Justin Trudeau and the Alchemy of Irony

As the philosopher Bertie Wooster was wont to observe, “it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with a bit of lead piping.” Authorities are divided on whether Bertie was correct in attributing the observation to Shakespeare. Perhaps it has its origin in the reflections of some other sage. But regarding the pertinence of the phenomenon to the conduct of human affairs there seems to be general agreement. The Greek tragedians analyzed it as a cosmic interplay of ὕβρις and ἄτη, arrogance followed by infatuation and ruin. I am not sure whether little Justin Trudeau, prime minister pro tem of Canada, has given much thought to the operation of this awful (in the old sense) dialectic, but I suspect that he is about to make its close and palpable acquaintance.

Trudeau—or, as the great Sarah Hoyt denominates him, “Trudescu” or “Castreau”—initially responded to Canada’s “Revolt of the Masses,” a.k.a. the truckers’ Freedom Convoy, by skedaddling out of town and cowering in some presumably secure and definitely unidentified place. 

A couple of days later, Trudeau popped his head up over the top of the fox hole and nothing happened. So he climbed out, shook his soft and tiny fists, and plumped his hairdo. “I’m in charge here,” he shouted, and the truckers nodded and kept dancing and singing their songs about peace, love, and freedom. They also kept blocking little Justin’s roadways. This made him very angry. He couldn’t drop those thousands of truckers and their many supporters, children, and pets, into a tank full of piranhas, as he remembered someone he admired once doing. So he invoked the Emergencies Act, a law framed in the 1980s to provide the government of Canada with extraordinary powers to deal with extraordinary situations: wars, invasions, massive terrorist attacks, that sort of thing. 

Trudeau is the first prime minister to invoke that law. That must have put mousse in his coiffure. At last he was first. Legislation such as the Emergencies Act is seldom hauled out and implemented in pacific Canada. Its predecessor, the War Measures Act, was invoked three times. Once for World War I. Once for World War II. Once for the so-called October Crisis in 1970, when a separatist group called Front de libération du Québec kidnapped a couple of diplomats, including a Quebec provincial cabinet minister who was later murdered. 

You might think that a convoy of truckers protesting Canada’s soon-to-be-revoked vaccine mandate did not rise to the level of a world war or even to the level of a terrorist incident. You would be right about that. But to understand what just happened in Canada, it is important to keep two things in mind. 

First, the vaccine mandates, which, as I just said, are just about to be revoked, were never more than the pretext for the truckers’ revolt. The real casus belli was the highhandedness of the government in imposing the mandates, along with all the other COVID theater we’ve been treated to: the shutdowns, the masks, the “social (i.e., anti-social) distancing,” the ubiquitous swabs, sanitizers, hand wipes, and general atmosphere of hysteria. 

These expedients don’t actually do anything to contain the virus, which is now endemic and markedly less potent than it was when China first shipped it out to the world. On the contrary, they are predominantly ritualistic, almost religious, gestures. The little paper masks, for example, do nothing to “slow the spread” of a virus that can leak like James Comey’s FBI through those porous and baggy fibers. 

No, the masks served different functions. Like the yellow stars worn by certain populations in an earlier age, they were in part badges of submission and compliance. Unlike the yellow stars, however, they also have a virtue-signaling function. They say to the world, “See! I declare my greater virtue by wearing this pointless mask, which, among other things, certifies my appreciation of the unprecedented health threat we face and the fact that I care enough about other people to pretend to do something to protect them from any diseases I may be carrying.”

The second function of the COVID rituals also brings me to the second and more important catalyst for the truckers’ revolt: its blatant declaration of arbitrary government power. 

It’s arbitrary in several ways. For one, the prohibitions and prescriptions come and go seemingly without reason. Indeed, it sometimes seems that the arbitrariness is the point: “See, we do this—make this pointless rule—because we can and because you, the plebs, will obey because you always have.” 

Another aspect of this arbitrary rule is its directedness: these rules, like so many rules these days, are for the little people. With regard to masks, for example, everywhere one looks one sees examples of what one writer calls “mask apartheid.” The masses are masked and must be masked. The elites do not have to be masked and so parade around in public without them. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez paraded around, maskless, in a custom-made “tax the rich” dress at the Met Gala, but all her attendants were masked up.

All this was fueling the truckers’ revolt. After all, some 90 percent were already vaccinated. It’s not that they objected, most of them, to being vaccinated. They object to being told by little Justin that they had to be vaccinated in order to earn their livelihood. And the vaccines, they implicitly understood, were synecdoches for so much more: for all the COVID rituals, of course, but also for the two-tier rule by elites and administrative fiat that has infected and is dismantling almost every Western so-called democracy. Not for nothing is the truckers’ mantra “Freedom.” They wanted, they want, freedom. Little Justin could not abide recognizing their freedom. So he invoked the Emergencies Act, called out the troops, and ordered the mounted police (among other things) to trample protestors underfoot.

Most people, I believe, can understand why countries maintain legislation like Canada’s Emergencies Act on the books. There are exceptional situations that require exceptional remedies. A world war, for instance, might well require that a government abrogate certain peacetime rights and freedoms. But a truckers’ convoy that was thoroughly, one might even say, ostentatiously peaceful? Was that a legitimate reason to freeze people’s bank and social media accounts, confiscate or destroy their property, break into their homes and arrest them? 

As with the U.S. government’s response to the January 6, 2021, protest at the Capitol, government powers were mobilized far in excess of the threat that was posed. Yes, it is important that the government has the means to quell an insurrection. But that does not give it license to regard every challenge to its authority as an insurrectionary behavior. We’ve seen a lot of “insurrection creep” recently, a vast expansion of what counts as “extremism” or “terrorism.” Politicians like Justin Trudeau (or Gretchen Whitmer or Andrew Cuomo) aid and abet that definitional expansion because it brings with it an expansion of their powers.

Finally—and this brings me to the irony I mention in my title—although Justin Trudeau has stomped on the truckers, bringing the essentially unlimited police power of the state down upon their heads, he has merely dispersed this one wave rolling in from the sea. A single, nonviolent convoy was shattered by state violence. More than 100 people have been arrested. But many thousands simmer out of reach. Who knows whether they will climb back into the cabs of other 18-wheelers. 

You can be sure, however, that their demands for freedom will continue to resonate. And one strand of that cry will demand the head, in political terms, of little Justin Trudeau. In fact, it is already happening. Trudeau won a skirmish but lost his credibility, which means that he has also lost legitimacy and, ultimately, that he will lose the war. 

Good riddance, I say, since he has just shown himself to be a petulant, thin-skinned tyrant who cannot exercise power without abusing it. At the moment, he doubtless feels bucked, having just squashed an embarrassing public challenge to his reign. Just offstage, however, that figure you see rustling in the wings is fate, ἄτη, fitting the lead lozenge into the velvet glove. 

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