Updated at 8:30 p.m. ET on October 6, 2019.
The 2019 election is a test for Canadian progressives: style or substance. The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau is the most successful progressive government in the world. It instituted a carbon tax and legalized marijuana. Last year, for the first time, Canada settled more refugees than any other country. Because of higher government benefits, child poverty is at its lowest level in history. Economic growth this year reached 3 percent. That is what Trudeau has done. He also appeared in brownface at an Aladdin-themed costume party in 2001 at the age of 29.
Canadian progressives, like progressives all over the world, must decide whether they care more about the pursuit of social and cultural change, through the eradication of racist and sexist imagery, or the pursuit of transformative policies. In 2015, Trudeau promised both. He was the shining ideal of maximum wokeness, imposing a gender-equal cabinet and offering as the explanation, “Because it’s 2015.” Well, it’s 2019 now.
How racist Trudeau’s appearance in brownface was, and therefore how forgivable, is subject to debate. People of color in Canada—by no means a contiguous body or voting bloc—have differences of opinion about the gravity of Trudeau’s browning up. Sunny Khurana, a Sikh man who appears in one of Trudeau’s photos from the “Arabian Nights” theme party at West Point Grey Academy, did not find his appearance there racist in the slightest. “He wasn’t trying to demean anybody who was a person of color, and from what I can recall from that function, it never came across as that, not at all,” he said recently. “I mean, I didn’t even think twice of it. It was a good party. We had fun.”
Others read the costume as symptomatic of Canada’s racist history generally, and in particular its history with minstrel shows, which is more extensive than you might think. (The composer of Canada’s national anthem performed in blackface.) Others, such as the society gossip columnist Shinan Govani, have acknowledged personal conflicts: “It is the season of moral gymnastics, here in Canada,” he wrote in the Daily Beast.
Needless to say, dispassionate debate about the significance of Trudeau’s costume—parsing his intentions and the context—is not possible, given that we’re in the middle of an election. The picture went viral; that’s what counts. Liberal Party candidates have been struggling. “It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now,” Harjit Sajjan, the defense minister, told the CBC. “But I’m also here to talk about the person I know, in terms of how much he is standing up for people.”
Whatever Canadians may think about the photograph itself, it closes off a major line of attack for Trudeau. Live by the sword of political correctness, die by the sword of political correctness. You can’t argue that your opponents are a bunch of embarrassing antiquities living in the political past—by, say, replaying the Conservative leader’s 2005 speech opposing gay marriage, which the Liberals were doing right up until this story broke—when the internet is rife with your face in brown makeup.
The Trudeau scandal points to a larger problem: The woke will always break your heart. It’s not just that nobody’s perfect, and it’s not just that times change, and it’s not even that the instinct to punish that defines so much of the left is inherently self-defeating. If people want to sell you morality, of any kind, they always have something to hide.
The main criticism from Trudeau’s opponents on the right has usually been that he’s a spoiled brat—a son of privilege—not up to running the country. A faker. The brownface debacle has now become, on the left, a symbol of his lack of real commitment to progressive values. But the cross-party consensus that Trudeau is slight and phony doesn’t survive even a cursory examination of his record. An independent assessment by two dozen Canadian academics found that Trudeau has kept 92 percent of his campaign promises, fully or partially, the most by any Canadian government in 35 years. He is measurably, demonstrably the most sincere and effective prime minister in living memory. He is the rare case of a man whose virtue-signaling has distracted from his real virtues.
Only the left struggles with these standards of style. Right-wing political opponents in Canada and elsewhere have a completely different understanding of acceptable behavior. In the United States, President Donald Trump’s supporters take his brand of nastiness, his aggressive rejection of even the most basic social norms, as a sign of authenticity. Meanwhile, Senator Elizabeth Warren is still apologizing for her Cherokee-ancestry claim.
This imbalance matters, because the left’s aesthetic vulnerability comes at a moment of real threat for progressives. Multiculturalism as a project is dying globally, and not because of a sudden outbreak of brownface performances. The “Howdy Modi” event in Houston revealed how the world is turning: populism, xenophobia, the bragging stupidity of ethnic pride. During the last election, Trudeau’s main opponent, the Conservatives, promised “barbaric cultural practices” hotlines and “Canadian values tests” alongside a two-tiered citizenship system under which dual citizens and immigrants could have their citizenship revoked while natural-born Canadians could not. If voters who believe in multiculturalism cannot forgive face paint, the multicultural project as policy may not survive.
In this context, it’s unclear whether the extreme blandness of Trudeau’s main opponent, Andrew Scheer, helps or hurts the prime minister’s chances for reelection. Scheer does not bother with costumes. He’s not photogenic enough. He, too, is embroiled in a scandal, however—about whether he was properly accredited to claim he worked as an insurance broker for a few months. This may be not just the most boring scandal in this election, and or in Canadian history, but the most boring scandal imaginable. I cannot imagine a duller one. Nobody thinks about Scheer much. But perhaps Canadians want a prime minister they don’t have to think about much.
“The fact of the matter is that I’ve always—and you’ll know this—been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate,” Trudeau acknowledged in the first of a seemingly endless series of apologies. Progressives loved Trudeau’s best costume: Captain Woke. We’ll find out in October whether they were with him for his policies or his poses. They can’t have both. But they can have neither.