A uniquely American mythology gave rise to Donald Trump. As the world watches, has anything really changed?

Staring up at the four-man squads, U.S. National Guard members with assault rifles and police on horseback, Chantal Beauchamp had a distinct thought take shape.It had been bubbling in the back of her mind for years, perhaps in the same part of her brain that yearned to return to her home country, Canada, for reasons she could never explain. The thought, she says, was: I am in a war zone. I have to get out.She was only two blocks from her home, at the Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa., one of the 22 state capitals in the United States preparing for the worst ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Wednesday.After a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, the installation of military members around important seats of government in states such as Pennsylvania, which were hotly contested in the U.S. election but ultimately voted for Biden, is not unexpected.It’s the job of the National Guard to protect the country from violent threats, including this one that happens to come from within.The sight of it brought Beauchamp, who comes from the tiny northern Ontario community of Hearst but who has lived in Harrisburg with her American husband for eight years, to tears. She says she felt she was finally seeing clearly what her husband, an African American man from Kentucky, had been telling her about his country for as long as she’s known him.“This scene, it tells me that we are unsafe. I do not feel safe here anymore at all. I do not trust people anymore and it is so not like me,” she said over the phone, speaking about the scenes of the storming of the Capitol and speculation about further violence to come. “(My husband’s) line of thinking is: ‘We’ve always been afraid, it’s always been like this for us. Now the white people, you see it, too.’”“It’s so sad,” she said. In the aftermath of Jan. 6 and as the inauguration of Biden nears, Canadians such as Beauchamp are trying to understand our southern and closest neighbour — and in particular the type of disinformation-driven populism that has taken the United States by storm and helped Donald Trump obtain the second highest number of votes for president in history. When Biden becomes president, one period of American history driven by this brand of populism will come to an end. But, as has been made clear by the events this month and the reports from the FBI that more armed protests by Trump supporters are planned in state capitals leading up to inauguration, there is something of this period that existed before, and will endure beyond Trump’s defeat. There continues to be a subset of Americans — about a third polled — who believe despite all evidence that Donald Trump was elected on Dec. 20, and a small but vocal portion of them are willing to protest for the cause, or even break into the Capitol, believing they are doing what is right.It can be heard in the way groups of Trump supporters bolster one another online, telling each other to “keep the faith,” and felt in the stinging irony of the people who broke into the Capitol, attacking America’s democracy, all the while declaring themselves patriots.Although versions of right-wing populism have emerged in many places around the world, including in Canada, the brand of populism seen under Trump is uniquely American — and it builds on old ideas of American mythology.“It’s an ingrained part of their culture to have this sense that they’re this special, godly nation,” said Lorne Dawson, a leading scholar on the sociology of religion at the University of Waterloo, who has researched, among other things, the key role of faith in American political life. “To compensate for this incredible loss involved in leaving England to go to the wilderness (the earliest Americans) fostered this great mythology that they were coming to the promised land.”Figures such as George Washington and the founding fathers were not just loved, they were elevated to the level of quasi-deity, Dawson said, referencing the Washington Monument and the sacred deference Americans lend their constitution.Dawson himself remembers being a kid in Regina, singing in class to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the song reflecting on the civil war and the moral, spiritual necessity Americans assigned to that fight.Associating political and societal will with a higher power is something Americans still do. The right-wing populism Trump rode to power was all about speaking to those Americans who deeply believe their country is special, sacred and belongs by rights to a subset of “true” — white, Protestant and middle America — Americans, Dawson explained. “Trump hit the right value tone, hit the right vision,” Dawson said. “He showed they have significance, that they matter, that they can still occupy a position of influence.”But another factor was needed to create Trumpism — this populist notion that puts faith in Trump over facts and institutions.That’s something Canadian pollster Frank Graves of Ekos Rese

A uniquely American mythology gave rise to Donald Trump. As the world watches, has anything really changed?

Staring up at the four-man squads, U.S. National Guard members with assault rifles and police on horseback, Chantal Beauchamp had a distinct thought take shape.

It had been bubbling in the back of her mind for years, perhaps in the same part of her brain that yearned to return to her home country, Canada, for reasons she could never explain.

The thought, she says, was: I am in a war zone. I have to get out.

