Canada-U.S. Relations: Trumpology 201

Column / Lisa Van Dusen

Among the many ways in which Donald Trump deviates from previous norms—not just of presidential behavior but of political comportment generally—is in the opacity of his motivation. Much of the time, the issue isn’t just with the manner in which he communicates his decisions but with the unfathomability of their rationales based on all conventional models of political calculation.

Part of this can be attributed to Trump’s doctrine of unpredictability, an approach to governing whereby the destabilizing and disconcerting public behavior of the leader of the free world is framed as a wily ruse adopted to fool the enemy. Also known as the “madman theory”, it was immortalized by Richard Nixon, a man who, by most measures of sanity, wasn’t always faking.

For Canada, the bilateral minefield of Trump’s personal behaviour and geopolitical damage tally might be more easily navigated by answering the question “Who’s he trying to kid?”

In other words, if he’s trying to fool the enemy, who, precisely, is the enemy?

Since the political and policy justifications for Trump’s more baffling decisions are rarely obvious beyond the frequently cited explanation that he’s “appealing to his base”—which, given the size and exotic composition of his base would only make sense in a world where he doesn’t have to rely on the actual votes of actual homo sapiens in what will presumably be a Clinton-free electoral environment to get re-elected—it may help to consider who, to put it in Trumpian terms, have been the winners and losers of his presidency.

The most obvious loser of the past nine months has been, by any objective measure, America. In partisan politics, there are always allowances to be made for the “One man’s health care system is another man’s nightmarish labyrinth of dehumanizing denials, arbitrary obstacles and potentially catastrophic out-of-pocket medical expenses” perspective factor. At the same time, any president who systematically degrades the office, uses his Twitter account as a weapon of mass destruction and conducts foreign policy like, as Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver recently put it, “A scared monkey in a submarine, randomly pushing buttons,” is, empirically speaking, BAD!

Indeed, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told CBS’s Liz Palmer in an interview following Trump’s attack on the Iran nuclear agreement that, after Trump’s serial withdrawals from multiple multilateral trade, environmental and other commitments, “Nobody else will trust any U.S. administration to engage in any long-term negotiation.”

Trump is the first president in U.S. history whose words and actions make it terribly awkward to engage with the White House in any meaningful way because, for geopolitical players of good faith, it means potentially risking not only your own country’s best interests but America’s and the world’s.

On Nafta, his behavior, including the repeated public threats to liquidate the 23-year-old continental trade deal, has essentially placed Canada in a position of having to decide whether to negotiate with a trade terrorist. It is, to say the least, a diplomatic and political challenge.

The major winners of Trump’s presidency so far have been the agglomeration of political, geopolitical and other interests who’ve found common cause in attacking democracy. Their greatest victory so far has been the discrediting of democracy by virtue of it being the system that inflicted Trump on the American people and the world.

More specifically, China, which is overtly seeking to replace America as a unipolar superpower in part to pre-empt any sparks of democracy that would threaten order, stability and the existing power structure within its own borders. China has benefited from the thwarting of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the economic advantages provided by Trump’s rewinding of Barack Obama’s clean energy policies and the revolting daily chaos being generated in a country that had presented an aspirational alternative to Beijing’s repressive and increasingly digitally weaponized relationship with its own people.

The Trump administration reflects the norms and political culture of the media-demonizing, autocratic, oligarchy-enmeshed Putin regime. Yet the beneficiaries of Trump’s chaos will be not just Russia but any regime, institution or individual who sees the accountability, oversight, openness and freedom of democracy as an existential threat. Which really makes the losers everyone else.

Lisa Van Dusen is Associate Editor of Policy Magazine and writer of our weekly digest, The Week in Policy. She was a Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, a writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.

lvandusen@policymagazine.ca