Trudeau, Trump and the Assault on Liberal Democracy

What makes a liberal society? How do we find the dividing line between liberal and illiberal regimes? If we want to draw a line between the two, one particularly important question concerns how the majority, or those who hold power, behave toward a dissenting minority. Are minorities treated with genuine tolerance, so that they can air their grievances just as freely as those in power can, without any intimidation?

The trucker protest in Canada achieved international fame, but it seems now to enjoy the support of only a tiny proportion on Canadians (82% think it has gone on too long). Precisely because it did not enjoy majority support, it posed a number of implicit questions to the Canadian government and its supporters. Are we a liberal society? Are we a tolerant society? We now have an answer: Canada is neither a tolerant nor a liberal society. A minority in Canada that gets too far out of line risks being crushed by means of authoritarian measures.

A liberal society allows for the expression of dissent, in particular dissent unpleasing to the dominant regime. In practice this has included a right to peaceful protest. If citizens don’t have this right, they are not living in a liberal society. By all accounts, the trucker protest in Canada has been extraordinarily peaceful and orderly, even going so far as to clean up after itself. The right to donate to causes that express peaceful dissent must also be a fundamental matter, itself basically a form of peaceful dissent. In recent days we have not only seen the government announce its intent to persecute those who exercised their right to donate to a protest, we have also seen shocking behaviour from many in the media, who have publicly exposed donors whose details had come to light through (presumably illegal) hacking, apparently in an attempt to destroy these law-abiding citizens. None of this is characteristic of a liberal society. On the contrary, it is characteristic of a deeply illiberal regime.

In a liberal society, citizens may attack each other’s ideas with ferocity, but they are expected to exercise some measure of restraint in attacks directed at one another, recognising the need to accept profound differences of opinion as part and parcel of a political life that is peaceful without being brutally coercive. Those who occupy positions of leadership in a liberal society have a particular duty to make a show of accepting criticism, even if it is expressed in a tactless or excessively vehement manner.

The failure of Canada’s current Prime Minister to do his job in a manner consistent with liberal norms as the trucker protest unfolded has been nothing short of astonishing. At no point has he shown any recognition that he was dealing with fellow citizens, whose opposition to his policies might admit of some reasoned response. On the contrary, he tried from the start to frame his critics as extremists, members of an out-group who had no standing to criticise his government. He declared their views ‘unacceptable’ and hurled at them the most damning words of condemnation our society has to offer, for example, “antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, homophobia, and transphobia!” (It is remarkable how often a list of words along these lines is strung together these days and thrown at enemies, even when one or all of the words is backed with no evidence at all: the point is to label the target as a member of the out-group, as someone beyond the pale.) This is not how liberal democracy is done.

Though the Prime Minister did not trouble himself with the need to provide evidence for each of the epithets he hurled, we should consider the evidence which has been advanced. It is true that a swastika or two have been sighted near the protests, though there have been reports that the intention was “to suggest, absurdly, that Canada’s covid restrictions are akin to Nazism.” A confederate flag was also sighted at one point, but its bearer was asked to leave, as was an antisemitic nut-job who showed up. A few such individuals provide a slender reed of evidence indeed on which to base a claim of general bigotry with which to dismiss an entire protest movement. In fact, the charge of bigotry is usually laid against those who judge an entire group based on the failings of an insignificant number of its members. For example, to judge an entire religion on the basis of, say, 19 of its adherents who highjacked planes and crashed them into buildings – that would be inexcusable bigotry. How was Justin Trudeau’s behaviour in this case meaningfully different?

Trudeau has been remarkably consistent in his ad hominem attacks on the truckers, directing his attention again and again to attacks on their character and not to their preferred policies (e.g., an end to vaccine mandates). Even the extraordinary, pathetic cowardice he displayed by going in to hiding as the truckers arrived in Ottawa had a sinister aspect, as it carried the absurd pretence that these people were violent extremists. If all this seems a strange way for a Prime Minister to act, his behaviour becomes stranger still when we consider how ineffective it is as a means of containing the situation. Had he reacted with equanimity to large-scale protests, taken the criticism on the chin, and met with the truckers’ leaders, he could have made it clear that he recognises that his fellow citizens have a right to disagree with vaccine mandates, and he might thus have defused the situation to a very considerable degree. Instead, having bothered neither with this nor almost any other intermediate measure, he went straight to the Emergencies Act.

One key seems to explain this bizarre behaviour. Trudeau’s problem has never been that he is unable to accept the idea of protests, even violent protests. When Canadian churches were being burned, one after another, he condemned the burnings, but also called the anger that produced them ‘fully understandable;’ as the trucker saga unfolded in Ottawa, a violent attack was launched by about twenty people on a pipeline and those working on it (photos of the damage caused suggest very real violence). In neither case did Trudeau release a string of epithets of the sort he directed at the truckers, nor did the violence in either case seem to merit the Emergency Act. What is new with the trucker protest is that it is the first time Trudeau has been confronted with large-scale, effective protest against himself and his government. This he does not seem to find ‘understandable’ but rather ‘unacceptable.’ To be particularly unable to take criticism directed at one’s own government is an extraordinary failing in a Prime Minister. One has the impression, in fact, of considerable immaturity. I think this is the sort of thing that Dr. Peterson (a clinical psychologist) had in mind when he said of Trudeau, “he’s a teenager – he’s a teenage actor, fundamentally.”