She was only two blocks from her home, at the Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa., one of the 22 state capitals in the United States preparing for the worst ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Wednesday.

After a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, the installation of military members around important seats of government in states such as Pennsylvania, which were hotly contested in the U.S. election but ultimately voted for Biden, is not unexpected.

It’s the job of the National Guard to protect the country from violent threats, including this one that happens to come from within.

The sight of it brought Beauchamp, who comes from the tiny northern Ontario community of Hearst but who has lived in Harrisburg with her American husband for eight years, to tears. She says she felt she was finally seeing clearly what her husband, an African American man from Kentucky, had been telling her about his country for as long as she’s known him.

“This scene, it tells me that we are unsafe. I do not feel safe here anymore at all. I do not trust people anymore and it is so not like me,” she said over the phone, speaking about the scenes of the storming of the Capitol and speculation about further violence to come. “(My husband’s) line of thinking is: ‘We’ve always been afraid, it’s always been like this for us. Now the white people, you see it, too.’”

“It’s so sad,” she said.

In the aftermath of Jan. 6 and as the inauguration of Biden nears, Canadians such as Beauchamp are trying to understand our southern and closest neighbour — and in particular the type of disinformation-driven populism that has taken the United States by storm and helped Donald Trump obtain the second highest number of votes for president in history.

When Biden becomes president, one period of American history driven by this brand of populism will come to an end. But, as has been made clear by the events this month and the reports from the FBI that more armed protests by Trump supporters are planned in state capitals leading up to inauguration, there is something of this period that existed before, and will endure beyond Trump’s defeat.

There continues to be a subset of Americans — about a third polled — who believe despite all evidence that Donald Trump was elected on Dec. 20, and a small but vocal portion of them are willing to protest for the cause, or even break into the Capitol, believing they are doing what is right.

It can be heard in the way groups of Trump supporters bolster one another online, telling each other to “keep the faith,” and felt in the stinging irony of the people who broke into the Capitol, attacking America’s democracy, all the while declaring themselves patriots.

Although versions of right-wing populism have emerged in many places around the world, including in Canada, the brand of populism seen under Trump is uniquely American — and it builds on old ideas of American mythology.

“It’s an ingrained part of their culture to have this sense that they’re this special, godly nation,” said Lorne Dawson, a leading scholar on the sociology of religion at the University of Waterloo, who has researched, among other things, the key role of faith in American political life. “To compensate for this incredible loss involved in leaving England to go to the wilderness (the earliest Americans) fostered this great mythology that they were coming to the promised land.”

Figures such as George Washington and the founding fathers were not just loved, they were elevated to the level of quasi-deity, Dawson said, referencing the Washington Monument and the sacred deference Americans lend their constitution.

Dawson himself remembers being a kid in Regina, singing in class to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the song reflecting on the civil war and the moral, spiritual necessity Americans assigned to that fight.

Associating political and societal will with a higher power is something Americans still do.

The right-wing populism Trump rode to power was all about speaking to those Americans who deeply believe their country is special, sacred and belongs by rights to a subset of “true” — white, Protestant and middle America — Americans, Dawson explained.

“Trump hit the right value tone, hit the right vision,” Dawson said. “He showed they have significance, that they matter, that they can still occupy a position of influence.”

But another factor was needed to create Trumpism — this populist notion that puts faith in Trump over facts and institutions.

That’s something Canadian pollster Frank Graves of Ekos Research Associates has been tracking. He’s been fascinated by the various explanations given for the rise of Trump — from underground racism finding a home, to economic hardships blamed on outside forces such as globalization.

What Graves noticed in his polling of voters in the U.S. was that factors such as resistance to immigration, having fallen out of the middle class, believing in conspiracy theories and voting for a conservative party — either the GOP or the CPC in Canada — all tracked with a measure called the open-ordered index.

The scale seeks to measure the degree to which someone believes in obedience to a strong authority figure, represented by the ordered side of the scale. Graves, and others including at Pew Research Center, found being on the high end of the ordered scale was very strongly correlated with voting for Trump.

This is sometimes described as “authoritarian outlook” — or willingness to submit to a strongman figure. Graves said he thinks this is a defining feature of right-wing populism today.

