How to Get Rid of an Autocrat

Donald Trump isn’t the first Western politician to attack the judiciary, muzzle scientists, erode evidence-based decision making by making up alternate facts, disenfranchise voters, create two-tiered citizenship, push a corporate agenda, insult the very government leaders he needs to help him achieve his vision, and wage a divisive Islamophobic campaign to shore up core support.

Stephen Harper has been there and done that and would have continued to “do that” but for the election cycle which forced him to go to the people to refresh his mandate.

We dodged a bullet in 2015, but we may not be so lucky the next time around, particularly if a mini-Trump becomes the leader of the CPC and (god forbid) slides into power with a majority.


Kellie Leitch Conservative Leadership Candidate

What can we do to stop the erosion of democracy if this happens?

Checks and balances?  

Our democracy rests on a balance of power exercised by the three branches of government: the executive, the legislative and the judiciary.

If a maniacal über conservative prime minister comes to power with a majority government, the executive branch will be eating out of his hand.  He’ll appoint loyalists and sycophants to Cabinet posts and the instinct for self-preservation will override any desire on their part to derail the PM’s agenda.

The legislative branch is made up of the House of Commons and the Senate.  The MPs who form the PM’s majority government will be reluctant to thwart the man who brought them back into power.

The Senate on the other hand is a wild card.

Senators are appointed by the prime minister.  Presently the Senate is composed of 40 Conservative appointees, 37 independents, and 21 “Liberals” (they called themselves the Liberal Caucus notwithstanding the fact they were expelled from the party by Justin Trudeau).  If Trudeau appoints another seven independents, the total number of Liberal/independent senators climbs to 65.  This majority could veto any piece of legislation sent to them by the House of Commons, although the Senate hasn’t used its veto power since 1939.

The third branch of government is the judiciary.  The Supreme Court will not hesitate to kill any piece of legislation that violates the Charter.  Harper lost five cases in six weeks just before he attacked the integrity of Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.  No wonder he was cranky.

In a nutshell, our democracy rests in the hands majority MPs who likely lack the courage to buck an all-powerful PM, a bunch of independent (quasi Liberal) senators we’ve never heard of and the Supreme Court of Canada.

Given that it takes time and money to launch a lawsuit and wait for the Supreme Court to render a decision, our best bet is to re-engage with our elected MPs and the Senate to stop undemocratic policies before they become the law.

This is where the American experience becomes relevant.


Americans are resisting Donald Trump’s agenda by protesting in the streets and, more importantly, re-engaging in the democratic process at the local level.

One of the best advocacy guidebooks I’ve come across is the Indivisible GuidebookIt’s the brainchild of a group of former progressive congressional staffers who are using the tools developed by the Tea Party to fight Trump’s “racist, authoritarian, corrupt agenda.”

Indivisible starts with the premise that activists should focus on their local representatives and that all politicians want to be re-elected (even those in safe seats fear a challenger).  Politicians want their constituents to like them and the press to flatter them.  They hate to look weak or vulnerable.

Indivisible dissects politicians.  Politicians care about disgruntled constituents, not outsiders; an interest group’s endorsement, not one person’s analysis of a proposed bill; personal emails, phone calls and office visits, not form letters or Facebook comments; and a “concrete ask” not a laundry list of all the issues that bother you.  They want good local press not a town hall meeting or photo op turned gong show.

The tactics for effective advocacy at a town hall meeting or photo op are straight forward:  engage with a small group of like-minded constituents; meet up in advance of the town hall or photo op to determine who is going to ask what (keep questions simple, no long rambling diatribes); spread out in the crowd and don’t carry a sign if you’re going to ask a question because you won’t be called on by the meeting organizer; video the entire exchange, post it on social media and send it to the local press (who are easy to contact through social media).

“Indivisible” in Canada

Indivisible sets out some simple tactics for effective advocacy.  These can be applied in the Canadian context to ensure that Canadians won’t be taking to the streets in four years to save themselves from far-right conservatives who are emboldened by Trump’s victory.


Kevin O’Leary Conservative Leadership Candidate

So here’s a suggestion.

Ask your local Conservative MP whether they support federal Conservative leadership candidates who profess to “unite” us by dividing us based on our Canadian identity or those who intend to “fix” the federal government by privatizing most of it and running what’s left like a CEO answerable to no one.

