By Pauline Kerr
American politics has provided Canadians with a welcome distraction from COVID-19.
A good many of us viewed the presidential election, and its bizarre aftermath, with the detached amusement usually reserved for television reality shows.
The events that unfolded Jan. 6 were not entertaining in the slightest; they were terrifying. We sensed it was not only the Capitol under attack, but democracy itself.
What we saw was a volatile crowd of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, gun rights advocates and assorted far-right extremists – at least one of whom carried a Confederate flag into the Capitol – participating in an insurrection.
The call to arms had been given by a man who has made it clear he is willing to do just about anything, to use whatever allies he can, to hold onto the presidency. They, in turn, seem to worship him with cult-like devotion, taking every lie he utters as gospel. After all, he is the one who gave them a voice.
We feel as if we have seen the whole thing before, and we have, in news clips from Germany almost a hundred years ago. About the only things missing were the Nazi salutes and toothbrush mustache. This attempt to take over the American government by armed force has disturbing similarities to how German democracy ended in the 1930s.
What does it mean to Canada? While there are substantial differences between the American and Canadian systems of government, they are both democracies – at least they were, as of press time.
We share a border, a culture, a language. A border shared with a violent dictatorship would clearly jeopardize our rights and freedoms. We have a vested interest in peace and good government south of the 49th.
Canada’s leaders and those around the world have condemned the storming of the Capitol on no uncertain terms. But violence tends to breed more of the same. Once that particular genie is out of the bottle, it is infernally difficult to get the creature to go back in.
Although the incoming American president appears to be a moderate, sensible man with control of both the House and Senate, divisions within his country run deep. He and his people have a very difficult job ahead of them – one that will be made more difficult by the continued presence of a man who has gone beyond flirting with dictatorship to further his personal agenda.
A precedent has been set for denying the will of the people, for doing anything up to and including fomenting insurrection to hold onto power. And fringe groups that until the Trump presidency kept their socially abhorrent views to themselves, speak out loud and proud.
That voice is also heard in Canada. We, too, have right-wing extremists, Nazi wannabees and more – perhaps a small minority, as they are in the United States, but they are here. And they are more open about their beliefs than they were four years ago.
Add to this the stress of living in the midst of a global pandemic. On both sides of the border, people are afraid and frustrated. Before COVID-19, violent confrontations in department and grocery stores were rare. They have become much more common.
People are dying, hospital resources are stretched to the limit, and there are individuals who regard simple public health protections like wearing a mask as an infringement on their personal rights.
It is no coincidence that masks in the unruly crowd around the Capitol were few and far between.
We feel helpless about COVID-19 but have the means within our power to bring it under control – avoiding close contact with others, primarily.
We have more power than we might think when it comes to the armed insurrection in the United States, too. We must do everything we can to promote an open and tolerant community. We need to make it clear that racist jokes and behaviour are unacceptable. We must refuse to accept lies and dishonesty from our elected leaders.
It is a matter of making sure the collective voice of decent, law-abiding, tolerant and caring people is heard.