Why Trudeau Needs Trump

President Trump has said he likes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada “very much.” The leaders met for a meeting about Nafta at the White House in October 2017. Credit Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Trump has said he likes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada “very much.” The leaders met for a meeting about Nafta at the White House in October 2017. Credit Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

When Justin Trudeau first met Donald Trump face-to-face last February, the contrast between the Canadian prime minister and the American president couldn’t have been any sharper. Mr. Trudeau, worldly and dapper, can barely open his mouth without extolling Canada’s cheery multiculturalism or its open-border globalism. Mr. Trump lurches from thinly concealed xenophobia to America-first protectionism by way of insults and tirades.

Yet Mr. Trudeau survived their meeting and has remained in Mr. Trump’s good graces ever since. “I like the prime minister very much,” Mr. Trump told a gathering of his supporters last December. “Nice guy. Good guy.”

Mr. Trudeau’s smooth relationship with Mr. Trump hasn’t only kept the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations alive, if teetering. It is also one of the main reasons that, after just over two scandal- and gaffe-prone years as prime minister, Mr. Trudeau remains far and away the most popular political figure in this Trump-adverse country.

Canada’s obsession with Mr. Trump’s whims and overindulgences goes beyond morbid curiosity.

Despite differing views on the metric system and the occasional far-flung war, the United States and Canada have enjoyed more than 150 years of benign relations. Yet Mr. Trump’s frequent threats to scuttle Nafta are seen here as an existential threat to Canada’s economy, which sends over 75 percent of its exports to the United States.

Faced with a similar threat over trade relations nearly 50 years ago, Pierre Trudeau, Justin Trudeau’s father, who served two stretches as prime minister in the 1970s and ’80s, took an aggressive tack. In 1971, he lectured Richard Nixon about the dangers of economic protectionism. Mr. Nixon later referred to him as a “pompous egghead” and imposed import tariffs anyway.

Aware, perhaps, of this history, as well as Mr. Trump’s Nixonian temperament, Mr. Trudeau has practiced deft diplomacy. He sticks to platitudes and smiley detachment in public meetings with the president. His government is careful not to criticize Mr. Trump at home or abroad. Canadian trade missions dispatched to the United States gently remind everyone in Mr. Trump’s orbit of Nafta’s importance to the American economy.

And so far, Canada has remained on the good side of Mr. Trump and his Twitter feed, while the president’s ire is mostly directed at the other Nafta partner, Mexico.

The strategy has paid off domestically for Mr. Trudeau. Canadians appreciate that Mr. Trudeau’s policy positions and demeanor are decidedly anti-Trump. And yet, by staying in Mr. Trump’s good graces, Mr. Trudeau also avoids the pain that would come from clashing with his counterpart in the United States.

This boost has been a big help for Mr. Trudeau as his government feels the effects of middle age.

In 2015, Mr. Trudeau rose to power by promising to be friendlier, greener, more transparent and far less scandal-plagued than the previous Conservative government. Yet over the last two years his government has broken a promise to overhaul the country’s electoral system, and it botched a tax-reform plan designed to target the country’s one percent. The minister for sport and persons with disabilities resigned after allegations of sexual harassment. And last year, The Globe and Mail uncovered a scheme in which wealthy Liberal Party donors wrote checks to gain access to the prime minister.

Mr. Trudeau himself is the first sitting prime minister to break a federal law, the result of his 2016 vacation at the sumptuous private Bahamas retreat of the Aga Khan, whose organization regularly lobbies the government.

Despite it all, Mr. Trudeau has a 20-point lead over his closest rival, the Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, according to a recent poll. Other polls and analysts agree that if an election were held today, Mr. Trudeau would easily win another majority government. (The next federal election is in 2019.)

By playing nice with Mr. Trump, Mr. Trudeau has co-opted the opposition, which already suffers from weak leadership and finds itself in agreement with Mr. Trudeau’s strategy. “When it comes to our relationship with the United States, we speak with one voice,” Mr. Scheer said at an event in January.

Mr. Trudeau has a few vulnerabilities. His government has spent more than a year and considerable political capital trying to get a pipeline from Canada’s tar sands to at least one of the country’s coasts, as well as to the United States. Should ground not break on at least one of these projects before the 2019 election, he will be exposed to attacks from the Conservatives, who derive their support largely from the country’s powerful oil regions.

And an inquiry into the causes of disproportionately high rates of murder and disappearances among Canadian indigenous women, another Liberal government promise, is a mess of high-profile resignations and criticism of its efficacy.

Then there is Mr. Trudeau himself. Perky and ever-smiling, he often floats dangerously close to self-parody. It was difficult to watch the spectacle of Mr. Trudeau, his family in tow, on a recent trade mission through India, replete in traditional Indian dress, offering earnest namaste hand gestures to the many cameras following him. More serious was the invitation he extended, and then rescinded, to a Sikh separatist convicted in the attempted murder of an Indian cabinet minister in 1986.

Domestically, Mr. Trudeau’s eternal optimism would be blunted should the Nafta negotiations collapse. Even if it were prompted by Mr. Trump’s scorched-earth nationalism, a failure of Nafta would nonetheless be an enormous political liability for Mr. Trudeau’s government, and a stain on his eventual legacy.

Still, by staying true to his politics while remaining on Mr. Trump’s good side, Mr. Trudeau has earned continued support of Trump-wary Canadians. To the surprise of many Canadians, Mr. Trump has so far proved to be crucial to Mr. Trudeau’s political success.

Martin Patriquin is a columnist at iPolitics.

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