Then keep asking these questions so you’ll be ready when these conservative politicians pop up at town hall meetings in your riding seeking your vote in the next election.

The best way to get rid of an autocrat is not to elect him in the first place, but if he (or she) has a shot at getting into power, the best way to thwart an autocrat is to influence the people they’ll need to make their agendas a reality.


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29 Responses to How to Get Rid of an Autocrat

  1. Bob Raynard says:

    My wife and I had a discussion the other day, and wound up with a question we couldn’t answer. During the recent American election campaign, Donald Trump included in his campaign a promise to ban Muslims from entering the US and referred to Mexicans as rapists, and promised to build a wall etc. Both of these can be considered campaigning against an identifiable group. While hatred is probably too strong a word, it is at least close.

    So here is my question: has any politician in a first world country ever campaigned against an identifiable ethnic group or religion and won the election before? Certainly fringe candidates have in the past, but has anyone actually been successful? The only other one I can think of, well, I don’t want to invoke Godwin’s Law just yet.

  2. jvandervlugt says:

    Hi Susan. I have digressed. I see that certain U.S. president on the TV and not nice words spew from my mouth and I leave the room. I see Kevin O’Leary on the TV and more nasty words spew from my mouth and I leave the room. What annoys me are the innuendos I hear coming from politicians’ mouth. Cloaking racism under the guise of safety for Canadians. I wish people would really listen and notice that politician did not answer your question. I will be checking out the Indivisible Guidebook. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

    • You’re welcome Joanna. I too was drawn into the quagmire of American politics (it’s like watching a train wreck, you can’t pull your eyes away), then as I watched the protests building I began to wonder whether Canadians had reacted with the same intensity to the awful laws Harper rolled out. It’s true Canadians demonstrated against bills like C-51 and interest groups like the Canadian Bar Association submitted papers to the subcommittees reviewing legislation like the Safe Neighbourhoods Act (an omnibus bill that did everything from weakening environmental protection to stripping judges of discretion in sentencing) but we weren’t as vocal as the Americans and these bills became law.
      Canadians are too complacent, we need to be more like the Americans because we could elect an autocrat just as easily as they did.

  3. Jill Browne says:

    Thanks as always for your insights, Susan.

  4. Ed Henderson says:

    Hi Susan,,Our Federal Riding has a PC MP. Last time I phoned his office the person on the phone did not speak fluent English and I had trouble communicating. I called his office just shortly after the last election because my MP had been quoted saying that he had been re-elected so many times that if he had done the same in his homeland of Tanzania he would have the status of King. I wanted to make sure he was fully aware that this is Canada, still don’t know. If you have some magical way of communicating with these folks, please ask him and let me know.
    So, do you really think I should ask him your proposed question?
    By the way, I did not vote for him because I did some research on each candidate and voted for the candidate who appeared to be the one who would represent our riding the best. It turned out that was the Liberal candidate in my humble opinion.
    You describe the PM as “All Powerful”..I don’t agree. I think the Political Party is all powerful and at least the current PM just dances to the tune the Liberal Party plays. Do you actually think Trudeau has the moxie and intelligence to run anything?


    • Mike Priaro says:

      Ed, you ask “Do you actually think Trudeau has the moxie and intelligence to run anything?
      I think “Prince Charming” – engineering school drop-out, snowboard instructor, part-time teacher, selfie-addict says it all.
      Today Prince Charming is in Washington to meet with, in Andrew Coyne’s words, “…a leader who, to speak precisely, presents with a variety of known personality disorders; who knows less about foreign policy, or any policy, than the average doorman or taxi driver; who has no visible moral compass, is unconstrained by any norm of personal, political or presidential conduct, and seems determined to avenge any slight to his monstrous vanity.”
      Good luck, Prince Charming!

      • Mike I saw that article and agree that any world leader meeting with Trump is walking into a mine field. Theresa May is facing backlash for inviting Trump for a state visit and Trump’s meeting with the Japanese PM at Mar-a-Lago may have been an ethical violation. So while there are many things that I fault Trudeau for, his visit with Trump (regardless of how it turns out) is not one of them.

