No one ever said running a government is easy. Far from it. These days, in Canada and many other countries, the task is made infinitely more difficult and perilous by the mess in Donald Trump’s Washington.
The U.S. capital has become a seething swamp ruled by conspiracy theorists, would-be power brokers and rank amateurs who haven’t the faintest idea of how to make a government work.
At their head is a president who is clearly delusional at times. He is insecure to the point of paranoia, seeing enemies where none exist. He exaggerates and lies, and he may, as some of his critics allege, be mentally unstable. He has a short attention span and an even shorter fuse. His temper tantrums are becoming the talk of Washington.
He does not trust public servants. He regards the news media as enemies, relying instead on right-wing websites or the advice of his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, a Svengali who advocates the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
No one knows whether Trump really believes that Barack Obama wiretapped his campaign headquarters in New York’s Trump Tower, or whether he made the charge to distract attention from the various investigations into alleged interference by the Soviet Union in the 2016 presidential election.
There is a sobering third possibility, raised last week by Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who tweeted, “We must accept possibility that @POTUS does not know fact from fiction, right from wrong. That wild claims are not strategic, but worse.”
How can a president who does not know right from wrong or truth from falsehood – who does not accept guidance from government experts – be trusted to deal safely with North Korea, Iran, China, Russia or the war against ISIS and international terrorism?
This uncertainty and distrust contaminates bilateral relations between the United States and its friends. The Trudeau government cannot rely on a historic special relationship with the U.S. to protect Canada from the economic nationalism, America First-ism and xenophobia of the Trump administration.
So much depends on how Trump feels as he prowls the corridors of the White House or Mar-a-Lago in the middle of the night, what he hears or half-hears on Fox News (remember the non-existent terrorist attack in Sweden?), and what the last person he speaks to suggests that he do.
Trump probably doesn’t care a hoot about the world’s longest undefended border, but he will if someone tells him it puts Americans at risk. Given his emphasis on border security, it seems inevitable that he will want something done to stop the flow of refugees, especially ones from Muslim states, across the border into Canada, or to make sure they do not slip back into the United States.
Campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, he will not tear up NAFTA – unless he decides he needs to. But to satisfy his Rust Belt base, he will feel obliged to insist on more than mere tweaks from Mexico and Canada. His ego will demand changes significant enough for him to claim that he is still the world’s greatest negotiator.
It is possible that Trump will settle down, that he will listen to reason, that he will accept the advice of people who know far more about government and global diplomacy than he does, and that he will remove the battery from his mobile phone at night.
Chances are he won’t.
Author Salman Rushdie appeared on a panel on the New Yorker magazine website last week. Panelists were asked how they envisaged the final days of the Trump administration. Impeachment was one possibility. Rushdie was worried about the spread of public protests against Trump. A state governor somewhere would call out the National Guard and the confrontation would escalate out of control.
“I fear Kent State,” Rushdie said, referring to the deaths of four students who were shot by Ohio guardsmen during a 1970 Vietnam demonstration.
Appocalytic perhaps, but not beyond possibility.