Live by the image, die by the image: A portrait of Justin Trudeau

There is an excellent, but lengthy, article in the Guardian by that newspaper’s Canadian correspondent Ashifa Kassam which is headlined: “Justin Trudeau: the rise and fall of a political brand.”

Screen Shot 2019-08-22 at 08.07.15Ms Kassam opens her essay by recounting the 2012 Brazeau-Trudeau boxing match. It was, as she explains, carefully arranged and staged by Team Trudeau ~ later she says that “When a political brand becomes as powerful as Trudeau’s has, it is tempting to read a person’s entire biography as a branding exercise. Things the politician did in their life before politics become plot points in a success story devised by a canny political operator. Ian Capstick, a political commentator who has worked for the Liberals as well as their rivals to the left, the New Democratic party, believes that Trudeau and his longtime friend and adviser Gerald Butts “have been carefully calculating every single entree of Mr Trudeau into Canadian public life for the past 30 years”. He adds: “There is not a single action that he took publicly that wasn’t considered, reconsidered and put out there in an attempt to eventually build the base that he would require to be prime minister.”

Even if this view is a little too cynical,” she says, “there is no doubt that living his entire life in the public eye has endowed Trudeau with an instinctive, if not infallible, sense of political optics. The beginning of his rise to power has usually been dated to 3 October 2000, when the 28-year-old delivered a dramatic televised eulogy at his father’s state funeral, closing with the words “Je t’aime, papa”, before resting his head on his father’s flag-draped coffin, his tears falling freely. Switchboards at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation lit up with more than 1,000 requests to replay the tribute.

Still, it wasn’t clear that he could move from celebrity trust-fund kid to successful Screen Shot 2019-08-22 at 08.08.43politician, because “many observers felt he lacked gravitas. He had spent his mid-20s drifting between stints as a bar bouncer and snowboard instructor before becoming a schoolteacher. He even admitted, or pretended, to an ignorance of current affairs. “I don’t read the newspapers, I don’t watch the news,” he wrote in the Globe and Mail the year after his father’s death. “I figure, if something important happens, someone will tell me.”” For the record, I do not believe he pretended to be ignorant of current affairs; I believe he really is disinterested and only says what his handlers, especially Gerald Butts, tells him to say.

Earlier in the essay, Ashifa Kassam noted that “The sort of potent spectacle that characterised his fight with Brazeau was, until recently, a hallmark of Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister. Like Barack Obama, Trudeau seemed to understand better than other politicians how to adapt the old ideas of political marketeering to the new realities of social media. He was a master of the viral video clip or poignant photo that seemed to express the worthiness of his government and the virtue of his politics. He became, as a flurry of academic research has put it, the first prime minister of the Instagram age. “I think he’s probably the best national leader since Ronald Reagan at projecting a certain image,” says Warren Kinsella, a former Liberal strategist.” She goes on to say that “A great deal of Trudeau’s political cachet within Canada has been inherited from his father. Pierre is a towering figure in Canadian history, who liberalised laws on abortion and homosexuality, entrenched a charter of universal rights and instituted official bilingualism. The Canadian mass media guru Marshall McLuhan, a friendly adviser to Pierre throughout the 15 years he was prime minister, believed that Canada had no fixed identity … [something upon which Justin Trudeau picked up and with which he ran, too] … giving Pierre an opportunity to act as its “unifying image”. Canada could, in a sense, become what Pierre made it. Even if few Canadians subscribe to McLuhan’s view, it captures something central to how Pierre framed his own tenure as prime minister.

After describing how ‘Trudeaumania’ was staged in the 1960s ~ Pierre Trudeau “captured attention around the world by staging moments of spectacle – whether it was sliding down a bannister during his 1968 campaign for Liberal leader or pirouetting behind the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1977,” and pretty young women were hired from the ranks of Liberal supporters to act as “obsessed fanatics” at Pierre Trudeau’s public appearance, all in order ““to cultivate an image of a pop culture phenomenon” during Canada’s 1968 federal election,” as one political scholar noted, Ashifa Kassam writes that Justin’s attempts to recreate Trudeaumania have involved wading through crowds to allow fans to snap selfies with him – while his official photographer captures the moment at a slight distance. The results, posted on Instagram, feel like a record of spontaneous adulation, but are actually tightly controlled ...[and as one expert put it] … Trudeau is executing a “similar playbook” to his father’s, but “in different technological terrain”.” This is something upon which she reported, for the Guardian, back in the spring of 2017 when she said, “He’s tackled quantum physics, photobombed a beach wedding, posed shirtless for selfies with a family hiking in the woods and, most recently, jogged past a group of Canadian teenagers heading to prom … [and] … each time, Justin Screen Shot 2019-08-22 at 08.03.22Trudeau’s actions have earned lavish attention from media outlets in Canada and around the world …[but] … after it was pointed out that the shot of Trudeau breezing past the prom-bound teens was snapped by his official photographer, some Canadians have been asking why the media continues to fall for what seems to be a constant stream of PR stunts.

