Officially, the Canadian government is preparing for the potential of postelection chaos in the United States. In reality, there is not much the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be able to do about such chaos, except watch it on CNN like the rest of us.
Mr. Trudeau has answered the what-if question by saying the Canadian government will be prepared for “various eventualities,” but what else would he say?
Perhaps he could have admitted that a Canadian PM obviously has no special lever to impose calm or intervene if there’s no clear winner on election night, or if U.S. President Donald Trump and his supporters refuse to accept a defeat. At most, Mr. Trudeau could make a statement. But instead of noting that he can’t send in the Mounties or that there’s no point shutting the border, which is mostly closed anyway, he gave vague reassurances that Ottawa is keeping an eye on it.
Fitting. Keeping an eye out for potential for chaos is what Mr. Trump has brought into Canada’s most important international relationship. For Canadians, and the Canadian government, the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election is about whether the chaos will continue.
In 2020, it isn’t quite the same as it was in 2017, when Mr. Trump came to power as a completely new kind of president, one who wanted to suddenly tear up North America’s trading arrangements, or in 2018, when he explicitly threatened to wreck the Canadian economy.
The people around Mr. Trudeau in Ottawa now feel they have learned a thing or two about Mr. Trump’s unpredictability, and have a little confidence about handling it. Presumably, that includes some of the lessons learned from NAFTA threats, such as trying to divert sudden moves, waiting out presidential tweets and tantrums, and working the other people in the U.S. system – aides, congressional leaders, governors and so on – to influence him.
But given his past record, it would be misguided to assume that playbook always would work with a second-term Trump administration, and a President unconstrained by re-election calculus.
Early in his first term, Mr. Trump cooked up an idea that he would announce U.S. withdrawal from the North American free-trade agreement to mark his 100 days in office in April, 2017. Mr. Trudeau’s senior advisers, tipped off, had to pull over into a parking lot to hastily arrange a call between Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Trump.
In the end, it was Mr. Trump’s Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue who explained to the President that scrapping NAFTA suddenly, without replacing it, would hurt farmers who voted for him.
The point isn’t a dispute about trade. There are perennial disputes about trade with Canada, and they come up in almost every election, and between them, whether it is domestic Buy American policies or criticisms of NAFTA. Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s platform calls for an extensive Buy American green-infrastructure program.
It’s the way Mr. Trump conducted the dispute. It’s the chaos. It’s the things the U.S. President did that no Canadian government ever dreamed possible.
He declared Canada (and many allies) a national security threat to impose tariffs on steel in 2018. In a fit of pique at Mr. Trudeau after a Group of Seven summit that June, he threatened devastating tariffs on Canadian cars. Later that summer, he tweeted that he would cause the “ruination” of Canada’s economy.
Though the trade threats cooled after the signing of a new trade agreement, the Trumpism is still there. Earlier this year, in the first wave of a pandemic, he threatened to block the export of N95 masks to Canada. There was loose talk about sending troops to the border.
Neither of those things happened. But Mr. Trump’s unpredictability makes the Canadian government keep a butterfly net handy. It makes Ottawa reluctant to address some issues with the White House. If you wanted to ask the White House to rewrite agreements to address irregular border crossings into Quebec, for example, would Mr. Trump want predictable borders, or would he be glad migrants are leaving the U.S. for Canada? Would the White House throw a wild card into the talks?
With Mr. Trump, there was always a lot of that – just as the Canadian government can’t do much but watch and see what will happen in the U.S. after this election, it was always coping with chaos it couldn’t control. The question for Ottawa is whether there will be four more years of it.