By now, you’ve probably heard about the saccharine 6,660-word hagiography on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that was just published in Rolling Stone.
Immediately following the article’s publication on July 26, many of Canada’s leading pundits and journalists exploded with territorial incredulity, pedantically noting that it’s the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (not “Mountain” as originally suggested in the article), the Saint John River (not “St.” John River) and the Liberal Party (not the “Liberty” Party).
Such corrections were, of course, warranted. But there was a far more troubling aspect of the profile left untouched: that the article “Justin Trudeau: The North Star” was, without any exaggeration, unabashed propaganda.
It’s not necessarily a new trend. Since the election of the Liberal Party in October 2015, both domestic and international outlets have published many extremely favourable accounts about Trudeau and his so-called “sunny ways,” especially in contrast with U.S. President Donald Trump.
But the Rolling Stone cover story was particularly unique in demonstrating how corporate media works to maintain and strengthen liberal hegemony by building a compelling personal narrative, using fascists as foil characters, and inadvertently disclosing profoundly racist and capitalist biases in both author — it would be far too generous to call him a “journalist” — Stephen Rodrick and main source, Trudeau himself.
For such reasons, it’s a text worth exploring at length.
The first thing to recognize about Rodrick is that he’s a godawful writer.
There are multiple sentences in the piece that make no sense, requiring consecutive reading to gain any sense of meaning. It’s a true wonder they got past editors at one of the larger magazines in the United States.
For example, in an introductory graph, Rodrick writes that Trudeau’s “dark hair is a color found in nature. At home, there is a glamorous wife and three photogenic children, still not old enough to warm his seat at next week’s G-20 summit or be involved in an espionage scandal.”
This single graph brings up a number of fairly hard-to-answer questions.
What colour is not found in nature? The human eye can incredibly perceive around 10 million distinct colours. A vast majority, if not all, could be found in “nature.” So what is Rodrick even suggesting? If Trudeau’s hair is the colour of delicious 85 per cent dark chocolate, then say as much!
It goes far beyond that. What is the age threshold one must pass in order to attend a G-20 summit or be involved in an espionage scandal? This line, presumably a shot at 35-year-old Ivanka Trump, leaves a fair bit to be desired: after all, it was only in February that it was unveiled that the “My Friend Cayla” doll sold around the world to children could be used in spying efforts and was denounced by a German federal agency as a “illegal espionage apparatus.” Is any child with such a doll old enough to be involved in an espionage scandal?
Such rhetorical ambiguities are continued throughout the piece. But they take on far more dangerous qualities.
A key instance of this is when Rodrick concludes that Trudeau has “feminist bona fides” because “women and minorities make up more than half of his Cabinet.”
Firstly, the very phrasing of that is deeply troublesome.
Describing Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPoC) as “minorities” carries certain assumptions about power and ability, with such people only referred to in contrast to whiteness.
There’s also the bizarre divide between “women” and “minorities,” leaving unaccounted women or genderqueer people who are also Black, Indigenous or people of colour.
Later in the piece, Rodrick reveals a complete lack of understanding of Indigenous nationhood, referring to “Canada’s 1.5 million indigenous citizens” instead of something like “1.5 million Indigenous peoples in Canada.”
It also propagates the assumption that representation equals equality. Rodrick unironically demonstrates throughout the piece that Trudeau is a true master of image politics.
The writer says that Trudeau has taken steps “to deal with the opioid crisis” despite the Prime Minister’s refusal to listen to harm reduction advocates and consider the decriminalization of drugs other than marijuana. Even when it comes to the legalization of pot, the Liberal rollout is occurring in a particularly draconian way resulting in very disproportionate impacts compared to alcohol; a proposed maximum sentence of 14 years for selling weed to a minor, compared to only one year for booze.
Then there was the ruminations by Rodrick on Trudeau’s so-called welcoming of Syrian refugees “with open arms” based on the fact he welcomed a few families at the airport with winter jackets. That’s despite Canada’s restriction of privately sponsored Syrian refugees in 2017 to a mere 1,000 people. Add that to the refusal to rescind the Safe Third Country Agreement, which has arguably resulted in the deaths and near-freezing of many migrants attempting to cross the border from the United States.
It goes on and on, including nonsensical excuses of Trudeau’s decision to massively increase military spending because of “the sheer awesomeness of his native land” and allowing the doubling of tarsands production in the era of catastrophic climate change because “Canada’s immense size makes it as much of a slave to fossil fuel as the U.S. in both usage and trade.”
