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Trump has forced the left and right to ask: What do we stand for?

For the Conservatives and the NDP, both in the midst of leadership races, the new U.S. president’s policies have triggered a serious identity crisis. Call it the Trump test.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the American Airlines Center on September 14, 2015 in Dallas, Texas. More than 20,000 tickets have been distributed for the event. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the American Airlines Center on September 14, 2015 in Dallas, Texas. More than 20,000 tickets have been distributed for the event. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is a political mood ring, his fluctuating emotions a daily, thermochromic Twitter display. While keeping pace with his petty celebrity feuds and his pitched battle with the “FAILING” media has a Kardashian-like addictive power, it’s a massive and possibly strategic distraction from the more substantive political change he’s making at hyper speed. Trump has ushered in an era of political realignment and chaos that is having a dramatic impact everywhere, including in Canada.

The epidemic of executive orders coming from the Oval Office has transformed U.S. immigration and refugee policy, trade relationships with Mexico and Asia and the entire regulatory environment, and has given the left and right a kind of political vertigo. Neither side is sure who to support and who to oppose. Trump governs without a consistent ideological framework, but rather from a series of disconnected, nativist impulses, some of which appeal to the left and some to the right. Often, as when his White House spokesperson Sean Spicer recklessly used the massacre at the mosque in Quebec—allegedly done by a white Canadian—to justify the immigration ban on seven mostly Muslim countries, there is no effort to even link to basic facts. For the Conservatives and the NDP, both in the midst of leadership races, this poses a serious identity crisis. Call it the Trump test.

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Look at the union movement. After generations spent fighting Reagan Republicans and the Scott Walker “right to work” movement, unions are embracing Donald Trump’s anti-NAFTA, anti-Trans Pacific Partnership positions. “This is the biggest opportunity we’ve had in a long time,” Jerry Dias, the head of UNIFOR, Canada’s largest private-sector union, told me. Dias is no Trump ally, but he’s pragmatic enough to take a win for workers in the anti-globalization fight if he can get it. “NAFTA has been a horrible deal for us, destroying our auto industry as factories went to Mexico,” he says. “But for years, when we on the left raised it, we were dismissed as far-out loonies. Now, suddenly the far right says it and everyone agrees that yeah, something’s wrong. Great. Let’s get rid of it.”

Even the Council of Canadians’ Maude Barlow has seized the Trump moment to get movement on files that stalled badly under “progressive” champions like Barack Obama. “We see this as an opportunity to re-open NAFTA in a large sense,” Barlow says, delighted to have a chance to refight battles on water, energy and autos some believed were lost years ago. “We will push the Trudeau government not just to sit at the table and react as Trump swings, but to come to the table with its own demands. Time to go back to the drawing board.”

On the other hand, the federal NDP is having conniptions after Trump gave the green light to the Keystone XL pipeline. Leader Tom Mulcair immediately called for Trudeau to reject the pipeline, which was consistent with his previous position but totally undermined Alberta’s NDP Premier Rachel Notley—the only sitting NDP government in Canada. She praised the decision because it will bring 4,500 direct and indirect jobs to a province fighting nine per cent unemployment. Meanwhile, activist and writer Naomi Klein, who helped author the so-called LEAP manifesto, further escalated the internecine fighting by hammering union support for the Keystone decision. After union leaders met Trump at the White House, she wrote they’d been “bought off by a fascist with a couple dirty pipes and tour of the Oval.”

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The NDP is fracturing over a choice between jobs for the working person and its stand on the environment. “There has long been a tension within the party between ‘working people’ policies and those seeking a stronger environmental plank,” NDP MP Nathan Cullen admits. “With Brexit and Trump, there’s a profound fear of disruptions, thrown on top of an economy that has been failing a wide swath of working people for 20 years. Who’s to blame, and what’s the remedy, is the real debate.”

Conservatives are no less susceptible to the Trump test. They embrace his promised tax cuts, but can they tolerate his isolationist, anti-globalization policies? Former Conservative minister Jason Kenney is furiously railing against Trump’s immigration ban, while Kellie Leitch has openly copied Trump’s rhetoric. “Yes, there is a bit of an identity crisis in the Conservative party,” says Tim Powers, a Conservative pundit with Summa Strategies. “In a true leadership vacuum, some people exploit anxiety to their benefit, and some of that is most certainly happening. No one is really inspiring Conservatives.”

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It might not just be about inspiration, but orientation. While mainstream political parties long ago abandoned ideological purity in favour of pragmatic, transactional politics—fight for the middle and stay in power—at least they retained enough ideological residue to benchmark and judge their ideas. Trump has chucked that in favour of a kind of chaos politics, his self-proclaimed unpredictability being the hallmark of his political thinking. Does stripping back regulations reveal a limited-government conservatism or the institutionalization of corporatism by a newly empowered plutocracy? Hard to tell. Is the immigration ban a genuine response to the destructive adventurism of American Middle East policy and the threat from radical Islamist terror or is it the legitimization of xenophobia and hate?

Donald Trump has forced the left and right to ask what ideas and values they really represent. Are they just transactional, opportunistic parties seeking power or coherent ways of making sense of and shaping the world? By trafficking in fake news, burning the ideological framework and working at a furious pace, Trump has bewildered the political world. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, the Trump test is not that people will become so cynical that they believe in nothing, it is that they will become so disoriented they become capable of believing anything.