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Rahim Mohamed: DeSantis, not Trump, is a sign of things to come for Canada
Trump’s rise was accidental. DeSantis’ may prove much more enduring.
By: Rahim Mohamed
In his year-end column for The Line, Ken Boessenkool predicted that America’s “Trumpian sickness” will continue to flare up unpredictably in Canada this year, potentially even engulfing our entire body politic.
Observing that Canadian political trends lag roughly five years behind developments stateside, Boessenkool cautioned that the new year could bring with it the advent of Canada’s very own Trumpian era; seeing shades of Trump’s “politics of institutional destruction and anger fomentation” in Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and, to a lesser extent, federal Conservative party leader Pierre Poilievre.
It's hard to argue with Boessenkool’s accounting of this uncanny synchronicity. From Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney, to George W. Bush and Stephen Harper, to Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau, there’s no denying that each American president of the past four decades (save Bush the elder) has spawned a Canadian facsimile — with, as Ken calculated, roughly a five-year lag.
Boessenkool isn't wrong, but there’s a potentially more significant impact another “Florida Man” may have on Canada's political landscape this decade.
It’s still not widely appreciated just how much of an historical aberration the Trump presidency truly was. As much as post-hoc observers have sought to shoehorn Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 victory into a tidy populist narrative, the election’s result was, in actuality, a confluence of chaotic factors with no true rhyme or reason — a dysfunctional electoral college, misinformation-spewing Russian bots, stubborn Bernie bros, Anthony Weiner’s leaked sexts, and the like.
The forces ushering Donald Trump to his inauguration in 2017 were the same that made the Atlanta Falcons blow a 25-point lead in that year’s Super Bowl; these were the unseen hands of randomness that gave the presenters of that year’s Oscar for Best Picture the wrong envelope; and the Butterfly winds that shepherded poor Harambe to his tragic demise on the grounds of the Cincinnati Zoo.
A number of things happened in 2016 and 2017 that, statistically, should not have happened. Donald Trump becoming president was one of those things.
Accordingly, The Donald could never totally convince his fellow Americans that he belonged in the Oval Office. Trump holds the dubious distinction of being the only president in modern history to not once crack a 50 per cent approval rating. In November of 2020, he became the first president in nearly three decades to fail to win re-election.
Trump’s populist contemporaries elsewhere in the world have likewise faded into obscurity (for the most part, at least). Most recently, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro lost a head-to-head vote against septuagenarian ex-convict Lula da Silva last October, prompting a similarly chaotic failed attempt at an insurrection of the electoral losers.
Trumpism, the most overblown threat to humanity since the Y2K bug, appears to be a spent force globally. It will doubtlessly continue to have a ripple effect in Canada but is unlikely to be the tailwind that sweeps our next prime minister into office.
No. It’s the far more sophisticated “anti-woke” politics of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis that is likely to take root on our side of the 49th parallel.
DeSantis, the 44-year-old chief executive of the Sunshine State, is the current odds-on favourite to win the 2024 Republican presidential nomination and stands a good chance of becoming the first Gen-Xer to hold the office. (Justin Trudeau became Canada’s first Gen-X prime minister in 2015). His nationwide popularity simultaneously reflects both a generational shift in American politics and a shift in the country’s long-running culture war.
DeSantis has, remarkably, put a political stranglehold on the once hyper-competitive state of Florida, blowing out his Democratic challenger by 19 points in last year’s gubernatorial elections. What’s even more remarkable is that he’s done this not by kowtowing to moderate swing voters, but by going to war against a host of leftist pet causes. One of DeSantis’ signature pieces of legislation is, in fact, the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees — or Stop WOKE — Act, which prohibits the teaching of so-called critical race theory in Florida classrooms.
"We will fight the woke in the businesses, we will fight the woke in government agencies, we will fight the woke in our schools … ” DeSantis told supporters over the summer in a clear homage to Sir Winston Churchill (posthumously a target of left-wing “cancel culture” himself).
And DeSantis’ rise is a clear indication that, after decades of ceding turf to the left, conservatives are finally mounting an effective cultural counterattack. His “anti-woke” messaging has been especially resonant with parents who have children in K-12 schooling, many of whom are concerned about the age-appropriateness of common educational content relating to sexuality and race. (DeSantis won a majority among voters between the ages of 30 and 44 in November.)
Similar cultural skirmishes are likewise playing out in classrooms across Canada. Transgendered Oakville, Ontario shop teacher Kayla Lemieux has notably generated dozens of headlines at home and abroad for her prosthetic z-cups, spurring the most robust global conversation about a Canadian’s breasts since Pamela Anderson squeezed into a red swimsuit for Baywatch.
Liberal and NDP-affiliated politicians are too closely allied with LGBT+ communities and anti-racist activists to assuage parents’ concerns on these matters. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently did a guest spot on Canada’s Drag Race, where the 51-year-old father of three was ogled and cat-called by multiple contestants.) This leaves a major opening for Canada’s conservative movement, which is already emulating DeSantis’ focus on K-12 education.
There are, of course, notes of Trumpism in DeSantis’ politics but the upstart governor also differs from Trump in several important ways. Critically, DeSantis is an insider’s insider, boasting an elite educational pedigree and an impressive political CV. A Yale and Harvard Law graduate who served in the United States Navy and worked in the Department of Justice, DeSantis is well-acquainted with America’s political machinery.
Whereas Donald Trump hurled Molotov cocktails at America’s most hallowed institutions, DeSantis is more one to sip (non-Molotov) cocktails at his local Yale Alumni Club. On the governance front, he is unlikely to rock the boat too much if he becomes president.
Further, DeSantis shares a good deal in common with federal Conservative party leader Pierre Poilievre. The two men were born just a year apart and, like DeSantis, Poilievre is the ultimate political insider, having served as a member of parliament for virtually his entire adult life. Poilievre also shares DeSantis’ distinctly Gen-X brand of smart-mouthed cynicism. He’s likewise cast himself as a committed foe of “woke culture.”
Donald Trump undoubtedly dominated the political landscape for a four-year stretch between 2016 and 2020, but his influence appears to be receding as quickly as it spread. It’s Ron DeSantis, not Donald Trump, who holds the blueprint for a conservative resurgence in the 2020s.
DeSantis and Poilievre may, in fact, be this decade’s Bill Clinton and Jean Chrétien; two like-minded contemporaries that swept to power at the same time, riding the same wave. What’s clear is that conservatism is moving past Donald Trump, in North America and beyond.
Rahim Mohamed is a master’s student at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. His writing has appeared in The Hub, the National Post, and CBC News Calgary.
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