Trump of the Great White North?

Kevin O’Leary (Reuters photo: David McNew)
Businessman Kevin O’Leary shares the American president’s anti-establishment leanings.

Many of us are familiar with the famous aphorism by the English cleric and writer Charles Caleb Colton: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Even so, I wonder if President Donald Trump feels the same way about the political candidate who is being called “Canada’s Trump.”

This refers to Kevin O’Leary. He’s a successful Canadian-born businessman and financial commentator. He’s been a brash, controversial reality-TV star on CBC’s Dragon’s Den and ABC’s Shark Tank. He’s also running for the leadership of the Conservative party of Canada, even though he has no previous political experience.

Hmm. Where have we read this script before?

Ah, but there’s one catch: O’Leary doesn’t want to be known as the Trump of the Great White North.

During an interview on January 18 with CTV News Channel, he acknowledged that both he and Trump “got famous on reality television,” but he believes that Canadians “need a leader that can actually deal with Trump.” He also told the New York Post on January 20: “We’re both businessmen. That is the common thread. But I am nowhere near the same [as] Donald Trump on policy. I am half Lebanese, half Irish — there’s no walls. . . . If there was a wall around Canada, I wouldn’t exist.”

Indeed, the two men have fundamental differences when it comes to public policy.

Here’s an example. Trump may have some capitalist instincts, but he regularly dips his toes into the choppy waters of economic nationalism. He is not necessarily opposed to tariffs, and he seems willing to abandon or retool trade agreements that he doesn’t like. O’Leary is a true capitalist and a bona fide fiscal conservative. He supports lower taxes, smaller government, free markets, and more economic growth.

Trump believes in a more muscular foreign policy, fighting the War on Terror, and keeping America safe and secure. O’Leary, on the other hand, has made disparaging comments about the Canadian military and has no interest in fighting ISIS. On CTV News Channel’s Power Play in February 2016, he said that Canadians had a “moral authority . . . to be peacekeepers” and would prefer this to being “war mongers.” On Ottawa talk-radio station CFRA in December, he said: “Canadians are known as peacekeepers above all and not warriors. There’s nothing proud about being a warrior. War is a desperate outcome for a human being. Peacekeeping is extremely noble.”

Many Canadians either dislike Trump or are fearful of his presidency. Polls have consistently shown his disapproval ratings in the low to mid 70s. The high-water mark (if you want to call it that) was in last November’s online Insights West poll, in which 80 percent of respondents felt it would be “bad” for Canada if Trump won the presidential election.

That being said, an Ipsos/Global News poll also conducted at the end of October contained an intriguing revelation:

76 percent of respondents say they’d be “likely to consider” voting for a Canadian candidate with a platform similar to Donald Trump’s that focuses on stricter immigration controls, reviewing trade agreements like NAFTA, shifting spending on international development to domestic priorities, and being “tough on crime.”

That’s not terribly surprising. “A populist, nationalist wave is sweeping the West,” The Economist’s popular Bagehot’s Notebook correctly pointed out on December 2. “It has to do with the economic crisis, globalisation, automation, immigration, stagnant wages, social media and a less deferential culture; albeit in drastically varying proportions in different countries.”

It appears that the Canadian reality-TV star can blur the differences between Liberals and Tories just as well as the American reality-TV star has blurred the differences between Democrats and Republicans.

O’Leary has been riding this anti-establishment wave, much as Trump has been. His campaign is populist in nature; he rejects the Ottawa-based elite and politics-as-usual crowd and claims he has the right ideas to lead Canada, though he has very few specifics. He also has taken a position on rebuilding his nation’s economy that puts, if you’ll pardon the phrase, “Canada First.”

As well, while he’s clearly libertarian and fiscally conservative, he’s never self-identified as a conservative. He told the right-leaning Manning Centre conference last year that he was a member of the “Canadian taxpayer party” and didn’t believe “old political brands” would matter in the next election. “I can choose which party to actually run in,” he said, “because I think there will be a leadership race in the Liberal party.”

It appears that the Canadian reality-TV star can blur the differences between Liberals and Tories just as well as the American reality-TV star has blurred the differences between Democrats and Republicans.

O’Leary doesn’t have to be “Canada’s Trump.” But it’s to his political advantage to use strategic aspects of Trumpism in the Conservative-party leadership race. Whether or not he wants to publicly admit it, that’s exactly what he’s doing.

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