Canada’s liberal media is mourning the imminent departure of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. For outlets like the Toronto Star, where the Washington bureau chief spends his time assiduously adding up the “false statements” that he credits to President Donald Trump on weekly basis, Tillerson was the one one bright progressive light in the dark populist firmament of Trumpian America. Tillerson was almost one of them — reasonable, corporate, gay-friendly, an unrepentant member of the Washington swamp.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does his best to appear sociable with Trump and he even bites his tongue when the Canadian media go fishing for a hostile remark. Trump is often unbelievably effusive in his praise of Trudeau, illiciting either laughter or disbelief when he remarks how great a job Justin is doing. But the politically astute can discern that this is just part of the diplomatic game, not to be confused with real beliefs or honest appraisal.
But Tillerson clearly got along well with his Canadian counterpart, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. There was a shared affection between the two that was obvious in their tone of voice and body language that the often caustic Freeland does not dispense for Trump.
In a what was billed as a major foreign policy announcement last year that turned out to be a minor rehash of Trudeau’s erratic, confused and pusillanimous world view, Freeland castigated what she perceived as Trump’s dangerous America First isolationism without once mentioning the president by name — in the same way that the increasingly tiresome Barack Obama remounts his high horse at events around the world to dismiss the current pretender to the presidency. Yet Freeland viewed Tillerson as the one rational man in a cabinet of lunatics, frequently praising his diplomatic skill and corporate values.
Climate change was another area of mutual agreement. While Trump is willing to question climate change and the extent by which it is caused or the degree to which it can be arrested by humanity, Tillerson is a true believer — not so much in the “science” of climate change but in the secular religion of climate change: with the same dogmatic fervour that is shared by every member of the Trudeau cabinet.
Tillerson journeyed to Alaska last May to join the other members of the Arctic Council that includes Canada and Russia to sign the Fairbanks Declaration: a climate change manifesto that was clearly at odds with his boss’s feelings towards the ludicrous Paris climate accord — another sacred text to the climate change fanatics.
But Tillerson was clearly always out of his step with Trump and it is a wonder that he remained the chief of the state department for as long as he did, given the dearth of commonality between he and the president. Tillerson had more in common with those other closeted liberals in the Trump adminstration — Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump — also great friends of Trudeau and his Liberal government’s progressive policies. But if you can’t choose your family members, you can select your cabinet. And Trump provided enough evidence over the last year that Tillerson wasn’t exactly meeting his expectations or achieving the desired results.
There have been other uneasy relationships between a president and his cabinet members. Abraham Lincoln was surrounded by political foes who were united in their firm belief that their boss was unfit for the high office he held. Franklin Roosevelt went through three vice-presidents that he barely knew or cared to talk to. Lyndon Johnson harboured a visceral hatred for his attorney general, Robert Kennedy, but had inherited him from brother John’s presidency. But presidents usually tolerate dissent in their midst for the sake of political expediency — because there is a good political reason to suffer the pain.
It was never clear what advantage Tillerson offered the Trump White House. No matter how hard Tillerson tried to move the administration in a less populist, more establishment, less conservative, more progressive direction Trump just kept steaming full speed ahead in his own inimitable fashion towards his own singular political objective.