Matt Gurney: Why Trudeau can't save himself (or hasn't yet, anyway)
The man runs a partisan club and is shocked that people invest their identities in their opinions on stuff? Really?
By: Matt Gurney
I think Justin Trudeau is a lot smarter than he gets credit for, at least from his opponents. I’ve always thought that. For all my disagreements with him on matters of policy, and all the criticisms I could make of his political performance while in office, I’ve never bought into the belief so common among those on the right that he’s some kind of intellectual lightweight. I don’t buy it.
I also don’t buy, in a general sense, the logic behind underestimating your opponent. If he’s the lightweight the Conservatives often seem to think he is, what does that make them, since he’s beaten them three times in a row? Write this down, folks, because it's a Matt Gurney Rule of Life: every time I've been beaten, it's been because I was so hopelessly outclassed I couldn't have possibly done any better. Easier on the ego, that. The CPC should try it.
But back to the PM. I think, and I’ve thought this basically since the beginning of his political career, that Trudeau was a phony. More specifically, that he’s carefully cultivated a public persona that he wears as a kind of political armour when out there in the real world. And I think a lot of the problems he’s gotten into in recent years has been nothing more remarkable than reality and his time in office sandblasting away the façade. The Tofino trip? “Thank you for your donation”? Some of the grubbier political decisions he’s made? The fancy trips, to pick one recent example? These aren’t necessarily out of the norm for any normal politician. And they clearly aren’t out of step with Justin Trudeau, the man. They’re only jarring because they don’t align with the image of Justin Trudeau that he and his team created and have worked tirelessly to broadcast to the world.
So a phony? Sure. But dumb? No. The opposite. Intelligent, and certain exceptions aside, usually fairly disciplined. He’s still prime minister for a reason.
This is why I was so taken aback when I read a recent interview the prime minister had done with Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star. It was a fascinating read. A few news stories have broken between when I read it and now, I grant, so it may seem a little less relevant today than it would’ve been two weeks ago. But even with all that’s happened, I kept finding my thoughts turning back to Susan’s interview with the prime minister. With Parliament now back in session, and with every indication that we are heading into a nasty, particularly stupid period of our politics, it’s worth understanding where our PM’s head is at. How he understands the world, and his own diminished standing in it.
Susan’s interview is useful in that regard. You can read it here, and you should read it. My overall political analysis of it is largely the same as what my friend Chris Selley wrote in the National Post: for an article that is premised around the prime minister understanding why people are mad at him, the reader can be forgiven for walking away from the interview suspecting that the prime minister does not, in fact, understand why people are mad at him. Nothing is doing more to convince me that these guys are heading towards some kind of brutal electoral reckoning than their unwillingness, or inability, to realize and accept that not all of their problems are being inflicted on them by bad luck or bad people. Until and unless they can admit their own role in their current misfortune, they’re never gonna do better. The Delacourt interview gives me no sense that any such epiphany is upon them, or at least, upon Justin Trudeau.
That’s my overall analysis, and I’ll return to it shortly, but it was a specific comment by the PM that really stayed with me. It’s this:
… Trudeau does believe, however, that Liberals are up against something relatively new in this climate, which he calls opinion-as-identity politics.
“I don't think that was a feature too much of other times in politics — where what you think about something actually creates the circles and the people that you actually associate with, and it defines who you are.”
I’m going to let Tom Cruise in the delightful and little-remembered sci-fi film Oblivion convey my reaction to the PM’s comment there:
This is a statement that I’m having a hard time processing, and that I’ve been reflecting on for weeks, because there is no version of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — at least, in my understanding of the man — that is dumb enough to believe such a silly thing. Dividing ourselves into tribes identified by our opinions on stuff is exactly what human beings do, and have always done. The first monkey to get out of a tree and stand on solid ground and think to themselves, “Hey, it’s kind of cool down here,” was undoubtedly, immediately ostracized by all the other monkeys that thought that life atop the trees could not possibly ever be beaten.
And we’ve been finding new things to disagree about, and kill each other over, ever since. Which skin colour is best, which holy book contains the real guide to salvation, which ideology is the path to true human enlightenment … human beings have slaughtered each other by the millions over this stuff for as long as there have been human beings. Sure, every so often we squabble over resources. Who gets to control which oil field or prime cattle pasture and the like. But most of our nastiest fights have been over opinions about stuff. Maybe substantive matters, things like racial identity or religious affiliation, but still just opinions. And if we’re honest, some of the opinions have been pretty dumb. Not worth killing or dying over.
