You keep wondering how the world could get worse. It gets worse. Our story begins, but doesn’t end, with the president of the United States. With the benefit of hindsight, maybe the surprise is that it took 17 months for Donald Trump to give up on Canada.
For the longest time, it was going so well, sort of. “Justin is doing a spectacular job,” Trump told reporters at the G20 summit in Hamburg only a year ago. “Everyone loves him and they love him for a reason.” On Canada Day of 2017, Trump tweeted greetings to “my newfound friend @JustinTrudeau.”
Those days are over. Leaving last month’s G7 summit in Quebec’s verdant Charlevoix region, Trump had barely escaped Canadian airspace aboard Air Force One before he started tweeting his contempt for Trudeau. “So meek and mild during our @G7 meetings,” the president wrote, “only to give a news conference after I left saying that ‘U.S. tariffs were kind of insulting,’ and he ‘will not be pushed around.’ Very dishonest & weak.”
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In the early days of the Trump presidency there were frequent news reports of heated internal White House debates over his more surprising policy choices. You don’t see those stories as often anymore. This time, Trump surrogates lined up to amplify his disdain for Canada’s head of government. Peter Navarro, an economic adviser, perceived a “special place in hell” for Trudeau.
As is so often the case with this president, the stated reason for his temper cannot have explained it. Trudeau’s remarks in Charlevoix were a near-verbatim repeat of comments he had made a week earlier on the NBC chat show Meet the Press, whose signal can normally be picked up at the White House. He drew no reaction from Trump the first time he said these things. A week later it’s an ambush?
But if it felt in June as though Canada was forced to reconsider Trump all over again, it wasn’t only because of the fight he’d picked over tariffs along his northern border. It was also the harrowing news of his decisions along the other border, the one with Mexico: a concerted policy of separating children from their parents as families crossed the border into the United States. The number of children torn from their parents had risen into the thousands before a burst of concentrated public outrage forced Trump to sign an executive order retreating, even if only in vague ways whose repercussions are still playing out.
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Even a partial retreat left him furious. The constraints of law often have. “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no judges or court cases, bring them back from where they came,” he tweeted.
It’s tempting to parse this sort of statement in its details, to say something like: Such a wish is incompatible with the rule of law, or with the constitution Trump swore an oath to defend. Judges and court cases can be convoked by any person in any law-based society who wants to test their rights against their treatment. Judges and court cases are available to Americans who find themselves in Mexico. There’s no basis for denying them to Central Americans in Texas.
Further north, in the spat with Canada, it’s tempting to say: Trump’s tantrum against Trudeau’s bland remarks was the typical reaction of a man who was raised thinking he was put on earth to do things to people. Such a man will never accept that other people might do things back at him. Trump is the kind of guy who thinks: My tariffs return justice to the universe. Yours are dishonest and weak.
As I say, it’s tempting to fall into argument, but argument that has no hope of changing anyone’s mind is pointless. And the president’s mind is increasingly settled. He isn’t interested in hearing about the rights of Central Americans in Texas, or their economic contribution. He never wanted them in and now he wants them gone. He had no particular opinion on Canada or Trudeau when he came to office. Finally, he decided Canada is a nation of parasites and Trudeau is a blowhard. He won’t change his mind back.
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Ah, but what about the elaborate network of Canada-friendly Americans Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland built, in Congress and in state houses and mayors’ offices across America? It’s increasingly useless. Trump has stopped listening.
Before Trump’s inauguration, Freeland and Trudeau’s most senior advisers, Katie Telford and Gerald Butts, met in Manhattan with senior Trump adviser Steve Bannon, Navarro and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. It helped grease the wheels for a while, but now Bannon’s out, Kushner has no discernible influence on economic policy and Navarro’s the guy who was on TV consigning Trudeau to hell.
For a year, Freeland was meeting constantly with Rex Tillerson, the oil baron who’d managed to get appointed as Trump’s secretary of state. The two co-hosted a summit meeting in Vancouver on the threat from North Korea. Then Trump fired Tillerson.
Trudeau and his staff, his ministers and provincial politicians from across the country built solid relationships with senators, congressmen and state governors on the theory that this vast network could talk the president off the ledge sometimes. Trump got tired of letting them try. The Trudeau government’s pro-Canada network was a specific object of Navarro’s scorn during the special-place-in-hell interview: “We’d have a great deal with NAFTA by now if the Canadians would spend more time at the bargaining table and less time lobbying Capitol Hill and our press and state governments here. They are simply just not playing fair.”
