The midterm elections of 2018 were a litmus test to determine if Americans were satisfied with the current government regime to which the country fervently displayed its dissatisfaction. A storm brews in our American political present that is not so unfamiliar to our elder French-speaking neighbors to the north. Many Trump critics draw parallels between the president and authoritarian — even fascist — leaders. One important political leader I have yet to see Trump compared with is Maurice Duplessis, leader of Quebec’s former Union Nationale.
Quebec’s Great Darkness, the period of rule under Duplessis in the 1940s and 1950s, led to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s under Jean Lesage. Under Trump, the US is experiencing its own Great Darkness — a period of regressive reactionary politics. With a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives as of Jan. 3, many may assume that we have seen the light at the end of our Great Darkness. However, with two more years of Trump on the horizon, there are lessons to be gleaned from Union Nationale and the following revolution that undermined the party’s regressive causes so strongly that they are now only a distant smear in Quebec’s history.
The Union Nationale (National Union) was a small conservative faction in Quebec that rose to power after splitting from a mainstream political party in 1936 (imagine the Tea Party splitting from the Republican Party). The Union Nationale ran a platform based on social and economic programming that gained popular support in both urban and rural Quebec. The programs called for agrarian reform and promoted small and medium-sized Quebecois businesses over foreign capital.
This platform gained popularity and Duplessis served as premier of Quebec (similar to a governor) from 1936-1939 and from 1944-1959. His critics referred to his time as premier as the “grande noirceur,”or “Great Darkness.” Under Duplessis, the Union Nationale defended a strong brand of nationalism and conservatism, adjoined by strong economic support of rural areas, Catholic education, anti-communism and provincial rights. Though the province faced incredible change, the Union Nationale harkened back to an agrarian past and made extreme political moves in the interest of self-preservation of the political party over progress.
Duplessis was described as an autocrat, dictator, xenophobe and even a “tinpot Hitler” — thus lauded by his supporters as the savior of the white race and paragon of French Canadian nationalism. The core of Union Nationale’s support came from rural, religious and nationalist voters, a similar voting block to Trump country, though his initial platform was also popular in urban settings. Duplessis’ government followed through on the promises to Quebec farmers, but legislation supporting small business and labor in urban areas never materialized. In fact, the labor legislations Duplessis passed were completely anti-labor and he spent much of his time as premier fighting with and decertifying labor unions. I find this eerily similar to Trump’s battle against the press, recently calling CNN an “enemy of the people.”
Similar to Trump’s callous and abhorrent treatment of immigrant children, a number of whom have died while in detention centers, the Duplessis administration was scandalized for its treatment of orphaned children. Due to a federal funding scheme that provided larger subsidies for psychiatric patients than for orphans, the provincial government had more than 20,000 orphans falsely diagnosed with mental illnesses. These children were sent to psychiatric facilities operated by the Catholic church and faced physical, mental and sexual abuse, the effects of which persisted through their adulthood.
Through its “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, the Trump administration has created a situation where already vulnerable children are deprived of meaningful cognitive development and subjected to varying forms of abuse, leaving the government liable for the future ramifications of its present actions.
So how did Duplessis manage to remain premier of Quebec for nearly 20 years? His brand of populism spoke to a Quebec that desperately held onto its past and drew passion from both his supporters and his critics. After winning office, he abandoned the platform which won him election and therefore should have been unpopular among urban voters. However, Duplessis, like Trump, spoke to a brand of nationalism surrounding a collective identity which was perceived to be under attack. Maurice Duplessis was the champion for the French way of life in Canada.
Quebec — a French-speaking province of an overwhelmingly English-speaking continent — lacked an official language until 1974. British conquest of Quebec in colonial times began a contentious relationship between French and British influences. Throughout the 20th century, the standard of living in Quebec lagged behind other Canadian provinces considerably. Income disparity between French-origin men and British-origin men was wider than income disparity between black and white men in the US. During this same period, half of Quebecois students left school at age 15 and only 13 percent of Quebecois students finished high school.