Hell, as I was thinking about writing this column, my young son very solemnly and seriously told me about some drama on the schoolyard he’d been part of. It turns out some kids who are normally good buddies had come to tears and almost to blows because … they liked different NFL football teams, and tensions were running high during some of the recent playoff games. I know it’s easy to dismiss this as just boys being boys, but I actually think it’s pretty useful here as an example of humans being humans. There is nothing that symbolizes the way we simian-brained weirdos approach life better than imagining a bunch of thinking, feeling people becoming emotionally overwhelmed because of a disagreement over which collection of overpaid athletic prodigies should advance while a different collection of overpaid athletic prodigies wearing another colour shirt heads home for a long break.
It’s ridiculous. But it’s us. It’s humans. Through and through. I’m a sports fan, too, and I’m well aware of the fact that sports are one of those handy things we use as a society to channel our base, primal, aggressive instincts. I get up and cheer wildly when the Leafs beat the Canadiens because it satisfies some part of my brain, and millions of other brains, that would probably otherwise result in Toronto and Montreal raiding each other for chickens. Or worse. Human beings are constantly deciding stuff and then sorting whole populations accordingly, and then getting emotionally invested in those divisions. I like it more when we channel it into sports rivalries and fights over who has the superior bagel.
How can the prime minister not understand this about us?
It’s probably true, to an extent, that modern digital communication tools are amping up the degree to which human beings are invested in really stupid opinions. Global light-speed communication networks are very good at maxing out the amount of anger we feel over the stupidest possible issues. This has been a refrain in our two most recent podcasts, when we document both Liberals and Conservatives whipping up outrage for the sake of being outraged. I wish I could say I’ve never been guilty of it, but I’ve lost my temper on a Star Trek bulletin board or two, passionately arguing that the Galaxy-class starship was, objectively speaking, a failure.
And of course it was. But back on topic, whatever criticisms I may have of the prime minister and his party’s policies, and Lord knows I have many, I have not often worried that the man himself was incapable of grasping the challenges that we face as Canadians and citizens of this little blue marble of a world. My concerns have typically been more that our institutions are sclerotic in a way that makes rapid decision-making impossible, and that we lack the state capacity to meaningfully enact those decisions once eventually reached. That’s what worries me about Canada, or typically has, at any rate.
But that quote in the Delacourt interview is the first time I’ve actually looked at something the PM said and thought that he was, fundamentally and deeply, out to lunch. The man is the leader of a partisan political party. And he’s shocked to discover that people invest their identities in differences of opinion? Hell, most of the time — less so currently, probably, but for much of my life leading up to this point — Canadian politics has typically been an example of absolutely passionate and furious arguments over the only the tiniest of differences. Canada has long been governed by parties and leaders operating inside a fairly narrow, shared political consensus. I agree that that seems to be changing a bit, but so far, only a bit. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: at least until very recent years, the typical Conservative, Liberal and NDP voter really wasn’t wildly different in their views on most issues.
And they still often hated each other’s guts.
The prime minister’s got enough challenges these days. Some of them are self-inflicted, but some of them not. The man really has drawn the lousy luck of leading Canada at a moment of profound global changes, few of them for the better. I doubt he has time or interest in re-examining his basic understanding of humanity.
But at least on this issue, it would probably be better for all of us if he did. There is nothing more human than investing your identity in an opinion, and if anything has changed in recent years, it’s the speed with which we can declare our affiliations to an audience of thousands or more. That’s not a trivial change. It’s doubtless warping our politics in really bad ways.
But human beings? We are the same meat-sack war-monkey brained idiots we’ve always been. And always will be. I’d feel a little bit better about the state of things if I felt that the man at the very tippy top of executive power in this country understood at least that much about us.
And hey — maybe he does, on some level. Or did once. Because again, the man isn’t dumb. It’s possible that as his approval numbers have tanked and his party sinks in the polls, he’s been left grasping for an explanation that doesn’t require too much acceptance of blame. Foisting his woes on something new and unusual happening in society probably feels better than admitting that he’s the author of much of his own misfortune. This will make it almost impossible for him to save himself, alas, but there’s nothing new under the sun there. Maybe the only thing more human than clinging passionately to an opinion is wrecking one’s life, or relationships or job or whatever, because you refuse to accept personal responsibility for your own failures and mistakes. The PM is, after all, only human.
And he still has time to grasp this. And he’s more than intelligent enough to, if he can step outside himself long enough to take an objective look at things. The fact that he’s left thinking that he’s the victim of some shift in the human condition suggests he’s a long way from that kind of insight, though. Humans don’t change. Until he can accept that, barring some kind of epic Conservative meltdown (which is very possible!), Trudeau’s political fortunes won’t change, either.
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