After his election, it became clear that U.S. President Donald Trump preferred to greet other political figures with an odd and aggressive gesture: in an apparent show of dominance, he would initiate a handshake, tighten his grip, and then abruptly yank the other party toward him. He did this to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, then Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, and even Vice President Mike Pence. So when Justin Trudeau visited the White House on February 13, the Canadian prime minister came prepared. Trudeau, an amateur boxer who once worked as a nightclub bouncer, braced himself, preemptively clenched Trump’s shoulder, and remained immovable as the president shook his hand. Canadians pored over slow-motion video clips of the maneuver as if it were the winning goal in the Stanley Cup final.
In Canada, the scene helped dispel the concern that Trudeau—whose campaign had summoned up a venerable slogan of his Liberal Party, with Trudeau declaring, “Sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways”—would succumb to Trump’s alpha-male aggression. Further strengthening the impression, the prime minister and his entourage were treated with respect and bonhomie during their visit to Washington. In one survey of Canadians conducted after Trudeau returned home, 92 percent of respondents said they thought he had done a “very good,” “good,” or “acceptable” job during his Washington trip. (Full disclosure: I helped produce and edit Trudeau’s 2014 memoir, for which I was compensated with a one-time lump sum.)
Canadians have always paid close attention to the state of their country’s relationship with Washington. And with good reason: 76 percent of Canadian exports go to the United States, whereas only 18 percent of U.S. exports travel in the other direction. This means that while a shutdown of continental free trade might hobble the United States, it would devastate Canada. As former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has put it (riffing on a comparison made by one of his predecessors, Pierre Trudeau, the father of Justin), “Free trade with the United States is like sleeping with an elephant. It’s terrific until the elephant twitches, and if the elephant rolls over, you are a dead man.”
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