For a second, it almost seemed as though Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might be capable of getting a sentence or two of bad press in the United States.
Earlier this month, news of the scandal currently consuming Trudeau’s prime ministership — his decision to preemptively settle a civil suit with Canadian-born ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr for $8 million — had begun to slowly trickle into U.S. headlines.
Luckily, Rolling Stone was able to rush to his rescue this week, with a fawning cover story by Stephen Rodrick musing wistfully about “a nation led by a man who wore a ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ T-shirt on national television, rides a unicycle and welcomed 40,000 Syrian refugees with open arms.”
Rodrick’s piece was more typical of the coverage Trudeau received south of the border in the pre-Khadr weeks, which had been dominated by stories such as the socks he wore while meeting the leader of Ireland (documented by HuffPost alongside “11 photos of Justin Trudeau kissing his wife instead of you”), his appearance on “Live With Kelly and Ryan” (where Trudeau stoically refused to strip), his “manspreading” cover for Sky magazine (demonstrating his “clear path to the hottest leader in the world,” said TMZ) and a viral video of him hugging a unicorn puppet (“If this doesn’t make your day drastically better, we don’t know what will,” promised Elle).
In 2010, Khadr pleaded guilty in a Guantanamo military court to killing U.S. Army Sgt. Christopher Speer during a firefight in Afghanistan, along with other terrorism charges, as part of a plea deal with the United States. Because Khadr was Canadian by birth (though had lived barely any of his life in the country) and a teen when he killed Speer, his journey through the U.S. wartime justice system was complicated and controversial, and a few months before his guilty plea, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that his constitutional rights had been violated. In 2015, Khadr left prison, and this month it was revealed that the Trudeau administration had quietly elected to pay him $8 million to dodge further litigation.
The move was extraordinarily unpopular. Seventy-one percent of Canadians opposed it, including 61 percent of the backers of Trudeau’s Liberal Party.
Whatever his talents as clickbait, a strong case can be made that Trudeau is not very good at the governing side of his job. And I’m not talking about the mildly contrarian he’s-not-progressive-enough critiques you sometimes read from left-wing Canadians in the foreign press; I’m talking basic competence. The aftermath of Khadr-gate should hopefully serve as a wake-up call for international media to balance Trudeau’s antics as a charming figurehead with his unglamorous reality as a politician.
Trudeau was never terribly qualified to be prime minister. Before his quick political rise, he was known simply as the wealthy, dilettantish son of a popular ex-prime minister who had trouble choosing a career. First elected to Parliament in 2008, he was abruptly made Liberal boss in 2013 in what was dubbed a “personality cult” gimmick by a party whose popularity had slumped to record lows.
Trudeau’s initial steps on the national stage were defined by George W. Bush-style gaffes, such as expressing envy for the efficiency of China’s “basic dictatorship.” During his inauguration, it was revealed he didn’t know how to pronounce the word “heir.” To this day, he still stumbles when forced to express opinions outside his talking-point comfort zone (watch, for example, his painful attempt to articulate thoughts on North Korea). Carefully staged photo ops, such as Trudeau’s supposed “off-the-cuff” description of quantum computing, can be seen as a deliberate effort to reassure voters that their leader actually has something under that carefully coiffed hair.
With Trudeau as prime minister, his supposedly activist administration has passed very little legislation and his government has accumulated a huge, President Trump-like backlog of appointments. Of the few big ideas he has pushed, many have been train wrecks of poor implementation, such as his plan to legalize marijuana by 2018, which is still a mess of question marks, or “empowering” Canada’s widely loathed, unelected Senate to get more involved in the lawmaking process, which has spawned parliamentary gridlock. A plan to overhaul the Canadian electoral system, which would have likely accomplished little beyond making it easier for Trudeau’s party to win reelection, was abruptly abandoned after blowing a few million dollars on go-nowhere R&D.
Trudeau’s hikes in spending, meanwhile, coupled with a large middle-class tax cut, have spawned budget deficits twice as deep as the “temporary” ones he promised on the campaign trail, with no plan to dig out. Enormous economic growth, which he once nonchalantly predicted would ensure “the budget will balance itself,” appears nowhere on the horizon.
Foreign policy is no less a muddle. Trudeau ostentatiously ended Canada’s “combat mission” against the Islamic State for no clear reason beyond that it was something his conservative predecessor supported, yet it has been recently reported that Canada’s soldiers certainly appear engaged in a Middle East war that the prime minister promised to pull the country out of.
Trudeau may cut an interesting figure on the global stage, contrasting with various populist demagogues and reinforcing stereotypes of Canada as the world’s goody-goody. Yet it’s the luxury of foreigners to treat the politics of other countries as parable, entertainment or escapist fantasy. Actually living in a country run by a social media celebrity is a lot less fun.