What Would the Return of America First Mean for Canada? - Dundurn
Nov 23, 2023

What Would the Return of America First Mean for Canada?

Canadians know that something unusual is happening in American politics, but we really haven’t fully taken on board the possibility that Donald J. Trump and his cultish Make America Great Again movement will return to the White House in January 2025.

However, that is a possibility. Tens of millions of Americans are planning to vote for a candidate who is facing 91 felony counts in four different courts. They are happy to vote for a candidate who has taken to calling his opponents “vermin,” echoing the dehumanizing language routinely used by Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. They are untroubled by Trump’s call for the execution of General Mark Milley, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for treason, or his threat to throw a huge number of his political enemies in jail. They have no difficulty with Trump promising to shut down a television broadcasting company or to use the U.S. military to disperse protests against his administration. They are unperturbed by Trump’s plans to build huge camps to house the millions of undocumented immigrants he plans to deport once he returns to power. We might wonder where the bottom is. But for tens of millions of Americans, it seems, there never is a bottom. It does not matter what Trump does, or says, or is — he will get their vote.

But if the Americans who are ardent supporters of Trump and his America First movement are not outvoted in 2024, all of us will have to deal with the huge changes that a Trump 2.0 administration will bring.

Canada Alone is about those changes. It puts the Trump phenomenon in a larger context — seeing Trump as contributing to the decade-long challenge that American leadership has been facing from the People’s Republic of China under Xi Jinping and the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin. It looks at the threat to the unity of the West that is created when the president of the United States himself abandons America’s global leadership. It shows how world politics will be transformed if an America First president is in office, and how those changes will affect Canadians. Not only will we have to deal with an administration that is far more protectionist, but an administration whose foreign policy will likely leave Canada all alone with an increasingly authoritarian, illiberal, dysfunctional, and disunited America.

It used to be that Americans would describe America as a special and exceptional country in the world — “a city on a hill” that would always be a shining beacon to the rest of the world. Like many Canadians, I always found American city-on-a-hill rhetoric a tad cloying, even while I had no difficulty recognizing that Canadians benefited in numerous ways from the assertion of American global power and the exercise of global leadership.

But looking at the prospect of the return of a president who explicitly rejects the idea of American engagement in world politics, I will confess to having a Joni Mitchell moment: we Canadians will miss that city if it is gone.

However, the auguries are not all dismal. In every election since 2016, huge numbers of Americans explicitly rejected the authoritarian, anti-democratic, and illiberal agenda of Trump and the Republican Party that remains so in thrall to him. It is also possible that in 2024, Americans will continue that trend, and vote to keep the city shining for a little while longer.

Kim Richard Nossal is professor emeritus of political studies in the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University. The author of a number of works on Canada’s foreign and defence policy, Nossal is a former editor of International Journal, a former president of the Canadian Political Science Association, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Learn more here.