On October 19th, 2015, Canada’s historically dominant political party was returned to power, almost exactly reestablishing the dynamic that had reigned the country throughout most of the 20th century. The relative banality of this event was belied by the positively rapturous commentary that ensued in the weeks and months that followed. Historic! Stunning! A new dawn! Canada. Is. Back. So laden with inaccuracies, hyperbole, and unrestrained gushing was Trudeau’s media reception at home and abroad that any casual observer could have been forgiven for thinking the country had undergone a seismic political transformation and elected radical new leadership rather than the son of a former Prime Minister at the head of an inveterately centrist brokerage party.
“Canada lurches to the left” proclaimed David Frum in The Atlantic, equating Trudeau with the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. The UK’s Express called him “Canada’s new leftwing PM.” Trudeau’s pledge to run modest budget deficits even earned him an “anti-austerity” label, and The Independent’s Hannah Fearn declared that his government was “shaping up to be one of the most ambitious liberal premierships in modern history.”
Trudeau-themed clickbait burst forth in a mighty stream, with a sickly and unrelenting deluge of schmaltzy profiles of the new Dauphine of Davos. Trudeau’s particular brand of social media harlotry quickly took the internet by storm thanks to a series of Candid™ moments showcasing the adorkable statesman in Star Wars regalia, Spontaneously™ “photobombing” weddings, and Accidentally™ losing his shirt in all kinds of places where professional photographers were readily available to immortalize the mishap. Social media swooned at his yoga poses and his variety of colorful themed socks. Even in an age where grown adults earnestly debate Hodor’s stance on the minimum wage and wonder aloud whether Dumbledore would have backed Brexit, the resulting headlines seemed a burlesque satire of the internet at its most embarrassing:
One could almost forget that Trudeau has “politics” at all, or that prime ministers are officials who wield considerable power over the lives of human beings.
It is impossible to understand the Trudeau phenomenon independently of the national and international contexts that produced it. Like any brand or commodity, it has grown by appealing to people’s tastes and capitalizing on their desires. Canada had experienced almost ten years of right wing rule under the iron hand of authoritarian hockey dad Stephen Harper. As in America after two terms of Bush, there was a genuine hunger for change—any change—and an inclination to give anyone peddling it, whoever they turned out to be, a warm reception and the subsequent benefit of the doubt. (For a variety of reasons, the social democratic NDP was unable to capitalize on this feeling and blew an early election lead to the Liberals.)
Internationally, the current of liberalism Trudeau represents—one closely aligned with senior figures in the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party—finds itself uniquely challenged from both the left and right. As such, some have clearly found comfort in the idea that good old-fashioned liberal reformism is thriving north of the 49th parallel, standing defiant against the fascistic carnival of Trumpism (a recent cover of Rolling Stone, boasting a beaming portrait of Trudeau, asked: “Why can’t he be our president?”). To global elites, Trudeau’s success is reassurance that the disastrous order they’ve spent the past several decades presiding over has life in it yet and can be salvaged from oblivion, one superficial gesture or viral video at a time. To many ordinary people, particularly in the liberally-minded middle classes, he offers up a comforting image of rational, well-intentioned, progressive leadership.
Of course, like many a painstakingly branded product, the reality of Trudeau is altogether different from the account that appears on the label or company website. Nearly two years on from his election, some have begun to seize upon Trudeau’s broken promises. And certainly, there have been many. There was the pledge to end Canada’s combat mission in Iraq and Syria—a mission that was almost immediately expanded and continues to involve a conspicuous amount of fighting. Or the explicit commitment that 2015 would mark the last election under the country’s anachronistic, 19th-century voting system, cynically abandoned when it became clear neither experts nor public opinion aligned with Trudeau’s personal preferences.
Then there was the promise to implement “fully [and] without qualification” the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples such that, among other things, indigenous First Nations would have full veto over natural resource development in their territories. Not only has Trudeau’s government since approved two major pipeline projects, but it almost immediately walked back its commitment to implementing the declaration, glibly dismissing it as “unworkable” and stating that it wouldn’t be adopted into Canadian law after all. Equally repugnant is the $15 billion arms deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, vigorously opposed by the Liberals while they were in opposition, before they implemented it in government as part of a plan to make Canada a major player in the Middle East arms export market.
