by Neil H. Buchanan
Should we all just move to Canada?
Last week saw a significant worsening of the already dire political situation in the United States. Although Republicans had spent the last year trying to block or hobble investigations into the terrorist attack on the Capitol last January, some Republican leaders have been surprisingly honest that they were doing so simply because they thought that an investigation would harm their party's chances in the 2022 midterms. Political cynicism on an issue of such fundamental importance takes one's breath away, but at the same time, it somehow feels almost normal and not norm-shattering. They will do anything to win elections. Full stop.
Now, however, it has become clear that there is something different going on. It is not even worth going back over the much-discussed spectacle of Ted Cruz apologizing to the right-wing media empire for having correctly called the Capital attackers terrorists. What is worse is that the new Republican line is that Democrats are pursuing this investigation merely for gratuitous fun, with various Republican politicians and Fox personalities referring to last week's commemorations as "like Christmas for Democrats" (or "the 4th of July," depending on who one listens to). The new party line -- strictly enforced -- is that Republicans must say that domestic terrorists are not terrorists (so long as they support Donald Trump), and any effort to investigate the insurrection is itself an attack on America.
Frequent readers of Dorf on Law are by now accustomed to reading about my deep pessimism about the future of the rule of law and constitutional democracy in this country. That pessimism is hardly a recent thing for me. A few weeks ago, a friend reminded me that I had written a column back in June 2016 discussing the idea that people might decide to move out of the United States if Trump were to become president. In that column, I devoted my analysis to asking where a would-be American expatriate might think about moving.
With the recent further intensification of Republicans' anti-republican efforts, now would be a particularly good time to revisit that issue. Thus, I published a new column today on Verdict under the uncharacteristically short title: "Where to Move?" There, I spent most of my time talking about the United Kingdom, even as I noted that the most obvious answer to that question is Canada. Because that column was already so lengthy, I referred readers here, promising that I would address the more obvious possibility at length. So, what about Canada?
By an interesting coincidence, shortly after I sent the final draft of today's column to my editor at Verdict, Rachel Maddow was discussing a new wrinkle in the growing record regarding Republicans' coordinated efforts to topple the United States government in the post-2020 election period. After she made it clear that they could have succeeded, she said this: "We would be living in a very different country right now ... . I'm not even sure all of us would be living in the same country as each other anymore."
Although she was a bit indirect about it, Maddow thus raised the issue that has become a hot topic not just among supposed alarmists like me but now more widely as people begin to absorb the idea that America as we know it might be ending. Indeed, my co-blogger Eric Segall wrote an excellent column last week discussing an essay by Thomas Homer-Dixon, a Canadian scholar who studies "the causes of war, social breakdown, revolution, ethnic violence and genocide" and who warned in a recent opinion piece in The Toronto Globe and Mail that "Canada must prepare" for the possible collapse of the American polity.
I highly recommend Professor Segall's column, which summarizes the issues clearly and compellingly. And with his column's warnings still ringing in my ears, I took special note of an op-ed published the next day (January 6) in The Washington Post titled: "Canadian intellectuals worry about the U.S. becoming a dictatorship. Maybe they should worry about Canada." Wait, I thought, is Canada in danger of following America (and, as I described in today's Verdict column, probably the UK) into right-wing authoritarianism? That would truly be interesting and frightening. But no, it turned out to be nothing more than a good old-fashioned right-wing distraction tactic: Don't look at that. Look instead at the scary leftists among us!
The author of the piece is a semi-regular Post columnist named J.J. McCullough. I had glanced at some of his columns over the years, none of which were particularly interesting, and concluded that The Post had decided to have an opinion columnist on the Canadian beat who happened to be right of center but not wildly so. He seemed something like a Great White North version of someone like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat -- rarely insightful but smart enough to try to position his conservative views as the height of reasonableness.
This time, however, McCullough found his inner rage monster, freaking out about recent Canadian discussions about the U.S. political system. What was the target of this anger? Canada's liberal intellectuals! McCullough smirked his way through an attack on The Globe and Mail itself for being "the Canadian newspaper with the most overt pretense of being a world-class journal of opinion." He then described one of his targets (Stephen Marche) "as Canada’s most articulate and strident anti-American intellectual."
The only evidence of Marche's supposed anti-Americanism, however, is that Marche has said, as McCullough put it, that "'the American experiment is failing' with the only question being 'how, not if, the republic will end.'" So I guess McCullough would describe me as being anti-American, too, along with many others who are very worried about this country's slide into despotism. Liberals are accustomed to being called unpatriotic by American conservatives, but having views like mine characterized as un-American by a non-American was a new one.
McCullough, apparently believing that all right-minded people would agree that such views are self-evidently absurd, then quotes Homer-Dixon (whose work Professor Segall described so well) saying that "some experts believe [the US] could descend into civil war," and finally quotes John Ibbotson saying that "Canada’s economic and political leadership must prepare now for the possibility of a postdemocratic America."
Rather than directly engage with any of these claims, McCullough instead piles on the snark by referring to such "hand wringing" warnings as "disingenuous" and "theatrical." Why? McCullough attacks the authors rather than their arguments:
[T]he power of Canada’s patriotic thought leaders have [sic] always thrived when fear and hatred of America are at a peak. The American Revolution, Civil War, Vietnam, the war on terrorism, and even covid-19 have all been exploited as opportunities to pump new theories of Canadian exceptionalism, and with it, new, and often highly elitist forms of state power to “protect” Canadians from the troubles to their south.
