Politics & Policy

What Americans Don’t Get about Justin Trudeau

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a business roundtable in Mumbai, India, February 20, 2018. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)
To a great many Canadians, the notion that his father’s dopey, silver-spoon son somehow wound up as prime minister evokes incredulity.

There are a lot of jokes in Canada about how much everyone hated Pierre Elliott Trudeau — “Canada has finally produced a leader worthy of assassination,” etc. The Canadian journalist Peter C. Newman once shared an anecdote of watching a man stubbornly attempt to force a vending machine to accept a particularly tattered dollar bill. After one failed attempt too many, he finally exploded, “GODDAMN Trudeau!” The day PET died, September 28, 2000, my favorite radio chat show featured caller after caller spitting out some form of “Good riddance,” as the host sarcastically mourned the “dearly departed.” Books could be (and have been) written about the precise reasons why the old man Trudeau was as loathed as he was; suffice it to say his unique style of imperious leftism saddled the nation with a heavy legacy whose burden was widely borne.

Pierre’s adult son, Justin, was introduced to Canada at his father’s funeral, giving a hammy eulogy (he literally began it “Friends, Romans, countrymen, . . .”) that grated like sandpaper on the radio-caller types, but the press spun it as Churchillian brilliance. It immediately became evident that a Justinian succession was going to be foisted on Canadians at some point or another, though it took Justin himself a while to clue in. After his father’s death, the dauphin spent eight years wandering the landscape as a celebrity dilettante, doing nothing in particular and exerting scant effort to brand himself as politically curious in any way. After an underwhelming entry to parliament in 2008, he was abruptly made head of the Canadian Liberals in 2013, at a time when the party was in such desperate straits it had no choice but to break glass and embrace the foretold. His first years on the job were marked by near-constant gaffes of Dan Quayleian proportion.

The best American analogy I can offer is that Justin Trudeau’s rise was like the 2016 presidential election encapsulated in a single person — the grim, monarchical “inevitability” of Hillary Clinton coupled with the “Is this seriously happening?” bizarreness of Donald Trump. To a great many Canadians, the notion that Justin Trudeau, Justin Trudeau, Pierre’s dopey, silver-spoon kid, somehow wound up as prime minister evokes an incredulity akin to those who can’t believe the host of The Apprentice now sits in the Oval Office.

Ruler of Canada since 2015, Trudeau has emerged a poster boy for what’s now called the social-justice Left, and conservatives the world over have learned to hate him as a sort of human manifestation of “safe spaces and checked privileges,” as Stephen Daisley recently summarized. I must confess I have a hard time giving him even that much credit. Like everything else in his fortunate life, Trudeau’s current identity as social-justice warrior par excellence seems like just one more thing he’s blindly stumbled into, egged on by handlers and journalists much smarter than him.

His ghostwritten memoir, Common Ground (2014), and an equally outsourced 2015 speech at McGill University — both billed as revealing windows into his worldview — offered little hint of any ambitious progressive philosophy, and instead simply rationalized standard Liberal Party boilerplate. If his pre–prime ministerial mind had any truly passionate preoccupation, it was appeasing French-Canadian nationalism — a dated, parochial concern his father nevertheless regarded as the existential purpose of Canadian politics.

In short, the most accurate read of Trudeau would posit him less a committed ideologue than a mediocre actor who hasn’t fully learned his lines (which, incidentally, also describes one of his many short-lived pre-political careers). To put it another way, despite some predictions to the contrary, the future of progressive rule probably won’t resemble Trudeau’s all that much — it’ll be far worse.

In more competent, determined hands, the postmodernist new-new-left ideology Trudeau is said to embody would present a far more aggressive threat to rights of free expression, conscience, and association than Trudeau’s often muddled and confused administration has so far pursued. (One reason we hear so much about his virtue-signaling and PR stunts is that he doesn’t seem to have much interest in actually governing.) This isn’t to say the actions his government has taken to date, such as passing laws denying right of dissent on the transgender issue, making summer-job subsidies for students conditional on their employers’ supporting “the right to access safe and legal abortions,” and shoving identity politics into places where they manifestly do not belong, such as NAFTA negotiations and assessments of natural-resource projects, have not been awful in their own way. It’s merely that the instincts inspiring such initiatives will manifest in far more sweeping, tyrannical fashion once held by a more ideologically committed and competent government.

In more competent, determined hands, the postmodernist new-new-left ideology Trudeau is said to embody would present a far more aggressive threat to rights of free expression, conscience, and association.

Such foreshadowing, incidentally, should serve as reminder of the inescapable importance of a robust system of checks and balances, particularly the oft-overlooked importance of anticipatory checks as a means of balancing the excesses of a future regime.

One of the most substantial critiques that deserves to be leveled at Trudeau’s Tory predecessor, Stephen Harper, is that he gave the matter of safeguarding the future such little evident thought. Compared with the United States, the Canadian executive enjoys sweeping, unilateral power, yet Harper failed to entrench, in any branch of government, conservatives destined to outlast his personal control of the prime minister’s office. He did not appoint conservatives to the Supreme Court, nor did he expend the political capital necessary to reform Canada’s sclerotic, appointed Senate into an elected chamber where conservatives could exercise meaningful legislative influence, even under Liberal prime ministers. As a result, Trudeau’s government today enjoys a free rein moderated only by its own amateurism.

It’s a concern to keep in mind as Americans battle for control of their own Senate later this year. Republican control of that chamber is often spoken of exclusively in the context of President Trump — will it be submissive or assertive, and so forth. Yet because senators serve six-year terms and Trump’s tenure beyond 2021 is hardly guaranteed, a strong conservative presence in the legislature provides not merely supervision for the present moment but insurance against the inevitable emergence of an American Trudeau, who, like most American things, will almost certainly prove more sophisticated and substantial than the Canadian version.

J. J. McCullough is a columnist for National Review Online and the Global Opinions section of the Washington Post.

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