One of President Trump’s darkest talents is his ability to identify an opponent’s delicate spot and stab it remorselessly. From his knack for condescending nicknames (Low Energy Jeb, Little Rocket Man) to inviting Bill Clinton’s various accusers to the second presidential debate, there’s no denying the man has a skill for knifing sensitive areas.
And now he has found Canada’s vulnerable flank: dairy tariffs.
Though Canada enjoys broadly free trade with the United States through the North American Free Trade Agreement, it has never been absolute, and the deal makes several concessions to Canadian protectionism and politics. Chief among them are Canada’s extraordinarily high tariffs on American dairy products, which at last week’s Group of Seven summit in Quebec, Trump correctly identified as a “270% tariff.” As the CBC reminded, “Canada levies a tariff of 270 percent on milk, 245 percent on cheese and 298 percent on butter in an effort to keep U.S. and other foreign dairy imports out.” These tariffs exist almost exclusively for the benefit of the agriculture sector of Quebec, a province with a unique stranglehold on Canadian politics.
Trump has cited these “unfair” dairy tariffs again and again in rationalizing his desire to retaliate economically against Canada, and though one can easily question the common sense of starting a mutually destructive trade war with one of the United States’ closest allies over this, it’s equally wrong to dismiss the subject of Trump’s annoyance as frivolous. The Canadians certainly don’t consider it so.
The wisdom of the dairy tariffs is a source of debate and second-guessing in Canada, and we can’t take for granted that voters will stand foursquare behind Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he insists that dairy protectionism is something he’s “100 percent” ready to defend.