Unfortunately, Trudeau’s break with liberal norms goes considerably deeper than I have so far suggested. I don’t think there has been enough reflection on the extreme severity, and the extreme authoritarian nature, of the financial measures brought to bear through the Emergencies Act. Freezing a person’s bank accounts is not a penalty like any other. If the police kick my door open and break a few of my bones as they subdue me, I can still eat this week and next. If you were to take away my bank accounts, I don’t know how I would eat after the food in my house had been exhausted. Very quickly, I’d be reduced to begging. In fact, the ability to exchange money is something taken for granted in exercise of pretty much any right at all. I’m not going to labour this point, as it covered here in an excellent Twitter thread. Governments have never in history had much ability to interfere with two individuals exchanging money, so the fact that the act was a sort of critical infrastructure to meaningful freedom never had much significance – it could just be taken for granted as something people could always do.

All that has changed with the arrival of digital banking. People can now be deprived of their money, and of their ability to conduct a vast range of financial transactions – there is now rather a lot that cannot be done at all with cash – with the flip of a switch. What we have seen with these financial measures in Canada in recent days is like the first detonation of the atom bomb, but this is a bomb that only destroys freedom (well, strictly speaking, this bomb was first detonated in some authoritarian regime like China, but Canada is leading the way in the formerly-liberal world). The importance of a kind of right to banking is something that has been on my radar for a year or two, as I’ve already seen a number of attempts, a few successful, to cut people out of online payment processing. It was clear that sometime soon, this was something that legislators would need to attend to. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that this new power would be weaponised by the government of Canada to crush peaceful protesters. We read that these measures have not only been applied to people taking part in the protests, but even to those who donated to the protests before the government declared the protests verboten! All this constitutes a shocking, monstrous, outrageous, radically authoritarian act, one that crushes Canada’s pretence of liberality as surely as it crushes peaceful protesters.

And of course, the move can hardly increase confidence in Canada’s financial system. The whole thing is predicated on the notion that if I put my money in a Canadian bank, the money is, well, mine, and no politician can arbitrarily take it away from me. The ease with which ordinary citizens, exercising their right to protest, have been labelled as extremists or terrorists and dispossessed is a terrible lesson for the rest of us. I’ve never had much interest in crypto currency; I will think again. If I ever live in Canada again, I will be sure to maintain at least one foreign bank account, to give me a bit of breathing room in case those in power decide to unperson me.

With all this in mind we should return again to the Prime Minister’s preference for personal attacks when dealing with the truckers. If we grant, for the sake of argument, that these are Bad People, does that somehow invalidate their criticism of his policies? Do Bad People not have the right to protest in Canada? Do Bad People not have rights in general? Not if you put it like that. But when we consider the radically illiberal measures to which the protesters are now subject, then these personal attacks, this unpersoning of opponents, starts to take on a new significance. To the extent that a leader and his followers convince themselves that their opponents are particularly wicked, it becomes easier to turn to unusual and extreme measures: the notion that Bad People do not quite have the same rights as everyone else starts to seem not so monstrous and radical as in fact it is. (It does have to be said that the failings of much Canadian media in covering this whole episode have been very great.)

By becoming Prime Minister, Trudeau has become the dog that caught the car: his unprecedented assault on liberal norms has shown him to be unworthy of holding any significant office at all in a liberal democracy, and by failing to defuse a peaceful protest, causing it instead to blow up into a matter of great significance for Canada’s standing in the world, he has simultaneously shown himself to be incapable of meeting the demands imposed by the highest office in the land. He is far, far out of his depth. I have been trying to think how one might fail at liberal democracy more totally than Justin Trudeau has done. At one point I thought I should concede that he has at least allowed the protests run for a couple weeks rather than crushing them on day one – but of course even the world’s most illiberal regimes do that: even Tiananmen Square wasn’t crushed on day one.

When thinking about radical anti-liberals such as Justin Trudeau, people naturally reach for a certain German dictator, but it is unfair to compare Trudeau to Hitler. There is, however, another, far more appropriate comparison, and that is Donald Trump. Many of us failed to take Trump seriously at first, as he seemed like a clownish buffoon. It took some time before we saw just how much harm such a clown can do to a liberal democracy. Just like Trump, Justin Trudeau never seemed a terribly serious or statesmanlike figure. Intellectually insubstantial, so status conscious as to be the eager slave of whatever happens to be in vogue at a given moment, like Trump he had an immense advantage in politics in the form of national name recognition (though unlike Trump, Trudeau had done nothing at all to earn his fame). And just as Trump launched an unprecedented assault on his country’s constitutional order on January 6th, 2021, so too does Trudeau’s use of emergency measures constitute an act without precedent in Canadian history – previous uses of these powers were in response to world wars or a terrorist crisis – and one no less damaging to Canada’s formerly liberal character than Trump’s act. In similar fashion, Trump’s appeals to absurd conspiracy theories to justify his refusal to concede an election find a parallel in the embarrassing fig-leaf of reasoning with which Trudeau’s government has sought to justify its invocation of emergency measures (if you want to see a Canadian law professor’s thoughts on that reasoning, watch this video). Of course, the comparison is in one respect unfair to Trump, who never proceeded so severely, or with such extraordinary powers, against peaceful protesters: far better to be a peaceful protester in Donald Trump’s America than in Justin Trudeau’s Canada.

