Justin Trudeau Is Not the Leader of the Free World

Sorry Americans, Canada’s prime minister isn’t really standing up to Trump.

Trump Trudeau
President Donald Trump greets Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House on Feb. 13 in Washington.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

My prime minister, Justin Trudeau, enjoys a public image as the anti–Donald Trump. A young, sensitive, feminist, environmentalist with a progressive stance on marijuana; a welcoming attitude toward foreigners; and a glorious head of natural hair, he seems in every way the opposite of the U.S. president.

Trudeau’s golden personal brand dovetails beautifully with the ascendant brand of his country, and together they tell a winning story of Canada as a progressive haven, singularly evolved past the populist forces of petty nationalism and xenophobia.

Each week brings a new version of this story. It’s a tale we Canadians have been telling ourselves for decades, but now Americans are telling it to one another. For a recent cover illustration, the Economist put a maple leaf tiara on the statue of liberty. CNN contemplated whether the American dream is now in fact the Canadian dream. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times anointed Canada the new leader of the free world. Brand Canada has now made it to Broadway, with Come From Away telling a heartwarming story of Canadian selflessness on the world stage.

All this may fluff the self-esteem of needy Canadians while serving as a useful narrative for shell-shocked American liberals desperate for a positive role model. But it’s a fantasy.

The truth is that Trudeau isn’t Canada’s answer to Trump. He’s Canada’s answer to Barack Obama. Our habit isn’t to reject America. It’s to imitate you, a few years later and a few degrees milder. Just like you, we replaced a divisive old conservative (Stephen Harper) with a young, feel-good centrist in progressive clothing. Unlike you, we played it safe and went with a name-brand candidate—only in Canada could the son of a former prime minister be considered a transformational leader.

The fantasy has overtaken the facts. Take the notion that Canada has supplanted America as sanctuary soil for the world’s huddled masses. After Trump’s first travel ban was announced, PBS and others reported that Justin Trudeau had vowed to take in refugees rejected by America. This was wrong and based solely on a misleading tweet Trudeau had posted a day after Trump’s executive order had been signed:

Once the international press had moved on, Trudeau’s immigration minister quietly explained that in fact nothing would change in terms of Canada’s refugee policy: Those who seek amnesty in Canada after being refused refugee status in the U.S. will be sent back to their countries of origin, their claims unheard. As for those inspiring photos you may have seen of a smiling Mountie hoisting a refugee child over the U.S. border, subsequent pictures of that same child and her parents being immediately arrested exist, but proved less popular. Canada and the U.S. are now working together to crack down on the rising influx of desperate border crossers.

Even when Trudeau fails to spin the press, the press will do it for him. During his recent visit to the White House, a photo was snapped that seemed to depict Justin Trudeau looking down with revulsion at Trump’s extended hand. It went viral.

In reality, the moment after Trudeau gazed down at the president’s hand, he shook it vigorously, eagerly embracing Trump in many ways. His Washington visit concluded without the slightest pushback on any issue, and the two leaders quickly came to terms on the controversial Keystone XL, a pipeline that will deliver the world’s dirtiest oil from Canada’s tar sands to U.S. markets. Trudeau was even willing to sprinkle some of his progressive pixie dust onto Trump’s battered brand, working together on a hastily arranged and wholly ceremonial PR project about boosting female entrepreneurs. Hours after Trump surprised the world with a missile attack on Syria, Trudeau voiced his total support.

While America’s press celebrates Trudeau for seemingly thumbing his nose at Trump, Canadian media praises him for successfully ingratiating himself to the president, skillfully avoiding opportunities to bruise the Donald’s ego. Nervous Canadians who know their place want a smooth relationship with the giant next door, whatever the circumstances.

Yet mere submission might not be enough. Canadians tend to demand emulation, and if our copycat trend continues, the electorate will eventually choose a Canadian Trump, just as it elected a Canadian Obama. It’s a plan well underway.

Leading the polls in the current leadership race for Canada’s Conservative Party is a reality television star who cultivates the persona of an obnoxious rich businessman. Sound familiar?

Americans may know Kevin O’Leary from ABC’s Shark Tank. Canadians have a decent chance of knowing him as our next prime minister.