Though it is present on the right in both the U.S. and Canada, it is more prominent in the U.S. (Pew found 45 per cent of Americans have this outlook, while Graves’ polling puts it at 35 per cent in Canada).

Graves said he believes that has to do with the way these sentiments develop: Not because of a single factor, but because of a convergence of factors that leaves large groups of people despairing for real and perceived losses.

Americans who support Trump are more likely to have fallen out of the middle class, to have felt a sense of lost identity because of the nature of the job losses around them, such as through the decline of manufacturing, and to feel that there is an external threat, such as globalization, that has caused these losses.

“Someone who was a member of the middle class, the idea was I’ll do better than my parents, I’ll retire in security and my kids will do better than me,” Graves said. In losing that, as many middle Americans have, “There’s a combination of economic loss, status loss, identity factors and cultural backlash.”

The resulting ethos doesn’t necessarily push people to what we traditionally think of as the political right. But it does tend to place them further to the right on the open-ordered index, and to incline them toward believing an authoritarian figure over established institutions. Believing in conspiracy theories that reinforce the populist point of view is part of that.

Take a Canadian example. Odessa Orlewicz, a B.C. woman developing an internet show called “Liberty Talk Canada” this week conducted an interview with the Canadian nurses who travelled to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 to talk about their anti-vaccine, anti-coronavirus restrictions beliefs.

“We’ve never been political but this,” she said, gesturing to her guests in reference to their conversation on what they falsely called the dangers of vaccines, “Somehow makes us right-leaning, when we’re worried about our children’s lives.”

Certainly some of the same sentiments exist in Canada.

It’s a challenge for Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole. Just last week, he faced backlash for giving an email interview to right-wing media site Rebel News, and this week made a move toward ousting Conservative MP Derek Sloan from office for accepting a donation from a well-known white nationalist.

“The CPC can call on some similar sentiments and resentments in Canada,” Graves said. “If the CPC was to cut loose all of the people who hold this northern Trumpist outlook, they’d be smaller than the NDP. But if the language gets even a little too inflammatory they’ll pay a high price for it.”

The difference, Dawson said, is in the culture: The deep-rooted historic context that gives American nationalism its moral, even sacred undertones does not exist in Canada.

“People being drawn into more extreme perspectives — that’s universal.” Dawson said. “The component that’s missing is this historical cultural value component. We just don’t have that same legacy and history in Canada.”

To Dawson, this month has been a crucial turning point for the influence of this brand of American populism — which is not to say it’s going away entirely.

“(Trump’s) group will continue. They will never give up the faith. He’ll be a failed prophet, still seen as martyr,” Dawson said.

That much has borne out so far in the heart of far-right chat groups and social media networks, such as those centred on the conspiracy theory ideology QAnon.

Well-known conspiracy theory author Jerome Corsi made a video that circulated this week on QAnon groups encouraging listeners that Trump would still, somehow, remain president and root out the deep state. He used some of the spiritual nationalistic language Dawson described. “What I think we can have is a rebirth of freedom in this country,” he said.

But what will become clear, Dawson said, is the extent to which the violence at the Capitol and the expulsion of Trump from both the Oval Office and his favourite social media platform, Twitter, will do to the favourability of these populist ideas with, well, the population.

Dawson compared Jan. 6 to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which temporarily chilled America’s anti-government militia movements. Likewise the violence in Washington has caused some Americans, including prominent Republicans, to disavow Trump’s cause.

Beauchamp, the Canadian woman in Harrisburg, says she does hope that Biden becoming president will tone down the tension in America.

But she’s not sure.

“I’m unsure because now there’s so much security. What happens after when the security goes home?”

She remembered, shortly after moving to the U.S., the first time she saw a young mother at Walmart with a kid in her arms and a gun on her hip. The sight was startling to Beauchamp. She now views her own upset as naive, understanding how gun ownership is one of those things wrapped up in America’s sense of self.

Beauchamp is now placing her hopes, with caution, in her home country, where she and her husband plan to retire.

“It seems to me like it is happening in Canada. For the life of me, why are there Trump supporters in Toronto?” she said. “I’ve been thinking about it more and more because of everything that’s going on here in this country. I’m hopeful that it’s going to get better.”

Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen

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