Justin Trudeau may be the last neoliberal standing

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Let's be clear on why Trump won. (Won the Electoral College, not the election. A strong enough majority of Americans voted against him.) It wasn't because of racism, fear of immigrants or misogyny. White supremacists and Confederate flag buffs didn't do it -- though they backed him.

He won because he carried four states in the rust belt, where factories once guaranteed people decent lives and which Democrats had always taken for granted. Hillary didn't even campaign there. Without them, Trump loses. In those states, the issue was hatred of free trade, largely in the form of NAFTA. It's now so despised that the term, free, is absent. People refer disgustedly merely to "trade deals."

It's true Trump is a racist, fear-mongering misogynist. But that's not why he carried those states. His first major post-election act was claiming credit for saving jobs from free trade at a Carrier factory in Indiana, which is part of the rust belt. The workforce there is 50 per cent African-American; half the assembly line workers are women; there are even many recent Burmese immigrants. They didn't vote for racism, anti-immigration or misogyny.

Economists have been arguing that automation, not trade deals, killed those jobs. That's not the experience of those workers/voters. It's NAFTA that allowed whole factories to be shipped to Mexico, and undermined the power of their unions to resist automation's effects. They voted what they know.

The neoliberalism that has ruled everywhere for 30 years has other elements: privatization, financialization, deregulation. But politically its loss leader was free trade, and that's what sank it in recent campaigns.

The real villains of neoliberalism weren't its natural parents: Reagan, Thatcher, Brian Mulroney. It was their "lefter" successors: Clinton, Blair, Chretien and Martin, who gave it what Tom Walkom has called a human face. That face made it even more odious, when its effects surfaced.

Why? Because of their sanctimony and moral superiority. How could they be villains? They were so empathic. They dismissed those in pain inflicted by their neoliberal economic policies as "deplorables," (Hillary Clinton) and "angry white men" (Bill Clinton). "At least Trump sees us," said some of the "hillbillies" dismissed by the Clintons.

Canada is different but here, too, the selling point of neoliberalism has been free trade -- partly because we're too few not to trade; our country arose to trade (away) our natural resources. We've had ferocious free trade elections.

So it's unsurprising that Justin Trudeau is looking a lot like the last neoliberal standing, albeit with his own quirks, like not being a deficit hysteric. Like the Clintons and Blair, he exudes empathy for the excluded -- while clinging fiercely to (free) trade deals. I think you can see him trying to resolve the same dilemmas on which Hillary Clinton recently shipwrecked.

She tried renouncing the latest trade deal (TPP) but not the earlier one, NAFTA, which was Bill Clinton's deal. Since it was NAFTA that screwed the rust belt, it was a stupid strategy and she's now retired. What are Trudeau's possible moves?

I think you can see him trying to be both a neoliberal and a populist. As a neoliberal, he is committed to trade deals like the TPP, and the Canada-Europe deal, CETA. But they would almost certainly cost Canadians jobs. It's what trade deals do. So on the other hand, he's approving new pipelines because they create some jobs, and symbolically, they're all about job creation. As a next-gen empathic neoliberal, he's also created a national carbon-cutting plan, alongside the pipelines, which will increase emissions. Contradictions, anyone?

Yes, it's rationally incoherent, but that doesn't really matter in politics, as long as it keeps you in office. And a Nanos poll shows most Canadians happily accept the contradiction. They back the carbon plan and the pipelines. I'm not even against the mix myself. It's better to do some good things (jobs, less carbon) than only rotten things (further ugly globalization plus emissions).

Trudeau's fortune at this point is not to have any serious populist opposition (populism is the neoliberal's nemesis, because it brazenly rejects free trade): neither Trump nor Sanders nor Brexit, which would put his flaccid platitudes about free trade under pressure. That and, of course, the fact that this is Canada, not the U.S. or anywhere else. He has a reasonable shot at remaining the last -- as long as he's also the least -- neoliberal.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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