Politics blog: Trudeau is on a collision course with Trump – and his own brand

It’s understandable and respectable that Canadian prime ministers have historically stayed mum when they disagree with the policies and beliefs of their American counterparts.

Standing for principle’s sake instead of finding points of agreement can lead to chilly relations, resulting in unwanted consequences on policies that affect the lives of everyday people. Add into the equation the elephant-mouse relationship that Canada has with its southern neighbour, and the fallout may be more adverse for us.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has so far embodied such a cautious position, based on the belief that the boat of good relations should not be unnecessarily rocked by incendiary words or sharp rebuttals towards the president. Such a strategy has almost always worked on the premise that when Canada isn’t affected by such American policy, it need not respond.

When asked by an audience member at a recent town hall meeting, Trudeau wouldn’t say if he thinks US president Donald Trump is a misogynist.

After Trump issued a sweeping executive order barring refugees from entering the country and restricting travel on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Trudeau affirmed his commitment to welcoming refugees—without mentioning the United States.

Trudeau said the same when asked head-on by NDP leader Thomas Mulcair to address Trump’s ban during Monday’s question period.

Certainly, the question must’ve frustrated Trudeau. It occurred less than 24 hours after a terrorist attack left six Muslim men dead in a Quebec City mosque, stunning the nation and serving as a climax in a tense week of events.

It’s now clear that the prime minister is facing a growing crunch between political pressure from a morally-outraged electorate appalled by Trump’s presidency and growing nationalism, protectionism, and digital misinformation worldwide, and the sterile necessity for good economic relations and functioning diplomacy.

The two recent anti-Muslim events seem to have intensified calls for Trudeau to make more definitive statements regarding Trump’s policies and style of governance.

Politicians across the spectrum and at all levels of Canadian government, albeit insulated from facing the same political consequences Trudeau would face if he did speak up, have blasted Trump’s Muslim travel ban.

One Ryerson University professor has suggested a tourism boycott of the United States. Novelist Linwood Barclay cancelled his American book tour, saying it would amount to patronising a golf club that excludes blacks.

On social media, some ordinary citizens are expressing increasing frustration with Trudeau’s lack of frankness, although many more were happy to see him subtweeting. There have also been calls to disavow politicians such as Kellie Leitch, who have taken points from Trump’s playbook.

But such indirect statements might run their course if Trump’s dangerous lack of regard for governmental and liberal democratic norms, and aggressive policies toward minority groups and immigrants, continue at current pace. Not to mention, it also poses an overall existential challenge for the Trudeau brand, which survives on preaching compassion, love, and optimism.

Such political pressure has only been exacerbated by collateral damage from Trump’s executive orders and their bureaucratic ineptitude.

Canadians were among those barred from entering the United States amid the chaos following the signing of the Muslim ban. Many tech companies operating on both sides of the border are concerned such restrictions will affect their supply of highly-skilled workers. Don’t forget the plentiful links between Canadian and American residents that result in much cross-border travel.

Even when the ban was being rolled out, the Canadian government was clueless as to how it affected its residents because it had not been informed of what it exactly entailed. Diplomats and other government officials are sure not to forget being left in the dark.

In these specific cases, many people were furious on social media that the Trudeau government did not use it as an opportunity to speak more harshly and precisely about the executive order’s handling. It was also incredibly insulting for many that Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer used the Quebec terrorist attack against Muslims to defend a ban on Muslims.

But all this flies in the face of Canada’s overall interests. It’s assumed that Trump, asserting his protectionist “American First” agenda, would be more retaliatory given his track record of public attacks at other countries, groups of people, and government officials in his first two weeks as president.

Canada is set to begin renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement in the coming weeks, a treaty much more crucial to our economy than the United States’. There’s also an array of security, environmental and geopolitical considerations as well.

This all seems to leave Trudeau between a rock and a hard place. He’ll need to find a way to satisfy an electorate unhappy with global developments, without compromising good relations with the United States. If Trump’s illiberal behaviour continues, sprinkled on by more nationalist populist governments in Europe, then Trudeau might have no choice than to go against the keep-your-mouth-shut principle in order to hold together his supporters and save his chances of winning the 2019 election.

He’ll have to watch out for opposition parties potentially outflanking him on the issue, or taking advantage of any political missteps. Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O’Leary has already said Trudeau is unfit to “take on Trump.”

It’s also possible that his more left-wing supporters, many of whom flocked to Trudeau after voting for NDP candidates in 2011, will be the first to abandon him if he can’t substantiate the values he embodies.

Perfecting the balancing act looks politically Herculean. But now is a chance for Trudeau to show he is a once-in-a-generation leader.

– File photo