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

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.

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

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.

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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.