Trudeau, Obama, and the dangers of the cult of personality

In 2011, when Stephen Harper led the Conservatives to a majority government, his party amassed 39.6% of the national vote.

Much was made of the fact that roughly 60% of voters had (supposedly) voted against Harper and his Conservative Party.

And yet, in the aftermath of this year’s election, in which Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party secured a mere 39.5% of the popular vote, we hear no such protestations.

There is, however, just as strong a case to be made that the remaining 60% of voters actively voted against the Liberal Party, just as much as they voted for their respective parties of choice.

For Conservative voters, the choice was made starkly clear by Stephen Harper himself: this election was a fight between continued Conservative rule, with their supposed fiscal responsibility and dedication to national security, and the rule of the feckless Liberals, who would irresponsibly lead the nation into deficit and out of a vital war against Islamist jihadism. One can debate the accuracy of this framing of the campaign, but there is no denying that these are the terms in which many Conservative-supporting Canadians viewed the situation. They accordingly, and dutifully, voted against Liberal rule, just as they also voted for four more years of Harper & Co.

For supporters of the NDP and the Greens, though this election seemed on the surface to fundamentally boil down to a referendum on Stephen Harper, they chose to stand by their parties despite the fact that, from a short-sightedly “strategic” point of view, the party most likely to dethrone the Conservatives was the Liberals. This strongly implies that they felt there were meaningful differences between the Liberals and their opponents on the left, differences significant enough that they outweighed the “strategic” imperative of defeating Harper. Which is to say, they voted against the Liberals as much as they voted for the NDP or the Greens.

And lastly, for the Bloc’s hard core of support, the Liberals are of course the old enemy. Trudeau père presided over the first referendum and sent the army onto the streets of Quebec and Montreal during the FLQ crisis, and there is precious little enthusiasm for Trudeau fils amongst the sovereigntist camp. In addition, Gilles Duceppe’s shameful race-baiting fear-mongering niqab-bashing ultimately drew a hard line between the Bloc and the Liberals (as well as the NDP and the Greens), and there can be little doubt at this point that the rump of Quebec nationalists contains within its membership a sizeable contingent of openly xenophobic racists who, obviously, actively voted against the Liberal Party just as surely as they voted for the slowly dying Bloc Quebecois.

So Justin Trudeau will take office this November with a level of support which is comparable to that of Stephen Harper when he embarked upon his first and only majority government.

To read the mainstream media (and to see the memes ricocheting around social media), one would not easily come to that conclusion.

The glorification – the well-nigh deification! – of Justin Trudeau is well underway. Glowing, adoring profiles speak of his charisma, his youthful energy, his passion, his dynastic connections, his adorably gorgeous family, his super-hot bod. He’s been called the most fuckable Prime Minister of all time. (I’d opt for a young Joe Clark, myself.) His every word since the election is breathlessly reported as though God Himself had decided to write a fifth Gospel. He can’t even lay a wreath without roughly 100 000  photographs being taken. Christ, even his dear old mother is getting widely interviewed and photographed. (She’s also re-releasing her memoirs – ka-ching!) It was from her that we found out that JT and his preciously cute (and super-Aryan) fam won’t be moving into his childhood home of 24 Sussex immediately, due to long-needed repairs.

And immediately, the historically-minded among us think back to the mid-70’s, the extremely public breakdown of Pierre and Margaret’s marriage, the scandals in the press, the whole Rolling Stones episode, the crushing impact this must have had on young Justin. We feel compassion, sure, but also we feel a compelling sense of voyeurism, a proto-reality-TV-type fascination with the lurid details and sexy scandals in the typically staid and sedate halls of Canadian power.

But let’s remember here – Maggie Trudeau is just the Prime Minister’s mother. I don’t remember ever hearing one single word about Stephen Harper’s mother. And for good reason – I looked it up today, and he went to great lengths to keep her out of the public eye, because although I’m sure she means a lot to him (unless he actually is the psychopath that many suspect him to be), she is ultimately irrelevant to the public in terms of who he is and how he did his job. (Plus she might have been a Liberal supporter – shhhh!)

In the days since the election, it’s been striking to me how much of a cult of personality has been built up around Justin Trudeau. The CBC managed to write an intensely hyped piece about how much Justin might have learned at the feet of his father despite the fact that every single expert they interviewed dismissed their premise as ludicrous. The Globe and Mail put together a triumphalist collection of photographs and flattering anecdotes wrapped up in the guise of a biography. Hell, even the National Post got in on the party, playing up the sex appeal aspect by asking if Trudeau was, in fact, the sexist politician in the world.

