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Dear America:

we need to talk about Donald

A CANADIAN’S VIEW

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Colby Cosh

NATIONAL POST

March 3, 2016

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People like to ask columnists about their mysterious job, whose details can sometimes be opaque even to fellow newspapermen. “How do you decide what to write?” Judging by the size of my following, I don’t always make market-friendly choices. The unfailing rule is that when some bit of news is driving me out of my tree, to the point of wanting to yell at the computer screen, that’s a big clue.

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After Super Tuesday, it is time to yell at our American neighbours. (Pick on the Americans: that’s probably a good heuristic for a columnist, too.) This will not be the usual tirade against Donald Trump. This is a tirade against Americans failing to recognize themselves in Donald Trump.

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Bien-pensants are suddenly desperate to understand this unfamiliar monster who has somehow been at the forefront of American pop culture for three decades. “Our politicians used to address themselves to the best in us — what happened?” they cry. Some are old enough to remember George Wallace. They have all learned in school about the Founding Fathers, who were roughly half slave owners, half cringing cowards when it came to slavery.

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They know Abraham Lincoln, but little of the parade of presidential crumb-bums and old soaks whose pusillanimity created the need for Lincoln. They deplore Trump’s blowhard rumbustiousness and his fixation on “winning” and “energy”: within a minute they will tell you how they revere Teddy Roosevelt, who, like Trump, was born on third base with a gift for puffer-fish social tactics.

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(Digression: am I insane to imagine that the foreign policy of a President Trump might resemble Franklin D. Roosevelt’s? Trump doesn’t talk much about blowing things up. He talks about the imbecility of recent U.S. statesmanship and imagines substituting guile, intimidation and negotiation for nation-building adventures. If you watched the Republican debates closely, you must have had moments during the geopolitical segments in which Trump looked like the sane one.)

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Trump-haters will tell you how much they miss Ronald Reagan. Reagan, before becoming president, had at least been a governor; but he inspired the same fears, and antagonized Rockefeller Republicans much as Trump troubles Rubio Republicans. There are people who think “Drumpf” jokes about doltish, combative Donald will defuse him; their spiritual ancestors figured that if they made enough Bedtime For Bonzo references, they could undo Reagan.

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If it needs saying: this did not work. Commentators and the comedians let themselves be washed over by Reaganism, learning nothing.

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Americans concerned about uncontrolled mass immigration, particularly along the southern border, have been told since the end of the Reagan era that nothing can be done. When the subject is raised the answer is always the same: you think we’re going to kick out 11 million undocumented Mexicans? Get real! The only option is to give these people a relatively easy “path to citizenship” or amnesty. Improved border control and surveillance of visitors is only ever accepted as part of a deal that confirms existing illegal immigrants in their circumvention of U.S. law. Which is, in turn, justified as being understandable, even praiseworthy.

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Why does can-do America suddenly become can’t-do when it comes to implementing an immigration policy?

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I’m just a dumb Canadian: I don’t have to take a position on U.S. population flows. I’m even a dumb Canadian libertarian, so I understand and sympathize with moral arguments for open borders. But why does can-do America suddenly become can’t-do when it comes to implementing an immigration policy?

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This is remarkable, isn’t it? The United States retrieved rocks from the Moon because a president remarked that, hey, this seems like a difficult and impressive thing to try. A president created the interstate highway network. A president ended the Cold War. American government, goaded by presidents, brought electricity to the wilds of half a continent, eliminated polio, built the bomb.

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What’s more extraordinary is that presidents are constantly imagineering mega-projects that flop. For every Apollo 11 there is at least one Amtrak, no? Just the other week I thought I heard President Barack Obama say that America was going to outlaw cancer in tribute to Joe Biden’s son. He is not even the first president to declare war on cancer; the original war started at almost the same moment as the War on Drugs.

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Trump says, “We’re gonna build a wall,” and every columnist demands to see material specifications, blueprints, GAAP-conforming cost documents. Obama says, “Let’s cure cancer,” and even skeptics say, “What a nice thought.” ($1 billion evaporates.)

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It is too late to challenge Trump when he talks about the wall. It does not matter how stupid the idea, taken literally, may be. American politicians spoke Parseltongue to the working class, the people who contend with and live beside immigrant labour, for too long. They are ready to vote for the only guy who will think about a wall.

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Of course a bad collective conscience is the key to any populist movement like Trump’s. He really is like Hitler in this: he sells absolution to those too inarticulate to explain or defend their prejudices. It is universally acknowledged that less-skilled American workers are in a bad state. Millions are on federal or other disability schemes and food stamps, millions are at least half-zombified on prescription drugs and the overlap between these groups is obviously great. Mortality statistics among the middle-aged show the results. What they don’t show is the shame that dropouts from honest labour and bourgeois aspiration must suffer — how unlike their fathers and mothers they feel. If I were a worse writer I’d drop the word “alienation” here.

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President Obama’s definitive domestic achievement has been the partial disconnection of health insurance from jobs. This seems natural and proper to a Canadian; but what, I sometimes wonder, is the remaining incentive for any American to hold a job, assuming he is content to live humbly outside of a metropolitan downtown? Up here, we have single-payer medicare — but no food stamps or disability courts.

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And so Trump materializes with a garbled, but not totally unfounded, account of what went wrong: globalization destroyed traditional jobs, illegal immigration took more, Mexican heroin salesmen swooped in. Idealistic America has been hornswoggled by tricky foreigners who know their own interests. Trump won’t stop saying how “smart” they are. This isn’t white supremacism: it’s American inferiorism.

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If Trump is a charlatan who saw the conditions for populist agitation and crafted an opportunistic message, all I can say is: well played. What I ask of Americans who deplore him is, what did you do about these conditions when something might have been done? Did you not think your civilization was particularly vulnerable to hucksters and loudmouths?

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America is the land of, and I’ll put these in alphabetical order, Frank Abagnale, Jim Bakker, P.T. Barnum, Scott Boras, Dale Carnegie, Bill Clinton, Enron, Chris Kyle, Bernie Madoff, Charles Manson, Billy Mays, Dr. Phil McGraw, Joe McCarthy, Norman Vincent Peale, Charles Ponzi, Al Sharpton, Charlie Sheen and Orson Welles. It is the dynamo of cultivated marketing crazes: flagpole sitting, Cabbage Patch Kids, hula hoops, the Lambada. It is mother and nurse of kooky sci-fi religions: Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, chiropractic, Scientology, Erhard seminars. The glories and powers of America are inseparable from this trait, and it has never been a secret to outsiders, not since Tocqueville.

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So how can any self-aware American look at Donald Trump — who, again, even before his candidacy, might have been the first person a Chinese peasant thought of when someone said “name an American” — and imagine him as novel and unfamiliar? You don’t think his architectural sensibility is characteristically American? You don’t think his habit of overstating his fortune is American? You don’t think his hair and his tan are American? Where on Earth, dear friends, do you think you live? Do you never look in the mirror?

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National Post

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