By Jonathon Van Maren
Last year, Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism was released to much fanfare. Part memoir, part analysis, Applebaum examined so-called “populist” parties and politicians across the West—Boris Johnson, Law and Justice, Vox, and Viktor Orbán, detailing the corruption of their politics and the illiberalism of their governments. From judicial and media appointments to government contracts, Applebaum warned that populism was authoritarianism and that many conservatives were falling for it.
I reviewed the book when it came out, and noted that Applebaum entirely missed many of the factors driving populism (if, in fact, that is the right word.) Applebaum is a pro-LGBT liberal, and thus her view of what constitutes a threat to the liberal order differs radically from that of a conservative. What she views as an attack on norms might reasonably be seen by others as a defence of norms—norms such as marriage, gender, and other things we all took for granted prior to the year 2000.
This becomes most obvious when one considers the fact that the Applebaum set raises a ruckus whenever governments like Poland’s Law and Justice appoint people sympathetic to their ideology (gasp!) to state media outlets and the courts, just as progressives inevitably do when they hold power (when they do it, it is a “norm,” you see.) But when progressives like Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of a large G-7 country, engage in straight-up secret law-making, there is not a whisper from the defenders of the liberal international order.
Trudeau, as most of you will know, has been caught in blackface multiple times (just imagine if one of the populists had this habit); fired several female cabinet ministers for refusing to play along with his corrupt decision to award government contracts to a connected construction firm; tried to seize power at the outset of the pandemic that would allow him to govern without dealing with Parliament; has been convicted—not accused, convicted—of ethics violations three times, a prime ministerial record; awarded a government contract to an organization paying his family exorbitant speaking fees; and, most recently, was rebuked by Parliament for secret lawmaking.
You read that right. In an attempt to ramrod through legislation regulating Internet content—which watchdogs warned will likely result in government oversight of Canadian content not only on platforms like YouTube, but on social media as well—the Liberals voted to limit debate time on the bill, and then proceeded to pass secret amendments to the bill that had not been seen by Parliament or the public. The Speaker was forced to dismiss them all and rebuke the government. In short: the government attempted to pass a law that critics say restricts free speech without showing the public or the opposition everything that was in the bill.
Again: Consider what Anne Applebaum would be writing if this were Viktor Orbán rather than Justin Trudeau. Corrupt construction contracts? Secret-lawmaking? Attempting to restrict freedom of speech without parliamentary oversight? Nonstop ethics convictions? Government contracts to family-connected outfits? Swap out the names, and the foaming condemnations write themselves.
But because this is Trudeau and not Orbán, there’s scarcely a whisper in the international press about Trudeau’s nonstop track record of utilizing whatever means necessary to reward his friends and family, avoid parliamentary scrutiny, and trample on rights wherever they interfere with his agenda. Because progressives and liberals believe that Trudeau, for all his bumbling, is at least on Their Side, his actions get ignored despite the fact that he has set records for ethics inquiries and convictions.
The fear and loathing of so-called populist leaders isn’t because they are illiberal, or corrupt, or anti-democratic. Not at all. It is because they fundamentally disagree with progressivism and defend norms that folks like Trudeau have been trashing for two decades. And that is unforgivable.