Describing such writing as that of a teenage fan would be an insult to teenagers.
Individual narrative trumps policies
Another revealing and deeply neoliberal characteristic of the profile is its emphasis on the individual as participant in politics.
Roughly 2,500 words of the piece’s 6,600 refer to Trudeau’s backstory, including his upbringing, education and family tragedies. Rodrick goes so far to argue that due to the unexpected deaths of his brother and father, Trudeau “actually feels his citizens’ pain because he’s had his own unthinkable personal tragedies.”
This is obviously unsubstantiated, like most claims in the piece. But in addition to performing the load-bearing work of building up Trudeau as an elite-but-still-bootstrap figure, it reiterates the assumption that narrative and personal story matters more than actual policy decisions.
That’s how Chrystia Freeland, minister of foreign affairs and granddaughter of a Nazi collaborator, ends up being portrayed as a Ukrainian dissident banned from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, while Harjit Sajjan — minister of defence and suspected war criminal — becomes a subversive army commander whose presence in Afghanistan led to an unnamed local chieftain concluding that he might be able to “actually help.”
As foreign affairs minister, Freeland played a key role in Canada’s signing of the heavily contested Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Canada-European Union trade deal (CETA). Meanwhile, Sajjan is overseeing the increase of military expenditure by $30 billion over the next decade.
At one point in the piece, the author reports that Trudeau openly bragged about beating Vivian Barbot — a Bloc Québécois candidate and Haitian woman — in the 2008 federal election because “the Haitians voted for me” and “Canada’s a place where people don’t always vote on surface identity, but vote on values.”
Following that was one of the most disturbing admissions of the entire article, in which Trudeau let slip that he selected now-disgraced Indigenous senator Patrick Brazeau as an opponent for his famous 2012 boxing match because: “I wanted someone who would be a good foil, and we stumbled upon the scrappy tough-guy senator from an Indigenous community. He fit the bill, and it was a very nice counterpoint. I saw it as the right kind of narrative, the right story to tell.”
These are all deeply bizarre yet effective marketing techniques.
For Liberals, who really do specialize in the worst forms of the neoliberal politics of representation, it’s about elevating “women and minorities” to positions of relative power while keeping the actual power in the hands of mostly white men, who gloat about beating Black women in elections and Indigenous men in boxing matches.
Everything in the piece craftily builds and reinforces a narrative that Trudeau is distinct and actually in symbolic opposition to Trump.
See, Trudeau snowboards instead of golfs. He uses a “modulated, indoor voice” as opposed to the boorish delivery of the former hosts of The Apprentice. He’s “Making Canada Great Again,” according to Rodrick. Apparently, Trudeau’s “listening is seducing.”
This is all about decorum. Same with the framing in global media of anti-union Emmanuel Macron and anti-gay marriage Angela Merkel. Barely anything in this piece actually addresses material policy issues. Instead, it moves steadily along the rails of Liberal communication strategies, up the rolled up sleeves of Trudeau’s shirt and down the rapids of stolen Indigenous waters that he paddled with his father.
Rodrick briefly addresses “Elbowgate,” the major broken promise of electoral reform, and the continued systemic oppression of Indigenous peoples. Surprisingly, the author actually bothered to mention residential schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
But it was all framed in a way that gave Trudeau, literally the most powerful man in the country, the last word on every issue.
Take the latter “issue” of ongoing colonization and cultural genocide. Instead of interviewing an Indigenous person about their perspectives — say, Erica Violet Lee, or Chelsea Vowel, or Leanne Simpson, or Beatrice Hunter, or Glen Coulthard — the author cited the Prime Minister’s words: “It took us hundreds of years to get here. It’s going to take many, many generations to end this legacy.”
Trudeau seems distinct from Trump because the author of the piece doesn’t actually practice journalism or have any interest in holding power to account. At one point, Rodrick notes that Trudeau loosens “his jacketless tie” while speaking about the “constructive working relationship” he has with Trump.
The author then concludes that “Justin Trudeau is now the adult in the room.” This is a liberal kink fantasy gone terribly wrong.
Pipelines, privatization, broken promises
Despite what Rodrick — and many, many other liberal writers — thinks, Trudeau is not very different from Trump.
This might seem like needless hyperbole. But let’s consider a few of the facts.
The Canadian government is overseeing the continued destruction of Indigenous lands and waters by way of massive resource extraction projects.
