The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Has Justin Trudeau been ‘Americanized’ — or is he just left-wing?

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a news conference during the Summit of the Americas, in Los Angeles, on June 10. (Caroline Brehman/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Canadian political culture often has the character of a stern, middle-class dad: “I don’t want to hear any more complaining! You kids don’t know how good you’ve got it!”

Thus goes the increasingly fashionable rebuttals to the activist administration of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — a man now routinely portrayed by critics as an ungrateful ignoramus obsessed with picking at problems that don’t deserve attention in the first place.

What makes the phenomenon tendentiously Canadian, however, is that such criticisms are routinely bound up in allegations that Trudeau has been “Americanized” — that the problems he believes to be plaguing his country are actually esoteric American problems with no relevance to Canada, resulting in a prime minister whose priorities are geographically oblivious at best and unpatriotic at worst.

“At this point, I don’t see why Justin Trudeau doesn’t resign and simply run for office in the United States” was how conservative activist Aaron Gunn put it.

After the leak of a draft ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court suggesting a majority of justices were poised to revoke Americans’ constitutional right to an abortion, Trudeau abruptly ratcheted up his pro-choice rhetoric, and his government announced vague promises to make universal abortion access more legally enshrined than ever.

This was preposterous, argued John Ibbitson in the Globe and Mail, given even Canada’s Conservative Party supports unrestricted abortion. “There is little threat of abortion being banned in Canada,” agreed Brian Lilley in the Toronto Sun, but Trudeau’s party “will drag that bogeyman north of the border for their political advantage.”

Trudeau ran for his third term on a platform vowing to combat “American-style gun violence,” but it took back-to-back mass shootings in New York and Texas before his administration truly exerted itself, introducing a freeze on handgun sales, a ban on magazines capable of holding more than five rounds, and a mandatory buyback program for certain “assault-style” rifles. Once again, the prime minister’s critics saw a thankless politician indifferent to what his country had already accomplished.

In the Globe and Mail, Stephen Marche said that under Trudeau, “Canada’s national tendency to import our neighbour’s crises is growing more and more ludicrous,” given that Canadians already “have sensible and meaningful gun laws that largely prevent the kind of regular mass shootings that afflict America.” Tristin Hopper in the National Post went further, chronicling in explicit detail “(since Trudeau apparently forgot)” the many “sharp differences between Canadian and U.S. gun laws.”

That so many allegations of Americanization are being flung at Trudeau is a testament to the long-running anxiety among Canadian intellectuals that Canadian minds are in danger of being colonized by American thoughts. Accusing a prominent Canadian of being a Trojan horse of “American ideas” is a tradition as old as Canada itself, and a remarkably flexible one. Over the course of centuries, dangerous “American ideas” have included everything from representative democracy to Methodism to anti-communism to spelling “licence” with an S. The Canadian left has spent much of the past few decades questioning the patriotism of conservatives for having “American-style” views about religion or war or health care; today, many conservative critics of Trudeau’s Liberals describe obnoxious wokeness as a uniquely American sin.

The problem with rhetoric of this sort, however, is that it discounts the possibility that progressives such as Trudeau might have a perfectly clear-eyed understanding of Canada’s current realities on abortion and guns, and still find them unacceptable. To want abortion laws even more liberal than what Canada already has, or gun regulations even more restrictive, isn’t necessarily proof of confusing Canada with America — just ideological zealotry. Trudeau might be exploiting American crises because it’s a convenient pretext to do things he wanted to do anyway.

It’s difficult to accuse the prime minister of being an opportunistic ideologue, however, if one lacks the courage to clearly articulate what more moderate positions on his pet crusades should look like. This is a persistent challenge for Trudeau’s critics, especially those on the right — it’s often deeply unclear whether they actually believe Canada’s current political consensus on abortion or guns or whatever is a good thing, or merely see the status quo as something they can scorn the prime minister for supposedly not appreciating. But condescension is not an argument, and the fact that Trudeau has been continuously told he’s ignorant or Americanized for wanting certain policies has not prevented him from getting them.

Trudeau has always been more politically gutsy than he gets credit for. He has few apprehensions about provoking debates on contentious cultural issues and challenging his rivals to disagree. And he continues to win, both in the short term and long, because he keeps making the same safe bet: The conversations he’s most eager to have are the ones that make his political rivals the most squeamish.

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