While Americans were rendering their verdict on Donald Trump’s politics on Tuesday, Justin Trudeau was on CNN, talking about the “elephant and moose” relationship between Canada and the United States.
Canada is still “massively outweighed” in that metaphor, Trudeau told CNN interviewer Poppy Harlow, but “will stand securely in our own strength and our own approach.”
Trudeau has been talking about Canada as a moose — not a mouse, as his father once described the country — ever since last summer; around the same time that Trump-Trudeau relations started to get tense.
Although both leaders have declared they’ve moved past their disagreement, the legacy of that flame-out was evident in Trudeau’s cautious non-answers to his American interviewer.
Where once this Prime Minister might have been tempted to sharply underline his differences with Trump’s brand of populist politics, Trudeau wouldn’t take the bait this time — no pointed comments about the midterms, no backhand swipes at how Trump has been stoking up fear of immigration in recent days.
“Americans will make the choice that they need to make,” Trudeau said, noting that Canada’s long history with Quebec-referendum politics taught our citizens to appreciate the value of outsiders keeping their own opinions to themselves.
Still, in a week that marks three years since Trudeau was sworn into office and two years since Trump won his election, it’s hard not to notice how the two leaders stand sharply divided on how to handle the populist sentiments surging around the globe.
Here in Canada, Trudeau’s government was rolling out a series of anti-poverty measures on Tuesday with some fanfare — the idea being that populism has root causes that government can help fix.
Legislation has been introduced in the Commons to make an “official poverty line” in Canada, and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos used the occasion to repackage a number of previously announced programs as a “poverty reduction strategy.”
For Trudeau’s Liberals, and indeed, progressives worldwide, this is how sensible politicians handle the public discontent that simmers into populist anger. It’s a policy-heavy response, and most of it is focused on domestic economic conditions.
Is this sensible, though, or simply naive? Can a government really harness this surge of public anger with policy declarations and promises to measure the problem more effectively?
Trump’s populism, on the other hand, is a totally different beast — a rampaging elephant, you might say.
While Trudeau and other progressives see populism as a homegrown phenomenon, Trump has been blaming actors outside the United States for the rise of public discontent among Americans. Throughout the lead-up to the midterms, Trump kept the focus on migrant caravans coming up through Mexico, or bad trading partners (i.e. Canada) who have been allegedly taking the United States for granted.
It was the pressure of looming midterms, we’ll recall, that lit a fire under Trump’s bid to get Canada and Mexico signed up to a new trade deal before campaigning got under way in earnest.
Funnily enough, though, no one seemed to be seeing these midterms as a referendum on the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA.) Bloomberg published a fascinating map late last week, charting the biggest midterm issues based on an analysis of more than 3 million election ads that have been running on TV in local markets.
Overwhelmingly, the concerns were domestic: jobs, taxes and health care, with immigration and public safety, perhaps predictably, show up at the border with Mexico.
In states along the Canadian border, health care was the biggest issue in the TV ads, demonstrating maybe that this moose, with a national medicare program, does cast a bit of a shadow over the elephant.
Trudeau was telling CNN this week that Canada stands resolutely apart from the U.S. and its midterm politics, but make no mistake — his government was watching to see whether Trump’s brand of populism was going to be contained or encouraged in Tuesday’s voting.
Any kind of victory for the elephant would make a mouse — or a moose — nervous.
Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt