Justin Trudeau’s Post-Truth Era Politicking: Alternative Facts and Trumpism-lite
In the wake of the election of demagogue Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau was quick to congratulate the alleged rapist on his success. Global leaders rushed to make-sense of the US election for their citizenry and to normalize this anti-intellectual, white supremacist, misogynistic President. Naomi Klein has called this a successful corporate coup d’état: It was not enough to corrupt politicians into carrying out the will of the elites, it became more efficient to occupy the system. Trump and Trumpism has already had tremendous impacts on Justin Trudeau’s style of politics. Trudeau has eagerly embraced the post-truth mantra of alternative facts to advance a political ideology which suggests one thing, while his actions suggest the opposite.
Alternative facts are nothing new to Canadian politics. Of course, figuring out what they are exactly is the challenge. Some have equated alternative facts with simple lies, such as William Lyon Mackenzie King’s position-shift from no conscription in 1939 to “not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary” in 1942, to full-out conscription in 1944. But I believe alternative facts explain something totally different and new. Alternative facts suggest that the facts are not factual. They say, ‘what you see is incorrect, believe me.’
Kellyanne Conway, in coining the term “alternative facts,” perhaps unintentionally, identified the post-truth condition in which we live: one with alternative facts at its core. Trudeau has not hesitated to adopt this political method.
Alternative facts are at the core of neoliberal consumerism. Naomi Klein’s No Logo offers a framework through which we can understand how brands have cultivated a misleading image of themselves as somehow capable of changing lives. Whether it’s Pepsi and Kendall Jenner saving Black lives from the police, or Nike promising that our lives can be made somehow better and more productive by buying into their carefully-cultivated brand identity, “Just do it.” Of course, we all know that buying Nike won’t make your life better; indeed it makes the lives of many worse. But that was the image they were able to sell consumers; and we ate it up. Our Canada Goose, iPhones, and McGill sweaters create a common community—a brand identity which we believe tells others something important about ourselves, and brainwashes us to continue to participate in consumer culture. Because we are so eager to buy into these brand identities, we look away from slave labour, the neo-colonization of globalization, and the emptiness of the products we buy. Neoliberalism colonizes as much as possible: its primary project is endless expansion and exploitation, with the highest possible profit margins. Neoliberalism has turned people into consumers, it colonized factory-workers in Bangladesh and made them low-paid slave labour, and it bought our democratic institutions. Neoliberalism colonizes ideas: love, education, and now truth. It is, in retrospect, unsurprising that a figure like Donald Trump, whose brand is literally embodied by him, has colonized the White House.
All politicians cultivate a brand. Barack Obama created a brand based on the empty rhetoric of “hope” and “change;” Bernie Sanders based on “revolution.” Few Canadian politicians have made political brands as well as Justin Trudeau. His brand is similar to Trump’s, just more cheerful! His brand is made up of empty rhetoric of “sunny ways” and “real change,” and is defined by a few small steps forward from the Harper years: actually being productive at the Paris Climate talks (only to have no action plan to reach the goals), appointing more women to cabinet (but what about LGBT people, people with disabilities, or People of Colour), and, of course, truly gorgeous hair.
Justin Trudeau also likes to make a lot of his small-scale acceptance of Syrian refugees when he was first elected. Compared to countries surrounding Syria which have accepted millions of refugees, Canada’s contribution is a needle-in-a-haystack’s worth. It was the bare minimum he could do to keep the lefties off his back for a couple years. He opened the doors just an inch, and paraded around Canada seductively whispering his favourite words: diversity, acceptance, sunny ways. One might have thought he had accepted all the Syrian refugees for the amount of publicity the press gave him. All was good. Until Donald Trump was elected, causing many Haitians who might be targeted by white supremacist policies proposed by Trump to cross the border into Canada. All the while Justin Trudeau continued to encourage these border crossings, accepting the praise for being a welcoming country. While Trudeau went around tweeting this alternative narrative about how we are stronger together, he did nothing to ensure that these refugees would be able to live in Canada safely. These refugees were stranded in border offices due to the Safe Third Country Agreement, while Trudeau tweeted, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” Two asylum-seekers lost their fingers due to the cold when trying to cross the border into Canada; hundreds filled the Olympic Stadium here in Montreal. How can Trudeau endorse the Safe Third Country Agreement, while also saying that those fleeing persecution and terror are #WelcomeToCanada? 2+2=5? Trudeau is using alternative facts to appease Canadians so we think that we can sit back and do nothing; Trudeau is doing the work for us.
Trudeau has eagerly embraced the post-truth mantra of alternative facts to advance a political ideology which suggests one thing, while his actions suggest the opposite.
Alternative facts are hardly confined to the refugee-issue in Canada. Trudeau’s relationship with Indigenous people has been grounded in alternative facts. He loves to say how he is “listening” to First Nations, and improving the relationship. But Indigenous leaders are giving him a failing grade in meeting his promises to Indigenous peoples. He’ll go to the United Nations and talk about Canada’s history of atrocities towards Indigenous people, but then refuses to listen their voices at the First Ministers’ Conference. Hayden King, an associate professor at Carleton University said, "I think this government is particularly exceptional for showing up to class but just failing to do any of the work." While Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett has triumphed efforts to “decolonize,” she has not taken any solid action towards decolonization; rather using it as a metaphor for petite movements forward—certainly nothing close to decolonization. Again, it is clear that Trudeau’s government is using the language of “real change” while not making any substantial change at all. He still refuses to adopt UNDRIP, while still parading his “sunny ways” approach to politics, and UNDRIP-inspired approach to policy regarding Indigenous issues. The pomposity of “real change” with Indigenous issues enable what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang call “settler moves-to-innocence;” as settler Canadians are led to believe that there is action ongoing in an alternative-reality, while the actual changes proposed by the Trudeau government are inadequate (or non-existent).
In some cases, the alternative facts are downright lies. Most obviously was Trudeau’s widely-commended position that the 2015 election would be “the last under first-past-the-post.” Trudeau promised “a debate that never happened” on electoral reform—releasing a BuzzFeed-esque quiz, and calling the results somehow conclusive that Canadians didn’t want change, despite having given him a clear mandate to change the electoral system in the 2015 election. When journalists ask why they refused to implement electoral change, Trudeau and Karina Gould, Minister of Democratic Institutions, point to the non-existent “debate” as having had a lack-of-consensus.
Kellyanne Conway, in coining the term “alternative facts,” perhaps unintentionally, identified the post-truth condition in which we live: one with alternative facts at its core. Trudeau has not hesitated to adopt this political method. The Left needs to be ready to call out Trudeau for his blatant mistruths. No more selfies with Trudeau when there are over 100 long-term boil water advisories and over 40 short-term boil water advisories on First Nation Reserves. No more self-congratulatory talk of “diversity” while the Federal Government refuses to take substantive action against Québec’s Liberal Party to ensure that women wearing niqabs are allowed to take the bus in Québec. No more silence in the face of Trumpism-lite in Canada.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the McGill Left Review's editorial board.