The 45-year-old Canadian leader appears to many in the United States as everything their president is not: Youthful, liberal, charismatic, empathetic and unquestionably handsome. Trump harangued his way to power with rhetoric that denigrated minorities and women while extolling brute strength and military might; Trudeau, a self-declared feminist, embraces refugees, apologizes for colonial injustices and defends multiculturalism. The stark contrast led me to suggest in early 2016 that Trudeau was “the anti-Trump.”
The latest was in last week's Rolling Stone, captioned: “Why can't he be our president?” The lengthy story inside didn't actually answer that question. It delved instead into how Trudeau is becoming something of a global icon, a paragon of progressive values and basic decency who dragged his Liberal Party from oblivion to the heights of power.
“A Canadian on the ground in different parts of the world, whether they're a diplomat, an aid worker or a soldier, has an extraordinary, powerful impact,” said Trudeau, exulting in his nation's soft power. “I mean, the image of Canada, the way people look at you as 'Oh, you're Canadian' — subtext 'not American' — 'but you're here to help, you're not here for oil, you're not here to tell us how to run our country.' "
He also struck a mature tone on his relationship with Trump: “Obviously, I disagree [with Trump] on a whole bunch, but Canadians expect me to accomplish two things at the same time, which is emphasize where we disagree and stand up firmly for Canadian interests ... But we also have a constructive working relationship, and me going out of my way to insult the guy or overreact or jump at everything he says [that] we might disagree with is not having a constructive relationship.” Trudeau, the piece concluded, is “now the adult in the room.”
But not unlike Trump, Trudeau used to be the kid in the room. He, too, is a scion — his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, was one of the most influential Canadian politicians of the past half-century. And he, too, has long been bashed for his dilettantish air and his penchant for showmanship over substance.
In the wake of the Rolling Stone profile, numerous Canadian commentators engaged in a fit of exasperated eye-rolling.
“Although Trudeau has proved to be a powerful public relations coup for my country, the political erotica now streaming from the southern border is embarrassing, shallow and largely misses the mark,” Alberta-based journalist Jen Gerson wrote for The Washington Post. “Trudeau is not the blue-eyed lefty Jesus, and the global affection for him — and for the progressive politics that he and this country seem to represent — presents a puerile and distorted vision of Canada and its political culture. Worse, the uncritical puffery that is passing for political journalism only makes it harder to hold the man to account.”
“Trudeau may cut an interesting figure on the global stage, contrasting with various populist demagogues and reinforcing stereotypes of Canada as the world’s goody-goody,” right-wing Canadian columnist J.J. McCullough wrote, also for The Post. “Yet it’s the luxury of foreigners to treat the politics of other countries as parable, entertainment or escapist fantasy.”
Indeed, although Trudeau remains popular in Canada, he has plenty of critics on both the right and left. In recent weeks his government has come under attack for a reported $8 million payout to Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen and former child soldier captured at the age of 15 by American troops in 2002 in Afghanistan and detained for years at Guantanamo Bay. The compensation paid to Khadr came with an apology for his ordeal and the neglect shown to him by the Conservative government that preceded Trudeau's.
The domestic uproar over the payout — largely ignored in the United States — has clouded Canada's political conversation ahead of crucial talks between Trudeau and Trump later this month over the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The prime minister has been irked by senior conservative figures who aired their grievances over the Khadr incident in right-wing U.S. media outlets ahead of the discussions.
“When I deal with the United States, I leave the domestic squabbles at home,” Trudeau said last month. “Other parties don’t seem to have that rule, but I think it’s one Canadians appreciate.”
Trudeau's sullenness could also easily be directed at the left, from where he takes routine fire on a host of issues. Those include his supposedly inadequate overtures to Canada's indigenous community, the failings of his government's refugee repatriation policies and his alleged hypocrisy on climate change.
The last issue is a particularly glaring sticking point: Although Trudeau has championed eco-friendly initiatives and hailed the importance of the Paris climate treaty, he has also energetically pursued the creation of new pipelines and insisted upon his nation's right to dredge up the estimated 173 billion barrels of oil that lie beneath Canada's tar sands.
“Canada, which represents one-half of 1 percent of the planet’s population, is claiming the right to sell the oil that will use up a third of the earth’s remaining carbon budget,” American environmental activist Bill McKibben wrote in a scathing column this year. “Trump is a creep and a danger and unpleasant to look at, but at least he’s not a stunning hypocrite.”
Of course, to many Americans bewildered and infuriated by Washington, Ottawa still seems pretty magical.
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