National Column: PM has good reason to make nice with Trump

by Paul Wells

A few thoughts about this mess.

First, if you think Donald Trump is an idiot, of course you’re not alone. But you’re also hardly the first.

Google the words “Barack Obama idiot,” without quotes. I got more than 800,000 results.

In politics, everyone exaggerates the intelligence of candidates they like and the foolishness of those they don’t. In 2008 it was routine to hear Obama dismissed as a “community organizer,” as though that was one step up from a flatline on an EEG, just as Justin Trudeau’s opponents use his stint as a supply teacher in drama class to write him off as a “drama teacher.”

Rob Ford was an idiot, George W. Bush was an idiot. I’ve read columns mocking Jason Kenney’s intelligence, which cannot have been written by people who ever met him. I used to get letters about what a fool Jean ChrÈtien was. With surprising regularity they were written by people who couldn’t spell Chretien. Here’s a tip: there’s no “a” in it.

Your best guess about an opponent’s intelligence may comfort you, but it is not useful information. Not after he wins an election. Donald Trump is going to be the president of the United States. Mocking him is not useful.

Also not useful: Blaming people who could have voted for his opponent, but didn’t. Does voting for Trump make a woman a bad feminist? Amazing fact: Millions did it anyway. For many different reasons, they define their identity and their obligations differently from the assignments a Toronto columnist might want to hand out. Incidentally, if gender dictates voting behaviour, were some women wrong to support Bernie Sanders at the start of this year? Or Barack Obama in 2008? How about Ann Coulter in 2020, or Kellie Leitch next spring for the Conservative leadership?

Democracy is a funny thing. Give people a vote and some will insist on using it. Their choices are mysterious. Your side will not always win. I’d have voted for Hillary Clinton against Obama, Sanders and Trump, and I think her defeat on Tuesday is something close to a global catastrophe, but venting is not a strategy.

I’m not sure what a good strategy is. For Canada, I suppose, it’s to hope for the best while remaining aware how bad the worst can get.

The best will not be great. Justin Trudeau followed tradition and courtesy when he telephoned Trump quickly to congratulate him and invited him to Ottawa for an early meeting. There is no point handing out the first snub. The relationship between our countries is so vast that there will be things even these two can agree on.

But Trudeau and Trump have starkly different philosophies. We’ve seen a lot of that lately: Chretien and Bush, Martin and Bush, Harper and Obama. Liberals and Republicans, or a Conservative and a Democrat.

Chalk and cheese.

Since 2001, the Canadian prime minister and the American president have come from compatible political families only briefly: Harper and Bush in 2006-2009, Trudeau and Obama this year. By the time Trudeau faces re-election in 2019, the extended estrangement at the top between our two countries will have lasted most of two decades. Canada’s most crucial bilateral relationship has never seen the likes of it.

And that’s the optimistic scenario, the one in which Trump acts like a typical Republican president, and relations remain cordial but frosty. The next-best scenario is the one in which Trump actually tries to implement his campaign agenda. Gutting or abrogating NAFTA. Attracting legions of opportunistic imitators in Washington, in Canada (imagine 60 or 80 variations on Kellie Leitch) and in every Western democracy. Provoking angry backlash politics on the left, collapsing the public consensus for much of what Trudeau wants to do.

The worst scenario? Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia in the last months of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, and Ukraine shortly before the 2014 mid-terms. Maybe those were coincidences. But Russia’s leader feels beset by three instruments of Western power: The United States, the European Union and NATO. He would like chaos in all three.

Between Trump and Brexit, he’s been enjoying a lucky streak at the very least. How to destabilize NATO?

Send a few busloads of rowdy Russian irregulars into border regions of Estonia, Latvia or Finland. That’s how the annexation of Crimea began. Dump a highly ambiguous crisis into the lap of a new president. A man who has never commanded anything, doubts NATO’s value and may owe Putin his job.

Chaos in the White House, in the heart of the European Union and in Canada’s most important military alliance would be global trouble on a scale no prime minister since Mackenzie King has faced. No wonder Trudeau is trying to make nice. The optimistic scenario will be hard enough to manage.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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