On April 26, Kevin O’Leary dropped out of Canada’s Conservative leadership race. The ex-Dragons Den, now Shark Tank star’s business background, brash personality, and name recognition drew an avalanche of inevitable comparisons to a certain president who’s made a bit of a splash in the news recently. And while Donald Trump’s ascendency had a running undercurrent of “No, it’ll never happen here,” in the end, it happened. November 8 was a bitter wake-up call to everyone who thought that nobody so offensive and outlandish could ever win an election. And once it happened there, the idea that a similar leader could win in Canada suddenly felt a lot more real.
I’m not going to get into O’Leary’s policies here. I’m not a political pundit, I haven’t followed the race closely, and I’m not saying he was the worst choice in the running. But in regards to perception, even in the months leading up to O’Leary throwing his hat in the ring last January, every discussion of him included a comparison to Trump. Now, O’Leary is not Trump — but he does come across as a watered-down Canadian knockoff, an Amazing Race Canada season 1 that never left the country to the Americans’ globe-spanning adventure, a Target Canada that can’t stay afloat, a $0.27 below par Canadian dollar. Not that I’m complaining our candidate said less horrible things, mind you.
But now our lousy remake diverges from the plot of the original. The loud TV star quits before the voting begins because he doesn’t think he can beat Justin Trudeau in Quebec, and claims that his dropping out is what’s best for the Conservative party. So now we as left-leaning Canadians can celebrate the fall of our own discount-demagogue and once again hold our heads high, proud of our progressive superiority to our southern neighbours, right?
I don’t think it’s that simple.
While we can absolutely breathe a sigh of relief that a candidate like O’Leary didn’t get any farther, we still showed we’re susceptible to the same kind of tactics that won Trump the presidency. O’Leary was polling a close second in the leadership race, and according to CBC, he “cited his failure to gain traction in Quebec and his poor French-language skills as reasons for dropping out of the leadership race.”
O’Leary said he had an “extremely high likelihood of winning the leadership race,” though, and whether or not that’s just bloated bluster, the numbers show he absolutely had a shot.
So thank you, Quebec, because apparently the rest of Canada was showing enough support to give certainty to the man whose business mistakes may have lead to the death of the beloved Reader Rabbit franchise, much to the dismay of 8-year-old me (seriously, look it up). And maybe future politicians will take the lesson from his failure that those tactics don’t work here, that they need to campaign based on positivity and a platform, not fame and controversy. Or, maybe they’ll realize that the differences between Trump and O’Leary are that Trump made more headlines, upset more people, and incited more anger against more groups of people. Did O’Leary falling short prove that it can never happen here, or did it just teach our next generation of aspiring leaders that they need to be even more outrageous?
When dealing with a candidate who relies on these attention-grabbing tactics, I think there needs to be a conscious effort made to decide how we talk about them. I try to make it a point not to feed the fires that bring support for this kind of figure. As much fun as it can be to make fun of them, to tweet about how Trump should be called Drumpf or to call him a human Cheeto, all that does is spread his name around, bringing him forefront in people’s minds. I think it’s important to share at least as many thoughts (both supportive and critical) on the politicians you support as you do the ones you oppose, and when you do talk about the other side, criticize their policies and promises, criticize their language and its implications, but don’t get distracted by only making jokes. Reality show credentials and a big business background were never the scary part.
So while we can absolutely consider O’Leary’s bowing out as a sign that Canadians are not ready to accept a Trump, and we can maybe use it to reinforce a bit of that national pride that our politics can be positive and progressive, don’t let that pride turn into a sense of superiority. We still have a lot of problems in Canada, a lot of injustices that need addressing, and a lot of politicians looking to capitalize on Trump’s fear-mongering and the many pre-existing inequalities in our culture. So be happy, but don’t be smug. We aren’t perfect either.