TORONTO -- Politics can seem so uplifting, humane and decent when explained by the new Canadian prime minister, a 44-year-old blue-blooded boxer, former drama teacher and environmental activist named Justin Trudeau.
Spend a day in Canada with Trudeau, and you wonder how two rather similar countries -- the U.S. and its northern neighbor -- have developed such utterly different public cultures.
True, Toronto had a hate-filled drunk named Rob Ford as its mayor not too long ago, but he was the exception that proves the rule in generally open-minded, welcoming Canada.
The U.S., by contrast, has Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio competing like schoolyard bullies to see who can be more antagonistic toward the 7 billion people on the planet who are not Americans citizens.
The son of Pierre Trudeau, the legendary Quebecer who led Canada in the '60s and '70s, Trudeau exudes a confidence about his country’s role as a sober balancing wheel to the xenophobia, name-calling and perpetual war-making of its half-brother to the south.
Trudeau, a Liberal Party leader who arrives in Washington on Wednesday for a three-day state visit, wants to revive Canada’s role as a calming agent, peacekeeper and refugee haven -- a planetary social worker for the forgotten.
“The 20th century was about establishing rights,” he told a global audience of The Huffington Post on Monday in a live broadcast on Facebook and HuffPost Live. “The 21st century is about establishing the inalienable value of each person -- making sure that they can be relevant and contribute.”
As wooly as this sounds in isolation, Trudeau manages to sell his open-to-the-world theme as plain ol’ Canadian practicality: a way to connect abroad for trade and business reasons; to leverage Canada’s geography (especially now that the Arctic is melting); and to capitalize on Canada’s generally successful history of allowing a lot of leeway for ethnic identity in an immigrant-heavy, diverse population.
None of which feels like the U.S. right now, as the xenophobic and even racist rhetoric coming from Republican presidential contender Donald Trump drives down the level of discourse.
And on the eve of his first official visit to the U.S., Trudeau went considerably further than he has in the past in analyzing -- and gently critiquing -- events in America.
“If I were American I’d be asking questions right now about why is it that so many people are angry at your politics,” he told HuffPost. “Why is it that so many people are so disenfranchised with your democracy that they seem to be acting out or lashing out?"
“I’m not going to pick a fight with Donald Trump right now; I’m not going to support him either, obviously,” he added. “But I am watching very, very carefully to see this important moment in the United States -- the greatest democracy in the world -- to see how it deals with what is obviously a very real set of issues of frustration towards the body politic that we’ve seen in various iterations around the world."
Asked to further explain his friendly outsider’s diagnosis of what ails American public life, Trudeau focused on the role of money.
“One of the things that we did over the past decade was change the world of money in our politics,” Trudeau told us. “No corporate donations at all, no union donations, individuals can only give a maximum of $1,500 in a personal donation to any political party."
“That changes the entire structure around politics, and the obligations of fundraising for incumbents, and the powers of special interest groups and lobbyists," he continued. “It’s something that I know a number of American thinkers and politicians have highlighted. It might be worth looking into. When the dust settles after November -- however it settles -- a conversation around the role of campaign financing in establishing a successful democracy, I think, would be merited.”
Can you imagine anyone in the U.S. presidential campaign saying that, and saying it in that low-key, sensible, calm way?
No, you can’t. And neither can I.
The tone and the tactics of Trudeau are utterly different. Consider his reaction when I asked him why he did not denounce Vladimir Putin’s ridiculous claim that the North Pole and most of the floor of the Arctic Ocean belong to Russia.
“However much we might dislike Putin on a personal level,” he said, “that doesn’t make him automatically wrong. The science will determine whether or not. I think he’s wrong, and from what I’ve seen of the science I think he’s wrong. You can’t just disagree with someone who you disagree with because you disagree with them."
You obviously are not a practitioner of American politics, I told him.
“You mean, ‘Let’s not let facts get in the way of a good argument?’ I don’t know, we try to do that differently around here.”