National Post

Under the thumbs of the beast


It must have been fun in the higher council so four government this week. The inimitable Donald Trump was out on the firing range with his famous Twitter cannon again, and this time the practice target was Canada. The thinking in the White House was probably that it was time to give Mexico a recess.

First there was the tariff attack on our softwood lumber industry. Admirers of the great Scottish immigrant lament, the Canadian Boat- Song, were naturally quite pained. The anonymous bard of our country’s early days was steadfast in the chorus of that fine lyric that our forests were a wonder: “Our hoary woods are grand,” he repeatedly urged. ( In the innocent high schools of years past that line was a real chuckle rake. The good teaching nuns of the Presentati­on order knew that “hoary woods” was a trip mine for adolescent giggles, but they were a brave lot and read on regardless.)

Trump, perhaps immune to poetry’ s sweet song, doesn’t think our hoary woods are grand. He had his lugubrious Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, announce punishing tariffs on Canadian lumber. Canada’s lumber industry, particular­ly on the West Coast, hasn’t been having an easy time for a long time. So this was hardly pleasing.

But lumber was just the first round. Out of the Twitter chamber came the next blast: “Canada has made business for our dairy farmers in Wisconsin and other border states very difficult. We will not stand for this. Watch!” We’ve been having our own arguments and tribulatio­ns on this topic, but the Trump interventi­on radically intensifie­d matters.

Lumber and dairy in the space of 24 hours. This was quite a pelting. But the Trump Twitter feed is a self-feeding machine. Tweets for the First Twitterer multiply like amoeba. So it was just mid- week when a fresh and far more powerful volley came our way, an explosive wrapped in cotton: “We love Canada, wonderful people, wonderful country, but they have been very good about taking advantage of us through NAFTA.”

Evidently love does not conquer all, for however wonderful both we and our country are, and love be in, he announced that “in two or three days ( he) was going to terminate NAFTA.”

Trumpian diplomacy has more ricochets than a pinball machine. The NAFTA threat, in particular, tumbled all our tables. To borrow a phrase from my favourite mercantili­st, it “changed everything.” In combinatio­n with the softwood and dairy edicts it rattled the whole Canadian polity.

Did he mean it? Was it a ploy? What would it mean for the B.C. election? What for Ontario’s budget? For any Canadian budget, provincial or federal? Cancel NAFTA in two or three days, slap tariffs on lumber and dairy ( in the midst of the continuing oil slump) — in the space of 72 hours the presumptio­ns on which most of the country’s industrial and economic strategies were built and understood were scattered like ping- pong balls in a bingo machine.

In tandem with the Trump proposals on taxation reform, particular­ly in the corporate sector, what was there, solid and secure, left to plan or project upon? Toying with Yeats, our planners and consultant­s must have queried, “what rough beast slouches towards Ottawa.”

Things were falling apart with a relish. Even the famous “charm offensive” ( an unwitting oxymoron) was being rethought, i ts success deemed premature.

However — and with Trump we must always save a space for howevers — less than a day after the NAFTA eruption, after a couple of phone calls from Mexico and Canada, the clouds parted, the sun appeared, and all — well some — was back to normal.

Sayeth the Twitt Lord on Thursday: “I was all set to terminate it ( NAFTA)….. I looked forward to terminatin­g. I was going to do it.” But, for now anyway, he was going to give “negotiatio­ns a shot.”

The — let us say — originalit­y of the Trumpian approach to foreign and trade relations is already well-noted. What is perhaps less appreciate­d is how deeply contingent Canadian politics and Canadian policy are on America’s. How many of the Trudeau government’s goals and endeavours — from carbon taxes to social policy to pot legislatio­n, from taxation to defence — can withstand a radically divergent approach and substance from the administra­tion to the South?

A statesman from an older day understood this, and said so in language of diminished elegance but vigorous point: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even- tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Alter twitch to tweet and it’s fresher now than when it was first uttered.

And of course the statesman was Pierre Trudeau, 48 years ago.

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