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So Trudeau’s big game on America was genuinely impressive while it lasted. But Trump is increasingly isolated from voices of dissent both inside his administration and out. Now he’s mostly listening to his own voices.
And his own voices tell him familiar things. Increasingly, the Trump presidency resembles the Trump candidacy: a stew of perceived victimhood, siege mentality and vengeance—which were recurring themes in the man’s life long before he entered politics.
“When I was young,” Trump wrote in 1989, “I sat in a diner with my father and witnessed two young bullies cursing and threatening a very frightened waitress. Two cops rushed in, lifted up the thugs and threw them out the door, warning them never to cause trouble again. I miss the feeling of security New York’s finest once gave to the citizens of this city.”
The man who would become the 45th U.S. president was a 43-year-old real estate developer in 1989. Trump wrote that paragraph near the end of a full-page ad he bought in several New York City newspapers after the arrest of five black teenagers for rape and assault against a woman who had been jogging in Central Park.
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The headline on Trump’s full-page ads read: “Bring back the death penalty. Bring back our police!” Which was odd, because the so-called “Central Park Five” had not been convicted of anything and had, in fact, not been charged with any capital crime.
But Trump was never interested in evidence, he has never had patience for due process, and he has never believed anyone could be more put-upon than he is. As a younger man, he used his companies to build out the apparatus of his victim complex. Now he uses the United States federal government, hesitantly at first but with increasing assurance. People who come into his country are “invaders,” and are treated as such. Trade partners are shaking America down, and he will have his revenge. Any multinational alliance must be a club whose members talk about him behind his back, and he will not let it last.
These attitudes form a coherent philosophy that finds a lot of takers in any society where somebody rises to articulate it. Stephen Miller, one of the last advisers Trump seems to trust, was probably only a little optimistic in his math when he told the New York Times: “You have one party that’s in favour of open borders, and you have one party that wants to secure the border. And all day long, the American people are going to side with the party that wants to secure the border. And not by a little bit. Not 55–45. 60–40. 70–30. 80–20. I’m talking 90–10 on that.”
The U.S.A. had a pretty good run as a country that believed in trade, immigration and the rule of law. Every living predecessor to Trump, from Jimmy Carter through both Bushes and Barack Obama, would have sided more strongly than Trump with what Canadian officials still call “the rules-based international order.” Those days may not even be over. But openness and a vigorous democracy are not where the action is these days.
And this is true not only in America, but around the world.
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Freedom House is a U.S. organization, founded in 1941 and funded mostly by the U.S. government, that advocates for democracy and human rights. Its annual Freedom in the World report attempts to provide a yearly scorecard for democracy in the world. At various points in history—after the Second World War, or after the Soviet empire collapsed in 1989-91—you might have expected such reports to become the herald of democracy’s inexorable advance around the world. But that isn’t how it’s worked out.
Freedom House’s 2016 report, which discussed global events in 2015, carried the title Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies: Global Freedom Under Pressure. The title of the 2017 report was Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy. The report noted a dangerous tipping point in what was already a well-established trend of global democratic decline: “While in past years the declines in freedom were generally concentrated among autocracies and dictatorships that simply went from bad to worse, in 2016 it was established democracies—countries rated Free in the report’s ranking system—that dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks.”
The 2018 report rings the alarm. Its title is shorter: Democracy in Crisis. “Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press and the rule of law—came under attack around the world,” the report says. “Seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.”
And, most telling of all, “the United States retreated from its traditional role as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy amid an accelerating decline in American political rights and civil liberties.”
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Right-wing populist parties made gains in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria in 2017, the report notes, actually gaining power in Austria. Poland’s new government, elected within weeks of Trudeau’s in 2015, stepped up a series of actions that mimic the tactics of Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orban, “uprooting democratic institutions and intimidating critics in civil society.” Russia and China are emboldened by the setbacks of democracy in what were some of its most reliable homelands, and have pushed their attempts to destabilize neighbours and adversaries.
“Most worrisome for the future, young people, who have little memory of the long struggles against fascism and communism, may be losing faith and interest in the democratic project,” the report says.
In this emerging 21st-century world, Trump finds himself, increasingly, on the side of the winners. Canada is pinned down in a growing number of cross-border disputes with Trump, but the game is much broader. It’s global. And there’s no reason to assume the forces that are calling democracy into question on four continents will politely stop at Canada’s borders.