That, “a constant stream of PR stunts,” interspersed with breaches of Parliament’s conflict of interest and ethics rule and another stream of broken promises, is, it seems to me, a pretty fair description of Justin Trudeau’s term in office.

And now, Ms Kassam says, Prime Minister Justin “Trudeau has championed a vision of Canada as a nation friendly to allies, open to immigrants and just to its people. According to this image, Canada is a paragon of progressivism in an era marked by strains of authoritarian populism – as if crossing the border that separates Canada from Donald Trump’s US means travelling through a political looking-glass. And yet, Trudeau was never exactly anti-populist: he cultivated an impression that he both serves the masses and is adored by them … [but] … Ironically, but perhaps inevitably, Trudeau’s efforts to depict himself in this way have now helped to set the stage for his potential unmaking. Some of the policies enacted by Trudeau’s government have made his political identity seem hollow, even disingenuous. Compounding this has been the ongoing fallout from the most significant controversy of his tenure: Canada’s ethics watchdog recently found that Trudeau broke the country’s conflict of interest law in the hopes of allowing a giant engineering and construction firm to avoid a corruption trial … [and] … Far from the progressive, transparent government that Trudeau sold to Canadians and the global media, the scandal suggests that, like previous Canadian governments, Trudeau’s administration remains in thrall to the “Laurentian consensus” – the web of political, business and intellectual elites in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal whose collective name is a nod to eastern Canada’s mighty St Lawrence river. Ahead of a federal election in October, Trudeau’s approval ratings have plunged from a high of 65% in 2016 to about 32% in July, leaving him vulnerable to becoming the first Canadian prime minister since the 1930s to lose a bid for re-election after winning only one majority mandate.

Trudeau’s entry into politics was uninspiring. The leaders of the Liberal Party, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, both bonafide intellectuals, gave him scant attention and only the most minor of critic roles. But the boxing match changed all that. He was, suddenly, a political star. But he’s always been a star, in a way, as Ashifa Kassam says, “many Canadians already felt a deep connection to Trudeau. “He has grown up in the public eye. He was literally born while his father was prime minister,” Marland told me. “He was a celebrity before he even became prime minister.” This made Trudeau seem regal, yet familiar – a brand you knew and could trust. Trudeau’s team did everything they could to encourage this intimate connection with their candidate. “It was probably Canada’s first celebrity politics federal election,” says Huguette Young, a veteran Ottawa journalist and author of Justin Trudeau: The Natural Heir. “They had Dinner with Justin, just like Dinner with Obama, and contests and you could win a date with Justin. He was almost commodified as a product.”

Then came 2015 and “In the 2015 general election, Trudeau married the values of the just society with the electoral approach pioneered by Obama, building the infrastructure for a grassroots effort while mounting an aggressive social media campaign. But Trudeau relied more heavily than Obama could on images. “Obama’s use of social media was, for lack of a better term, pre-visual,” says Tamara Small, a political science professor at Ontario’s University of Guelph … [and] … The election pitted Trudeau against Stephen Harper, a dour Conservative who had governed Canada for nearly a decade. Few expected much of Trudeau, the neophyte leader of Canada’s third-ranked party. “I think that if he comes on stage with his pants on, he will probably exceed expectations,” a Conservative spokesperson told reporters before the first debate … [but his campaign was brilliant and he is, still, great at “working the crowd,” so long as all his remarks are scripted, and then] … “After almost a decade of Harper, there was a widespread desire for change. Presented with two very different images of Canada’s future, voters responded with a clear answer. On 19 October 2015, the Liberal party swept back to power by picking up 148 seats on top of the 36 they already held in Canada’s 338-member parliament. It was the largest increase in seats in Canadian history.

