Right now is a nice time to be Canadian. Brought up in Canada, as I was, and married to a woman so Canadian that she is both Winnipeg Icelandic and Winnipeg Jewish (you would have to be a Canadian to grasp the full glory of that combination), I have the immediate urge to praise Canada, set in motion by Justin Trudeau’s recent rebuke of Donald Trump at the G-7 summit. There, Trudeau made it plain that he and his country were not about to be bullied by the American President, not on a question of unilateral tariffs, not about anything. Trump responded with gangster-style threats and sneers, followed by more threats and sneers from his associates. Trudeau, a young man generally thought to lack the great prime-ministerial gravitas of his late father, Pierre, emerged as a statesman and a leader. On Monday, the Canadian Parliament voted its unanimous support for his statements.
Instantly and hilariously, this was recognized as Justin’s “Love Actually” moment—named for the scene in that holiday-film classic in which the British Prime Minister, played with an oddly Trudeau-like reticence and charm by Hugh Grant (O.K., how else does Grant play anything?), quietly and against the advice of his advisers, repudiates an Ugly American President, and becomes beloved by the British people. The “Love Actually” American prez, to be sure, merely combined the worst features of George W. Bush’s insularity and Bill Clinton’s lechery—the clowning cruelty of Trump being beyond the imagination of even British romantic comedies of that era.
The question worth asking is what it is in the Canadian national character, if I may call it that, that makes Canadians so ready to take on bullies? Canada has been doing this as long as there has been a Canada. The Mounties wear red coats, we were taught in school, to defy villains by their very presence. More seriously, Lester Pearson prompted Charles de Gaulle to cut short a visit to the country, in 1967, after he had insulted Canadian sovereignty. When Pierre Trudeau learned that Richard Nixon, in 1971, had called him an “asshole,” he delivered an unforgettable Canadian retort: “I’ve been called worse things by better people.” Canada also negotiated its way through a constitutional crisis of Quebec nationalism to emerge with the country reasonably, if imperfectly, elucidated by bilingualism from coast to coast, and Quebec reasonably secure within the confederation.
Famously obliging in attitude—how do you get twenty-five Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, “Please get out of the swimming pool”—Canadians are also notoriously stubborn of spirit. What gives them backbone alongside their gift for compromise, allowing them to bend equably and then snap back sharply? One might be inclined to say that it’s their national sports. Canada has two: curling, a sport in which absolutely nothing happens, slowly; and hockey, a sport in which everything happens, too quickly to follow. But there is a genuine answer to the question: it’s love, actually.
Canadian democracy is supported by some of the strongest social capital in the world, exceeded only, by most academic measures, by that of Scandinavia and New Zealand. Trust in social institutions, in the honesty of government and the solidarity of citizens, remains strong in Canada, even when its results, as with the election of Doug Ford—the smarter brother of the late Rob Ford, the onetime mayor of Toronto—to the premiership of Ontario, is not what progressive-minded people might like. Though United States now ranks below Canada, it still scored high in recent registries. But it once led the world in social capital. Can it do so again?
What do we mean by social capital? The term seems to have originated, or at least become most closely associated, with the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. His book “Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy,” published in 1993, is a study of what happened after the powerful central government in Rome “democratized,“ in 1970, transferring some power to regional governments. Putnam discovered that the existence of “intermediate institutions” was crucial: in northern Italy, where citizens participate actively in sports clubs, literary guilds, service groups, and choral societies, regional governments are “efficient in their internal operation, creative in their policy initiatives and effective in implementing those initiatives.” In southern Italy, by contrast, where patterns of civic engagement are far weaker, regional governments tend to be corrupt and inefficient.
Putnam explained this relationship between strong networks of citizen participation and positive institutional performance with “social capital.” Translated from the sociologese, this makes perfect sense. If you have experience working outside your immediate clan or cohort, you’re likelier to be able to practice democratic politics. It’s the same idea that the philosopher Jürgen Habermas captured in the phrase “the public sphere,” when he showed how essential civic life was to the Enlightenment: a government is only as strong as its cafés. The most poetic term to describe the idea that I know of comes from Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park. Olmsted is a doubly interesting liberal hero, because, although he is best known now as a kind of urban pastoralist, he was also one of the first great American journalists. In one of the first famous reports that the Times published, Olmsted compared the Southern states with those of the North and found that, for all the South’s cultural self-proclamation, it was a paralyzed, frozen society, while the North was full of activity. “Our young men are members and managers of reading rooms, public libraries, gymnasiums, game clubs, boat clubs, ball clubs, and all sorts of clubs, Bible classes, debating societies, military companies; they are planting road-side trees, or damming streams for skating ponds, or rigging diving-boards, or getting up fireworks displays, or private theatricals; they are always doing something,” he wrote. Olmsted called this orgy of sociability “commonplace civilization.”
By this measure, it was the strength of Canada’s commonplace civilization, the knowledge that a huge and hugely variegated country would find bullying unacceptable, that gave Trudeau the nerve to speak in ways that previously had been the province of escapist romantic comedy. He was, of course, speaking up practically for Canadian aluminium- and steelworkers. But the thing that sparked his countrymen’s admiration seems to be not simply his defense of their interests but his defense of the idea that there is more to politics than the rituals of domination and submission, which are the sum total of Donald Trump’s understanding of society. Trudeau is hardly a perfect politician, and in the months leading up to the G-7 he had plenty of political pratfalls and problems of his own, but the unanimity of support that his defiance achieved was a marker of renewed trust.
Beneath the days’ conflicts between Trudeau and Trump lay a deeper conflict between a society that, for all its difficulties, has a strong public sphere and a powerful sense of solidarity—and the American one, that is debased every day by its own leader. The bankruptcy of America’s social capital becomes more evident when we see it flourish elsewhere. It’s no accident that Trudeau, in addition to receiving the support of his own Parliament, has received that of what used to be called the free world. The American President, meanwhile, has found himself more at home with the brutal leaders of gangster governments. Not an accident at all. But certainly a tragedy.