For 21 seconds on Tuesday morning, Justin Trudeau said nothing. Between the end of a reporter's question about Donald Trump and the start of the prime minister's response, there was a long, tense silence.
Anyone could have filled that silence with a stream of awful images and ideas from the last few days, and the last four years, in American life. But if it's possible for silence to say something, this one spoke to the weight of this moment and the profound challenge ahead for the United States of America — and for this country and its leadership.
After four years of vulgarity and chaos — and with a deadly virus taking lives and ravaging local economies — the United States of America is seething. Canada's second-oldest ally and largest trading partner is in turmoil. Its president has now sent federal security officers after peaceful protesters. He is threatening to deploy military personnel under powers granted to him by the Insurrection Act of 1807.
On Tuesday morning, Trudeau was asked if he would condemn the president publicly — and what message he would be sending if he didn't. The reporter finished asking the question, but Trudeau remained quiet. Twice, he opened his mouth as if he was about to say something, but no words came. Finally, he started to respond:
If Trudeau had taken the position from the start that it was one of his responsibilities to condemn Donald Trump whenever the president did something deserving of criticism, the prime minister might have found himself offering comment almost every day for the last four years.
The Trudeau government has criticized the administration's acts directly on occasion — its policy of locking children in cages, for instance. But Trudeau has said more than once that his chief responsibility is to protect the economic and social welfare of Canadians — implying that upsetting the American president could have real ramifications for Canada.
'Horror and consternation'
The risk, as many have argued, is that Trump's excesses will be normalized — though Trudeau would say that he has neither shied away from speaking about his own values, nor hesitated from criticizing Canadian politicians whose behaviour is objectionable. The flip side of worrying about normalizing Trump is the simple fact that nothing the Canadian prime minister says is likely to have any effect on the result of this fall's presidential election.
Given Trudeau's flair for public performance (at least during his first four years as prime minister), some will assume that half-minute pause was a planned bit of theatrics. In politics, it's always hard to distinguish the staged from the sincere. But even a consciously planned pause would still be a statement on the unique outrage of this moment.
But it's very possible that Trudeau genuinely was struggling to find the right words.
"We all watch in horror and consternation what's going on in the United States," Trudeau finally said.
"It is a time to pull people together. But it is a time to listen. It is a time to learn what injustices continue despite progress over years and decades. But it is a time for us as Canadians to recognize that we too have our challenges, that black Canadians and racialized Canadians face discrimination as a lived reality every single day."
The weakness of 'great' nations
So, after thinking about it for 21 seconds, the prime minister still stopped short of directly criticizing the president (though words like "horror" and "consternation" might speak volumes).
But this moment is about a lot more than whether a prime minister should criticize a president. It's also about what happens when a country can't look in the mirror and deal with what it sees.
There are those who recoil from Trudeau's willingness to acknowledge this country's shortcomings — as if a prime minister's job is to remind Canadians that they live on the greatest country on earth. But the United States — a country that has long insisted on its greatness — now might serve as an object lesson of what can happen when a country refuses to deal with its weaknesses and failures.
The American writer George Packer recently likened the United States to a "failed state." And that was before tear gas was used to clear the way for a president's photo op.
There's no way back to 2015
For other countries watching events in the U.S. with growing alarm, avoiding its fate begins with combating racism and inequality at home. Black Canadians have every reason to demand that the Trudeau government take their concerns seriously. But racism isn't our only point of vulnerability. From reconciliation to social welfare, Canada's work is incomplete.
Still, Canadians aren't mere spectators when things go wrong in American politics. Justin Trudeau's father said Canada is a mouse in bed with an elephant. In 2020, the elephant is sick. Yes, it has survived bouts of serious illness before, but it's wishful thinking to imagine that we will all wake up one morning to find that the current fever has broken and things are quickly returning to some kind of pre-2016 "normal."
Over the last four years, Canada has been forced to renegotiate NAFTA under threat of chaos, has coped with thousands of asylum seekers showing up at the southern border, has endured tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, the collapse of American leadership on climate change and attacks on the international institutions that gave this country a voice in global affairs.
Right now, the border between Canada and the United States is closed to all but essential travel, an unprecedented and economically damaging shutdown driven by the spread of COVID-19. With our American cousins struggling to fight the disease (a fight that no doubt will be made harder by the strife of recent days), it's not clear when it will be possible to safely reopen that border.
Meanwhile, Canada has had to make a special effort to ensure that vital medical supplies manufactured in the United States can get across the border to this country.
The official U.S. relationship with the world might change with a different president. The next four years might be easier for Canada as a result. But the domestic dysfunction in the United States will not be easily fixed — and the last four years show just how little can be taken for granted in American life these days.
If Trudeau's government has not been blind to the global and continental questions raised by the last four years, it's also not clear that it has found any real answers. It's no surprise that two Canadian academics recently proposed dusting off the "third option" doctrine that Pierre Trudeau's government developed in the 1970s — the last time the United States seemed to be coming apart.
That's the challenge facing Canada's leadership now — to advance a pluralistic, democratic society at a time of pandemic and climate change, while living next door to a stricken superpower.
Twenty-one seconds is enough time to begin to think about everything that confronts us now. But a full answer goes well beyond the latest outrage in the United States.