Pushing all the right rhetorical buttons, Trudeau generated tremendous buzz by promising to raise taxes on “the 1%” (while cutting them for the “middle class”) and run deficits to pay for unspecified “social infrastructure.” While liberal commentators gushed about this supposedly radical break from economic orthodoxy, conservative pundits warned of a return to the bad old days of tax-and-spend activist government—thus continuing a familiar trend in which both wings of the commentariat (there continues to be a dearth of genuinely leftist media in Canada) symbiotically reinforce Liberal messaging. Upon delivery, as it turned out, the much-heralded deficit spending became in effect a massive shouldering of risk by the public to mostly private gain and the tax plan a costly giveaway to the top 10% of earners. Far, then, from resurrecting Keynes or channeling Occupy Wall Street, Trudeau offered a harmless, focus-grouped populism that carefully avoided alienating the interests of corporations and the well-off.
The cycle has since repeated itself. In a speech to an elite audience at the St. Matthew’s Day Banquet in Hamburg earlier this year, Trudeau again gestured in a softly populist direction. When “companies post record profits on the backs of workers consistently refused full-time work,” he declared, “people get defeated… When governments serve special interests instead of the citizens’ interests who elected them, people lose faith.” The press responded with fevered speculation about a renewed “left turn” in Ottawa ahead of the upcoming federal budget. Inevitably, though, the budget delivered nothing of the kind, promising only to “build stronger communities”, “lead globally and create jobs for Canadians”, and “a government that puts people first.” Trudeau’s progressive halo was shining brighter than ever, and he’d barely even lifted a finger.
All the obvious charges of hypocrisy, apt as they may be in many cases, risk obscuring Trudeauism’s actual project, which is one more palpably cynical than that implied by conventional political promise-breaking. Trudeau’s own talent, such as it is, has always consisted in an ability to sound politically ambidextrous while lending an affirmative sheen to the insipid technocrat0speak of the boardroom, state bureaucracy, or industry conference luncheon (before entering politics, incidentally, Trudeau spent time on the public-speaking circuit giving lavishly-paid talks to these very luncheons).
Trudeau’s speeches are full of vague and uplifting bromides. Once, summing up his political ethos, he declared: “History shows that this country works best when we all work together to solve the problems that matter most to Canadians.” Closing a televised election debate, he proclaimed: “We are who we are and Canada is what it is because in our hearts we’ve always known that better is always possible.” And during a 2015 stump speech, he announced: “We’re proposing a strong and real plan. We can grow the economy not from the top down… but from the heart outwards.” In a 2014 speech he explained the Liberal Party’s economic philosophy as follows:
“Too much government is an enemy of freedom and opportunity, but so too is too little. Governments can’t do everything, nor should they try. But the things it does [sic], it must do well. As Larry Summers reminded us on Thursday, fiscal discipline is important, but sustained growth is the only route to balanced budgets over the long-term. To create that growth, we have to get the big things right.”
Here we see the Trudeau style in full form: blandly reassuring, managerial, and entirely devoid of ideological specificity or commitment. Anyone can find a nod to her political proclivities—for a more or less activist government; for higher or lower taxes; for a larger or smaller welfare state—buried somewhere between the lines. Government shouldn’t be too big, and it shouldn’t be too small. Canada is great because of the things that make it great. When you speak in tautologies, nobody can disagree with you.
It’s easy, of course, to mock vacuous talk about growing the economy “from the heart outwards.” But Trudeau’s politics are not actually “empty” and he has, at times, been quite explicit about his actual function. In a 2013 essay addressed to Canadian elites entitled “Why It’s Vital We Support The Middle Class,” he wrote:
“National business leaders and other wealthy Canadians should draw the following conclusion, and do so urgently: If we do not solve [the problems facing the middle class and low-income earners], Canadians will eventually withdraw their support for a growth agenda. We will all be worse off as a consequence…Deepening anxiety yields deepening divisions in every society, and we are not immune to that vicious cycle here in Canada. We will begin to vote for leaders who offer comforting stories about who to blame for our problems, rather than how to solve them.”