Since the 2015 election, the Liberals have approved two major tarsands pipelines which simultaneously spit in the face of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation that lives downstream of the tarsands and all the Nations and communities that the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline and Enbridge Line 3 Replacement Project will cross.
The Trudeau Liberals also approved Petronas’ Pacific Northwest liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal, and backed the Site C dam in northeast B.C. and Muskrat Falls dam in Labrador. Topping it all off is the federal government’s completely reluctance to regulate Canadian mining companies on their domestic and international practices.
And that’s just on the extractive industries front.
Under Trudeau, the Liberal government is aggressively moving to privatize future infrastructure investments — including roads, bridges, and public transit — through the newly founded Canada Infrastructure Bank. It’s also pushing for selling off key public assets including airport authorities and port authorities, which could result in considerably less local input and higher user fees.
The list could go on: failing to restore Canada Post home mail delivery, or repeal the “problematic element of Bill C-51,” or ensure that the 2015 federal election was the last election conducted under the first-past-the-post electoral system, or invest adequately in green infrastructure.
And on, and on.
Trudeau isn’t presenting the faintest of challenges to owners and investors. In fact, he’s literally letting them call the shots, providing the world’s biggest asset management company, BlackRock, the chance to review and comment on the creation of the infrastructure bank (something which has been criticized by both NDP and Conservative MPs).
Sounds like someone else, perhaps?
History of violence
The way in which Rodrick concludes his piece is truly overwhelming in its stupidity. It’s actually worth quoting in full.
Trudeau heads back toward his three-car motorcade that stops at all red lights. In the hall, a couple hundred kids hold signs that say “Hope” and “Respect.” They grab his sleeve and then skitter away wearing giant smiles. It would have been corny if it had not been so goddamned beautiful. This is Trudeau’s vision of what a country can be. His land races toward inclusion, while our nation builds walls and lusts for an era of vanilla homogeneity that ain’t coming back. At this moment, Justin Trudeau’s Canada looks like a beautiful place to ride out an American storm.
There’s something that Rodrick clearly doesn’t get. Perhaps it’s because he’s from the United States, a country which apparently views Canada as some foreign nation of colloquialisms and quaint trivialities. We wear socks with moose on them!
This is a country of vicious, tangible, real violence.
The violence, both direct and constantly threatened, is exerted primarily against BIPoC, LGBTQ, non-binary/women, migrants, people with disabilities and poor people. It manifests in the forms of police brutality, sexual assault, carding, gentrification, workplace discrimination, rampant unemployment, no federally funded social housing, a lack of wheelchair ramps, suicide pacts amongst Indigenous youth, torturously low disability funding and crippling frostbite because refugees fleeing unsafe conditions cannot legally cross the border.
These are all decisions the federal government has say over, either via legislation or dictating funding for many actions that municipalities, territories and provinces make. It doesn’t represent the same visceral violence as Trump’s actions. But that’s the sick brilliance of bureaucratic violence: if presented within a broader social narrative, a government can get away with almost anything.
The original ‘fake news’
Trudeau may have convinced one Rolling Stone writer desperate for proximity to power that he’s the woke prince, the saviour of the Free World, the one who will continue his father’s legacy of ensuring equal rights for all people living in Canada.
The fact such a conclusion can be propagated in a major magazine is a great indictment of journalism today. It’s further evidence of the abandoning of lofty industry ambitions to pursue fairness, accuracy and objectivity in all situations. But beyond that, it’s an ultimate confession that reporting no longer serves anything remotely resembling public interest.
Liberals like to bat around the idea that Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer deal in the realm of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Trump’s antics are clearly of significant concern to the United States and the world.
Fake news was not established with Trump.
It was birthed by writers like Rodrick, people who willingly issue mastubatory screeds about the inherent beauty of liberal civility while the subject orders the signing of export permits for light armoured vehicles that are used to slaughter Saudi and Yemeni people, and challenges court rulings to adequately fund on-reserve education for First Nations kids, and capitulates to industry lobbying by delaying the implementation of methane regulations for the oil and gas industry despite the clear and present danger of catastrophic climate change.
According to Rodrick, Trudeau is the “free world’s best hope.”
Let’s get real. The only hope for the world to get free is well beyond the limitations of liberal discourse. We must fiercely denounce the work of propagandists like Rodrick, and attempt to build something better collectively, well beyond the idiotic limits of white men obsessed with power.
James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.