Justin Trudeau Lived by Social Media. Now He’s Dying by It.
The self-immolation of the Canadian government is rooted in the way it came to power.
At the beginning of his term in office, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a diverse and gender-balanced cabinet at a widely celebrated public display of the new left in Canada. When asked why, he answered, “Because it’s 2015”—a response that went viral instantly around the world. Well, it’s 2019 now, and the Trudeau government is in the middle of a scandal of its own making, a drama playing out on social media and live TV that is paralyzing the country and could well take him down. Trudeau has become an object lesson in the perils of “virocracy”: It is in the nature of the social media left to destroy itself.
The SNC-Lavalin scandal has not really reached the international papers yet—I think because compared to the scandals engrossing Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, not to mention the United States’ Donald Trump, it hardly registers. Nonetheless, it involves a very serious claim of impropriety. To summarize briefly: A Quebec-based engineering company called SNC-Lavalin employs 8,500 people in Canada and tens of thousands more around the world. It is a company that has faced consistent and credible accusations of corruption, both at home and abroad. When a case involving the company’s alleged bribery in Libya was recently to be prosecuted in Canada, Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould was faced with a choice: pursue criminal charges, which would probably lead to the destruction of the company, or allow for a deferred prosecution agreement. Wilson-Raybould has testified that after her decision to prosecute, the prime minister improperly pressured her to impose the deferred prosecution agreement to preserve SNC-Lavalin’s Quebec jobs (and Quebec votes). When she resisted, the administration demoted her to minister of veterans affairs. For the record, the prime minister has denied there was improper pressure.
There have been many, many scandals of this magnitude in Canadian political history. The staff of Trudeau’s Conservative predecessor Stephen Harper was criticized by a federal watchdog for making improper payments to a senator, although the prime minister denied any involvement in the incident. Separately, his government was the first in Canadian history to be found in contempt of Parliament. Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s last years were more or less consumed by deflecting a series of ethical breaches by his cabinet members. His Conservative predecessor Brian Mulroney was more old-fashioned: After leaving office, he took 300,000 Canadian dollars—about $350,000 in today’s U.S. dollars—in cash payments in hotel rooms. The SNC-Lavalin scandal is unremarkable except for one key distinction: A sitting member of Trudeau’s own cabinet blew it up.
Wilson-Raybould’s testimony was, by Canadian standards, high political theater. She concluded her remarks with the line: “I come from a long line of matriarchs and I am a truth teller.” A perfect tweet. Several of her colleagues in the Liberal Party and in cabinet voiced their support for her on various forms of social media. The response from the public, however, is less clear. Several provincial representatives from Quebec expressed concern, but only about whether SNC-Lavalin would be subject to a hostile takeover and the condition of the company’s employees. Imagine if the situation were reversed: If 8,500 Canadian jobs were lost because of a law attempting to preserve the political innocence of Libya, it’s hard to imagine Canadians would not be outraged.
The truth is that the self-immolation of the Trudeau government has been a long time coming. It’s rooted in the way it came to power, through virtue optics and social media. Trudeau is the master of the kind of celebrity progressivism that gets you turned into a paper doll in the pages of New York magazine. He proved that social media skills could win elections, too. But that political technique comes at a cost, and the cost is the need to appear pure. Trudeau is now paying.
A ripple of tension between image and power has run throughout the Liberals’ time in office. Jody Wilson-Raybould herself was a fascinating example. She is a former First Nation regional chief and the daughter of a chief, but when she attended the 2016 Assembly of First Nations, she had to make the following statement as attorney general: “As much as I would tomorrow like to cast into the fire of history the Indian Act so that the Nations can be reborn in its ashes, this is not a practical option—which is why simplistic approaches, such as adopting the UNDRIP [United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People] as being Canadian law, are unworkable and, respectfully, a political distraction to undertaking the hard work required to actually implement it.” The contradiction is obvious: The politically virtuous thing to do is to adopt UNDRIP. She couldn’t do it exactly because she had the power to do it. What torture it must have been—you can hear it in the phrasing—to be the person most responsible in the country for keeping the Indian Act, an evil document, in force.
The same tension was at play when Environment Minister Catherine McKenna posted comments on Twitter and Facebook about the gendered nature of environmental degradation. She was a citing a study that showed that climate change affects women and girls more than men and boys. But her point was really to affect the correct pose: “I fight for women and the environment.” And the problem is this: She was responsible, at that exact moment, for building a pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the global marketplace. Why would she be a tool of misogyny if she really believed in the argument she was making? Government isn’t a TED Talk.
Anyone with any familiarity with political history or political theory knows that virtue and power are not always compatible. The sidelines are so much easier. From the sidelines, from Twitter, you don’t have to ask yourself if UNDRIP is workable. You just need to scream that it’s a disgrace the Indian Act exists, which it is. You just need to call your enemies misogynists and ignore the balance of compromises by which things are made to happen. Social media, gloriously, elides the fundamental dilemma of virtue and power through spectacle. Wilson-Raybould is a person of profound integrity. No one doubts it. But it doesn’t matter whether she’s unworthy of power or whether power is unworthy of her. The result is the same. There’s an election at the end of this year. For the sake of her integrity, Wilson-Raybould has effectively offered support to Andrew Scheer, the leader of the Conservative Party, who has no climate change plan and who was booed when he last appeared at the Assembly of First Nations. The Conservatives, of course, have never claimed to be moral arbiters as the social media Liberals have. They want to fight for Canadian jobs. They will certainly not hold themselves to standards they absolve their opponents of holding.
The Trudeau Liberals are, right now, the most successful progressive government in the world. On the day before Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, Bloomberg reported that child poverty in Canada had fallen to its lowest level since 2002. They have kept Canada the world’s last bastion of functioning multiculturalism. They have stood for refugees. They have renegotiated NAFTA successfully with a madman. They have legalized marijuana. At the same time, Canada has led or come second in growth in the G-7 during most years of their time in office. All these successes are substantial, but they don’t matter politically, because the Liberals built their house on the sand of virality, which doesn’t register substance.
The right doesn’t face these problems. They brag about the ugliness of power, and voters respond to the fact that they’re not lying. Even if Trudeau wins again, his position will always be precarious. Viral virtue eats itself. If you live by poses, you’re going to die by them. The question of the next election is whether Trudeau’s skill at social media manipulation may not bring him to triumph anyway. The political power of social media, though it contains the glamorous flaw of self-immolation, is so huge that a traditional scandal like SNC-Lavalin may not register as it might have in another era.
The other thing Trudeau has going for him is the fundamental hypocrisy of the Canadian people. Smug self-righteousness is our definitive political attribute, especially when we’re talking to other countries, but way down deep we love a bully too. We may want to look like goody two-shoes, but we also want a thug to fight for our jobs and stand up to perceived thugs in Saudi Arabia or wherever. That’s as true in the era of Facebook and Twitter as it ever was.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article contained language alleging that former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was involved in certain practices that may have been illegal or improper. That language was incorrect, and has since been updated. We apologize for the error.