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With Canada and Mexico, Trump may find that populism cuts both ways

REUTERS/Gustavo Graf Maldonado
If he wins the presidency, former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has declared he will put Trump “in his place.”

Had your fill of populism? You’re about to see a lot more of it. Populism is going to be a major factor — if not the dominant driver of politics across North America in the next year, and perhaps well beyond.

President Trump is already a master at it. In Mexico, a left-wing populist is far ahead in the final weeks before the July 1 presidential election. If he wins a six-year term, former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has declared he will put Trump — who wants to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it — “in his place.”

In Canada, a populist who has declared unwavering support for Trump and described him as a man of “strong moral fiber” swept to power Thursday in Ontario, home to one out of every three Canadians. The election of Doug Ford will complicate Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s life but may just give the Canadian leader a foil to campaign against in national elections next year.

The success of Lopez Obrador and Ford is an indication that many voters in Mexico and Canada are weary of politics as usual, too. Trump may well feel vindicated by the rise of movements purporting to stick up for the little guy against entrenched, globalizing elites — even if the agent of change is someone like Lopez Obrador. But by no means will it be all be smooth sailing for Trump.

The election of Ford is probably the bigger surprise. If the name seems familiar, it’s almost certainly because of his brother, Rob. Using the same populist blueprint, Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto in 2010. Three years later, a video surfaced that appeared to show him smoking crack cocaine. Plagued by scandals, Rob Ford was running for re-election in 2014 when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. He dropped out of the race and died in 2016 at the age of 46.

Doug Ford’s only previous government experience was as a member of the Toronto City Council. With Trudeau’s Liberals, who had governed the province for the past 15 years, cratering in Ontario, Ford campaigned on tax cuts and lower energy and gas prices. He didn’t provide a lot of details, but the Progressive Conservatives nearly tripled their number of seats and won an overall majority in the provincial legislature. The other party to do well in this election was the left-leaning New Democratic Party, which more than doubled its number of seats. The Liberals lost all but seven of their 55 seats. In this election, the center did not hold.

Ford’s election is likely to bolster more mainstream conservatives who oppose one of Trudeau’s major policy initiatives, a carbon tax. And commentators point out that there are more provincial elections looming that will further test the prime minister’s allies — in Quebec this fall and Alberta early next year. Polls indicate Trudeau’s popularity is slipping, and national elections must be held no later than next October.

In Ford, in addition to the biting criticism aimed at him by Trump and his deputies after this weekend’s G-7 summit in Canada (“very dishonest and weak,” “stabbed us in the back”), Trudeau faces a prominent national politician who — while not a Trump clone — is cut from the same cloth. It’s possible that will help Trudeau build a contrast and sharpen his message. And there is little downside politically to fighting back hard on trade issues, which Trudeau has promised to do. Populism cuts that way, too.

Mexico’s Lopez Obrador, unlike Doug Ford, has been here before. Often described as a populist and nationalist, he finished second in the last two presidential elections. This time he has been the frontrunner from the beginning, and polls show him with a double-digit lead.

Much of the business community is nervous about Lopez Obrador. He has given mixed signals about whether he would limit private oil drilling. One prominent adviser has said that a recent reform permitting it was aimed at weakening Pemex, the state-owned oil company, and was a grave error.

Lopez Obrador, too, is often short on details. He is sharply critical of what he regards as Mexico’s corrupt political elite. He says he might consider an amnesty for drug criminals, something that would not sit well with the United States — or with most Mexicans. He wants to protect Mexican farmers from cheap U.S. farm exports, but says he supports free trade and wants NAFTA to continue as a three-way deal. His attacks on Trump go over well in a country where the U.S. president’s popularity is just a few ticks above zero.

There is a line of thought that Trump might not mind Lopez Obrador winning, since he could cite it as proof that Mexico is less a friend than a problem. But that’s only useful if you’re primarily interested in scoring political points with your base. Such posturing would encourage Lopez Obrador to be more aggressive in his own contrasting populism.

Maybe that’s the point of being a populist these days. But it’s not a great way to run a country.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/11/2018 - 11:05 am.

    Can it get any worse???

