Tell someone they’re getting ripped off, and they’ll be inclined to believe you. It’s the kind of charge that is the milk and honey of the populist politician. As Shakespeare put it, “Where the bee sucks, there suck I.”
It’s been Donald Trump’s approach and that of many others. It’s been that of European right-wing movements. It was the Tea Party’s. In Canada, playing the victim card is the kind of thing that drove the Reform Party and the Quebec separatist movement. Conservative Maxime Bernier will ply this trade with his new Freedom Party or whatever he decides to call it. The tactic often works. People in low station like to be told it isn't their fault. It makes them feel better.
In his America-First campaign, Mr. Trump is remarkably casting Canada among the predator nations taking advantage of his so-called hard-done-by country. As Kim Campbell, our former nano-second Prime Minister, said the other day, we’ve usually been the ones complaining of neglect by the United States. It’s been a staple of our history. Anti-Americanism constituted a lengthy chapter.
Now we have a president who has turned the tables. Canadians are the villains. We’re so dastardly on trade that he’ll have to drive us into submission. We’re also, if it can be imagined, a geopolitical threat, and so he’s hammered us with steel tariffs and warnings of worse to come if we don’t buckle under. Add to this his insults, his distortions and his attacks at the G7 summit, and it can be said that no president has ever treated Canada so badly. If he keeps at it, despite his protestations about loving Canada, Donald Trump will go down as the first anti-Canadian president.
As bilateral talks on a reformed trade agreement recommence in Washington today, what makes the situation more menacing is that it’s not an act, not simply a political ploy to scare up votes. Mr. Trump is no Donny-come-lately to his beliefs about his country being taken in. He’s being saying it for decades. And although he switches directions faster than a grasshopper in other domains, when he’s had something sticking in his craw for so long, change is unlikely.
There’s an intriguing new book by Craig Unger titled House of Trump, House of Putin, which goes far back into Mr. Trump’s relations with the Russians. You find him even back in the 1980s steering well clear of criticisms of the Kremlin. You find him, while sniffing the political waters, bashing allies on trade.
In full-page newspaper ads in 1987, he wrote that, “The world is laughing at America’s politicians as we protect ships we don’t own, carrying oil we don’t need, destined for allies who won't help.” Americans, he said back then, “are tired of watching other countries ripping off the United States.” On trade he complained of being “like a whipping post for Japan. ... Look what Japan does with the cars and the subsidies they get.”
With NAFTA, the “worst trade deal ever,” Canada was added to his target list, and there it remains.
There are no other ostensible reasons for his animus toward Canada. The nut of it is that he sees the country through a single lens. He assesses the bilateral relationship on purely business terms, in dollars and cents, like a real estate transaction.
There is no coming to grips with the fact that there is no trade imbalance with Canada, with the fact that the ripped-off charge is imaginary, with the idea that the whole crisis is more Seinfeldian than real. Modernizing a trade agreement hardly had to be an apocalyptic exercise. Dairy trade, for example, is a major sticking point in the talks. Dairy accounts for a minuscule 0.12 per cent of bilateral trade of US$680-billion last year. Canada subsidizes its dairy industry, but so does Washington, which just put up a US$12-billion package to protect U.S. farmers, including dairy producers.
Other presidents had a sense of the special, almost familial relationship between Canada and the United States. They usually made Canada their first foreign visit. They usually made finely crafted speeches showing an understanding of their northern neighbour and its history.
Mr. Trump has done none of that. To him, there is no sense that the two countries, as has been said, set the standard for enlightened international relations. To him, we’re just another hunk of geography.