    • Ed, you’re identified a real problem with Canadian politics. The MPs appear to think they work for the Prime Minister, not their constituents. Their flow of communication is from the top down, not the bottom up so they really don’t care about answering their constituents’ calls.
      The Indivisible Guidebook suggests a few tactics when dealing with recalcitrant politicians. You can ask when the MP will be in town, if the staffer won’t tell you, sign up to the MP’s web page or the party’s web page and get an idea of his agenda and then show up at his office. Pop in and wait until he shows up. A group of seniors did this to Fred Horne when he was health minister. They alerted the press and video taped what turned into a sit-in and posted it on social media. The press came and the story appeared in the paper. It took a lot of effort but it embarrassed Horne into agreeing to meet with them.
      My comment about the PM being all powerful is based on Jeffrey Simpson’s characterization of Canada as a “friendly dictatorship.” If the PM has a majority he can do whatever he pleases. Tristan Hopper did an article on the limits to the PM’s power–they’re the Supreme Court of Canada, rebellious premiers and mayors who refuse to implement federal laws and the Governor General and the Queen, but if we have to ask the GG or Queen to step in we’re in really bad shape.

  5. C. Hunt says:

    Good suggestions to improve democracy in Canada but I think most of our efforts will be wasted until we get electoral reform, with proportional representation to avoid false majorities and encourage all parties to work together to benefit Canadians, rather than senior executives & multinational shareholders. I think too much ‘power’ is in the Prime Minister’s Office because he picks the Ministers and listens to his lobbyists and pollsters, rather than voters that get to fill out tricky surveys and receive vague promises, delivered as soundbites in expensive TV advertising. The P.M. also gets to ‘turn his back’ on election promises! Maybe Senate selection should be from a nomination by Canadians and a vote by all members of the House. First we need electoral reform.

    • C. Hunt: I agree with your comment about the power shift to the PMO. Some say the shift started with Pierre Elliot Trudeau but to my mind the real question is not who made the shift but how it was possible for him to make it. Two researchers say the real problem is that Constitution is silent about the limits on the PM’s power and if a PM chooses to ignore the “unwritten constitutional conventions” he can run roughshod over democracy. For example the only person who can check the PM’s power to summon, prorogue, and dissolve the House of Commons is the Governor-General, but as we saw with Harper the GG wouldn’t override his decision to prorogue the House (Harper said he would have gone to the Queen if the GG defied him). Add to that the PM’s unlimited power to appoint Cabinet ministers and put MPs on “perk” committees and you’ve got a situation where it’s the PM, not the constituents, who are the MP’s prime concern. Electoral reform would go a long way to rectify this situation.
      Here’s a link to a helpful article about the PM’s power:

  6. Electoral reform must happen before 2019. If not, I’m supporting the Green Party and will tell everyone else I know to do so as well. Enough of this ‘strategic voting’ junk perpetrated by organizations like Leadnow.

    • Liam, I was very surprised when Trudeau chose to blow off his promise of electoral reform given that it was likely the only reason people from the Greens and NDP voted for him. He’s probably gambling that he won’t need their votes in the next election and for his sake I hope he’s right because he’s certainly not going to get them. The thing that really bothers me about this is his lame excuses for why he’s changed his mind, first it was there was no consensus, then it was there’s no clear path forward (when has this ever stopped a majority government for doing what it promised to do), now it’s that electoral reform will allow Canada’s very own Marie Le Pen (Kellie Leitch) to come into power and destroy democracy as we know it. And politicians wonder why the voters are cynical and refuse to engage.

      • I appreciate your caution re: “the autocrat” – but I think you give too much away in suggesting Kellie Leitch will destroy democracy as we know it, since democracy is already under stress (as you so well put in in your articulate responses to comments above). Ours is a democracy where the average citizen (who is voting less and less each election) either feels apathetic or as if their vote/voice won’t be heard anyways (admittedly this reinforces my nonpartisan position that all parties are inherently corrupted/compromised by their desire for power over their desire to represent their constituency). As for Trudeau breaking his promise re: electoral reform – it is my contention that the reform we need is far more profound that merely redistributing the vote among [eve] more non-responsive MPs. For fear that I linked you to this some time ago, I had this to say on the status of our democracy (sic): Thanks

      • Rusty, actually I was commenting on Justin Trudeau’s statement that he was abandoning electoral reform because it would allow extremist parties to take power in one way or another. I believe he made a reference to Kellie Leitch but for the life of me I can’t find the cite so I’ll have to leave that as speculation on my part. You could well be correct when you say the reform we need is more profound that merely redistributing the vote, although I must admit I haven’t given enough thought to all the different ways we can improve it. One thing for certain, we the people need to become more engaged. I was listening to a David Frum interview on CBC in which he was asked whether part of the problem is that the media isn’t doing a good job of reporting on politics and politicians. He replied that the media put the information out there but too many people prefer to watch sports or google why Justin Bieber didn’t attend the Grammys.