    We have Trump’s chief trade adviser telling us there is a special place in hell for Justin Trudeau after he offers the mildest of rebukes to Trump on Canadian trade tariffs all the while the man himself lobbies for Putin’s return to the G7.

    Interfere in our elections, attempt to hack voting machines, keep it up in preparation for the 2018 elections and Trudeau gets a “special place in hell” while Putin has a new sponsor for the club?

    And McConnell tells us these are the glory days for conservatism.

    Mueller better hurry up while we have something left.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/11/2018 - 12:26 pm.

      Push Back, Harder

      Rather than treat Don Trump with kid gloves, world leaders would do well to push back and push back hard against Trump. A bully keeps pushing if he is allowed to.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/11/2018 - 12:04 pm.

    What should be considered is that there is a deeper goal in fostering an era of mistrust and broken norms, understandings, agreements and alliances.

    A minor guessing game as to who benefits from the diminishment of NATO, G7, EU and other post WW2 institutions ? And who benefits by the distrust in government by the people in any one country ? And who benefits from the natural reaction to a nationalist, by the creation of another nationalist in other countries?

    Oddly enough, new news from Britain about the main funder of the Brexit campaign having lots of meetings with Russian during the Brexit campaign, and innocently enough, got in a lucrative Russian gold mining deal 12 days after the Brexit vote.

    Money has no borders and respecting borders mean nothing to those who have money. There is no love of democracy among the wealthy.

  3. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 06/11/2018 - 02:22 pm.

    Lopez Obrador is an avowed Socialist and admirer of Hugo Chavez. I was working in Mexico the last time he ran for President, and when it became apparent that he was going to lose, he was on television inciting his followers “to take action”. Unbeknown to me, the Army was called to guard voting stations, one of which happened to be in back of my hotel. When I saw the trucks full of armed soldiers, I thought a coup was under way…left the hotel and ran like hell.

    Mexico is a country of missed opportunities, but they are slowly gaining ground. An Obrador Presidency would take them back to the stone age, but he would be a blessing for those of us demanding a wall be built on our Southern border.

  4. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/11/2018 - 03:06 pm.

    O, Canada!

    Trump’s tirades have served to unite Canadians behind Trudeau. Even Doug Ford has made statements backing the PM on this matter.

    • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 06/11/2018 - 07:19 pm.

      O, Please!

      Canadians have been dealing with self esteem issues since the day the French first set foot up there. Under the direction of people like Trudeau, they have traded their national identity for a basket full of feelz, and now resent a strong national stance from the US more than ever.

      Trump’s tirades hit way too close to the poutine, and they can’t refute him because he’s speaking the truth, and because he is putting America ahead of Canadian interests.


      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/12/2018 - 09:23 am.

        “We’re America, B*****s!”

        And here we have the Trump doctrine, in a nutshell: belittle and insult, and deny there are any interests at play other than our own. Throw in a little gratuitous mockery, and the job is complete.

        The Prime Minister provoked a temper tantrum from the Thug-in-Chief merely by saying that he was going to look out for Canadian interests first (putting Canada first, as it were). Personal insults and calling out “special places in hell” are just further evidence that Trump has no concept of statesmanship or diplomacy. Canadians can’t “refute” Trump any more than a parent can “refute” a toddler throwing a temper tantrum (although the toddler will grow out of tantrums, so score one for toddlers).

        When the Prime Minister’s father was PM, a transcript of a tap recording from the Nixon White House showed that Nixon referred to Pierre Trudeau as an “a**hole.” In his memoirs, Trudeau said that “My only response was that I had been called worse things by better people.”

        Funny how history repeats itself.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/13/2018 - 08:02 am.

        While you may get your stereotype of Canadians from comedians

        A tirade from Trump can be ignorant of the facts….

        The US has a trade surplus with Canada with respect to dairy products

        The US has a trade surplus with Canada with respect to goods and services

        The US has a trade surplus with Canada with respect to goods, if the category of oil is excluded.

        You know, it is really interesting how the real end effect of all of these splintered trade agreements is that the US balance of trade will become even worse. Despite all propaganda, trade agreements like NAFTA were negotiated by the US from a position of strength by extremely knowledgeable people dedicated to getting the best deal for the US who did ensure the US came out on top of the deal.

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