Trudeau outboxes Trump on trade


President Trump spent the weekend picking a fight with, of all people, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. That is, Trump did Trudeau a pretty big favor (spelled ‘favour’ in Canadian English, by the way.) And he didn’t get much in return. Trump’s squabbling with Trudeau can only help the Prime Minister's flagging popularity in Canada. They’re both pretty slick at skirmishing, too: long before they became their countries’ leaders, Trump pranced about in Vince MacMahon’s WWF, and Trudeau fought a high-profile charity boxing match against a rival politician. I’m not pushing a conspiracy theory that this Twitter fight was all set up in advance (my tinfoil hat is still at the cleaners).

But both men like to play this game for domestic consumption, and both will maximize the fallout in their respective countries. Trudeau will milk this as long as possible to his benefit, and it might backfire on Trump who could use trade peace instead.


Much has been written about how President Trump is playing to a nationalistic base- I’m not going to re-hash that here. Rather, since I was born and raised in Canada, I want to start by discussing what’s going on across the world’s longest undefended border—with America’s largest trading partner.

Canadian historian Jack Granatstein literally wrote the book on Canadians’ Anti-Americanism 20 years ago. It’s called Yankee Go Home? and only half-jokingly states that anti-Americanism is Canada’s secular religion. 

In Canadian election campaigns, which are usually incredibly polite, about the worst thing a candidate can say is that his opponent is pushing policies that are American-Style-Anything. American-Style-Health-Care. American-Style-Gun-Rights. American-Style-TV-Regulation (as it sits in Canada, there are strict Canadian Content broadcasting rules). American cheese.

There might be some merit in such negativity. Part of it surely stems from jealousy re: Canada being the Little Brother in NORAD, NATO, and NAFTA. But since President Trump was elected, Canada’s view of America has declined further. You can read the Toronto Star’s summary of last year’s Pew Research poll on Canadians' view of America, specifically Trump, but here's the important part:

  • In 2015, 63% of Canadians had a favorable view of the USA; in 2017 it was 48%.
  • 62% of Canadians viewed Trump as ‘dangerous’
  • 93% of Canadians viewed Trump as ‘arrogant’

President Trump’s recent tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, all in the name of National Security, surely haven’t helped the numbers. In 2017, 37% of Canadians predicted that Canada-US relations would worsen. These tariffs are an indication of that trend.

Prime Minister Trudeau came into office oozing charisma but completely lacking experience. Governing has proven tough: there’s a pipeline fight in the West, deficits are three times what he campaigned on, and there’s growing malaise about his government’s immigration and social engineering projects. Working in what’s effectively a three-party system, Trudeau finds his centrist appeal shrinking through attacks from both the Left and Right.

So this scrap with President Trump is Trudeau’s manna from heaven. Canada no longer has snap elections at the Prime Minister’s whim, so Trudeau’s job will be to try to ride this bunfight into next year’s festivities. Trudeau might win by running on his record, but he’ll feel he can’t lose if he can run against Trump.

For President Trump, assuming he runs again in 2020 (I’m in no way convinced he will), this is more of a short-term sugar-high. Canada is America’s largest trading partner, but the 50 US states do not all trade with Canada equally. Many of the states that trade in large volumes with our ally are those states Trump desperately needs to hold if he is to win a second term—especially Florida and the Rust Belt.

Here are the states Trump won to put him over the top in 2016:

  • Michigan, by 11,00 votes
  • Wisconsin, by 23,000 votes
  • Pennsylvania, by 44,000 votes
  • Florida, by 113,000 votes from over nine million cast
  • Ohio, by 450,000 votes from over five million cast

So far, these states’ industries are what Canada is targeting with retaliatory tariffs due on July 1st (deliciously, Canada Day—their answer to the Fourth of July). 

While President Trump will be able to use his bully-pulpit to rage against Canada’s closed, quota-heavy dairy market, Trump voters in these states are going to feel real pain if they work in factories and orange orchards. A lot can change in a couple years, but as it sits President Trump doesn’t look like he’ll pick up new states in any re-election bid. That makes it essential to hold what he has.

Picking a trade fight with Canada is going to see that get a lot more difficult with such a small margin for vote slippage. Trump will discover that trade peace with Canada is more important to his political future than a happy handshake with Kim Jong Un. But he may figure that out too late.