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Scapegoating the new deplorables

Craig A. Carter | How cynical politicians are debasing public discourse


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau getting his COVID-19 vaccine booster shot last week Associated Press/Photo by Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Scapegoating the new deplorables
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The rhetoric of political leaders in the United States and Canada is increasingly polarizing and bordering on violent. Close elections in heavily divided countries are being decided by enthusiasm. Stoking anger at the other side is increasingly seen as an effective tool in driving up voter turnout and can be the difference between winning and losing an election. In short, dividing people into groups and against each other works—at least if your goals are short-term power-grabbing rather than statesmanship.

Politicians like French President Emmanuel Macron increasingly follow Hillary Clinton and her “basket of deplorables” explanation for how a figure like Donald Trump could get elected. The temptation to portray the voters of the other party as stupid, stubborn, and evil seems to be too much to resist.

Here in Canada, we were reminded of that this week when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shifted blame for all our COVID frustrations onto the designated scapegoats of the hour: the unvaccinated.

Last week, the CBC (never yet suspected of trying to paint a Liberal leader in a bad light on purpose) said: “With the Omicron-driven pandemic wave sweeping the country, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canadians are growing more angry and frustrated with people who still refuse to get vaccinated.”

In the National Post, political commentator Rex Murphey set this statement in the context of past Trudeau comments by going back to last fall’s election campaign when Trudeau “launched a strident, angry, ugly fusillade against ‘anti-vaxxers’ in a French-language TV interview,” in which he painted “these people” as “often” being “women-haters, racists, and science-deniers, as well.” Murphey notes that Trudeau asked rhetorically should we “tolerate them?” One can find shockingly derisive language directed to the unvaccinated from politicians all around the world. Indeed, it is the one group of people for whom “polite” society has deemed it OK to not consider worthy of respect.

One wonders what alternative the prime minister might have had in mind to “tolerating” them. What else does a liberal democracy do with people who think differently from the majority? Is this rhetoric even compatible with liberal democracy as we have known it in the West for the past few centuries? Or is it the rhetoric of the Weimar Republic in the process of falling into totalitarianism?

To use an emotional issue to lump all individuals into a group of undesirables and then to demonize that group to manipulate public opinion for political gain is ugly politics.

It is now clear that vaccines are very good at keeping people from getting extremely sick but not very good at keeping people from contracting a mild dose of the virus and possibly even passing it on. Thus, we have hordes of people in isolation who are desperately needed in the workplace but who are not available despite not being sick themselves.

What this means is that now, with more than 87 percent of the Canadian population over age 12 fully vaccinated, the main danger of any given individual refusing to be vaccinated is that the person him- or herself is more in danger of ending up very sick. But such people are not the main cause for the pandemic’s continuation.

It is possible to be in favor of being vaccinated and yet be troubled by the demonization of those who, for often very well-thought-out reasons, or even for reasons we do not understand, decide not to be vaccinated. We may disagree with them, but these individuals do not deserve our scorn and humiliation. I know it is possible because I am personally vaccinated but have friends and family who are not, and I am very uncomfortable with the tendency to demonize them for political purposes.

To use an emotional issue to lump all individuals into a group of undesirables and then to demonize that group to manipulate public opinion for political gain is ugly politics. It is not driven by concern for sick people or for the common good. It is a power grab. It is undemocratic.

In an age when demonizing certain minorities is practically the worst sin one can commit, it is worth pondering how it is that politicians like Trudeau are allowed to get away with such behavior. Does he operate by his own set of rules?


Craig A. Carter

Craig A. Carter is the research professor of theology at Tyndale University in Toronto, Ontario, and theologian in residence at Westney Heights Baptist Church in Ajax, Ontario.

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