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Supporters of the Freedom Truck Convoy hold a protest at Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, on Jan. 29.LARS HAGBERG/AFP/Getty Images

In 2016, then-U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made an off-the-cuff comment about how half of Donald Trump’s supporters could be put in a “basket of deplorables,” for their racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and Islamophobic views.

“Some of those folks – they are irredeemable,” she said. “But thankfully they are not America.”

Though “basket of deplorables” quickly became the headline, the second part of Ms. Clinton’s statement was actually quite thoughtful: she said the other group of Trump supporters are those “who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them [ …] and they’re just desperate for change.” Unfortunately for Ms. Clinton’s campaign, that second part never resonated. It turns out if you characterize millions of your opponent’s supporters as irredeemably bad people, they won’t stick around to consider whether you think they fall into the more innocuous category.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t quite resort to Ms. Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” quip when he hosted a news conference Monday, but he certainly espoused no patience for anyone who participated in the trucker convoy that took over downtown Ottawa over the weekend.

When asked by one journalist whether it was fair to focus on the “obviously terrible” minority, Mr. Trudeau replied by noting that many protests he has witnessed over the years “don’t see the level of hateful rhetoric, of swastikas, of abuse toward their fellow citizens.” He then added, “Anyone who is part of this group who is disgusted by what the folks protesting alongside are doing needs to step up and take responsibility, condemn these actions and look for other ways to express their displeasure.”

When asked by another journalist whether it was his responsibility as Prime Minister to engage with the peaceful protesters who expressed genuine fears about vaccination, Mr. Trudeau insisted he has always spoken about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, but then went off about conspiracy theories, microchips and “about God knows what else that goes with the tinfoil hats.” He did not speak to the broader angst driving those who chose to peacefully demonstrate over the weekend, other than to tacitly chastise them for not standing up to those espousing hateful views.

Certainly there were many displays of truly abhorrent behaviour from convoy participants. Some flew Nazi flags and parked their cars (and even urinated) on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Others berated hotel, restaurant and homeless shelter staff, and someone hung an antivaccination sign on a statue of Terry Fox. But there were also those who participated in the convoy lawfully and civilly, who attended to vent their anger over COVID-19 policies – vaccine mandates, mask rules, lockdowns – for the past two years. And though the majority of Canadians might still find their views hideously wrong, lumping them in with those who shouted obscenities at hotel workers or who chose to relieve themselves on the memorial to Canada’s war dead will only exacerbate tensions, rather than quell them.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect political leaders to look beyond their own narrow self-interests in a culture so driven by tribalism and groupthink. Indeed, there is obvious political danger for someone like Mr. Trudeau to acknowledge that some Canadians saw their anger reflected in some of the protesters in Ottawa, or to encourage observers to try to resist the urge to see the situation as one of “us” versus “them.” But there is a greater social interest in attempting to defuse the unrest, simply because bad things tend to happen when people who feel unheard, unacknowledged and angry become even more alienated.

Ms. Clinton’s “deplorables” remark during the 2016 presidential election campaign was one of her more significant gaffes not only because it made her seem out-of-touch and petty, but also because it became a recruitment tool for those within the Trump circle: are you going to support the candidate who listens to your concerns, or the one who thinks you’re deplorable for having them? And to a certain extent, the effect was observable; by casting off half of the people who supported Mr. Trump as incorrigible bigots, Ms. Clinton appeared to drive some undecided voters over to his team.

What do Canadians expect will happen, then, to lawful protesters who have nevertheless grown increasingly agitated, radical and distrustful of government over the two years when they hear Mr. Trudeau dismiss them as fringe, effectively characterizing them as indistinguishable from swastika-wielding vandals? What will become of those who are still fearful of vaccination when they listen to their Prime Minister quip about tinfoil hats and microchip conspiracies? And what service is it to the rest of us when we are implicitly asked to see the people of the world as binary – deplorable, or not?

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