What a month. It’s been difficult to keep up with all the intelligence, immigration and politics stories and mainly because Donald Trump has given everyone plenty to write about. This is, I think, part of the problem the Trump presidency poses for the future. Trump loves the spotlight, he loves the engagement and his willingness to try and get it, or his inability to stay away from it, poses a problem because how much do we really want to devote to discussing Trump? He is the POTUS now so we can’t avoid it and what does this presidency mean for Canada? I will try and address some of the main stories that have come up in the past two weeks with this question in mind.
The “problem” or puzzle of Trump is especially apparent for America’s allies. Canada has certainly been experiencing its share of anxiety about what to do about Trump, and there have been countless stories about what Canada should or shouldn’t do when it comes to Trump. Some have even suggested that Canada needs more intelligence on the US, but not spy on them (which would be ridiculous and almost impossible given how closely connected our intelligence and security agencies are). The argument is that Canada should seek to gain more intelligence in terms of material on Trump and how he thinks and Canada’s diplomats should seek this out. Fair enough, but I have to ask: is this really the problem, i.e. that there isn’t enough about Trump out there? Anyone with a Twitter feed and tuned into security and politics stories can attest to the seemingly never-ending stories on everything Trump, every advisor of his, every move he makes, it is quite simply never-ending. I can’t help but feel that we have too much information as it is, the problem you could say lies more in the analytical end. Trump has not hidden his agenda (just go on Twitter) nor have his advisors like Steve Bannon. He certainly hasn’t hidden his temperament or his views on immigration and security. If we want to understand Trump just look to his past, specifically his childhood which would mean the 1950s. Trump has a nostalgia for a time when I think he genuinely believes America was better, the economy was humming, and the auto worker was a desired job among the working class (and dismissing the aspects that didn’t work because he didn’t experience them). Even his choice of food hearkens back to a time before anyone was sounding the alarm about heart disease and fast food. His campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” leaves one wondering when he thought it great, likely his childhood. He strikes me as the kind of person that would have viewed the civil rights movement as an unwanted and unnecessary disruption in the way the world worked from his point of view. He also continually tries to avoid being pinned down and certainly likes to play the role of the fool. My concern since he entered politics is that it’s an act, an attempt to keep people guessing and allow his agenda, allow the outrageous, to continue to become the norm. Probably the only thing we can count on is that Trump is not an experienced politician, and that his administration and staff are very unsettled at the moment and it shows. I suspect we are likely going to have a never ending supply of stories in the media trying to deconstruct Trump.
Back to the issue of Canada, so what should Canada’s strategy be? Do as you do. What else can it do? There really isn’t anything Canada can do differently as long as Canada is defending its interests and the reality is the White House, as usual, doesn’t really care all that much about Canada. So don’t give it a reason to and play it steady. Since I originally wrote this Canada’s PM will be visiting Trump this coming Monday and I don’t think I’d deviate much from what I’ve written. Trudeau has the benefit of being able to work a room and he might be able to convince Trump that he’s “one of the boys” which is very much how Trump appears to think. Where Trudeau is vulnerable (and his political opponents should recognize this) is that he has a temper when he’s challenged or perceives to be challenged and things are not going his way. His town halls have revealed this side of him even more than his election campaign debates when we saw some of that come out. He’s prone to making rash statements too, and it remains to be seen if Trump will call him out over his tweet during the travel ban or about his scolding of Fox News over its misreporting of a Moroccan attacker in the Quebec attacks (perhaps not a coincidence, border agents have been turning away Canadians of Moroccan descent that are Muslim coming from Quebec, is this related to the Fox scolding?). I interpret Trump as someone who notices these things (or his advisors might). The PM will have to do his best to contain himself if challenged. The sad reality is that over the last several decades Canada has relied on the US far too much, for everything, and the result is that Canada has to walk a tight rope at times like this.
Trump’s presidency (likely) means little will change for Canada. There has been some question over whether Trump will expect Canada to pay more of its share for NATO but if Canada said it couldn’t, what could the US really do about it? What everyone knows and no one wants to admit is that the US will never not defend Canada because the defense of Canada is essential to the defense of the United States. It simply won’t happen and everyone knows it. There’s no need to throw it in their face, and to date no one has, but the status quo is likely to remain. Canada makes up the gap by doing what it can such as helping out with special ops missions and conducting signals intelligence. The same applies for NAFTA. There’s been anxiety here too in Canada on trade but not much. There’s also been silence from some corners, and that silence is most loudly expressed from the nationalist Left of the political spectrum. Sure everyone is protesting Trump’s travel ban, and for good reason, but there is scarce mention of NAFTA and it’s because for the first time there is a leader in the White House who agrees with a platform that many Left nationalists in Canada have expressed for some time, and that is the anti-globalization, anti-free trade platform. He killed the TPP. “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows,” and it’s not just Canada where this is happening but in the US as well. Sanders Democrats in the rust-belt have had to swallow their hate for Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and travel ban because they quietly agree with his stance on NAFTA and helped elect him. It’s not an entirely unheard of situation, the Democrats in the US for decades were the party of choice for many Southern racists all while FDR implemented the New Deal for workers. Yes, with Trump we are living in strange times with alliances and opponents not so easily drawn and Trump knows it. As much as there’s hope Canada will get a better shake in a new trade deal, I wouldn’t hang much on his promises of “fair trade” coming to fruition. I also wouldn’t make much of the idea that “resistance” is working against Trump either and perceive changes in Trump’s stance to mean he is backing down on things like his travel ban or plans for CIA black prisons for torture. He may simply perceive that moving more subtly on these things would be a better approach rather than the direct approach because most people do tend to miss subtle legal changes as opposed to big executive orders. Sill, his recent change of heart on some issues likely have more to do with ensuring Congressional support. Protests would be better directed at Congress members (which is now happening) and have more affect than those directed at Trump.
What Trump’s presidency doesn’t mean is that Canada is completely free to flout moral superiority (nor should it). Canada has its own problems with racism, intolerance and a history it shouldn’t be too proud of on these issues and there’s no need to start sounding triumphant as the PM did when the travel ban came into effect (and over Twitter of all places). No one is saying Canada should compromise on anything but throwing things in people’s faces leads to a tendency to have those things come back in your face. Canada would make the biggest negative impact on Trump if it does something akin to the Liberal government’s rejection to join the Iraq War in 2003 (which Canada assisted with in its own way as we now know from WikiLeaks cables). Canada is viewed by a majority of Americans as its number 1 ally and a perceived break from the US on something like not going to war with them would likely garner a strong rebuke from Trump and a lasting grudge. It will be foreign affairs then where Canada will have to tread skillfully. I’ve been more concerned for some time that Canada has placed itself at the mercy of the US military in terms of its defense, precisely for times like these, i.e. when a leader like Trump takes the reigns of the US government, but that bed was made long ago.
In the meantime what Canada and America’s allies really need to know is what Trump’s ties are to Russia, this should be the central concern of every US ally, particularly the Five Eyes members (which are Canada, NZ, Australia, UK and US) because we share intelligence. This remains the million dollar unanswered question and Trump’s performance on Fox News where he claimed that the US is not undeserving of the reputation of being “killers” did little to help dissuade people Trump was not in Putin’s back pocket. If its one thing Trump has been consistent on, eerily consistent on, and same with Russia, it is the defense of Russia and Putin’s reputation and on the Russian end, Russia’s defending of Trump. This is the security concern where intelligence is badly needed. Let’s see what month two of Trump will bring.