ANALYSIS: Trudeau channels his inner Reagan to send a message to Trump
The 30-minute speech named the U.S. president only twice, but each and every word was clearly meant for Donald Trump.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pitch to save the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came in the shadow of a retired Air Force One at the Ronald Reagan library in Simi Valley, Calif. Imagine that — flying all the way to California and delivering a speech to save a trade deal Trump has so widely criticized, in the library named after a man the current president so greatly admires.
That takes guts.
The location is one thing, but the speech would have to be just as bold, and at the same time non-confrontational so as not to “poke the bear” in the Oval Office. Antagonize Trump and he walks away from the table, dial back your message and you’re not defending Canada’s interests.
No easy feat.
For millennials who have no idea who former president Ronald Reagan is, allow me a quick history lesson.
Reagan was a Hollywood actor who starred in the 1940 football flick Knute Rockne All-American. In the biopic, Reagan played Notre Dame University player George Gipp who, on his deathbed, told his coach when the team is facing adversity to “win just one for the Gipper.”
The nickname stuck with Reagan all the way into his political life when the outgoing president used it at the 1988 Republican convention, imploring his eventual successor, then-candidate George H.W. Bush to “go out there and win one for the Gipper.”
For anyone old enough to remember, former president Reagan was known as a great unifier, striking consensus and bridging the chasm that is U.S. politics. His optimism was a hallmark of his presidency with the belief that American values of liberty and freedom could make the world a better place. It helped bring an end to the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
So Trudeau would have to channel his inner Reagan to convince Trump-Republicans and modern Democrats that NAFTA is not the forbidden five-letter word.
WATCH: Trudeau gives twist to Reagan quote, says ‘it can be morning in North America’
Trudeau quoted the former president several times to the roughly 800 people in attendance. None more poignant than when he used the words first uttered by Reagan in April of 1987 when he called the Canada U.S. border “a meeting place, rather than a dividing line.”
Trudeau deftly weaved Reagan’s signature optimism throughout his speech transporting Americans back to a time when their country was “great.” Reagan famously said “it’s a great day in America.” Trudeau’s twist on it and vision was “it’s a great day in North America,” to underscore his point that a new NAFTA can be a win-win-win for all three countries involved.
WATCH: PM to invoke Ronald Reagan as part of NAFTA pitch
Each Reagan reference drew applause from the bipartisan crowd of old stock Reagan-Republicans and progressive Democrats who share Trudeau’s liberal values but are weary of NAFTA. But it also seemed like all of them left with a sense of nostalgia for the America when Reagan was in the White House.
Using Reagan quotes at the library named after him in an effort to champion Canada is a Hail Mary pass.
If it fails, critics will say Trudeau didn’t do enough.
But if it works, you could say Trudeau will have “won one for the Gipper.”
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