  7. jerrymacgp says:

    Some of your analysis is flawed. Firstly, we d not have a true “separation of powers” in Canada. Instead, we have “responsible government”, in which the Executive is responsible to and only serves at the pleasure of the elected house of the legislative branch.

    This seems like a semantic distinction until you look at how some situations we have seen south of the border might have played out under a Westminster system. Obama struggled during much of his Presidency with a Congress that was diametrically opposed to his agenda. For instance, the government shutdown, which was about the budget, meant that the Executive didn’t command the confidence of the Legislative branch. Under a parliamentary system, defeat of the executive’s proposed budget would inevitably have led to dissolution of Congress and new elections to hash out the conflict between the two branches. But that doesn’t happen under the current US system, and instead they get gridlock.

    Where our democracy falls down, IMHO, is in a way an excess of democracy: the way party leaders are chosen, which gives them far too much power over their caucuses. Once upon a time, and in fact even to this day across the pond in the Mother of Parliaments, party leaders were chosen on the basis of caucus support. Later, they were elected at delegated conventions, at which sitting MPs were automatically entitled to sit as delegates and thus had a base of power independent of the either the outgoing leader or any of the leadership candidates. However, now they are most often elected by one member, one vote, mass at-large elections, in which MPs have no more power than the newest signed-up party member. Party leaders, even those destined to become PM, need no support from their caucus to become leader. This means that the caucus has no check on the party leader’s authority.

    Remember what happened in the U.K. some years back, when Conservative MPs decided Margaret Thatcher needed to go, turfed her as party leader, and instead chose John Major. With authority like that, MPs can be much more responsive to their constituents and party leaders have to tread much more lightly.

  8. Jerry: I’ve done a little research into the applicability of the “separation of powers” doctrine in Canada. I came across a constitutional law article which quotes a leading constitutional law professor Peter Hogg as saying the doctrine is inapplicable in Canada but then goes on to say that the Supreme Court of Canada apparently does not agree with him and cites a number of cases, including Dismantle v The Queen, where it referred to the doctrine as “one of the essential features of our constitution”. Far be it from me to argue with Prof Hogg or the SCC, so I’ve softened the language to avoid the reference (and the debate). Here’s the link:
    I agree with your point about “an excess of democracy” in the way party leaders are chosen. It seems to me that once the leader is chosen and his party forms government there is little than can be done to curb his behavior if he turns out to be a nutcase like Trump. The MPs could stage a coup but may be reluctant to do so if the nutty PM (like Trump) enjoys widespread support within the party.

  9. In response to your comment on David Frum’s interview, I contend that partisan medias did not actually “put the information out there” as Frum would have us believe. With “false facts” and then distrusted “fact-checkers”, the public was in the cross-fire of spin doctors. I lament the state of the fifth estate:
    It is hard to argue with Frum’s other point that people were more interested in sports and entertainment than the confusion of just another life-changing, world-transforming election!
    Deep Sigh.

  10. Carlos Beca says:

    David Frum – here is another name that makes my skin crawl. Not for his politics but for his lack of character. Anyway the purpose of me bugging you today is different. Here is an article worth reading

    • Carlos, thanks for the article. I found this bit particularly telling: Because first-past-the-post requires parties to draw broad support to be successful, it offers little incentive for extremist politicians to strike out on their own. Instead, these candidates infiltrate big-tent mainstream parties. And because the Canadian political parties have such malleable ideologies, their party infrastructure could easily be redirected toward legitimizing and promoting the view of an opportunistic demagogue — say, a Kellie Leitch — if one were to be elected party leader. Seems to me that’s exactly what’s happened to the PCs here in Alberta!

