Trudeau’s silence means complicity in the age of Trump

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has chosen not to speak out on Trump.

Trudeau and Trump
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might possibly have been in an intermittent, figurative coma since Trump's inauguration, writes Mitrovica [Reuters]

You have to watch closely to catch the moment.

It’s an instant of recognition or perhaps understanding that, given the public forum, had to remain private, hidden behind a blank stare as an accusatory finger was pointed squarely at the guilty.

This was the scene as Senator Cory Booker launched into an impassioned eight-minute soliloquy during a judiciary committee hearing earlier this month while Donald Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, sat mute and under oath before him. 

In her testimony, Nielsen told the committee that she couldn’t recall if Trump had called Haiti and Africa “shithole[s]” during a recent meeting on immigration that she and several senators had with the president in the Oval Office.  

Booker was having none of Nielson’s “convenient amnesia”. Fuelled by a “seething … anger,” he said “when bigotry and ignorance is allied with power, it is a dangerous force.” He reminded Nielson, as well as, no doubt, other Americans watching: “We know what happens when people are bystanders and say nothing.”

As Booker reached an emotional zenith, he delivered the final and scathing coup de grace: “Your silence and amnesia is complicity.”  

A television camera cut to Nielsen looking deflated and defeated, reduced to a small, silent accomplice to a racist president in exchange for a temporary seat next to him.


It is a destructive bargain that Nielsen made presumably in the service of parochial, ephemeral interests that she may, or may not, come to regret.

Nielsen is not alone, of course. She has oodles of company. Scores of much more powerful people inside and outside the US are also complicit, some unabashedly so, others, like Nielsen, by virtue of their silence and amnesia. 

Trump’s family is complicit. His legion of faithful surrogates on TV and in Congress is complicit. His cabinet is complicit. Trump’s senior advisors, enlisted allegedly to rein in his contemptable impulses, are complicit. The more than 63 million Americans who elected him president and continue to be loyal to him are complicit. 

This is plain and surely, by now, as we mark the first anniversary of Trump’s pestilential presidency, beyond debate. There can no longer be any polite equivocation on this score. 

But if the sentient world accepts and vigorously applauds Senator Booker for insisting that silence and amnesia constitute complicity in the age of Trump, then there are so-called “statesmen” and “stateswomen” who not only tolerate, but enable, a bigoted president in pursuit of their parochial diplomatic and commercial interests. 

These politicians are, by Booker’s definition, complicit too. 

The international poster boy for this much less explored or acknowledged form of complicity is that champion of bumper sticker progressiveness and feminism, Canada’s dauphin prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

Asked earlier this year whether Trump’s testosterone-fuelled braggadocio on Twitter could trigger a nuclear holocaust in the Korean Peninsula, Trudeau, in effect, opted for silence. 

“Donald Trump has demonstrated that he’s a bit of a disruptive force. He does unpredictable things and sometimes they have positive impact, sometimes they have negative impacts. It’s not my job to opine on, you know, what it is he chooses to do,” Trudeau told the interviewer.

Still, in the same interview, Trudeau suggested that he found Trump’s reputation as a dealmaker reassuring. “He’s a dealmaker. He’s a negotiator,” Trudeau said. “But I mean the thing that reassures me fundamentally is he got elected on a commitment to help people.

Given Trump’s litany of pernicious outrages, this astounding remark isn’t evidence that Trudeau is suffering simply from a bout of amnesia, but that he might possibly have been in an intermittent, figurative coma since Trump’s inauguration.

Later, when confronted by other reporters to comment on Trump’s “shithole” smear of a neighbour nation, a continent and millions of predominately black children, women and men, Trudeau retreated, on cue, into silence, repeating, like a metronome, that he wasn’t going to “opine on what the president may or may not have said”. 

It was a disgraceful display that should disabuse anyone of the fanciful notion that Justin Trudeau is – by word and deed – a recuperative tonic to Donald Trump.

Like Secretary Nielsen, Prime Minister Trudeau decided to be a taciturn “bystander” as Senator Booker put it, when the occasion demanded that he speak up in defence of decency, tolerance and human dignity.

Predictably, Trudeau’s defenders claim that even in the face of Trump’s bigotry the prime minister is compelled to play a long game of realpolitik, particularly when Canada is in the middle of contentious talks on a range of prickly bilateral issues with the US, including the on-life-support North American Free Trade re-negotiations.

Trudeau and his apologists would do well to remember Martin Luther King’s admonition: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

Regrettably, to date, Trudeau and prominent friends in Britain, France, Germany and elsewhere, have failed to heed King’s words, preferring instead to repeatedly mollify a racist, rather than to condemn him. 

Then there is the brigade of pithy pundits who, while declaring their antipathy to Trump, pen contrarian pieces that trumpet his “successes” and praise his ability to reconfigure the long-established domestic and international order.

This subtler exhibition of complicity is arguably the most grating of all, since it feigns an intellectual sophistication not shared by crass polemicists who describe a racist as a racist.

Trump has had a lot of help from a lot of quarters to become and remain president. It’s apparent that, if he is to be defeated, it will require, as the late American historian Howard Zinn once wrote: “Small acts, by millions of people.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.