Everyone has been asking: Is Justin Trudeau a racist? Most who ask the question come down in the negative. It is poor judgement and lack of self-awareness, rather than bigotry, that was on show in his blackface photos, at a time when he was 29 years of age.
If Trudeau is judged to be a racist, it can only be pretty much the opposite of what is conventionally understood by the term.
If anything, Trudeau is hyper-multicultural, to the point that he failed to understand that his casual assumption of other racial identities showed not just disregard, but a certain amount of disdain, the opposite of the openness he felt he was practicing.
But perhaps this is to over-intellectualize Trudeau’s behaviour. He could just be the callow rich kid who loves to dress up even as an adult. (The fact he did not “get” it may show wilful ignorance. He was born and raised in the house of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the leader who propounded multiculturalism as a core Canadian value).
Many observers of our politics have admired Trudeau Jr.’s success, but have had doubts about his judgment over the years. There has grown a sense that he is the face, not the brains, of the Canadian government. An absence of judgement has been demonstrated in numerous small ways as well as on bigger issues as he first sought and then exercised the Prime Ministership.
The road to power
Trudeau came to power in 2015 in the age of the “celebrity” as a persona, rather than as a political leader who had climbed the ladder the hard way. His victory was powered by widespread fatigue with Stephen Harper, the Conservative prime minister from 2006 to 2015.
Harper’s basic appeal had been to the resentment not just of Canada’s “marginalized” West, but of everyone who felt disappointed, for good reasons and bad, by the welfare state that the Liberal Party had built.
Harper’s austerity, intensity and introversion finally got to enough people that the victory of “sunny ways” Trudeau felt pre-ordained after nearly a decade.
He proved more able in debates than the media had expected. His inner circle managed to recruit a young and dynamic cohort of candidates. He looked like a winner, and everyone like a winner.
He was able to attract the interest of a young generation with a sort of new-age sensibility. He promised a new way to do politics to address the big things troubling the national psyche: Environmental angst, pipeline angst, aboriginal angst and angst about the distance between the citizen and the political process being the most volatile among them.
He promised, in short, not just to erase memories of Harper but also the image of the Liberal Party of old, and set the country on a new and exciting path.
As it turned out, Trudeau, having oversold what was the possible, fulfilled some of his promises, but failed very visibly on the most visible fronts. Even if his government did bring in a range of good domestic policies and had success in “Trump management,” many people naturally came, as people do in politics, to focus on their disappointed expectations.
Given that Trudeau’s persona to a significant extent is the brand of the government, all that disappointment has rained down on his head. That is the brutal echo effect of ego-centered politics.
Of course, some of Trudeau’s failures were not his doing. Most particularly, provincial governments, previously on side with the Liberal agenda, were all thrown out of office on platforms of opposition to the federal government. This made Trudeau’s grand vision of balancing carbon control and pipeline expansion impossible.
But some of the political fallout was very much Trudeau’s own doing. Most significantly, stoking aboriginal expectations he could not possibly hope to satisfy.
He also did nothing to reform the electoral process, though his reform of the Canadian Senate must be considered a success. He also promised but then failed to deliver an active international presence, even if conclusion of CETA and the USMCA must be considered significant achievements.
Poor choice of personnel
But it was as much failure on HR management as on substance that tarnished his image the most.
In particular, while most of his ministers were competent and some outstanding, he showed fatally flawed judgment in some of his cabinet appointees, a number of whom were put into the government not by dint of qualifications , but by meeting certain other critera: Star power, gender and race added to regional affiliation.
The worst of these appointments was to name Jody WIlson-Raybould, a young First Nations star and lawyer as Minister of Justice. Her first commitment appears to have been to a dramatic expansion of aboriginal constitutional rights.
The so-called SNC Scandal had its origins in her disappointment with the government’s progress on that file, which in turn was compounded by the Trudeau inner circle’s poor management of her disappointment.
The fiasco left Trudeau, unfairly though that may be, not just looking flummoxed but also smeared with a tinge of corruption, long the bane of the Liberal brand.
All this is to say that the fairy dust covering the Prime Minister in 2015 wore off as the years went by.
A couple of embarrassing international moments (e.g., the maharaja costumes on his visit to India, the embarrassment of walking away from signing the TPP at the last minute) combined to reinforce Trudeau’s image as a front-man for a close circle of brighter minds with smaller chins, rather than the transformative leader he promised to be.
The elections were therefore already set to be difficult when the blackface pictures surfaced (there may be more than those we have seen). They confirmed a Conservative narrative that Trudeau was an attractive lightweight, propelled to the top by the times, not his merits.
This narrative, as partial as it is, has had an impact on broad public opinion, but they have not altered the fundamentals.
Canadian voters are pretty much where they were before the pictures, only more so: Those already determined to vote Conservative are even more determined now. They are comforted by the evidence validating their assessment of Trudeau as unworthy of office.
The rest of the electorate remains divided among those who are determined to stop the return of Harper’s party, those who give credit for the Trudeau government’s real accomplishments and those who may have lost the sense of engagement with the political process that produced an unprecedented turnout (and Liberal victory) in 2015.
The great danger to the Liberals is that growing ranks of the unmotivated may stay away on October 21 — election day — even if they prefer Liberal policies (many of which, it must be stressed, were well received and remain so).
These voters may stay away if they see Trudeau as a false new dawn but also recognize that there are no viable alternatives. The Prime Minister therefore has much to lose and much to gain in the next weeks.
Emmanuel Macron came back from the dead by “taking it on the chin” and making a new start when the Gilets Jaunes dished it out. Justin Trudeau might manage to do the same and show that “there is a there, there” to vote for. Or, he may not.
The polls are volatile, but still show the Liberal vote distributed in a way that will return them to power, perhaps in a minority. In any event, there is comfort to be had in the fact that the political center in Canada is largely still holding.
Moreover, the political process remains relatively civil. Some Canadian institutions may have been shaken but they were not broken. And whoever wins the election continues to have to satisfy a Canadian electorate that is still largely tolerant, socially positive and values good governance.
Everyone has been asking: Is Justin Trudeau a racist? Most who ask the question come down in the negative.
Some consider Trudeau as a front-man for a close circle of brighter minds with smaller chins, rather than the transformative leader he promised to be.
Given that Trudeau’s persona is the brand of the government, voter disappointment has rained down on his head. That is the brutal echo-effect of ego-centered politics.
The Canadian polls are volatile, but still show the Liberal vote distributed in a way that will return them to power, perhaps in a minority.