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Populist rage demands leaders who listen — and choose their words with care

The convoy has moved on. The challenge of extreme populism remains.

It’s a long-term challenge both for Canada’s democracy and its political leadership — one that was apparent long before the trucks laid siege to the streets of downtown Ottawa.

On February 17, 2017 — five years to the day before he stood in the House of Commons and opened debate on his government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the St. Matthew’s Day Banquet, an elegant, centuries-old event held annually in Hamburg, Germany.

A year earlier, Donald Trump had become president of the United States. Shortly thereafter, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Trudeau suddenly found himself portrayed as a torch-bearer for liberal democracy and progressive government. Five months after his speech in Hamburg, he appeared on a Rolling Stone cover which asked whether he was “the free world’s best hope.”

In his remarks to the banquet, Trudeau first attempted to diagnose the populist surge roiling Western democracies. He talked about the “anxiety” people were feeling about the future and their frustrations over the unequal distribution of wealth. Those feelings, he said, were turning into “distrust” and “anger.”

Five years later, the initial focus on economic “anxiety” and inequality has given way to a broader discussion about the other things that might be feeding the disenchantment upon which populism feeds. “Status risk” and tribalism. A diminished sense of economic fairness. Political polarization, social media and “misinformation.” The convoy has now demonstrated both the potential impact of the pandemic and the power and reach of American media’s perpetual anger machine.

populist rage demands leaders who listen and choose their words with care
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump as his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau looks on at the start of of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany on July 7, 2017. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

Progressives and moderates are still grappling with the question of what to do about all that. But Trudeau’s prescription remains relevant.

Trudeau told the business and political figures in his audience that he wanted to “challenge” them, “to highlight that the challenges we’re facing require real action and real leadership.”

Trudeau cited the actions of his own government. In its first 16 months, Trudeau said, the Liberal government had increased support to families through the Canada Child Benefit, boosted assistance for post-secondary students and made new investments in training and employment programs.

Policies vs. populism

In the face of political alienation and anti-democratic anger, such proposals can seem quaint. It’s probably too much to imagine that new or reformed government programs could completely extinguish the flames of radical populism. Trudeau’s agenda apparently failed to cool those embers.

But it also stands to reason that smart and effective policy that provides meaningful support to citizens might at least shrink the pool of voters who might be drawn to extreme populism. If governments and legislatures show they can deliver solutions and relief, they might maintain faith in the democratic institutions that populists attack.

After two traumatic and frustrating years of the pandemic, the need to reinforce institutional trust might be even greater.

Trudeau’s second suggestion was simpler in theory but maybe harder to follow in practice. Political leaders, he said, need to listen.

As Trudeau told his audience in Hamburg, he had just completed a national tour of town hall forums, taking questions from anyone who happened to show up. This was not without political risk, he said, and it could be unpredictable and sometimes intense, “but it’s only in having those tough conversations that we can get at the heart of what matters.”

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Police push back protesters as authorities in Ottawa take action on Feb. 19, 2022 to end a protest against COVID-19 measures that turned into a broader anti-government protest and occupation of the city’s downtown. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

There was a hint of Trudeau the listener when anti-vaccine mandate protesters forced his campaign to cancel an event last August. The prime minister said then that “anger” should be met with “compassion.” But Trudeau eventually took a much harder line with the angry crowds that followed him. He was similarly dismissive of the convoy, calling it a “small fringe minority of people” who have “unacceptable views.”

There were elements in both protests that were worth condemning: the election campaign protesters who threw stones at the prime minister, insulted his wife and shouted offensive comments, the racist and extremist views expressed by some of the convoy organizers, the convoy’s stated mission of overthrowing Canadian democracy, the harassment of citizens in Ottawa.

Those who called on the prime minister to meet or negotiate with the occupiers in Ottawa — including prominent federal Conservatives — seemed bent on ignoring such facts.

Trudeau’s words come back to bite him

Trudeau could argue that some of his comments have been made to seem worse than they were. His suggestion to one interviewer that some of those who oppose COVID-19 vaccination were “misogynistic and racist” has since been framed as an attack on all the unvaccinated.

But the lesson of Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” moment in 2016 is that leaders (particularly progressive ones) have to choose their words carefully to avoid creating a rallying cry for opportunistic populists.

In Trudeau’s case — however much he might have wanted to “listen” — he ended up standing in opposition to some of his fellow citizens. That’s harder than standing up to Donald Trump or the illiberal ideas that leaders like Trump promote.

It does not follow that Trudeau is to blame for the protests. But the convoy demonstrated the need for people in public life to find the line between compassion and capitulation — to acknowledge the concerns of angry, uneasy voters while still rejecting the influencers and ideas that cannot in good conscience be humoured.

populist rage demands leaders who listen and choose their words with care 2
Police enforce an injunction against protesters in Ottawa on Feb. 19, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The convoy has brought back to the foreground the central challenge of Trudeau’s first four years as prime minister — to defend liberal democracy and establish a model of progressive government that can stand up to the forces of populism and the anti-democratic and illiberal energy that often comes with it.

The pandemic did not wash all that away. In 2017, the problem might have seemed largely theoretical to Canadian progressives. It’s a lot more tangible now, not least because the convoy was embraced by several prominent Conservatives — including Pierre Poilievre, the current frontrunner to become the party’s next leader.

It’s also not hard to see how anxiety and frustration might be further stoked in the years ahead by the transition to a clean economy.

“Whether you’re a business or a government, it’s time to realize that this anger and anxiety we see washing over the world is coming from a very real place,” Trudeau said five years ago. “And it’s not going away.”

Whatever the Trudeau government has done since 2015, the task of winning the argument against extreme populism is not nearly finished. In fact, the work may only have begun.

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