What if Trump returns?

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Forewarned is Forearmed: The Bilateral Lessons from Trump One

After a balmy return to diplomatic normalcy with the Biden administration, the exercise of bracing Canada’s bilateral brain trust for a Trump Two scenario could be a useful one — in today’s probability climate, even if doesn’t win, even if he isn’t nominated, we could somehow still end up having to deal with him. Career diplomat Colin Robertson takes us down that road.


August 24, 2023

Is Canada prepared for a Trump win next year? The shock of his victory in 2016 should have taught us the value of being ready for anything.

Despite Trump’s various indictments for his flagrant attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, current polls suggest he commands a majority of future Republican primary voters. Trump dominates the news, repurposing that coverage as propaganda to peddle a persecution fable to his base, a fable endorsed by some of his Republican challengers.

With that narrative in place, Trump seems likely to win the 2024 GOP nomination.Given the apparent polarization between the two parties, a return to the Oval Office is possible.

It would not be a return to the kind of ‘regular order’ that characterizes the Biden presidency or former administrations. Nor can we assume that Trump’s authoritarian instincts would be checked by those around him the way they sometimes were last time.

Knowing now how far Trump was ready to go to keep himself in power, there is legitimate concern about the prospect of an America divided between the security of the regime and the security of the people and how Canada might respond to that dilemma.

If his first hundred days in 2017 were characterized by chaos and confusion, planning is already underway in Trumpian Republican circles to ensure a sequel is more orderly and that his administration’s appointments are ready for Senate confirmation.

Conservative think tanks and advocacy organizations, including the Claremont Institute, America First Policy Institute and the Centre for Renewing America, arealready at work in training personnel and planning policies, including the reorganization of government. The Heritage Foundation has produced the 900-page The Conservative Promise: Mandate for Leadership.

Reflecting his base’s preoccupation with economic and cultural wedge issues, the focus would be inward and Making America Great Again, again. The “America First” agenda would mean restricted immigration. Taxes might drop but the debt would rise. Judicial and other appointments would shift right. Ending “the war on fossil fuels”, ‘climate’ would be replaced by ‘energy’. ‘Diversity, equity and inclusion’ would not be part of the Trump lexicon. “Anti-wokeness” would be.

In foreign policy, bilateralism would again replace multilateralism. Trump promises to end the war in Ukraine “in 24 hours”, which many fear translates as ending it on Vladimir Putin’s terms, tacitly embracing the ‘spheres of influence’ approach favoured by Putin and Xi Jinping. We need to be considering this now, particularly what we would do about Taiwan.

Trump would require allies to pay their share on defence. We should expect more pointed questions to Canadian officials on defence spending.

On trade policy, former US Trade Representative Bob Lighthizer, who is part of the Trump transition team, wants more “strategic decoupling” from China to “change the trajectory of the relationship” and achieve reshoring.

Trump promises to end the war in Ukraine ‘in 24 hours’, which many fear translates as ending it on Vladimir Putin’s terms.

That we succeeded in ‘managing’ Trump and advancing Canada’s interests following his win in 2016 is a credit to the Trudeau government’s quick response. There was an immediate, focused and continuing outreach to get to know the emerging players and their priorities by our ambassador in Washington, David MacNaughton, and the teams at our embassy and network of consulates. It was a main topic for cabinet deliberations, a war room was created within the PMO, and, critically, the cabinet was remade.

Chrystia Freeland, who already chaired the cabinet committee on the US, replaced Stéphane Dion as foreign minister, having demonstrated competence and understanding of the American system in negotiating a resolution to the protectionist country-of-origin labelling requirement. Her parliamentary secretary, Andy Leslie, drew on his personal relationships with flag-rank American officers from his various tours of duty. I would run into him in airports travelling to places well beyond the Beltway to make the case for Canada.

The premiers and legislators from the various levels of government, whose constituents’ welfare depends on access to the US market, were encouraged to cultivate neighbouring governors. The business community has always understood the value of cultivating customers and suppliers. Our industrial unions, especially those representing our auto workers, weighed in with their American brothers and sisters.

Individually and in tandem, the various players reached out in a Team Canada effort to their counterparts to underline the mutual advantages of our trade and investment. All of these channels, which largely stood down during the bilateral normalcy of the Biden administration, should be re-activated and new channels opened.

David MacNaughton once told me, Trump is “predictable in that everything was unpredictable! You had to be ready for any eventuality.” Trump, observes the former ambassador, is “transactional” so “you have to demonstrate to him every time what’s in it for the United States.”

Whatever the provocations, the one relationship a Canadian prime minister has to get right is that with the president of the United States. It does not mean turning the other cheek. Rather, as Brian Mulroney put it: you can disagree without being disagreeable. It also means circumspection in the context of what best serves Canadian interests, including the fact that our influence internationally derives in part from what is seen as our privileged access to the Oval Office.

Donald Trump wanted to rip up NAFTA on Day 100 until Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue showed Trump a map of how farmers in the Midwest — ‘Trump country’ – would be adversely affected. Purdue, a former governor of Georgia, understood the value of Canada thanks in part to prior outreach by our consul general in Atlanta, Louise Blais.

While we don’t always realize its potential, the rest of the world thinks Canadians understand the United States better than anyone else. As one PMO aide told me, instead of Trudeau reaching out to foreign leaders in the days after the Trump election in 2016 the calls were coming in the other way. Trudeau’s peers all asked the same questions: “What just happened? What do we do now?” If Trump somehow wins, that question will be posed again. We should be working on our response now, taking advantage of our propinquity and our knowledge of American politics, media and culture.

I recently asked the visiting foreign affairs head of a NATO ally what troubled him the most: Russian victory in Ukraine, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or Donald Trump back in the White House? He didn’t miss a beat, replying: “Donald Trump…the Alliance can manage the rest but there may be no Alliance after another four years of Trump.” He reflects the feeling of most Europeans and other allies.

Trumpism goes beyond Donald Trump in its influence and impact on American policy. We must plan now. Preparation will protect Canadian interests and serve us well with our allies.

Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat, is a fellow and host of the Global Exchange podcast with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.