So these thought leaders are pumping up the attacks on America in a way that maximizes their own power, right? They will surely -- as they always do -- exploit the decline of the US by entrenching their own elitist power. So this is merely a Canadian intramural version of the game that we see in the US, where conservative columnists act out their grievances at living in liberal cities by accusing their opponents of being the true elitists.
In 2014, I wrote a column in which I noted that Douthat and his Times colleague David Brooks fairly drip with hurt feelings, apparently always at the ready to settle scores with people (probably going back to their college days, when their feelings were hurt by the loss of social status that being a Young Republican conferred) whom they still view as their tormentors. I fully acknowledged that I was engaging in rank armchair psychoanalysis, which means that I might have gotten their motivations all wrong. Maybe. I can only say that McCullough's little performance in his column last week fits the pattern that I described. (And given that Canada's intellectual community, though robust, is a much smaller group than in the US, it is very easy to believe that they have been tripping over each other for their entire lives.)
I should be clear that none of my substantive objection to McCullough's piece rides on this psychological assessment. I will say that Douthat, whom McCullough most closely resembles, is similarly dismissive of the idea that something very bad is afoot. The idea apparently is to maintain credibility by not being pro-Trump but to spend most of one's time tut-tutting about the liberals who criticize Trump.
For example, in May 2020, a liberal columnist warned: "If [Donald] Trump loses, there’s a real possibility he will reject the results, absurdly claim it was rigged, and say he’s the victim of the ‘deep state.’ And he will send that message to some people who are heavily armed, which could prove deadly." Yet Douthat in October 2020 (when it was already on the public record that Trumpists were busily working out coup plans) wrote a column under the title and subtitle: "There Will Be No Trump Coup: A final pre-election case for understanding the president as a noisy weakling, not a budding autocrat." Good call!
So the template is the same, but McCullough's version of bothsideism here is especially extreme and comical. Here is his big swing: "So as long as we’re making wild premonitions about the future, allow me to offer my own: Any scenario in which the United States becomes a 'right-wing dictatorship' will almost certainly be swiftly followed by Canada becoming some sort of left-wing dictatorship in response." Why the scare quotes around "right-wing dictatorship," when his point is not -- or at least, he has not made the case -- that we are wrong to be worried about the US? It does not even matter to his ultimate point, but he nonetheless casually dismisses the "wild premonitions" of his foes.
Beyond that, however, what does a "left-wing dictatorship in response" entail? Oh, the horrors: "[I]t’s easy to imagine Canada’s rulers proceeding to ban a generous swatch of dangerous' opinions ... and turning Canadian elections into a sort of Iran-style sham, wherein only carefully screened candidates holding the correct political views are permitted by the state to run."
Anything to support this? No, but apparently that is just what those Canadian lefties would do, you know? Still, we learn that a Big Brother-type would then ensure that "Canada would become a country with little freedom of speech or political choice." McCullough tries to back out of that absurd mess by saying that he is merely showing how a left-wing response would not be Canada's "shining hour," ending on this note: "It could happen here."
Yes, I guess anything could happen, but why should it be "easy to imagine" this outcome? More directly, given the large and growing mountain of evidence of the movement in the US toward authoritarianism, where is the evidence supporting anything other than pure speculation that Canadian "oppression would be justified by a compliant media insisting that the American form of dictatorship is worse, and that anyway the only true measure of freedom is a single-payer health-care system and a lot of restrictions on firearm ownership"?
McCullough is hardly alone. Even supposedly reasonable Republicans in the US cannot stay away from bothsidesism. Mitt Romney (of all people) responded yesterday to President Biden's speech defending voting rights with a speech on the floor of the Senate that included this: "[Biden] said that the goal of some Republicans is to 'turn the will of the voters into a mere suggestion.' And so President Biden goes down the same tragic road taken by President Trump: casting doubt on the reliability of American elections. This is a sad, sad day. I expected more of President Biden."
So per Romney, it is a super-sad thing for Joe Biden to state accurately what Republicans are doing to destroy democracy and to call for an effort to stop it. Just as tragic as Trump completely lying about the 2020 election. Both sides "cast doubt" on elections, so they are the same.
McCullough's "wild premonitions" are cut from the same cloth, but worse. Rather than lazily asserting that what Canada's left is saying is "just as bad" as the American danger that they decry, he asserts that it is easy to believe that those same left-leaning columnists would create an elitist cabal of leaders who would do bad things -- like defending gun control and universal health care. I can imagine a British version of McCullough saying in 1939: "Yeah, some people I dislike are over-hyping this whole 'Nazi' thing in Germany, what with the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland and all that; but can't you see that those people would probably do bad things too, if they could?"
No evidence is necessary. It is all a matter of countering actual, ongoing, horrifying threats by pointing to hypothetical fevered visions about the evil intentions of the guys who excluded him from the debating society at university.
But suppose that McCullough is completely accurate in his prediction. The US falls into a Gilead-like state, and Canada's response is to impose restrictions on political speech so that people will continue to prefer Canada's gun laws and health system over what we are stuck with in the United States.
If we are comparing alternatives, even McCullough's overwrought version of an illiberal Canada is a hell of a lot better than where the US might soon be going. To get back to the question that headlined my Verdict column -- Where to move? -- I can only say: If that's the supposed dystopia of Canada's reaction to US collapse, then sign me up! With global warming, it won't even be especially cold up there.