The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Justin Trudeau isn’t the liberal hero the world makes him out to be

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
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J.J. McCullough, a political commentator and cartoonist from Vancouver, is a columnist at Loonie Politics.

As populist conservatives the world over draw inspiration from the rise of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and others, Canada’s fresh-faced prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is offered as a progressive counterweight.

At a state visit to Ottawa last month, Vice President Biden called out Trudeau (and Germany’s Angela Merkel) as lonely defenders of the “liberal international order” on a planet increasingly hostile to it. Glowing tributes to Canada as an island of liberal sanity in a world gone mad, which have appeared everywhere from the Guardian to the Economist, invariably cast Trudeau in a starring role.

It’s an awkward fit, given Trudeau has never had much allegiance to anything resembling a coherent, transnational philosophy. Far from being a big-picture thinker with an unqualified love of liberty, open markets and individual rights, the prime minister is a deeply parochial figure with ideas happily restrained by the regressive shibboleths of Canadian politics and patriotism.

In 2015, Trudeau delighted some when he proudly proclaimed Canada the world’s “first postnational state.” He does not actually believe this. One imagines a truly post-national state would not hew quite so religiously to the notion of a national language, for instance, yet the need to preserve Canada’s French-English bilingualism remains one of the prime minister’s most passionate causes.

Trudeau, like his prime minister father before him, believes the defining fact of Canada is the province of Quebec, a French-speaking enclave populated by descendants of 17th- and 18th-century settlers whose linguistic and cultural distinctions must be preserved and emphasized to give the larger country meaning.

Trudeau is himself from Quebec, like a disproportionate chunk of Canada’s governing class, and official bilingualism, which in practice means screening Canada’s more than 80 percent non-French-speaking majority from the country’s top jobs, has helped his community consolidate power. During his rise, Trudeau made headlines for stating matter-of-factly in a Quebec interview that Canada “belongs to us.” This need to protect linguistic supremacy has routinely superseded all other identity politics considerations, as when the prime minister appointed yet another white male to Canada’s Supreme Court — which has never had a visible minority member — citing the importance of the judge’s French literacy.

The prime minister’s attitudes to Canada’s aboriginal population are similarly chauvinist and contrast sharply with his father’s, who in 1969 characterized the country’s regime of segregated Indian reservations — in his words, keeping Indians “a race apart” — as an appalling affront to liberal sensibilities.

The elder Trudeau eventually abandoned this line of reasoning and wound up endorsing the reservation system as easier than any alternative. The younger has gone even further, arguing that an aboriginal population unable to coexist, as his father put it, “as Canadians of full status,” is actually one of Canada’s highest virtues. While the father found it grotesque for “one section of the society to have a treaty with the other,” the son has championed the idea of “nation to nation” relationships with aboriginal tribes, and his government publicly disavowed interest in abolishing the Indian Act — the legal centerpiece of the “race apart” regime.

Such is the essence of Trudeauism. Canada may be diverse, but its component parts should keep to themselves and double down on their otherness, rather than diffuse into a larger, post-national whole.

A similar logic dictates his approach to cross-border relations. Though there has been much exaggerated fretting over President-elect Donald Trump’s desires to scale back the North American Free Trade Agreement, trade between Canada and the United States is already far from free. Goods classified as “cultural” are subject to onerous regulation, and Canadian law limits how much American television Canadians can watch and how much American music they can hear.

This is justified on the grounds that “Canadian culture” is something precious that must be protected from crass American corruption. Trudeau’s administration, which counts the nation’s heavily subsidized artists, musicians and directors among its biggest fans, has promised millions in fresh funding for an archipelago of government-backed media entities, including the state broadcaster, that exist primarily to defend the national character from foreign taint.

Correcting for such nationalist indulgences, the liberalism of Trudeau that remains is largely limited to an affinity for mass-scale Third World immigration. The multi-racial, multi-faith diversity of modern Canada does seem to genuinely delight him, and his reflex to defend those who “look, or speak, or pray differently than we do” — as he put it to the U.N. — appears visceral and real.

Some may find this inspiring enough, and in a world where the immigration debate cripples many with indecision and anxiety, any head of state offering unqualified support for one side will be understandably alluring.

But anyone seeking a leader bearing a more thorough perspective on the challenges of the modern West — markets vs. management, trade vs. protectionism, racialism vs. egalitarianism — should probably keep looking.