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About six weeks ago, as the craziness mounted, I asked Rolling Stone cover artist Victor Juhasz to make a drawing depicting what it’s like to be up here in Canada watching the American news.
Juhasz told me he was imagining the reaction of normal Canadians to the insanity and right-wing “Freedom” and “Liberty” vitriol spewing via U.S. media and social media when he made the drawing. “Lots of early MAD Magazine and Looney Tunes influence here,” he explained. “Why make the picture depressive?”
So we've got a Canadian family watching the news as an enormous Donald Trump explodes out of the TV set brandishing a bottle of bleach. Kellyanne Conway is literally vomiting propaganda. Behind her, Jerry Falwell Jr. wields a cross reading, “Jesus Will Cure.” Behind Trump, a militia member with a Confederate flag on his helmet roars. (I’m guessing he’d be saying, “Live free or die! No masks!”) Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, framed in a portrait, watches aghast behind a Canadian flag. Even the dog and cat are terrified.
Sure, as Ed Yong writes in The Atlantic this month, “No one should be shocked that a liar who has made almost 20,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency would lie about whether the U.S. had the pandemic under control...”
But being shocked is normal now, even here in Canada, where it’s not our news — and absorbing the shock waves is just what's required to participate in the cross-border conversation.
Truly, in this season filled with economic distress and border closures, masks and militias, snake oil salesmen and demagoguery, the news from America can seem like an assault. From the truth-contorting White House briefings to the fascist Republican National Convention, one can only monitor one's intake and wonder uneasily about the effects on our democracy.
With the American flag draped like a Nazi banner and unfurled between massive columns, the pageantry suggestive of Mussolini and Hitler, the RNC howled authoritarianism. The propagandist-in-chief aped Putin, posted soldiers to open the door for him, and, for her keynote speech, FLOTUS chose a suit that made her look like she marched in with the SS.
But who has time to reflect on history when the world moves so fast and “the most powerful man in it” is a madman? As CNN's national security reporter Jim Sciutto explains in his book, Trump is a madman “sometimes intentionally and sometimes not.”
Former Toronto Star reporter and full-time fact-checker of Trump, Daniel Dale, has said that some of the conspiracy theories coming out of the White House are almost too stupid to fact check.
"There's no border to keep Trump's toxic infodemic from reaching our homes. Now isn't the time to look down our noses at headlines in the U.S. and feel smug."
It's an “infodemic,” as Ed Yong puts it. “An infodemic of falsehoods spread alongside the actual virus. Rumours coursed through online platforms that are designed to keep users engaged, even if that means feeding them content that is polarizing or untrue.”
And as we watch, Trump's disinformation and outright lies are killing Americans.
Take for example, a Florida-based taxi driver and his wife who fell ill with COVID-19 last May.
They believed conspiracy theories claiming that the virus was either a hoax, or that it was real but just a mild flu, and neglected to wear masks or even seek help in the onset of their illness.
In August, his wife — a pastor — succumbed to the illness, showing the human cost of disinformation peddled at the highest levels of government. This is just sad. But it's so important to remember that disinformation can kill.
Mundane and normalized, yet so extreme
The more you see mainstream American Conservatives retweeting QAnon conspiracy theories and hateful, violent rhetoric toward “liberals,” the more mundane and normalized it becomes.
We'd like to think what’s happening in America doesn't affect Canada, that we're too smart to fall for the disinformation campaigns ravaging the U.S. And yet that’s not true.
And it goes both ways — some of the most influential far-right media figures in the U.S. come from Canada or have Canadian connections.
In June, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a British-based think tank, released a report titled An Online Environmental Scan of Right-Wing Extremism in Canada, which identified 6,660 right-wing extremist channels, pages, groups and accounts, reaching an audience of millions of people across Canada and around the world.
Canada, in fact, is the third-most active nation using 4chan's politically incorrect board, right after the U.S. and U.K.
The horrific Quebec City mosque shooting in 2017 was carried out by a young man obsessed with Trump, whose constant immersion in right-wing news led him to believe Muslim refugees would "kill" his parents and family, despite no evidence.
Even when Trudeau announced on Twitter that Canada has secured millions of potential vaccines for COVID-19, his account was flooded by reply tweets sharing disinformation and distrust around the safety of vaccines.
In another instance of Canadian-style propaganda, Kerry-Lynne D. Findlay, the Conservatives' environment critic and MP for South Surrey-White Rock, shared a misleading video linking Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland with George Soros, sending a sinister and anti-Semitic message to her twitter followers.
The original tweet was by David Q Milley, who defended QAnon as “patriots who actually take the time to research facts.”
The new Conservative leader Erin O'Toole didn't see the tweet as serious enough to address immediately, and issued a lukewarm statement days after the fact, causing prominent Conservative commentator Charles Adler to leave his party and publicly denounce its apparent tolerance for racist views.
Handmaid's Tale-style getaway
My dual-citizen friends who live in upper New York state have prepared for a Handmaid's Tale-style getaway to Canada.
Their Canadian passports and treasured possessions are stored in a special place, easy to grab if they need to get up and go.
Why aren't they coming now? I ask them. And what would trigger a decision to leave two good jobs and a beloved home?
Militias blocking the interstates, like the ones facing off with protesters in Portland.
If those come closer, they'll travel north, they say. To this haven with its border closed against the virus running rampant in America.
Disinformation knows no border
Still, our screens are with us everywhere, and MAGA's always there.
The words of the late Robin Williams come to mind. Williams was speaking to Canadians about how he saw Canada when he joked, “You are like a really nice apartment over a meth lab.”
It's always felt like a nice summary of how Canadians see themselves compared to the U.S., as a bastion of normalcy in the world. Over here north of the border, we are sane, safe.
But as with our own lives, if a friend and close neighbour is in deep crisis, eventually that hits home. There's no border to keep Trump's toxic infodemic from reaching our homes. Now isn't the time to look down our noses at headlines in the U.S. and feel smug. Whether we can learn from America's painful struggles in 2020 will determine our own future. I hope we'll be ready.