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Expect political turmoil in the year ahead

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The White House. [Matt Wade Photography]

“Trump, Brexit, Migration: Is the world on fire?”

This was the topical question explored by five panellists last month at a Toronto event sponsored by three organizations: the Speakers Action Group, Mozuud, and Muslims Facing Tomorrow.

Donald Trump’s very real shot at becoming president of the United States, the United Kingdom’s vote to withdraw from the European Union and Germans’ outcry over their leadership’s handling of the refugee crisis cannot be dismissed as isolated anomalies. They represent concurrent and profound changes in multiple advanced democracies. Is there a single theory that can make sense of these phenomena?

I don’t believe the answer is racism or xenophobia. This may animate a small number of the champions of these movements – and should be condemned unequivocally and dealt with forcefully – but this explanation should not be imposed on such large populaces whose concerns are in fact more nuanced.

Genuine unease about present immigration models, on the other hand, is certainly at play. A key demand of Brexit voters was to take back control of Britain’s immigration policy. German chancellor Angela Merkel is at her lowest point in more than 11 years in office over criticism of her open-border approach, which allowed entry to almost a million refugees in 2015. In September, her Christian Democrats came third in state elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where her own riding is located. The party that beat hers is the Alternative for Germany, which ran on just one pledge: enough of refugees. And a major Trump campaign commitment is to create new immigration controls and terminate U.S. President Barack Obama’s executive amnesties.

READ: THE LESSONS OF THE EXODUS AND POLITICAL REALISM IN 2016

Security fears are a central part of this immigration anxiety. So is a desire to maintain a national identity and preserve fundamental western values. At the heart of multiculturalism are ideas that are truly among the best the West has to offer – that political integration does not necessitate cultural homogenization and that all members of society should be treated with dignity and possess equal citizenship and protection from discrimination. But just like with political correctness, many people feel these ideas have been taken too far, that multiculturalism should not mean every idea, custom or value is equally good, or that any hint of offensive comment should be forcibly stifled. Supporters of Trump and Brexit, and opponents of Merkel, are signalling to their leaders that they’re unwilling to forfeit essential parts of their identity to a globalized, hyper-politically correct vision to which they do not subscribe.

Salim Mansur, a professor at Western University and one of the speakers at the Toronto event, went so far as to posit that what we are witnessing in Trumpism and Brexit is a non-violent revolution, a taking back of “we the people.” The establishment class believes it is entitled to rule indefinitely, but the people are saying “no more” to them and the status quo. Over the last 25 years in the United States, there have been endless wars, the doubling of the national debt in just a few of those years, the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s, millions of illegal immigrants admitted – all with poor results for the country. Mansur believes that the agenda of western elites is now collapsing.

Co-panellist and former Mackenzie Institute president John Thompson similarly explained that people are not voting for Trump, but for what he represents: someone who is willing to say that the emperor has no clothes, that what successive U.S. governments have been doing for the last 25 years has failed the American people, and that the thinking of the last few decades must be abandoned.

University of Toronto professor Aurel Braun added that Trump and Brexit supporters are also protesting the contempt and infantilization of the establishment in Washington and Brussels for those who hold views different than their own.

The bottom line? The world may not be on fire, but massive changes are underway.


Sheryl Saperia is director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense
of Democracies.