As the Inaugural Address by the 45th President of the United States sinks in, it’s clear that the Presidency of Donald J. Trump begins with the same tone and assertiveness as his election campaign and transition period. The tone remains defiant and abrasive; his world view still pessimistic and dire. Now in office, he can enact domestic and foreign affairs policies to make real his agenda to “make America great again.” And he doesn’t appear to be wasting any time or energy in getting underway.
This is my third article on Trump since November 8, 2016, and I concede that the so-called “pivot” that some members of the pundit class have predicted (and hoped for) has not taken place. All indicators are that Mr. Trump is still Trump.
Many of us now recognize that President Trump, even in office, will continue the unconventional style (Twitter account included) that marked his campaign. His supporters refer to transformational change, the likes of which have not been seen since World War II. In his controversial Inaugural Address, Trump spoke of “carnage” with four former Presidents on the stage (Carter, Clinton, Bush, Obama) listening to the characterization of an America they led and they served. Is it just leftover rhetoric from the campaign? Was he only speaking to the 46.2% of the electorate that voted for him? Whatever the case, people in America and beyond are now taking his pronouncements as more than bluster and hyperbole.
Following through on both his rhetoric and orientation could produce the profound transformation of the economic, security and political universe that has developed since Bretton Woods from 1944 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from 1949. The worldwide women marches on January 21, 2016 indicate that as Trump stays the course of his campaign pledges, the rest of the world is now responding with concern, alarm and action. It remains to be seen if it is a temporary response, and whether and how these reactions will translate into a means to check his more extreme proposals.
We in Canada have shown interest in his campaign in never seen before ways. While Canadians were inspired by the rise to power of Barack Obama in 2008, it was more as an observer status. Today, however, we are concerned that our national interest and economic security may be at stake.
Following the Inaugural Address, one of Canada’s most prominent dailies, The Globe and Mail, editorialized about Trump’s message on protectionism and security policies by calling on Canadians to “keep calm and carry on.” In effect, the Canadian government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has essentially followed this advice of calmness and engagement. Even the opposition parties in the Canadian House of Commons have kept the so-called verbal temperature down. It is a wise policy, as we share important commercial, border, as well as security interests; dialogue is preferable to confrontation.
Newspaper accounts have revealed the existence of high-level talks between Canadian officials—including Canada’s Ambassador to the U.S., David McNaughton, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s top aides (Gerald Butts and Katie Telfor), and high-level Trump officials (including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner). At the same time, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a friend of Trump and one of the original architects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), has also been recruited by the Trudeau government as an ally to use his contacts with the new administration. In addition, Trudeau named Chrystia Freeland the new Foreign Minister—a former journalist well connected with the U.S. commercial and political establishment. Her new parliamentary secretary, Andrew Leslie, who is a former army commander and well connected with U.S. generals in the Trump entourage, has joined the Canadian-U.S. relations team.
Canadian officials rightly understand that Congress and the state governments also have a great interest in what goes on between Canada and the United States. Concentrating on the White House is not enough. Canadian provinces will likely increase their activities and presence at that level to make sure the proper messages get through.
Trump and Trudeau will also hold talks in the early months of 2017, and we can be sure that NAFTA will be uppermost in the minds of both men, along with the on-going softwood lumber dispute talks. For us in Canada, these developments and their impact will make front-page news in the weeks and months ahead.
But we are far from the only U.S. allies worried about the Trump approach. NAFTA partner Mexico has often been a target of the Trump campaign rhetoric. The announcement that the wall’s construction was underway resulted in the cancellation of a planned meeting between Trump and Peña Nieto.
NATO allies, worried by Russian jingoism in Crimea and Ukraine, depend on certainty, but Trump’s reluctance to criticize Vladimir Putin, even after the evidence pointed to Russians interference in the U.S. election, does nothing to quell their fears. Trump’s assertion about NATO being obsolete further adds to the concern. Finally, the main thrust of the Inaugural Address—America First—has allies wondering whether we are in the waning days of Pax Americana that has proven so vital to their security, stability and growth.
But here, perhaps, a note of optimistic caution is at hand. The United States remains the most stable democracy in the history of the world, is still the number one world power with the strongest economy, and continues by far to be the top military force in the world. The U.S. Constitution and its constant evolution, along with its checks and balances system, remain in force and govern American political culture. Trump’s mandate and policies, controversial as they seem to be, do not eradicate America’s constitutional democracy. Governments come and go, but America continues and endures.
American civil society is complex, and its existence, survival and capacity to push for change is not limited to the workings of Washington. States and communities have shown a powerful capacity for change and their independence from the workings of the nation’s capital.
We can be certain that despite the rancor between Trump and the press, the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment—protecting the right to the freedom of expression—will remain, and that the media, lawyers and the courts are committed to and will be actively engaged in defending it. At the same time, notwithstanding the rocky relationship between Trump and the intelligence community, the priority of America’s security will transcend any policy or personality differences. Never underestimate the power of bureaucracy.
Sure, the U.S. will suffer from more political division and polarization as Trump pursues a policy that will fundamentally transform U.S. policy. Within this mix, the two U.S. political parties will face new realities and new challenges. Democrats will need to adjust and refocus in the light of their electoral decline at the federal and state level. At the same time, they will attempt to beat back the attempts by the Republicans to repeal Obamacare, fight to protect social security and Medicare, be vigilant about women’s rights, and fight to reduce income inequalities.
The task is no easier—and may even be more difficult—for Republicans. They may control both Houses of Congress, but there is no unanimity within their ranks regarding various Trump policies, whether it is dealing with Putin, repealing and replacing Obamacare, maintaining existing trade policy, legalizing torture, or keeping the NATO alliance intact. They, too, will be in for some refocusing and possible internal turmoil.
It is more likely that America may be in for more of a heated transition than a fundamental transformation. This is why a continuation of America’s promise in concert with greater citizen engagement—as we saw last weekend—may emerge in ways we have not seen since the civil rights movement. The current sentiment aside, Americans are conscious and proud of the leadership their nation has played in the post-World War II years, and they are aware of how successive presidencies helped make and keep the U.S. the most significant superpower on the planet.
These factors must be considered by Canadian officials in our relations with the neighbor to the south. Canada and the other U.S. allies will have no choice but to deal with the Trump Administration as it begins its mandate. It is not a time to retreat. It is a time to engage, a time to initiate. It may be even be a time for opportunity. American industry will still look for new markets, and it will continue to innovate. American consumers will not stop buying goods and services from other countries.
Trump’s presidency begins, but we should never forget the hopes and dreams of America always surpass the passage of one administration.