(Interesting tidbit I picked up from that article: apparently – and this is hard to believe, but it’s in the friggin’ Post, so it must be true – waaaay back in 1972, when JT was less than a year old, slippery Dick Nixon, then President of the good ol’ US of A, proposed a toast to the then-infant ” future Prime Minister of Canada: Justin Pierre Trudeau”. Yet another example of Nixon’s exemplary political instincts.)

What worries me about this cult of personality is that I’ve seen this movie before:

[I]f you weren’t paying attention during the 2008 campaign, you won’t really get it, but that dynamic was so friggin’ real. I bought into it – and I was already a bitter old man by that point, disillusioned and convinced that politics was for crooks and liars. I thought that for sure this guy Obama was going to at least be not terrible. I thought that just maybe he’d be the president I’d always dreamed of. And so did a lot of people. It was easy to imagine him as being the guy we wanted him to be.

And then we were subjected to the last seven years.

Many times I’ve debated with myself over whether I think Obama or Bush was the worse president. There’s a strong case to be made for both, but I tend to come down on the side of Obama. After all, he normalized (and made bipartisan) many of the abuses and excesses of the Bush years, including large-scale warrantless domestic surveillance; he declined to prosecute anybody for the widespread torture of the Bush years, thus establishing a strong precedent of presidential immunity for war crimes; he embarked on a massive campaign of global warrantless execution from the sky; he didn’t put one single person in jail for the rampant illegality on Wall Street which led to the eviction of millions and the impoverishment of tens of millions; he worked with Congressional Republicans to promulgate the myth that Social Security is insolvent and that the social safety net needs to be drastically cut back; he squandered Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress (and a once-in-a-generation opportunity) and pushed through a Richard Nixon-designed health care “reform” package which pretty much only benefits pharmaceutical and insurance companies; he accomplished so many things that Republican presidents could only dream of doing.

The parallels between Trudeau and Obama are manifold. In both cases, upon ascending to national leadership, they: were young, charismatic, and relatively inexperienced in politics, were glorified as being intensely attractive, had young and widely-admired families, had run as progressives despite having vague but centrist/right-leaning platforms, and were hailed as a breath of fresh air and a welcome change. Both succeeded widely-derided conservative leaders. Both came into office with a heavy weight of expectations on their shoulders.

Both represented parties with extensive and long-running ties to the financial sector.

Unfortunately, Obama didn’t live up to the expectations and the hype, and it seems increasingly likely that Trudeau won’t either.

Consider what the Ottawa Citizen has to say about his incoming government’s plans to “fix” the widely despised Bill C-51:

A key feature of the replacement legislation is expected to be the creation of a multi-party, joint House of Commons-Senate committee, sworn to secrecy and reporting to the prime minister and through him to Parliament. It would have a full-time staff, access to the necessary secret information and be tasked with strategic oversight of every government department and agency with national security responsibilities, according to a source familiar with the content…

“It would be a new departure for the Canadian Parliament and what would be a very difficult task,” said Wesley Wark, a security and intelligence historian and scholar at the University of Ottawa.

“I’m glad we’ve arrived at this moment, it’s something that should have been done in Canada a long time ago. (But) it would be important to be cautious about expectations around the early performance of such a committee.”

Indeed. Because while this change would add a much-needed level of Parliamentary oversight to Canada’s intelligence agencies, it would do literally nothing to deal with the worst aspects of C-51. A Facebook friend commented on this plan, “Oversight is good, but in context it is window dressing. We need it repealed. Any law that allows for indefinite detention, secret trials, secret no-fly lists, warrantless spying, and increased secret police state legislation should not be on the books at all in a functioning democracy.”

Which is precisely why I’m worried about the cult of personality springing up around Trudeau. In Obama’s case, even his most progressive supporters were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, give him a chance to show his true colours, for many years. Long after he had conclusively demonstrated his fealty to Wall Street, to the military-industrial complex, to austerity, to the elite, they continued to give him the benefit of the doubt, to argue that he had somehow been forced into the choices he had made, to insist that what he gave us is better than nothing, that it could have been worse.

And that’s the regrettable but likely future I see for Canadian politics – that our dear little Prince will be given the benefit of the doubt long after he deserves it, that he will shit on progressive causes and be praised for doing his best, that the very fact that he’s not George W. Bush Stephen Harper will make everything he says and does instantly more palatable and acceptable.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m ready and willing to be wrong on this one. It would be great if Trudeau didn’t turn out to be a Red Tory. But given, fr’instance, his close ties to the oil extraction industry, his waffleyness on climate targets, and his unwillingness to respect basic civil liberties by repealing C-51, I’m not especially optimistic.


This is the last article in an ongoing weekly series on the 2015 Canadian national election. Check back in this space next Sunday for the beginning of a new series!

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