The election campaign was off to an unexciting start even by Canada’s standards. A well-known but fluffy incumbent, Liberal Justin Trudeau, faced a Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, whose strategy had been to lay low. The Trudeau message these past four years has been total political correctness: equal numbers of male and female cabinet members, ‘peoplekind’ instead of ‘mankind’ and requiring summer employment project hirees to sign a pledge to uphold abortion rights. Probably as many Canadians groaned at these fatuities as were impressed by them, but it assisted the Liberals in taking votes from the left, as the Conservatives unhistrionically asked for common sense. The Liberal plan for 2019 was to send Justin around cooing about good things while his campaign office smeared Conservative candidates as closet homophobes, misogynists and bigots. It was a sensible plan for a party that can’t really ask to be re-elected on its record. Then it blew up.
‘The most woke and politically correct leader in the world dressed up in blackface,’ read one incredulous headline. Trudeau had attended an Aladdin-themed party in 2001 painted black, including his hands. Trudeau told people how repentant and annoyed he was at himself, and was on his way to his family to confess and apologise to them. There had been only one other such incident in his life, he said. But as he spoke, others came to light, including one with an Afro wig.
As American commentator and Fox News columnist Tucker Carlson remarked: ‘It’s like you’re finding out your super–sensitive brother-in-law, the one who tells you he’s a feminist and is always scolding you for your sexism, is hitting on the babysitter.’ Canadians are sensitive about the overwhelming contiguity of the United States, always trying to distinguish themselves from America. They are almost as critical of American political leaders as the leftist British media. Suddenly to become a laughing stock of the entire American television entertainment industry – all the dozens of late-night wise-crack programs and day-time radio talk-shows with tens of millions of listeners – is mortifying.
The sound of America splitting its ample sides at Canada’s expense, on top of the widespread sense that Justin Trudeau is a puerile fraud, has shaken up the electoral calculus. Trudeau’s second line of defence, after initial contrition, has been to explain that he would not have been so insensitive if he had not been raised in privileged circumstances. His father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, inherited a substantial fortune in his late teens and was no martyr to the work ethic. He was academically successful before entering politics aged 46 to fight the Quebec separatists. Three years later he was prime minister, a post he filled for 15 years. He did defeat the separatists.
Justin’s chief qualification for high office was always surviving childbirth, and this blackface episode has undermined the whole perception of him as the ultimate crusader for the emollient smoothing of every political sensibility. Nobody believes that Justin is a racist or that he was mocking the groups he impersonated at costume parties long ago. No one says that; but it makes him appear a poseur, a shallow and effeminate trickster. That is probably unjust; he is, in fact, a pleasant and likeable man who deserves credit for rebuilding the Liberal party. But it shows the danger of political popularity resting exclusively on images, poses, selfies and smearing opponents.
It also invites a second look at some other infelicitous chapters that, because of Trudeau’s Teflon amiability, have not done much damage to his government. Last month, he was caught red-handed by the ethics commissioner lying to parliament about a decision to fine rather than prosecute a large engineering company (Montreal’s SNC-Lavalin) for bribing foreign government officials. Trudeau ultimately expelled the former attorney general from the Liberal party over the issue. There is also the unfounded and now collapsed prosecution of the former commander of the Canadian Navy over policy disagreements.
Various other frailties of the Prime Minister also come back to mind. He embarrassed the country by dressing his whole family up in elaborate traditional Indian costumes for a visit to India in 2018; it was as if the prime minister of France had visited Canada today with his family, all of them dressed up in 16th-century costumes like the discoverers of French Canada, with ruffled shirts, buckled shoes and full breeches.
When there is so little substance in a regime, the ridiculous can suddenly pulverise it. At the least, it will be hard for the Liberals to execute their daily sniper-attacks on individual Conservative candidates with tactical slime from the archives. It is three weeks from the election and it is now a toss-up who will win.