As Trump takes over, hold on to your hats
by Bob Rae
January 19, 2017
He may be “illegitimate,” a bully, or a sneering loudmouth. He may have lost the popular vote by a wider margin than any other electoral college winner in the history of the republic. But Donald Trump will be sworn in as 45th president of the United States on Friday and Americans and the rest of the world are going to need to figure out how to deal with this reality.
How difficult that will be is reflected by the news of the last week. The salacious story that got all the attention was actually a diversion from Trump’s comments about Angela Merkel, the EU, NATO, Brexit, and his continuing admiration for Vladimir Putin, to say nothing of his continuing threats against companies investing outside the United States (which includes us).
The country that had been at the centre of the creation the postwar institutional order has not just gone wobbly. The president of the United States is now attacking the European Union and its leadership, NATO, trading relationships that date back to the formation of the GATT in 1947, with nothing to replace any of this except bluster, narrow protectionism, and a bizarre infatuation with the Kleptocrat of All Kleptocrats, Putin.
There are many who continue to believe that the way to handle all this is simply to carry on as if it’s business as usual. “Normalize the Donald.” Many of Trump’s domestic opponents tried this strategy, and to little effect. It should now be clear to the entire Western alliance that no one is safe from the president’s attacks. To those who say “his bark may be worse than his bite,” remember that in politics the bark can actually be the bite, that speech itself is a form of action, and that the president has to be taken at his word.
This is not an argument for confrontation for its own sake. But unless the president adopts a very different stance and attitude, a bitter and divisive debate within the Western alliance on trade and security issues is inevitable. In particular, a punitive, unilaterally imposed tariff on companies that choose to invest in other countries (like Canada) is illegal under international trade law, to say nothing of NAFTA and the FTA.
Within his own country there will be another, equally intense, debate and there is no need for the rest of us to weigh in on that, except to note in this day of instant communication, that it is really happening, and that a president with an unprecedented negative approval rating on Day One and with opponents right across the political spectrum, has more challenges than he’s prepared to admit.
Someone who can enrage the intelligence establishment and the entire black community in a single day, perhaps even in a single tweet, has a rare, but not necessarily commendable, political talent.
Every country has the right to choose its own leaders, and America’s friends and neighbours need to accept the reality that Donald Trump is indeed president. But we do not have to pretend that we “share his values” or remain silent when he attacks a fellow NAFTA member like Mexico.
We should have learned by now that hoping the bully will stay angry with someone else and therefore leave us alone is not just cowardly, it is short-sighted. Don’t believe for an instant there is any reward for leaving an apple on this teacher’s desk.
It will take considered, reasoned, and co-ordinated action from America’s allies to persuade the U.S. political leadership that weakening the alliance, destroying trade agreements and undermining other political leaders threaten both prosperity and security, and that the United States will pay a heavy price for the Trump agenda as currently expounded by the president.
There is another challenge that Canada will face. If the Republicans are able to agree on a tax plan, and this becomes law, we shall need to deal with the challenge that such a move will pose. Companies will be moved by the carrot of lower taxes as well as by the stick of President Trump’s rhetoric and threat of tariff retaliation.
Already the bank economists are preaching for more Canadian tax cuts to fight potential disinvestment. But can we really have an effective social justice and environmental agenda if all we do is mimic the American tax system? This will dominate our own debate in the time ahead, which will only intensify once the Conservatives and New Democrats have chosen their new leaders.
Bob Rae is a partner at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP and teaches at the University of Toronto.