures, and establish a story we can agree on about ourselves – one that is constructed with care and defines a national identity that is as distinct as zed is from zee.
In Canada Alone: Navigating the Post-American World, Kim Richard Nossal – in a more academic, policy-oriented approach – takes a sweeping global perspective as he examines what Canadians face in this new, “post-American” world.
Nossal argues that despite President Joe Biden’s election, the American politics that propelled Trump to the White House are still deeply entrenched. Trump may no longer be in office, but the extremist social elements and anti-democratic political trend that got him elected remain. This historical trend (and a MAGA movement that doesn’t seem to be abating) continues to pose a threat to the West, and an even greater threat to a Canada that is increasingly isolated by its geographical proximity to and political dependence on an increasingly unpopular United States.
Trump’s lack of concern for American leadership internationally was a wrecking ball to its global reputation. Now America – and by default, Canada – is being assailed internationally by two bullying global powers: the Russian Federation under revenge-driven President Vladimir Putin, and an increasingly assertive and ambitious China under President Xi Jinping.
A professor emeritus at the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University, Nossal looks at the challenges for Canada’s foreign policy should another America-First administration be elected.
He asks us to imagine what life would be like for Canadians in Putin’s world, or in Xi’s world, or if American-led, rules-based international order were to be replaced with a system that rejects the constraints of multilateralism, concession, and compromise.
Another alarming possibility is “a further increase in cross-border movement of Trumpism’s populist, illiberal, authoritarian and white nationalist ideas.” In other words, the contagion known as the “Trump effect.” The growth of anti-Americanism in Canada in response to polarization seeping across the border will complicate the relationship between the two powers even more in a post-truth era.
Nossal sketches a dark vision of the world we face if American global leadership continues a “slow slide into longer-term decline.” Among the issues he considers are the impacts on Canada’s economy, military spending, and our traditional alliances. We will see a slow transformation in the Canadian government’s geostrategic links across all three of its oceans, Nossal writes. An increasingly fragmented West would leave Canada “for the first time in its modern history, alone in the world.” It’s a rather terrifying prospect.
Canadians need to take the deep shifts in the global order seriously, Nossal warns. Trump may yet return to the White House. What’s required is that at the very least we start a conversation, rather than leaving the problem alone or risk being left alone.
Both of these books deserve to be part of that conversation.