Could we fall for a Trump here in Quebec?

A CROP survey of Quebecers written up in La Presse this weekend shows some sharp differences between Quebec and U.S. societies when it comes to the issues that led to the election of Donald Trump. But it also shows some worrying similarities.

The predictable differences are primarily attitudes to the environment, daycare, abortion and free trade. The similarities include mistrust of traditional institutions, notably established political parties, mainstream media, and banks. Some local respondents see them all working hand in hand in an élite that serves only its own purposes. Sound familiar? They see none of these institutions as caring about the needs of the middle class. (And who doesn’t think they’re middle class?)

Unlike some Trump supporters, the most disaffected in Quebec don’t necessarily link immigration to their personal problems, but 47% show low or no tolerance toward ethnic minorities and 44% think there should be limits on Muslim immigrants.
An interesting echo of the American trend is that the most disaffected tend to be young, less educated men in outlying regions, while the least disaffected tend to be liberal women with a university degree living in the metropolis.

What pattern emerges that should concern Canadians and Quebecers in particular? Sociologist Gérard Bouchard “nearly fell off his chair” in shock when reading the results of the survey. He had not expected the dissatisfaction and intolerance that he saw (despite having co-chaired the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on cultural accommodation). Having regained his equilibrium, he noted that the pattern of disaffection and mistrust we are seeing here is one that repeats itself throughout the Western world. He also said it represents a huge difference in Quebec public sentiment since the turn of the century. (It still feels weird saying that phrase and meaning only a few years ago!)

CROP President Alain Giguère attributes this change in part to the economic crisis of 2008, which not only affected all Western countries – and beyond – but also coalesced a movement protesting collusion among the moneyed classes to the disadvantage of the 99%.

I see other factors at play as well. What turns a lone, dissatisfied “outsider” into a demonstrator occupying Wall Street? Look to public relations theory for an answer. Among the key factors that turn passive public opinion into active public opinion? Information and social support. “Hey! I’m not alone. Others agree with me.” “Maybe I’m right. Maybe I have a chance to make changes if we all get together.”

Mistrust of what politicians say is nothing new in itself. And it’s well explained if you consider the importance of authenticity, transparency and veracity that public relations ethical principles hold crucial in building credibility and trust. But the cause-and-effect connection between political disingenuousness and public uprising is delayed, indirect and unpredictable. The liars are not punished right away; if there is punishment, it often falls on their successors.

Transparency and authenticity probably explain in large part the success of Justin Trudeau’s campaign, when many signs pointed to a win by the newer, more-outsider NDP. (But the Orange Wave had always been more about Jack Layton than his party.) A look at the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual gauge of public trust in business and institutions, shows that trust in government actually increased in 15 countries studied, between 2015 and 2016. The barometer shows that the greatest increase in government trust by informed publics was in Canada, at 16% over last year. I would argue that Trudeau’s authenticity got him elected despite opposition from those who depend on the gas and oil industry. (In the latter, his surname probably didn’t help.)

How does Trudeau’s electoral victory contrast with Trump’s in the U.S.? First, Canadians are not Americans. Second, Trump’s style may have been taken for authentic, but is simply a good imitation: smoke and mirrors disguising just a newer, brasher brand of wealthy, privileged, self-interested leaders.
Nonetheless, as reported by La Presse, both CROP’s Alain Giguère and former Bloc Québécois MP Hélène Alarie fear that, given the survey findings, a demagogue who looks “authentic”, who talks about being disconnected from power, and who uses language that sounds unlike that of a professional politician could attract a following here at home.

The lessons here for public relations and communications professionals, and the organizations they represent, are first, the importance of in-depth research in tracking trends, whether in traditional or social media. We have to know our stakeholders. Second, we must be authentic. And I don’t mean the Trump version of authentic – I mean honestly, ethically authentic. Finally, we need to speak the language that reaches stakeholders, that respects and doesn’t exclude their concerns.

The stakes, for our organizations and for wider society, may be very high.