National Column: PM should play his trump card

by Chantal Hebert

It is not to diminish the economic importance of the trade arrangements between Canada and the United States to note that more than the bilateral relationship between the two countries will be at stake when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds his first face-to-face meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump.

In many G7 capitals there is concern that few mainstream government leaders seem to have the ear of the incoming American president. Out of the current lot, Trudeau may be among those better placed to establish a connection. That’s not only a product of geography.

France and Germany are on the way to the polls. The upcoming exit from the European Union will consume the United Kingdom’s political class for the foreseeable future. By comparison, Trudeau is not facing an election anytime soon. He has more political capital than most of his peers. And, so far, he has not burned any bridge to Trump.

On trade, the prime minister does have an easier case to make than many of the U.S.’s trading partners. It was not out of the kindness of their hearts that previous American administrations championed the creation of a free-trade zone between the two countries. It was always a two-way street.

But if there is to be unlikely chemistry between Trudeau and Trump, it will be because of ingredients of a more personal order than the mutual interests of their governments.

Because of Trump’s adversarial relationship with the media, it is tempting but perhaps misleading to compare the new president to Stephen Harper.

There is certainly a parallel to be drawn between Harper’s efforts to sideline the parliamentary press gallery and what may be to come in the Trump administration’s dealings with the White House press corps. But the comparison should stop there. Harper may have been a control freak, but he was never a narcissist. Indeed, of the prime ministers I’ve covered (from Brian Mulroney onward), he was the least inclined to need outside validation for his decisions.

The former Conservative prime minister’s capacity to dispense with the approval of others was such that it often became a liability.

On that score, Trump sits at the other end of the affective spectrum. When it comes to hypersensitivity to the media, Mulroney and not Harper came closer to exhibiting some of the same features.

In a book published in 1987 under the title of So, What are the Boys Saying? Mulroney’s first press secretary, Michel Gratton, documented the Tory prime minister’s craving for media approval and the early traps it caused him to fall into.

Over his nine years in office, Mulroney never stopped being a news junkie. He rarely if ever felt that the reporting did justice to his accomplishments.

But he did not allow his media addiction to become such an obsession that it would have impeded his decision-making. Nor did he ever task his staff to sell the public on an “alternate” reality.

By Trump’s standards, Mulroney was a model of detachment.

Two of the new president’s biographers told the CBC in a report published over the weekend that a relentless craving for popularity was central to his persona. By all indications, extreme neediness is at the core of his rapport with the media.

How else to account for the fact that the so-called leader of the free world and his palace guard spent their very first weekend in the White House fabricating implausible lies about the size of the attendance at the inauguration?

If Trudeau is to connect with Trump, he probably should pay as much attention to those episodes as he does to his briefings on substantial Canada/U.S. files.

For the prime minister has one asset that his new White House vis-à-vis could envy and admire: his standing as an international rock star. If only because it could reflect well on his presidency, Trump might see a friendship or, at least, a cordial rapport with Trudeau as worth cultivating.

If you find it ironic that the Prime Minister’s lifelong familiarity with the celebrity circuit that so recently rendered him wilfully blind to the optics of his Aga Khan-hosted vacation – and his status as a magnet for selfies – might be as helpful in the task of establishing a connection with Trump as the Canada/U.S. expertise Trudeau has at his disposal, consider that it’s a sign of the times we live in.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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