Trump presidency turns one: Our year of living vulnerably

One year into Trump's term, what has Canada learned as it adjusts to life 'strapped to a madman?'

By: /
January 18, 2018
Illustration by Sami Chouhdary.
Stephen Marche

Novelist and contributing editor at Esquire.

A year ago, at the Canadian embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue, I saw — or perhaps witnessed would be a better word — the inauguration of Donald Trump. Traditionally, the Canadian embassy is the place to be for American presidential inaugurations, and January 20, 2017, was no different.

The global diplomatic corps showed up for a kind of once-every-four-years all-out schmooze crammed with national stereotypes. They knocked back Canadian-themed drinks (Crown Royal cocktails) and ate Canadian-themed foods (chowder and Beaver Tails) while the most important peaceful transfer of power in the world took place a few hundred yards away.

“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Trump announced, drawing a sharp inhale from the elite crowd watching on the screens in every room. “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” he continued, and the whole room slumped. A newer and stupider era in history had begun, and the smartest people in the world had no idea what to do about it.

That moment, a year ago Saturday, was an occasion of pure despair for anyone who cared about the state of international relations. Following so closely in the wake of Brexit, the inauguration of Trump seemed to presage a rollback of the global order as such. For Canada, a minuscule country destined to be at the mercy of large powers, the incipient return of might over right was particularly terrifying. But even then there was a perverse kind of hope in the chaos of the moment. The protests around the inauguration were ferocious, boiling over quickly into riots. The Women’s March, somewhere close to half a million people, followed the next day.

The question posed then remains the question now, a year later: Is Trump America? Is America Trump?

For Canada, these seemingly abstract questions are eminently urgent and practical, because they affect essential matters of foreign policy and trade. In the short term, how should we negotiate with Trump? But also, how should we negotiate with an America so divided against itself? In the long term, are the Trump years merely an interruption in an otherwise more or less wonderful relationship? Or are they the signal of collapse, the first crack of a deeper sundering?

And, as always, any change to Canada’s relationship with America changes how we think of ourselves. We have always defined ourselves against America. Now more than ever, we have to wonder what exactly that means.  

There have been narcissistic sociopaths in the White House before and there will be others in the future, too, but there has never been anyone so totally unpredictable — that is the key difference of the Trump years. Everyone who is being honest about the situation Canada faces diplomatically understands that the “very stable genius” defies strategic thinking. He can’t be managed, or even directed, by his party, by his staff, by his family or, ultimately, by himself. So no mere politician from Canada, no matter how brilliant, should be expected to “solve” Trump. It is an inherently insoluble situation.

The NAFTA renegotiations have shown that we are negotiating with a petulant child with little to no sense of reality — which is oddly comforting. It is simply impossible to gauge what the renegotiations mean, or if indeed they mean anything at all. Trump’s only real goal is to establish that he is a good negotiator in the eyes of his public; all other messages from the White House are without substance, pure noise. Add to this a healthy does of straight ADHD. Trump is so careless, he could, at any point, overturn nearly a year’s worth of talks with a single two-hundred-and-eighty-character-or-less message on social media. He has overturned his country’s foreign policy casually many times before. An errant tweet a couple of weeks ago cost the US the military allegiance of Pakistan.

Perhaps because of his essential unpredictability, which makes strategy itself less viable, the Trump presidency has brought out the best in our political class as a whole. The multi-pronged and bipartisan approach to these recent NAFTA negotiations has been one of the most well-prepared and well-executed diplomatic movements in Canadian history. Personalizing the relationship to Trump while nonetheless subverting his negotiating power has been a fine line to navigate; it has required an immense coordination of different parties and multiple levels of government and previous governments with current governments. The urgency and obvious national importance of NAFTA — 78 percent of Canadian merchandise exports go to NAFTA countries — has unified the country’s politicians in an unprecedented way. We should be collectively grateful.

"No mere politician from Canada, no matter how brilliant, should be expected to 'solve' Trump."

It has not been entirely perfect. The Conservatives offered support for the Liberal negotiations with a side crack about “virtue signalling” in September, but other than a leaked critique from Stephen Harper — in a statement made as a private citizen and not intended for public consumption — there has been more or less a joint effort. Andrew Scheer is in Washington this week, on a trip coordinated with the Trudeau government, to present a united front. And let’s remember that bipartisanship is always less rewarding for the party out of power. When the “Freeland Affair,” a pathetic attempt to besmirch the foreign minister with “revelations” of an anti-Semitic grandfather, broke in the spring, it would have been very easy for Conservatives to let the viciousness of racialized politics and Russian-sponsored fake news take a bite out of the Liberals. Instead, Tony Clement called out the “smear,” refusing to capitalize on the world’s demons even if they might have offered tempting rewards. The Conservative Party of Canada has moral strength. It has made real sacrifices that have made our country stronger.

Not that there wasn’t an underlying motive in the Conservatives’ reluctance to play to the nastiness that right-wing parties in Britain and the United States have used to rile up their bases. Seventy-two percent of Canadians disapprove of Trump. Almost every Canadian Conservative, on almost every level, is working hard to prove that they and their party are nothing like Donald Trump and the Republican Party. They are mostly succeeding.

It’s an odd turn of history, for Canadian Conservatives in particular, to have to disavow a Republican American president. For decades, the United States was like a glamorous older brother. He might be a bit of a jerk but was nonetheless much more sophisticated than we were, much more mature — a real country. Today, the United States remains like a beloved older brother, but one whose life is falling apart and who has graduated from booze to cocaine. We look on with pity and fear. 

Trump is terrifying enough, but a deeper anxiety haunts Canada’s relationship with the United States today: Is the insanity and casual cruelty of the Trump administration specific to him, or is it symptomatic of a larger instability?

To be practical about it: Will we be wrestling with a monster for four to eight years, or from now on? The United States does not seem headed towards what we might call recovery. Income inequality is spiking, and the new tax laws will see it spike even more. Health care is legitimately out of reach for a substantial share of the population. Life expectancies are in decline. Parts of the country are indistinguishable from the third world. San Francisco — with a significant portion of its population addicted to intravenous drug use and thousands of homeless children — is a dystopian future made real. And this is all when the economy is riding high. What will America be like after a crash?  

The main lesson after one year of Trump is the lesson Canada has had to learn over and over again: how vulnerable we are. We’ve always known it. But this year our vulnerability has stung more. Other countries are quickly learning to live in a world where America is intentionally subverting its own global influence. North and South Korea are sitting down to negotiate their differences without any US supervision. But we cannot separate ourselves. It doesn’t matter how many government initiatives attempt to diversify our trade. We’re stuck with America. It is an existential fact, rendered painfully obvious by recent events. If we could walk away from these maniacs, why wouldn’t we?

On the other hand, we have found, in this crisis, significant evidence of our national strength. It would even be possible, under a certain light, to look at the Trump administration as a collective opportunity. Canada’s universities have seen vast surges in enrollment of foreign students. Toronto is becoming a legitimate tech hub. America has decided, out of pure petulance, to refuse the most talented people in the world, and we are being appropriately clear about how much we want them. We have not wasted this crisis.

But America’s loss will never fully be our gain, as everyone with a heart or a brain recognizes. The ties that bind us to America are more than economic; that much has become obvious over the past year too. Our national fates are too intertwined. A year after the inauguration, we find ourselves like everybody else who wants America to succeed but fears that it won’t — strapped to a madman, waiting for the carnage to end, watching.