The U.S. election has lessons for Ontario

Donald Trump’s defeat suggests that character counts with voters. Progressive Conservatives should take note
By Steve Paikin - Published on Nov 30, 2020
President Donald Trump returns to the White House on November 29 after spending Thanksgiving weekend at Camp David. (Chris Kleponis/abacapress.com)

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If you were befuddled four years ago when Donald Trump managed to convince nearly 63 million people to vote for him, you are surely even more perplexed today.

How could this manifestly disgraceful individual, whose lack of personal integrity so uniquely rendered him unfit to occupy the Oval Office, garner 11 million more votes four years later?

Surely, you’re thinking — given that Americans had four years to watch him fight with our allies, cozy up to dictators, and explode important conventions and norms in a democracy — he couldn’t possibly attract more support, could he?

Apparently, he could.

And those same befuddled, confused people are now wondering how the America they thought they knew could have gotten so far off track.

I’d like to come at this from another direction. As distressing as that reality is for many, let’s also acknowledge some other mathematical realities. While Trump’s tally went up by 11 million votes, Joe Biden managed to increase his support over Hillary Clinton’s tally from four years ago by 14 million votes.

In 2016, many Americans weren’t in love with Trump, but they liked Clinton less. So they decided to hold their noses and vote for Trump despite their misgivings about him personally. I well remember, two summers ago, having a conversation with a family from rural Michigan who’d just landed their boat at the Austin H. Hunt Marina in Kagawong, on Manitoulin Island. I assured them I wasn’t being judgmental; I just needed to understand why, despite their obvious discomfort with Trump “the person,” they voted for him anyway — husband, wife, and daughter.

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Their answers made perfect sense. They were a religious family, and so Trump’s anti-abortion stance was important to them. His appointing conservative judges resonated as well. They loved that their president was “sticking it to China” when it came to trade (even though the family ran a business that was hurt by Trump’s tariffs). They worried that the Democrats weren’t as solidly behind the Second Amendment as Trump was. And this family had guns. A lot of them, as I recall.

They saw the Democrats as becoming increasingly disconnected from their part of America. They feared that the Dems would raise their taxes and liked what they heard from Trump on tax cuts.

“What about the stuff he says on Twitter?” I asked. “What about the stuff he says about women?”

There was a lengthy pause as the parents looked at their twenty-something-year-old daughter.

“Well, we don’t like that,” they confessed. “But he’s good on the issues we care about, so we’re willing to overlook some things.”

I was grateful for the insight and heartily welcomed them to Canada.

Four years later, things have changed. Bigly.

Increasing numbers of Americans this time clearly put a priority on integrity and character over policy. As an executive of a leading international non-governmental organization recently told me during a Zoom call, “Americans this time said, ‘I’d rather have someone I disagree with but who has integrity.’”

Gordon Giffin, America’s former ambassador to Canada (appointed by Bill Clinton), agrees with that sentiment. Giffin understands Canadian sensibilities plenty. Born in Massachusetts, he moved to Montreal when he was just six weeks old. He eventually went to high school in Toronto, where he turned out to be the most prominent graduate of Richview Collegiate in Etobicoke — until someone named Stephen Harper went there. His father was from Pembroke; his grandparents were from Brockville.

“The last four years have been very stressful,” said Giffin during a Zoom session organized by Toronto’s York Club. “But Joe Biden’s margin of victory suggests whites who typically vote Republican were repelled by the incumbent. They just couldn’t endorse another four years of that.”

Even Giffin’s now home state of many decades, Georgia, voted for the Democratic ticket — the first time that’s happened in 28 years.

“So this was a victory of character over policy?” I asked him.

“Unequivocally, absolutely, yes. Yes,” Giffin said resolutely.

It could very well be that this choice by 80 million Americans to reward character over policy is a one-off. After all, Trump has been a once-in-a-lifetime style of president.

But maybe this is a new paradigm for politics. And I wonder how carefully the Progressive Conservative government’s backroom data-crunchers at Queen’s Park are studying this. The reality is, angry, populist, conservative support will take you only so far in Ontario politics. It’s maybe 30 per cent of the vote at most. To win, the Tories need to find at least another 10 per cent of the electorate who may not agree with Ford’s policies but who see an empathetic, sincere guy doing his best to manage the worst pandemic in a century.

That is the Ford that surely many Ontarians have been watching over the past nine months — how else to explain his remarkable turnaround in popularity? After an awful first year in office, he’s now topping the polls. It’s probably another reason Ford has been so disciplined and avoided pointless fights with members of the media and the opposition.

Maybe that’s the best political lesson the Trump years have taught us. Apparently, character and integrity in politics count.

Good.

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