      • Carlos Beca says:

        That is why I posted this article. I also believe that the current system promotes more extremism that the Proportional Representation.
        Yes that is what happened in Alberta. Actually here we have the whole product 🙂
        I agree with Graham Thomson of the Edmonton Journal when he says that ‘It is a runaway clown car’

  11. david says:

    An excellent analysis to give us all the tools and confidence to stand up for ourselves, our children and our planet! indeed prevention is the best medicine and your questions about diminishing oversight and privatizing are the essence of conservative thought: ‘ What is good for business is good for all” (Altemayer)

    • David, thanks for bringing in the reference to Bob Altemayer. I note that his book The Authoritarians is available on line. What I can’t understand is why people believe that running the government as a business would be an improvement over the way it’s done now. Anyone who’s worked in the private sector can tell you what a dysfunctional place it is. CEOs are revered as gods while the company is profitable (this may or may not be as a result of their efforts) and then paid a bundle to leave when the company tanks (again it may or may not be their fault) and the process starts all over again.
      Here’s a link to The Authoritarians by Bob Altemayer:

      • carlosbeca says:

        They have been running governments like business for a while now and that is why we are doing so well.
        The US is going to push it to the extreme and we will see the results. It will be fun at first because when regulations decrease there is more economic activity but we will see after.
        If Trump does what he promised to do, the US may never recover.

  12. Carlos the convergence of those who think government should be run like a business and those who think that business (government or private sector) is the prerogative of rich white males (look at Trump’s cabinet) leads us to a scary place.
    The Globe published an article by Preston Manning in which he described his solution to avoid populist uprisings. He proposed (1) get rid of job killing ideologically driven governments (NDP), (2) ensuring would-be immigrants “share” our values, (3) refraining from contemptuously dismissing the concerns of those who feel Canada’s national identity is being jeopardized and (4) using common sense–Manning illustrates this point by saying Trudeau should not have appointed a journalist to be the Foreign Affairs minister to deal with Trump because Trump hates journalists. (Freeland is a Harvard educated Rhodes scholar who worked in Russia and New York for goodness sake).
    In essence Manning argues that the populist movement is the fault of those who treat the populists with contempt and disrespect. What he didn’t mention was the need to improve education so we can think critically and have access to good opportunities, and the need for good healthcare so we’ll be physically and mentally prepared to create better lives for ourselves.
    Here’s the link:

    • Carlos Beca says:

      Susan thank you for the link, but I have decided I would never again read anything by Preston Manning. To me it is garbage. I never understood why this guy became the right wing Oracle of political thought in Western Canada. I seriously cannot find any value in what he writes. The whole situation concerns me a bit. Now we have Mulroney singing to Trump. Gosh what comes next? Leitch proposes to Donald?
      I hope this is just a bad moment in our lives because if not we are in for a long Dark Age.
      At least on the other side of the ocean people still seem to think. The British Parliament just voted down a state visit by Donald Trump – good for them.
      By the way the last time Preston Manning gave advice to a political person it was to Daniele Smith and we all know where that went.

  13. Carlos, I don’t blame you for not wanting to read anything Preston Manning says, I do it only to get a feel for what the right is thinking; if this article is any example their thinking is as muddled as ever.
    Like you I worry about how all this will turn out. The public seems to be in favour of the PC/WR merger, which could be a problem for the NDP in the next election. On the other hand it might make the choice much simpler–vote for the fear-mongering populists or vote NDP.

    • Carlos Beca says:

      I use to do the same but I just find some of the narrative so fundamentally weird that I just do not want to waste my time anymore. I understand they may think the same about Progressive politics but the fact is that I do not have the personality to accept ideologies just because. I do not understand religion just because God said so and economics because the market is right and the invisible hand and all these concepts that the right wing seems to devour without any questions. I think the reason is that they are so used to accept the Bible literally that everything else is very easy in comparison.
      The NDP is at least keeping the province free of scandal and in a very stable mode. I like some of what they have done but they are not a social democratic party. They are a Liberal party and they should merge with the Liberals. Rachel Notley is a good premier but she is not taking the bull by the horns so to speak. My guess is that they will be done in the next election. She had a chance to make sure this province would have a much more representative Legislative Assembly but like Justin Trudeau, she likes majorities. It is very unlikely they will ever have another one in the near future.

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