The damage that Trudeau has done to Canada’s reputation abroad has been immense and will probably never be fully repaired. Unable to compete with the United States in armed power, Canada has long thought of itself as a sort of moral superpower, but in a matter of days, Trudeau has blown that pretension to bits. An example of our changed circumstances was furnished on February 17th, when a Canadian government Twitter account found itself widely mocked for tweeting out the following: “Canada condemns #Cuba’s harsh sentencing following the July 2021 protests. 🇨🇦 strongly advocates for freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly free from intimidation. We stand with the people of 🇨🇺 in their aspiration for #democracy.” The second sentence stands so starkly at odds with the current situation in Ottawa that it sounds like a joke – in fact, I read it to a friend last night, and he burst out laughing. There is a new reality here: Canada no longer has the moral standing to criticise illiberal regimes around the world, because it is itself run by an illiberal regime, differing from places like Cuba or Belarus not in kind, but only in degree. Elsewhere on Twitter, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and a representative of the Chinese government criticised Canada’s behaviour (quite rightly), and we can expect a good deal more of that sort of thing in the future if the Canadian government ever pretends, absurdly, that it supports the right to protest. Here in Germany, when people refer to my home country’s behaviour as totalitarian, what defence can I offer? In fact, I have to admit I’m glad to have a bank account in Germany, whose government is clearly more likely to protect my basic rights than Canada is: the days when Canada could claim to do liberal government better than Germany are most definitely over.

There remains some hope in the courts, perhaps in the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s lawsuit against the current federal government (as of this writing there have been no reports that the bank accounts of those donating to the Association have been frozen). Still, looking to the future, it is difficult to avoid falling into profound pessimism or even resignation. I am old enough to remember the last decade and more of the 20th century, a time still informed to a considerable degree by memories of the Second World War. Back then, we were warned against the complacent belief that the worst of the 20th century could not happen in our own countries. Our protection against those horrors lay not in something special about ourselves or the places we lived, but rather in the preservation of the unnatural habits proper to a free society. These involved the toleration of cranks and eccentrics, a willingness to allow equal standing to those we found offensive or stupid, a readiness to engage with and try to convince our opponents while rejecting the natural urge simply to destroy them; to focus our rhetorical weapons on policies rather than on people. Above all, there was the implicit demand that everyone should always put the habits and institutions of a free society above the cause of the moment, that a political victory should not be won at the expense of our institutions and our society’s liberal character. If few people entirely measured up to these ideals, still they exerted a constant, often decisive force. It’s important to remember that this state of affairs lasted many generations and worked very well: today one encounters people who speak as if liberal democracy was always a sham, and while that may say something about our current situation, it was not always true. I was there, and I remember.

The habits and institutions I list above, and others like them, can be thought of as analogous to a series of earthworks built to protect against floods. Much of the time, it’s easy to forget they’re there, and they’re rarely of direct relevance to everyday life. They can be allowed to fall into disrepair, and no immediate difficulties will follow. But at some point, the waters will rise, and if those flood defences are not in good shape, the waters will wipe out everything in their path.

It is in connection with this metaphor that it is appropriate to mention Hitler in relation to Justin Trudeau. The worst of the 20th century did not appear all of a sudden out of nowhere; whole nations did not wake up one morning and decide to commit atrocities when they might just as easily have decided on something quite different. Nor were places like Canada or the US free from the sort of economic catastrophe or poisonous ideology that proved such fertile soil for tyranny elsewhere. What they did have were mature institutions with deep roots in habit and culture that allowed for the expression of grievances and dissenting views. These meant that when the floodwaters of human irrationality rose to hitherto unimagined heights, political life did not collapse into tyranny, repression and genocide.

Justin Trudeau is not Hitler. What he does represent, together with Donald Trump, is a sort of pre-requisite, the norm-busting imbecile unable to see beyond his petty everyday concerns who, with unspeakable stupidity, actively destroys our defences against future floods, putting the unthinkable back on the horizon of possibility once more.

I will end on a personal note. A few years ago I was working with a German colleague of Turkish descent when Erdogan suppressed the Gülenists in Turkey. My colleague was so upset by the authoritarian measures used to suppress opposition that he said ich habe meine Heimat verloren, a strong statement in German: “I have lost my homeland.” Justin Trudeau’s descent into authoritarianism has given me a first taste of the same feeling. The Canada I grew up in was a liberal, tolerant country run by decent people. I can only hope it becomes that again someday.