By now it should be clear there is something wrong with Justin Trudeau.
We are not unfamiliar with the public figure who, at some point in his past, did something remarkably stupid or offensive like black up his face for a party. We have no experience with a leader, a prime minister no less, who cannot remember how many times he did so — two, three, 12? — for whom, indeed, blackface appears to have been something of a hobby.
But when the leader in question is the first son of the country’s most revered Liberal icon, when his own career has been built on his impassioned advocacy of diversity, inclusion and equality — and on the weaponization of these themes against opponents deemed deficient in their commitment to them — we are in altogether undiscovered country.
Perhaps the most damning thing that can be said is that, when the prime minister claims he was unaware, as a 29-year-old teacher in 2001, that dressing up as a member of a racial minority was offensive — that, in fact, it did not dawn on him until after he was elected as an MP, in 2008 — most of us believe him. It is difficult to believe he could be that racist, but it is all too easy to believe he could be that clueless.
Even so, the photos and video are disturbing, quite apart from their offensiveness. It requires more than mere ignorance or insensitivity to dress the part with such care, even to the point of blackening the parts of his body his clothes concealed, or with such enthusiasm. His delight in blackface appears to be of a piece with other aspects of his behaviour, such as his party trick of falling down stairs, and to stem from the same psychological wellsprings: the vanity, the insatiable desire for attention, the showy theatricality.
If that were all, the effect might merely be to reset public perceptions of him, from the earnest idealist of 2015 or the cynical operator of 2017, back to the vamping buffoon of 2013. The ingredients of a public rehabilitation campaign are already falling into place, as dutifully rehearsed by members of his caucus and cabinet: yes, his behaviour was “disappointing,” but his apologies were sincere, and his record on racial matters is positive.
If you thought this affair meant an end to the Trudeau brand of conspicuous moral preening — think again
On social media, surrogates have been taking up the cause. What does it matter if he was a racist in the past so long as he is an anti-racist in the present? Why single him out for racist acts, when the whole of society is racist? Trudeau himself played to this sentiment in his next-day press conference in Winnipeg. Coming from “a place of privilege,” he ruefully acknowledged, had given him “a massive blind spot.”
It was classic Trudeau: the melody may be one of contrition, but the words are all deflection. The failing was not personal or individual, he implied, a product of his own narcissism and staggering incuriousness. Rather, the fault lay with the “privilege” that had blinded him, and presumably others of his class and race — few of whom would even think of dressing in blackface.
And thus to an extended homily on the lessons we must all learn, the work we must all do — and that he pledged to lead — to defeat the scourge of racism. Nearby members of the public broke into spontaneous applause.
If you thought this affair meant an end to the Trudeau brand of conspicuous moral preening — if you thought the rank hypocrisy of lecturing his opponents for their sins against tolerance, even as he was concealing much worse in his past, would deter or even shame him — think again. He seems merely to have exchanged one hypocrisy for another, asking meekly for the forgiveness he has been so unwilling to extend to others.
Which is really what all this is about. It isn’t the insensitivity, or the self-absorption, or the hypocrisy, that will leave the most lasting impression: it’s the calculation, the fakery, the synthetic emotion, the sly manipulation. The prime minister has proved adept at deploying the jargon and cliches of the identitarian left (“microaggressions,” “intersectionalities,” and “ally” all featured highly in the Winnipeg press conference) in moments of maximum political danger: recall his earlier non-denial of having groped a young female reporter, this time as a 28-year-old: “men and women often experience situations differently.”
Is he a racist? No. He is a fraud. The racial masks he wore to conceal his identity 20 years ago are but one in a series: from blackface to feministface to sunnywaysface. If it were just a matter of comparing his youthful errors to his record on racial issues, his partisans might have a point. Certainly the Conservatives, with their record of having exploited fears of Muslims, or asylum-seekers, or God help us, the Global Migration Compact, are in no position to point fingers.
It is difficult to believe he could be that racist, but it is all too easy to believe he could be that clueless
But the character and credibility of a leader is a much broader matter than one issue. It informs every part of his record, the whole of his platform. The leader we saw dissembling so skillfully this week in Winnipeg is the same one who lied to the public, repeatedly, about the SNC-Lavalin affair; who made solemn and explicit promises on electoral reform and balanced budgets he had no intention of keeping; who ran roughshod over Parliament in exactly the same ways he had most decried in his predecessor.
Oh, and: he is the same leader who boasted after the fact of having personally selected a “scrappy tough-guy senator from an Indigenous community” as his opponent for the charity boxing match that would launch his career because he would make “a good foil.” Even on race, that the current occupant of the Prime Minister’s Office is a sanctimonious fraud it is surely at least as significant as that his government sponsors anti-racism seminars.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019