Justin Trudeau on populism, the trouble with grand gestures and fear

In a live interview with Maclean's senior writer Paul Wells, the PM talked about governing in the age of Trump and the fragility of democracy

In a world roiled by Trumps and Fords, polarized electorates and often-toxic public discourse, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meditated on the nature of democracy and the reasons for its seeming fragility at the moment, in an interview on Monday.

Trudeau sat down for an hour-long interview with senior writer Paul Wells for the Maclean’s Live event at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. He gave several lengthy and nuanced answers to questions about what it is that voters are seeking right now—at home and abroad—and what he believes political parties must deliver if they’re going to make things better instead of worse.

High-minded vs. low-brow

At one point, Wells advanced the notion that it is a constant danger in Western democracies that people may stop feeling like the system is delivering for them, and as a result, they will reject the system entirely. He didn’t quite get to finish the line of this question before Trudeau interjected.

“I’m not sure I agree with that,” he said. “I think that’s a challenge out there, but I can give you plenty of examples, particularly here in Canada, where people are not voting on, ‘What is the very best for me?’ and instead ‘What is going to benefit my community, what is going to benefit my region, what is going to benefit my whole country?’ If you treat voters like all that’s in it for them is who’s going to come out with the better outcome, who’s going to buy them out in the election, then they will respond to that. But if you make a compelling case for the direction we’re going in and how we can be better if we all succeed together, then they will rise to that. But it really depends on how you choose to speak to your voters and how you choose to treat them like intelligent, thoughtful, value-driven citizens, instead of just short-term consumers of whatever a political party is selling.”

The fallout of fear

Wells highlighted the worrying trend of democracy eroding in a host of countries around the world, including several Canada once expected to have its back. Trudeau agreed there are twin trends of less democratic states trying to drag down those around them, and a polarization of the electorate within countries around the world. Wells asked him: Why is that happening?

“I think it’s a reflection of one of the great challenges in our Western developed economies, and around the world,” Trudeau said. “After the boom years of the last 70 years, the middle class in our countries—however you choose to define it or call it—doesn’t feel it is being well supported as the world is changing around it, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s new technologies, AI, automation, whether it’s new arrivals, whether it’s offshoring of jobs. There’s a lot of sources of anxiety and I think there are many political parties and actors who have realized that there is a path to short-term gain by exacerbating those differences, by playing up those fears, by looking to point fingers and lay blame. And that is catching: fear is contagious. We’re seeing that success erode some of the public trust in institutions, which then creates a cycle of those institutions becoming less trustworthy.”

Making a splash vs. plugging away

It sometimes seems that newcomers to politics—like President Donald Trump and Ontario Premier Doug Ford— can get away with anything and execute dramatic gestures at will, Wells posited. He asked Trudeau if it’s frustrating to watch politicians like these make a splash while he leads a more constrained and hemmed-in party that goes on consulting and compromising.

“It really depends what you want out of politics. I think it’s easy to pull off grand gestures if you’re just thinking about today, and maybe tomorrow’s headlines,” Trudeau said.  “It’s harder to do things that reach the two goals that I put at the centre of what our party is trying to do, which is, one, make things better for Canadians in a real and durable long-term way with positive impacts right away. And two, reaffirm people’s faith in governments and institutions as being able to actually do good things for them. When you’re not too worried about constitutional niceties and courts and what have you, you can take a mandate and make those grand gestures and satisfy your base in a very loud way.”


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