Justin Trudeau's Ceauşescu Moment
Denouncing truckers for "unacceptable views," Canada's Prime Minister skipped town rather than face evidence of his own unpopularity. Is neoliberalism finally cracking?
On the morning of the 21st of December, 1989, Romanian General Secretary Nicolae Ceaușescu was in a foul mood. The Berlin Wall had fallen, and Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush had recently announced the end of the Cold War, making the end of Ceaușescu’s rule inevitable, though he couldn’t see this yet. Worse, his security leaders had just failed to violently put down protests in the city of Timisoara, a fact that enraged his wife Elena.
“You should have fired on them, and had they fallen, you should have taken them and shoved them into a cellar,” she said. “Weren’t you told that?”
Long one of the world’s most vicious dictators, Ceaușescu’s most recent plan for winning over the heartland was forcing half the country’s villagers to destroy their own homes — with pick-axes and hammers, if they couldn’t afford a bulldozer — and packing them into project apartments in new “agro-industrial towns,” for a “better future.” Despite this, and his long history of murder, terror, and spying, Ceaușescu to the end did not grasp that his unpopularity had an organic character. He was convinced ethnically Hungarian “terrorists” were behind the latest trouble.
After reaching the balcony of Bucharest’s Central Committee building to give a speech that December day, he’s genuinely surprised when the crowd turns on him. When he tells them to be quiet, he’s befuddled by their refusal, saying, “What, you can’t hear?” Elena jumps in and yells, “Silence!”, to which Ceaușescu, hilariously, replies, “Shut up!” The crowd listens to neither of them.
Paul Kenyon’s Children of the Night describes the morbid black comedy that ensued. The Ceaușescus and a motley gang of undead apparatchiks that included the “morbidly obese Prime Minister, Emil Bobu” later tried to load into a single helicopter — Bobu “waddled, walrus-like, to the rear” Kenyon writes — but there were too many of them, and the copter barely got off the ground. “Where to?” asked the pilot, and nobody knew, because there was no plan, since none of them had ever considered the possibility of this happening.
The sky was full of stuff, including other helicopters, which were dropping leaflets on the crowd giving what Kenyon described as a Marie Antoinette-like order to ignore “imperialist conspiracies” and return home “to a Christmas feast.” Four days later, a firing squad put the Ceaușescus against a wall and gave them their final, solid lead Christmas presents.
Ceaușescu’s balcony will forever be a symbol of elite cluelessness. Even in the face of the gravest danger, a certain kind of ruler will never be able to see the last salvo coming, if doing so requires any self-examination. The neoliberal political establishment in most of the Western world, the subject of repeat populist revolts of rising intensity in recent years, seems to suffer from the same disability.
There may be no real-world comparison between a blood-soaked monster like Ceaușescu and a bumbling ball-scratcher like Joe Biden, or an honorarium-gobbling technocrat like Hillary Clinton, or a Handsome Dan investment banker like Emmanuel Macron, or an effete pseudo-intellectual like Justin Trudeau. Still, the ongoing inability of these leaders to see the math of populist uprisings absolutely recalls that infamous scene in Bucharest. From Brexit to the election of Donald Trump to, now, the descent of thousands of Canadian truckers upon the capital city of Ottawa to confront Trudeau, a consistent theme has been the refusal to admit — not even to us, but to themselves — the numerical truth of what they’re dealing with.
Trudeau is becoming the ultimate example. Truckers last month began protesting a January 22nd rule that required the production of vaccine passports before crossing the U.S.-Canadian border. Canadian truckers are reportedly 90% vaccinated, above the country’s 78% total, a key detail that’s been brazenly ignored by media in both countries determined to depict these more as “anti-vax” than “anti-mandate” protests (which seem to be about many things at once, but that’s another story). When an angry convoy descended upon the capital, Trudeau dismissed them in a soliloquy that can only be described as inspired political arson:
The small fringe minority of people who are on their way to Ottawa, who are holding unacceptable views that they are expressing, do not represent the views of Canadians…who know that following the science and stepping up to protect each other is the best way to ensure our rights, our freedoms, our values as a country.
A near-exact repeat of the “basket of deplorables” episode, Trudeau’s imperious description of “unacceptable” views instantly became a rallying cry, with people across the country lining the streets to cheer truckers while self-identifying as the “small fringe minority.” Everyone from high school kids to farmers and teachers and random marchers carrying jerrycans of fuel joined in as Trudeau’s own words were used to massively accelerate his troubles.
Trudeau fled the city, removing his family to what aides called a “secret location” for “security reasons,” a politically disastrous move denounced by just about everyone with a microphone or a Twitter account, including members of his own party. Liberal MP Joël Lightbound took things a step further. He ripped Trudeau’s politics as divisive, saying his government needs to recognize people have “legitimate concerns” while adding, acidly, “Not everyone can earn a living on a MacBook at a cottage.” This has been a theme in the States, too, where the people most dickishly insistent on the necessity of lockdowns or mandates have tended to be Zoomer professionals spending the pandemic in pajamas.
Meanwhile, in a hilarious third-rate spoof version of American conventional wisdom — when Canadians try to imitate American pretensions, does it ever not end in a cringe-worthy self-own? — CBC announcer Nil Köksal went on air on January 28th and suggested the trucker protests were a Russian concoction. “Given Canada’s support of Ukraine in this current crisis with Russia,” she posited, to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, “there is concern that Russian actors could be continuing to fuel things as this protest grows, or perhaps even instigating it from the outset.”