Trudeau can survive, and possibly even thrive, in the Trumpocalypse
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can survive, and possibly even thrive, in the Trumpocalypse. But he’ll have to learn to channel more Stephen Harper. Yes, that’s right — Harper as muse. It has come to this.
Central casting could not have dreamed up two politicians more different in substance, tone and style than are U.S. president-elect Donald Trump and the current principal occupant of the Prime Minister’s Office in Ottawa. If reality were Star Wars, Trump would be General Grievous. Trudeau aspires to a Skywalker vibe.
This can obscure that the PM and his senior advisors, Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, and his trade minister, Chrystia Freeland, zeroed in on the principal fuel of the Trump revolution long before Trump rode it to the Republican nomination, and the White House.
In late 2012 and early 2013, as Trudeau and his team were casting about for an economic frame within which to position his bid to become Liberal leader and then PM, they happened upon a book newly authored by Freeland — Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-rich and the Fall of Everyone Else.
Written in a breezy, popular style, the book was an exploration of the latest research then available on the rise of income inequality, principally in the United States. Freeland’s thesis was that the growing gap between the incomes of the wealthiest one per cent, and those of ordinary working stiffs, posed a threat to the international liberal order.
She got that right, quite obviously. Exhibit A is Brexit, courtesy of a disgruntled, aging English working class. Exhibit B is Bernie Sanders, whose working-class insurgency failed to win him the Democratic nomination but hobbled Hillary Clinton in her presidential fight. Exhibit C is, of course, Trump, whose aversion to the liberal orthodoxy seems visceral and genuine. The president-elect reiterated this week that he will scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal on his first day in the Oval Office.
The U.S.-led TPP, the initial membership of which was to include Japan, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Brunei, Singapore and Canada, would have comprised 40 per cent of the world’s population, making it the largest free-trade zone every conceived.
It represented not only the deepening of an international trading system the U.S. has led and championed since 1945, but also was expressly intended by its framers to shore up a Pacific security relationship that has come under increasing pressure from Chinese territorial expansionism.
The U.S. security umbrella has itself come under attack from Trump, to the consternation of the Japanese and Taiwanese, among others. TPP was therefore the ideal symbolic target for Trump’s insular, xenophobic and regressive brand of U.S. nationalism.
To return to Trudeau: His early political speeches show he understood years ago the risk to liberalism (loosely defined as ethnic, cultural and racial pluralism and open trade) posed by the long-term decline of the U.S. working class, as manufacturing work moves offshore or is replaced by machines, and a dwindling number of professional jobs become the exclusive domain of the wealthy. Trudeau has also said for years that shoring up middle-class living standards is his principle political goal.
That’s why the emerging Canadian strategy, as TPP falls aside, will be for multiple renewed bilateral free-trade forays, beginning with Japan, India and Latin American countries. It’s also why the Trudeau government is doggedly laying the groundwork to approve the expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific, despite full-throated opposition from anti-oil activists. The Liberals have no choice but to press for greater trade, especially in resources. The alternative is a permanently lower national living standard, and increased risk of Trump’s U.S. Rust Belt revolt spreading north.
How does channelling Stephen Harper come into it?
There are two big gaps in Trudeau’s post-Trump posture
There are two big gaps in Trudeau’s post-Trump posture, that I see. First is the continuing lack of a coherent economic plan for Ontario ex-Toronto, especially in the southwestern belt that has been hammered by factory closings and job cuts — from Hamilton to London, Chatham and Sarnia. This is already a potential hot zone for anti-global populism. A finance minister with a Main Street sensibility would insert into the next federal budget a jobs plan for southwestern Ontario with specifics — something well beyond the usual blather about green and social infrastructure.
Last, but not least, is tone. Harper, for all his dourness and dullness, had an instinct for what working Canadians want to hear, and not hear, from their leaders, especially in difficult times. Hence his budgetary about-face at the height of the Great Recession in 2009, which won him the 2011 majority.
The Trudeau government’s messaging has tended to highlight the soft side of its agenda — gender equality, trans rights and the like. These are laudable policies. But beyond downtown Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal are millions of working Canadians for whom any topic beyond job, bills and paycheck now begins to sound like a frill. What is there for them in the Liberal message?
It’s a question U.S. Democrats are asking themselves, too late.