The morning after Trump’s win puts everything in a different light

OPINION: The forces that propelled Donald Trump to victory exist everywhere, including in Ontario. There needs to be some hard thinking about what comes next
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 09, 2016
John Michael McGrath argues that Donald Trump's win raises questions about how Ontario supports jobs in smaller communities such as Thunder Bay. (Bombardier.ca)

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Some of us never really got to sleep last night, but the rest of the world woke up this morning to the news that Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States. A campaign that featured a nearly-endless stream of abuse from the Republican nominee has seen all of that made irrelevant: Trump was carried to victory in part by Hillary Clinton’s key weakness among working-class whites in the Rust Belt, industrial states like Michigan and Wisconsin that had been reliably Democratic votes for Barack Obama.

That’s not what I expected to be writing about today. Not that I intended to write about a Clinton win, either. Instead, we at TVO.org were nearly ready to publish a column about Bombardier’s continuing inability to deliver streetcars and light rail vehicles to Toronto and Metrolinx, and what the Ontario government should do about it. Yesterday, I was ready to defend the province’s decision to  threaten to cancel its contract with Bombardier, even if that imperilled jobs at the company’s Thunder Bay plant. The current situation with the manufacturer, which has failed to deliver any working light rail trains to Metrolinx, isn’t working for Toronto or Ontario.

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This morning I asked that we kill that piece, and hopefully what follows will be read as honesty and not intellectual cowardice.

At this point it’s self-evident to say that Trump’s support, like the support for Brexit before him (where the United Kingdom voted narrowly in a referendum to leave the European Union) came from areas that haven’t seen the benefits of economic growth or in some cases have never recovered from the global financial crisis of 2008-09. It’s true that most working-class people overall voted for Clinton, but if the exit polls are right they did so in smaller numbers than they voted for Obama in 2012. The missing increment made all the difference in key states last night.

In a country as large as the United States there’s no one explanation for a win like this, and the story can’t be reduced to economic anxiety alone. There’s also plenty of data to confound this capsule summary. Race, gender and Clinton’s own baggage undoubtedly played a role and we shouldn’t dismiss those. But they aren’t why I’m reconsidering my priors on the Bombardier file.

Republicans won last night while losing the popular vote nationally and losing badly in big cities. Brexit saw a narrow win as Leave votes ran up huge majorities outside of big cities, especially London. In both countries the economic gains of the last decade have been concentrated in urban areas that were already prosperous.

The same rough pattern can be seen in Ontario. While there’s been good news in places like Windsor lately (with Ford committing $600 million in new investment there just last week), economic growth in the main has benefited the Greater Toronto Area over the last decade. The exceptions are other big cities with institutional or technology employers: Ottawa and Waterloo Region.

The same is true of basic population growth, and the Ministry of Finance’s projections show this trend accelerating: by 2041 the population of northern and southwest Ontario is projected to be basically what it is today, with growth concentrated mostly in the GTA and eastern Ontario (specifically in Ottawa.) The growth in the GTA from 6.6 million to 9.5 million is projected to be double the growth of all other regions in the province combined.

For all of Premier Kathleen Wynne’s talk of governing “one Ontario” the facts are stark: there are two Ontarios — the concentrated places (where, in fact, most Ontarians live) that offer residents relative prosperity, stability and comfort, and the vast swaths of the province where people are poorer, older or fewer. Or all three.

This shows up in our politics pretty clearly: even under Tim Hudak, the Tories did extremely well in parts of the province that have been left out of the lion’s share of growth, but made limited inroads into Waterloo, Ottawa or Toronto itself. Under Patrick Brown, even as the Tories rack up double-digit leads in province-wide polling, Toronto exists in a separate political universe from the rest of Ontario, the only place where the Liberals still hold a lead or are competitive in recent polling.

So we’ve got at least some of the same pathologies in Ontario that have led to political earthquakes elsewhere. What does this have to do with Bombardier and an anxious writer? In short, the regional divides in Ontario are bad enough without risking making them worse by threatening the kind of well-paying unionized jobs in the province’s north that are still there. It’s fair to say I’m a slow learner here — if this is true today, it was true yesterday. But yesterday Hillary Clinton was projected to win and the consequences of Brexit were mostly on the other side of an ocean.

More broadly, policy-inclined people need to think hard about what, if anything, the answer is to the grievances Trump and Brexit represent. They’re right that “build the wall” isn’t going to bring back American industrial jobs, but then nothing on offer from the broad middle of contemporary politics and policy-making is going to either. For a generation in the English-speaking world since the mid-1990s (Bill Clinton’s declaration in 1996 that “the era of big government is over” makes as good a signpost as any), the policy consensus has been for government to get out of the way of the market and intervene on behalf of workers in depressed regions only when necessary and as discreetly as possible.

That seems like a generation-long mistake this afternoon. Maybe the policies needed to bridge regional economic and political divides simply don’t look as tidy as deputy ministers around Queen’s Park (and Ottawa) would prefer. Guaranteed streetcar orders for Bombardier here, more money for rural horse racing there, and generous subsidies for automakers anywhere often don’t meet the basic cost-benefit tests, and likely they never will. But they help act as anchors in communities that otherwise feel adrift in a sea where nobody’s coming for them.

It’s cold comfort to Toronto’s suffering commuters to say, hey, you’re going to have to suck up further delays to the transit system because northern Ontario needs jobs. And hopefully there are better solutions that don’t run the danger of continually ransoming those jobs to a company whose owners don’t deserve our loyalty.  But until those solutions are in hand, it’s hard to make a straight-faced argument that we should risk making things worse in places that need light, not more darkness.

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