Our last two prime ministers surfed to power on populist waves. But neither man was a populist. Susan Delacourt writes:
With the arrival of Justin Trudeau and his new government this past year, Canadians seem to be caught in some ambivalence about populism.Trudeau may be popular, but he’s not populist. No Canadian would confuse him with Mr. Everyman, even if he held some ordinary jobs in his past: teacher, bouncer, snowboard instructor. He grew up at 24 Sussex Dr., rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Queen and Ronald Reagan, and since becoming prime minister, he’s been cultivating a reputation as an international celebrity.It’s actually been striking to see how Trudeau has been so deliberately non-populist. Even before he moved into the job his father used to hold, Trudeau didn’t seem to be fussed about reminding Canadians that he enjoyed a higher-than-average income and lifestyle.
And, while Stephen Harper was good at stoking populist anger, he was himself an elitist:
Harper did the whole hockey-dad, guy-from-the-suburbs routine while he was prime minister, but the fact is that he wasn’t like most Canadians, before or during his time running the country. He spent most of his career in politics, he was above average in intelligence and he didn’t have a lot of time for friendship.Harper wouldn’t be the first name to come to mind in those poll questions about which politician you’d like to meet over beer or coffee. (Harper drank neither.) “I can’t even get my friends to like me,” Harper joked in his eulogy for the late finance minister Jim Flaherty.Nonetheless, Harper played the populism card successfully through several elections, casting his Liberal rivals as Starbucks-swilling elites. Nowhere was this more evident than in the contest with then leader Michael Ignatieff, whose international reputation and Harvard experience were transformed into a political liability.
In the United States, a man who is certainly no populist plans to ride a wave of populist anger all the way to the White House:
Donald Trump is a billionaire, a very un-average American, riding a wave of populist anger, some of it directed at privileges for the wealthy in the United States. Income inequality is a growing problem in the U.S., but it seems that the contest this fall is likely to be a choice between two of the richest people in the country: Trump and Hillary Clinton. It all tells us that populism is an extremely unpredictable force in politics, operating against logic or even its own rules. Populism can be forgiving of political errors, or brutally unforgiving, too.
The man or woman who rides a populist wave rides on the back of a tiger. He or she can quickly discover that they have moved from the tiger's back to the tiger's belly. It happened to Stephen Harper. It could happen to Justin Trudeau. And who knows what will happen to Donald Trump?