The Morning-After Elephant: Whom Will Canada be Sleeping (or not) Next to for the Next Four Years?

Living next to Donald Trump’s America hasn’t really been like sleeping with an elephant at all because nobody’s slept in four years. That may be about to change.

Flickr image by DonkeyHotey

Lisa Van Dusen/For The Hill Times

October 22, 2020

There is no cliché about Canada’s relationship with the United States more over-flogged than the famous Pierre Trudeau quote about how living next to America is like sleeping with an elephant. I’ve used it myself more than once—go ahead, Google it. But because it lends itself so well to Trumpification based on a number of factors—the circus, the girth, the roguery, the rampaging, the Thomas Nast GOP symbol … everything but the bed-sharing themes you really want to give a wide berth—it’s impossible to resist.

Also, because the analogy has never been more apt than in the past four years of insults, G7-sabotaging, anti-Canada demonization (I know … it’s a phrase so filled with exotic, oxymoronic wonder that it could have kept you up for hours in the days before marijuana was legalized and spoiled all the fun) and screwball claims about trade, national security, and 1814 White House torching.

As with other bilateral relationships Trump has been compelled to reduce to a reality-show trope—his “we fell in love” The Bachelor saga with cherubic North Korean despot Kim Jong-Il, his forelock-tugging Hell’s Kitchen deference to new world order superiors Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping (pre-pre-election)—his relationship with Canada has been not so much a departure from longstanding norms as a departure from real life. If living next to America is like sleeping with an elephant, living next to Trumpian America has been like sleeping with a non-metaphorical, trumpeting, bedpost-rutting, tusk-thrashing elephant. You never know what’ll happen next, so you have to maintain a perpetual crash position, with a constant, wary eye on the lunatic pachyderm next to you.

Democratic candidate and former vice-president Joe Biden, on the other hand, is more like, say, Babar—a civilized elephant leader capable of empathy who emphasizes peace, order and good government—only without the part about marrying his cousin. Biden, possessing as he clearly does an understanding of both America’s power and the power of the presidency, is the sort of elephant who would know that sleeping next to an elephant is a big ****ing deal, and would therefore err on the side of neighbourly, courteous coexistence. No tweet-trolling, no trade threats, no unprovoked charging—just a return to the nominally transactional, mutually respectful, bilateral office-spousery of the Obama years.

Biden, possessing as he clearly does an understanding of both America’s power and the power of the presidency, is the sort of elephant who would know that sleeping next to an elephant is a big ****ing deal.

The reason there’s no sane debate to be had about which elephant Canada would be better off waking up next to on Nov. 4 is that Donald Trump himself has settled the question. A president of the United States who’s a threat to the health, peace of mind, security, and quality of life of his fellow citizens can’t be good for his neighbours. Which is not to say there are no countries in the world that haven’t benefited from Trump’s presidency—they’re just not democracies that value American stability, sanity, and predictability.

So, whenever anyone asks which president would kill the Keystone pipeline or which president would build a wall between North Dakota and Manitoba, which president would revive the interminable softwood lumber dispute or threaten our Arctic sovereignty, just picture the elephant you’ve been sleeping beside.

The full, original Trudeau quote was, “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant … one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” In the past four years, the elephant hasn’t been twitching and grunting; the elephant has made twitches and grunts seem like the behavioural remnants of a pre-pandemonium Utopia.

During eight years as Barack Obama’s vice-president, there was Biden, finger-gunning away from his side of the bed border, saying coherent things in the correct order and doing his job.

The alternative is four more years of circus.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.