When Trudeau met Trump: Canadian exceptionalism, American envy
There is a photo floating around social media of Prime Minister Trudeau’s visit to the White House. In the centre stands a bloated President Trump, the wind blowing his elaborate straw mane upward, revealing where his painted-orange flesh meets what is left of his natural scalp. Next to Mr. Trump, his handsome Canadian counterpart Prime Minister Trudeau grins politely, looking like a well-aged boy-band member indulging a disgruntled fan.
It may seem petty to focus on physical appearance, but given that Mr. Trump selects his cabinet based on whether they “look the part” and has reportedly forced sexist dress codes upon his female staff, perhaps some pettiness is in order.
It was hard for Americans to look at Mr. Trudeau on Monday with anything but longing: not only to give our eyes a break from Agent Orange, but to remember what it is like to have a president who is eloquent, informed and has a grasp of the rule of law. One does not need to be a great fan of Mr. Trudeau; the fact that he is not Mr. Trump suffices for most. One can assume the Canadian Prime Minister will not promise to build a vanity wall between our countries, express enthusiasm for using nuclear weapons or garner support from white supremacists across the nation.
These are but a few differences between the leaders of the U.S. and Canada, less than one month after Mr. Trump took office.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee. For our neighbour to the north now seems one of the last bastions of statesmanship and stability in the West, as the U.S. wages an internal battle against Trumpism and right-wing extremist movements surge throughout Europe. Last week I spoke at a conference about Canadian exceptionalism at McGill University, where scholars and journalists discussed how they could avoid the fate of the U.S. and other faltering states.
Never, as an American, had I been greeted abroad with such instinctive pity, as if I’d just returned from a funeral – for democracy, perhaps, or for national dignity. Unlike in earlier eras – the 2000s, for example, when war-mongering President Bush destabilized the world – no one expressed anger over our political plight, only apprehension, like I had a contagious disease.
“How do we not end up like you?” the audience politely inquired.
Will Canada fall prey to Trumpism? No, I explained, because Trumpism was a unique and perfect storm combining immoral kleptocrats, weakened civil institutions, systemic racism, Russian meddling, the idiosyncrasies of the electoral college and a sensationalized runoff between the two most widely loathed candidates in U.S. history. Donald Trump acts as a magnet attracting the worst Americans – corporate raiders, racists, incompetents, possible traitors – who he then installs in the White House. Fortunately for Canada, this level of disaster is unique to us and difficult to replicate.
This does not mean, however, that Canada is immune from the waves of white supremacy, venomous nationalism and xenophobia sweeping the West. The U.S. election shows how quickly the political tide can turn, and how democratic processes can enable authoritarians who seek to destroy them. Simply put, there is no country that is immune from autocracy, and Canada – toward which Americans now cast envious eyes – is also vulnerable. Guard your democratic institutions, Canada. Cherish your prime minister’s willingness to serve the public, and hold him accountable. That a nation’s leader is willing to serve anyone but himself seems to us like a novelty now.
As I write this, Prime Minister Trudeau is still in the United States, where he will discuss things like women’s rights with the only U.S. president to have bragged on video about grabbing women by their genitals. I do not know whether Mr. Trudeau will have the exciting adventures of other visiting dignitaries – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dined with nuclear football selfie-takers at Trump’s Florida beach club – but I hope he returns to Canada unwilling to abet Trump’s normalization.
As the U.S. sinks in its own incompetence and depravity, Canada will face an undue burden at our expense, whether symbolically as a pillar of democracy or pragmatically as it bears the brunt of the Trump administration’s recklessness on trade and immigration.
Canada, you too deserve better than Donald Trump. In the spirit of Canadian culture, I apologize. Sorry.
Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media. This article originally appeared in The Globe & Mail.