“Everything I tried to do in the last four years has been focused on bringing Canadians together. Yet we find ourselves in a more polarizing, more divisive election. I really hope that Canadians pull together and I hope Canadians make the choice to pull together.”
Thus spoke Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau at an announcement in Fredericton.
He had been asked what his greatest regret was as prime minister, and his answer wasn’t that surprising. Trudeau has always seen himself as a rassembleur — someone who brings people together. Conversely, he has demonized his Conservative opponents, first Stephen Harper and now Andrew Scheer, as people who divide. This has been his shtick ever since he became leader.
The irony, however, is that Trudeau is actually one of the most polarizing figures in Canadian politics. It is a fact he does not acknowledge because he may not even realize it.
For progressive politicians, division is the province of the right: think Doug Ford and Jason Kenney. But a politician’s propensity to divide isn’t simply based on politics — it’s also based on personality. And due to his unique combination of the two, Trudeau, like his father Pierre Elliott Trudeau before him, has succeeded in dividing the country and producing one of the most bitter elections in recent memory.
Rewind to the 1970s. The elder Trudeau evoked very different reactions, depending on whom you spoke to. In Quebec, diehard nationalists despised him while federalists cheered him. Many westerners loathed him for his National Energy Program, which impoverished Alberta. Trudeau even famously gave voters in Salmon Arm, B.C., the finger when he passed through.
Indeed, throughout his mandates, Pierre Trudeau evinced a nonchalance about this polarity; while he was in favour of a united Canada, he did not seek to please everyone in it. He saw the big picture — the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadian unity — and fought for the things he believed in, damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead. If people didn’t like him because of his ideas, tant pis.
Trudeau the younger is a very different politician and embodies a very different progressivism — yet produces the same polarizing result. That’s because of the nature of the movement he represents. Progressivism used to be about rights. Rights like those the charter enshrined — for minorities, for women, for people with disabilities, and later, for gays and lesbians. In other words, anyone who was shut out of the power structures of mainstream male, heterosexual, white, Christian North America.
Today, the movement has transcended the rights culture and embraced an identity politics culture. It is not only about what you believe but about who and what you are. Privilege — defined as that above-cited mainstream identity — disqualifies you from even speaking to certain issues. Progressivism also demands a level of group-think that establishes clear divisions, even within the movement itself. Transgender rights activists coined the term “TERFs” to describe feminists who fear their own movement is being undermined by trans activism. The battleground has shifted from the right for voices to be heard to the demand to be addressed by one’s preferred pronoun.
Into this climate comes Justin Trudeau. He’s an unlikely standard-bearer for this new progressivism in many ways: the white, wealthy, private-school-educated, ultra-privileged son of a former prime minister who embodies the very essence of the Laurentian elite. And he’s a walking contradiction to the ethos he espouses — especially now that he has been revealed to have a penchant for blackface and spent months bullying a female Indigenous cabinet minister.
But no matter. In his mind, he is the unifier and the Conservatives are the dividers. And progressives ate it up — at least, they did in 2015.
Trudeau doesn’t realize, however, that it is not just his politics but his persona that feeds the polarity about which he complains. He is as much a hypocrite-in-chief as U.S. President Donald Trump, who loves the “poorly educated” and has ridden to power on their votes while his own life has zero in common with theirs. Canadian conservatives go bananas when they hear Trudeau speak about the middle class when he has never experienced their lives the same way U.S. progressives lose their minds when Trump talks about, well, anything.
In this way, Trudeau embodies the greater problem modern progressivism faces, especially up against its equally polarizing foil, populism. Populist leaders, like Trump, also claim to speak for the people. The difference is they make no bones about carving the world into us and them.
Progressives, on the other hand, obsess about inclusiveness. That inclusiveness, of course, only includes people who think like them. As NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said this week when asked whether he would support a Conservative government: “We don’t respect Conservatives in this party.” In other words, you’re either with us or against us.
Polarization is the inevitable outcome of identity politics. In an electoral context, aided and abetted by Big Data, the electorate is segmented into tinier and tinier groups than ever before. Both left and right leaders play this game, speaking to their respective silos, making promises and demonizing their opponents. Some are just more honest about it than others.
Tasha Kheiriddin is the founder and CEO of Ellipsum Communications and a Global News contributor.