The province was angry in the same way that middle America displayed its anger at coastal elites in the 2016 presidential election. Duplessis captured the collective anger of Quebecers and posited it in proposed policies to ameliorate the French way of life. To accomplish this, he adopted a nationalist mindset that separated Quebec from the rest of Canada, united under the French language, and fought to sustain itself without federal intervention — though he was happy to exploit loopholes to take federal money at the expense of thousands of children. In the same manner that Donald Trump’s nationalism seems to be opportunistic, historian Mason Wade questioned whether Duplessis’ reversal of his original platform signified that he was a false nationalist, calling him an “opportunistic practical politician” who exploited the “traditional nationalism of the people he ruled in so dictatorial fashion.”
Duplessis fought to build a Quebec that could sustain itself without the cooperation of the Canadian federal government or her sister provinces. Much like Trump focuses on “America First,” Duplessis outright refused to do productive business with the Canadian federal government. American historian Helen Taft Manning, Dean of Bryn Mawr College and daughter of President William Howard Taft, wrote the following about such isolationist policies in Quebec under the Union Nationale:
“Moreover, if Quebec were not conscious of her greatly increased wealth and importance in the industrial world she would scarcely be so misguided as to believe that she can survive without any political links in the rest of Canada.”
Beyond regressive and isolationist policies, the Union Nationale was associated with election fraud, similar to the scandal that has rocked the Trump administration since day one. The Duplessis administration was referred to as a “gang,” while Trump critics refer to Trump administration officials as “criminals” — which they are — and “cronies.”
Duplessis’ administration was credited with the creation of jobs and lower taxes, two promised policy objectives of the Trump administration. The administration has accomplished one promised policy objective since January 2017 — the broadest tax code rewrite in 30 years. However, Trump’s claim that these modifications would lower taxes for the middle class is not supported by the actual legislation. This reversal of a key platform issue that won him the 2016 presidential election is incredibly similar to Duplessis’ abandonment of social programs for urban industrial workers.
The Catholic church was described as the right hand of the Duplessis government. The government served to advance the church while the church was the engine facilitating social compliance. Though other Canadian provinces established non-sectarian schools as far back as the 1800s, the church dispensed public education in Quebec well throughout the mid 20th century. The final case for Catholic education was born from — and died with — Duplessis. His government created new positions, notably the Minister of Social Welfare and the Department of Youth.
The Catholic church responded, worried that the Department of Youth would create imbalance among the Catholic-dominated Council on Public Education. Duplessis placated the church and no serious changes would come to Catholic education in Quebec until very shortly after his death. Maurice Duplessis was skillful at manipulating the clergy to serve his political interests, claiming: “I kiss (the priest’s) ring and he kisses my ass.”
Trump, on the other hand, claimed he could take any liberties with women because of his celebrity status. He concealed an affair with a pornographic film actress and such episodes were defended by his former Press Secretary, the devout Catholic Sean Spicer, as private matters between “(Trump), his wife, and his God.” Trump maintains high approval among evangelical Christians, though he rarely mentioned any ties to spirituality leading into the 2016 elections. Many questioned if he had any religious convictions. Does Trump kiss the ring while the church kisses his ass? We’ll wait for the tapes.
So what is next? Duplessis died during his time as premier and the Union Nationale — described as a one-man political machine — collapsed less than a year after his death in 1959. His successor, Paul Sauve, died after maintaining the position for four months. Sauve’s successor lasted six months before being beaten in the election by the Liberal Party’s Jean Lesage.
Has Trump’s alt-right political machine died in the wake of the midterm elections? Will it die in 2020 after his term is complete? Will Trump himself die in office from eating too many Big Macs?
It was under Lesage that the shortcomings of the Great Darkness were addressed, in a time hailed as “la revolution tranquille,” or “the Quiet Revolution.” Major policy victories of the Quiet Revolution included the secularization of government and schools, reuniting Quebec politics with federal politics, assuming state responsibility of utilities and the establishment of public hospitals. Today, Quebec maintains the lowest college dropout rate of all Canadian provinces and provides its citizens with clean and renewable hydroelectric energy.
Our Great Darkness concerns healthcare, immigration, gun violence, the environment, voter suppression, a menacing opioid epidemic, widening income inequality and a growing budget deficit.
I have a feeling our revolution won’t be so quiet.