Opinion

If Trudeau truly wants the ear of Trump and his supporters, he should deliver his message on Fox News

Justin Trudeau appearing on NBC and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland doing the rounds on CNN will only stiffen the spines of the only people who matter right now: Trump's base.

Forget Meet the Press. The prime minister should appear on the program we know Trump watches and respects

In plotting Canada's rejoinders, Trudeau should always keep two questions in mind: in whose interest is the the president acting when he imposes things like tariffs; and to whom does the president listen? In both cases, the answer isn't the people who watch Meet the Press. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"We're going to be polite," said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his weekend interview on Meet the Press, the granddaddy of U.S. political talk shows. "But we're also not going to be pushed around."

It was a bravura performance on the topic of U.S. President Donald Trump's tariffs, and I certainly agreed with the prime minister. But there's the problem. Like most of the people watching Sunday night, I didn't need convincing. And so the appearance counts as a missed opportunity; Trudeau went on U.S. television to say all of the right things to all of the wrong people.

How can that be? Don't congressional leaders, political staffers and beltway journalists — key players in the constellation of U.S. power — watch Meet the Press? Yes, yes they do. Are they the ones egging on President Trump's economically illiterate tariff work? No, no they're not, which makes them irrelevant for Trudeau's purposes.

If Trudeau wanted to put some pressure on an unorthodox president, preaching on Meet the Press — the citadel of beltway orthodoxy — was a dead-end way to go about doing it. Trudeau could have done the so-called "full Ginsberg," hitting all five major Sunday political chat shows in one morning, and it wouldn't have mattered. Trudeau's team should have instead rung up the producers of the one program we know Trump watches and respects: Fox and Friends.

Fox and Friends hosts Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade, and Ainsley Earhardt might not be household names in Canada, but they're huge stars in the one household Canada desperately needs to reach right now: the big white one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And we know Trump watches, because every weekday morning he regurgitates their "work" on his Twitter feed.

Appearing on Trump's home turf would have convinced the president of Trudeau's seriousness and anger more than appearing on "sleepy" Chuck Todd's Meet the Press. (Fox & Friends)

Which isn't to suggest Trump would magically be convinced by Trudeau's words simply because the prime minister repeated them on his favourite program (although you never know). It's the message he hates, not the medium.

But the medium should have been Trudeau's message. Appearing on Trump's home turf would have convinced the president of Trudeau's seriousness and anger more than appearing on "sleepy" Chuck Todd's Meet the Press, which Trump regularly derides as "fake news."

Going on Fox might have impressed Trump, yes, but more importantly, going on Fox would've allowed Trudeau to access Trump's supporters. 

In plotting Canada's rejoinders, Trudeau should always keep two questions in mind: in whose interest is the the president acting when he imposes things like tariffs; and to whom does the president listen? In both cases, the answer isn't the people who watch Meet the Press. Justin Trudeau appearing on NBC and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland doing the rounds on CNN will only stiffen the spines of the only people who matter right now: Trump's base.

As long as Trump is popular with his base, he will wear the abuse of the Meet the Pressers and other "swamp"-dwellers as a badge of honour. It is only when Trump's base starts to suffer from his actions that he'll recant. Trump needs their ratings to stay at the helm of the hottest show going in global television: his presidency.

"You sell more things to us every year than to UK, Japan, and China combined," Trudeau told Todd on Meet the Press, who is well-briefed enough to know. Imagine that message going instead to the millions of Fox News-watching Todd, Dick and Harrys across the U.S. heartland.

"The fact that the president has moved forward with these tariffs is not just going to hurt Canadian jobs," Trudeau said. "It's going to hurt U.S. jobs as well." Finding one or two practical examples of how that will happen — and how U.S. consumer prices will go up as a result of the tariffs — could have made all the egghead expert talk on trade actually real for people who believe the president is guilty only of sticking it to his enemies, not making their everyday lives more expensive.

Trudeau's talk of Canadian and U.S. soldiers fighting and dying together over the years, employed as a counterweight to the president's spurious use of the national security exemption to invoke his tariffs, would also have played better to the Fox crowd than it did to the beltway cognoscenti.

Tweaking Trudeau's message

But if Trudeau ever does make an appearance in front of Trump's great unwashed, he'll need to tweak a few of his messages. Hearing that Canadian steel and aluminum is in America's military jets is as likely to provoke anger (what? we use Canadian parts to build our all-American weapons?!?) as it is to persuade.

Likewise, admitting that you have no idea what the president wants, as Trudeau did Sunday, would have been read as mastery from Trump, not cluelessness.

Trudeau would've come across as impotent and weak to a crowd that values virility, or at least the appearance thereof. The Fox crowd needs to hear about how their lives will get worse because of their man, not about his poor negotiating manners. That should always be Trudeau's message.

The long odds of convincing the Trump crowd makes it unlikely Trudeau will even try. Appearing on Meet the Press signalled the prime minister is fighting a rearguard action, not taking it to his enemy.

We'll see what U.S. media Trudeau chooses should the worst happen on NAFTA. But until the Fox crowd is given a go, we should consider any interviews by the prime minister as a safe play to the wrong audience.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Andrew MacDougall

Andrew MacDougall is a Canadian-British national based in London who writes about politics and current affairs. He was previously director of communications for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

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