How Trudeau gets along in the world of Trump: excerpt

In Swingback: Getting Along in the World with Harper and TrudeauCanadian Press reporter Mike Blanchfield documents the evolution of Canadian foreign policy under Stephen Harper and now Justin Trudeau. In this excerpt, he describes the earliest signs of Trudeau's strategy when it comes to Donald Trump.

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July 14, 2017
Trudeau Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump waves next to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, following a family photo at the G7 Summit expanded session in Taormina, Sicily, Italy May 27, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Swingback

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government have shown remarkable, if not unprecedented, discipline when talking about Donald Trump.

While other world leaders were quick to ridicule the billionaire political neophyte, especially before he won the Republican presidential nomination last year, Trudeau kept his powder dry. Trudeau maintained that he would work with whoever won the White House because getting along with the American president is crucially important to Canada’s national interest. His cabinet and caucus have also rigidly held to that view with uncanny discipline. No prominent Liberal has gone rogue and dumped on Trump.

This has paid dividends since Trump’s surprise victory in November. Though they’ve aired their differences over trade and climate change, Trump has publicly called Trudeau a “friend” and has singled out “Justin” as a leader he respects. 

In many foreign locales, Trudeau has since been branded the “anti-Trump.” And each time he has ventured abroad, he has resisted the label. A new book from longtime international affairs writer Mike Blanchfield, Swingback: Getting Along in the World with Harper and Trudeau, describes one of the first times Trudeau faced pressure on that front, on his first visit to Washington as prime minister in March 2016. Here is an excerpt. 

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11 MARCH 2016

Justin Trudeau is almost finished in Washington. The former schoolteacher is very much in his element with his shirt sleeves rolled up and his jacket doffed as he prowls the stage before a large gathering of students at American University. There’s a different elephant in the room today: Donald Trump. More than one pundit has pointed out that Obama’s bromance with Trudeau is as much about sending a message to Trump as it is about Canada-U.S. relations. The bellicose billionaire has been getting much closer to the presidency than anyone would have predicted. Among his many controversial utterances, Trump has said he wanted to build a wall between Mexico and United States and make the Mexicans pay for it. He also suggests temporarily banning Muslims from coming to the U.S.

Trudeau was first asked about the possibility of a Trump presidency during a televised town-hall meeting hosted by Maclean’s magazine back in December 2015. Trudeau replied that it is important for Canadian jobs and prosperity “to be able to have a positive relationship with whoever Americans choose as their president.” Without mentioning Trump, he added an important qualifier. “I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone that I stand firmly against the politics of division, the politics of fear, the politics of intolerance or hateful rhetoric,” he said. “If we allow politicians to succeed by scaring people, we don’t actually end up any safer. Fear doesn’t make us safer. It makes us weaker.”

During this Washington trip, many people have been trying to get Trudeau to weigh in on Trump, but so far he has resisted. Instead, he uses the opportunity to attack the Harper Conservatives. For example, when one student asks Trudeau how to prevent the rise of a Donald Trump in Canada, Trudeau replies that Canada used to have a Conservative government “that was talking about fear and division as a way of moving forward,” that had proposed a snitch lines to inform on your neighbours. “They could never quite explain why 911 wasn’t an effective line when you see mistreatment or such,” Trudeau says. “There was also real division around headscarves, a sort of tone of negativity that was very compelling and certainly gained a certain amount of traction. But I found that Canadians in any case find it hard to sustain anger and fear for very long.” He notes that Canada’s last election featured a “number of different narratives that are repeating themselves around the world,” including in Europe and in the U.S. at the moment. But “the things that unite us are always far greater than the things that divide us,” Trudeau concludes. Another student asks Trudeau how he handles “angry, hateful” people.

"If we allow politicians to succeed by scaring people, we don’t actually end up any safer."

“It’s easy to stoke anger and it’s easy to feel angry if you’re worried about your next pay cheque, you’re worried about being able to pay your rent, you’re worried that your kids are not going to have the kind of future that you would want for them,” he replies. He goes on to describe the controversy in Quebec in 2013 when the Parti Québécois introduced a bill to ban religious symbols in public places. He says it may not have seemed a bad idea at first, but it became problematic when it became apparent that it meant, for example, a young woman who chooses to wear a hijab could lose her job. He calls for a “public discourse that goes beyond knee-jerk reactions.”

He goes on to recount how he fought against the Conservative government’s law that would strip dual citizens of their citizenship if they were convicted of a terrorist offence. His government has since introduced a bill that would eventually strike that down, because it was essentially unfair. “That means someone convicted of terrorism with a dual citizenship could have a different consequence under the law than a Canadian homegrown terrorist who has Canadian citizenship and is a sixth-generation Canadian and therefore can’t have their citizenship removed at all,” he explains.

Trudeau has made his point, but he keeps on going. It’s time to vanquish the Conservatives once more, this time before an American audience. He recalls going toe to toe with Harper during the federal election’s foreign policy debate on the issue. “So I found myself in the situation on stage against the former prime minister arguing that yes, a man who he had just stripped the citizenship of, for being convicted of a terrorist act, should have his Canadian citizenship restored even though he had literally and figuratively, but perhaps even literally, ripped up his Canadian passport,” he says. 

“And yet I stand here as prime minister of Canada.” 

Applause follows. The anecdote could have easily been saved for a domestic audience. It was a blatant injection of partisan politics into international affairs, even though everything he said was interpreted as a veiled reference to the Trump camp’s emphasis on the politics of “fear and division.”

Trudeau had talked a lot about returning Canada to its foreign policy traditions. On more than one occasion he evoked the 1947 Gray Lecture by Louis St Laurent, the one in which he made a plea for bipartisan unity in foreign affairs like that embodied by the cooperation in the United States between Harry Truman, its Democrat president, and Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican senator who headed the foreign relations committee. Vandenberg invented the “water’s edge” axiom about the imperative of keeping domestic politics out of foreign policy. With many Americans questioning the role of their country in the world and “lamenting the pettiness of our political dialogue,” some argued that the “landmark partnership of Truman and Vandenberg offers a timely, inspiring, and instructive history lesson.”

After he left American University, Trudeau addressed a luncheon at the Center for American Progress, which had strong links to the Obama administration. There he once again hauled out his greatest hits of the federal election campaign – criticizing the Conservatives over the niqab issue, the barbaric cultural practices tip-line, and the citizenship law aimed at terrorists. It had been almost five months since the night of Trudeau’s decisive election victory, when he evoked Abraham Lincoln and told Canadians, “you can appeal to the better angels of our nature, and you can win while doing it.” The ghosts of Arthur Vandenberg, Harry Truman, or perhaps even Louis St Laurent might not have been impressed by Trudeau’s punchline. But it got a round of applause from his lunch crowd.

“That’s the reason I am here,” said Trudeau, “and not Stephen Harper.”