Trudeau’s turns of phrase seemed to pass by unnoticed, but in retrospect their subtext was all too clear: inequality, understood by some as a moral problem, risks making the less well-off “anxious” such that they “withdraw their support for a growth agenda.” They may even elect new leadership with the audacity to point its dirty fingers squarely at elites (heaven forbid!). Taking measures to alleviate the worst effects of inequality is a route to preserving the present system of wealth distribution, not dismantling it. (Sure enough, once in office Trudeau was swiftly embroiled in a cash-for-access scandal, as it became clear that wealthy donors at Liberal fundraisers could purchase his attention.)
On the one-year anniversary of his election, Trudeau once again let the mask slip, this time in response to a question about how his government was navigating the unpopularity of neoliberal globalization at the present political moment:
“We were able to sign a free trade agreement with Europe at a time when people tend to be closing off. We’re actually able to approve pipelines at a time when everyone wants protection of the environment. We’re being able to show that we get people’s fears and there are constructive ways of allaying them—and not just ways to lash out and give a big kick to the system.”
It was a bizarre but revealing comment: Trudeau, the would-be progressive savior, effectively boasting about his government’s success in perpetuating a widely-disliked status quo—not by actually changing anything, but rather by “allaying people’s fears” so that the cogs of the global economy could continue to spin without interruption.
Despite all the fanfare it has generated, the Justin Trudeau phenomenon is in many ways thoroughly unremarkable. This is because, stripped of its pretensions, it represents something all too familiar in Canada and elsewhere. Armed with platitudes, marketing savvy, cultural nostalgia, and the assistance of a generally compliant media, the party most synonymous with the country’s social and economic elite successfully positioned itself, not for the first time, as the standard bearer of progressive change.
In this respect, Charles Taylor’s observation about on about the elder Trudeau, penned nearly a half century ago, strikes an eerily familiar chord:
“Trudeaumania provided the ideal psychological compromise between [two]… contradictory drives. The Trudeau image offered all the excitement of change… while offering the reassurance which the average man could read in the benign reactions of power and privilege—that no serious challenge would be offered to the way things are. The act looked terrific, but everyone knew that no crockery was going to be broken. Everyone could relax and indulge the yearning for change without arousing the fear of novelty.”
American progressives remember well the frenetic euphoria of 2008 and the almost transcendent rhetoric that accompanied the election of Barack Obama, another candidate who happily accepted that his values are malleable and respond to political circumstance.
Electoral considerations have also weighed heavily in determining Trudeau’s principles. In response to questions from students at the University of British Columbia in 2015 about why he was voting in favor of a draconian Conservative bill widely seen as an assault on basic civil liberties, he responded as follows:
“We know that, tactically, this government would be perfectly happy if the opposition completely voted against this bill because it fits into their fear narrative and [their desire to]…bash people on security. I do not want this government making political hay out of an issue…or trying to, out of an issue as important as security for Canadians.”
Then followed the kicker: “This conversation might be different if we weren’t months from an election campaign, but we are.”
As with Obama, Trudeau’s meticulously groomed, post-political brand is pure artifice: a place where the hyper-professionalized, marketing-obsessed world of modern campaigning converges with contemporary capitalism’s preference for the personal over the political in elevating form over content.
Put simply, it is a politics which offers the ephemeral sensation of change rather than the real thing. In place of a coherent program it offers focus-grouped soundbites and superficially progressive language designed to appease and comfort rather than transform. Scratching its surface, we find not the youthful energy, dynamism, or innovation it claims for itself, but rather an all-too familiar group of traditional elites.
Practitioners of technocratic personality politics are, of course, nothing new. But Trudeau potentially represents a new model for conducting them. More efficiently than any other current Western leader, he has successfully fused elite liberalism with progressive rhetoric and new communications tools to produce a quintessentially 21st-century politics of spectacle.
In the absence of a vibrant left wing alternative—in Canada and around the world—this may turn out to be the fate awaiting all democratic politics in the decades ahead.