Ms Kassam explains, in some detail, how Team Trudeau made itself the antithesis of Stephen Harper’s government even as it did little to change policy. That included a huge dose of cosmetics: “Trudeau moved his official photographer into an office two doors down from his own. A mix of intimate and public photo ops – of the prime minister cuddling with pandas, greeting Syrian refugees as they landed on Canadian soil, throwing punches in a Brooklyn boxing gym – transformed Trudeau from a politician into a series of memes. During his first year in power, barely a week went by without some sort of viral moment from the prime minister that found its way into people’s daily lives as they scrolled through Snapchat on the bus or perused Instagram in bed. As Trudeau content appeared on social media shorn of context, it created new realities: a rehearsed explanation of quantum computing became a show of Trudeau’s intellectual prowess; an innocuous cough on a visit to Washington DC became an example of Trudeau trolling the president.” But there was nothing of substance; it was, 99%, government by image.

In retrospect,” Ms Kassam writes, “it seems predictable that a brand so well-devised, so symbolic and emotive, would encourage idealisations that in reality no politician could match. In 2018, some three years after Trudeau took power, cracks began showing in Trudeau’s glossy veneer. In February, Trudeau and his family made an eight-day visit to India that was described to me by his former foreign policy adviser, Roland Paris, as perhaps “the worst trip that a Canadian prime minister has ever taken abroad”. Although Trudeau sat down with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, and attended a handful of other bilateral meetings, what gained traction on social media were photos of the prime minister flouncing around in traditional Indian outfits. The result was a trip that seemed heavy on Bhangra moves but light on official business.

Ashifa Kassam says that ““India crystallised a lot of misgivings that liberals had that he was perhaps not as mature as we would like, he was not as prime ministerial as we would like, he was a little gimmicky and not taking it seriously with the world’s largest democracy,” Warren Kinsella, the former Liberal strategist, told me. Months later, Trudeau’s feminist credentials took a hit after an allegation resurfaced that he had groped a reporter at an event in 2000. While acknowledging that he did apologise at the time to the reporter after she confronted him, Trudeau has said he is confident that he did not act inappropriately. Criticism grew that Trudeau’s government was merely tinkering around the edges of change, masking their political inaction with a steady diet of unexpected moments and big talk.

justin-trudeau-28But that was all survivable. Foreign policy doesn’t interest most Canadian voters and Team Trudeau was confident that it could paper over an 18 years old beer-fuelled bit of inappropriateness and that the India trip would earn votes in Canada which was, after all, what it was really all about. As I said, above, Prime Minister Trudeau really is disinterested in and ignorant of current affairs and global strategic issues.

Ms Kassam cites other former Team Trudeau members: ““We’ve done check box, check Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 08.44.41box, check box,” says Celina Caesar-Chavannes, an MP and former parliamentary secretary to the prime minister who resigned from the Liberal caucus after a dispute with Trudeau. “But how does it really transform the lives of people who don’t have Trudeau’s privilege, who don’t have my privilege?” Caesar-Chavannes argues that Trudeau’s government has made small changes but consistently shies away from the bold, transformational work he promised in a campaign built around the slogan, “Real Change”. “I think there were some decisions around our ability to be re-elected as opposed to doing politics differently,” she says … [and, she adds] … Caesar-Chavannes gave me a number of examples of this sort of policymaking. Trudeau’s government legalised marijuana but rebuffed a call to expunge the records of those convicted of simple possession, even though prosecutions had disproportionately targeted people with low-incomes and Canadians of colour. Trudeau appointed a gender-balanced cabinet, but refused to reform the country’s electoral system, which would have paved the way for more female lawmakers. He promised a “total renewal” of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous communities, but his government has done little to address the mould-ridden housing and lack of clean drinking water that has left many Indigenous communities living in “Haiti at -40C”, as a politician from the New Democratic party has put it. After vowing to prioritise the fight against climate change and criticising Saudi Arabia’s treatment of human rights advocates, Trudeau’s government bought a C$4.5bn (£2.8bn) pipeline to better transport Alberta’s landlocked bitumen to international markets and signed off on the sale of more than 900 armoured vehicles to Riyadh. And, after much of the international hype over its welcoming stance on refugees had died down, the government quietly introduced legislation this April that makes it harder for some migrants to seek asylum … [but, she says] … Despite Trudeau selling himself as an open and transparent leader, several sources within the government described the centralisation of power in his office, with the prime minister’s inner circle playing the role of his gatekeepers. This is typical of highly branded politicians – the pressure to keep the whole government on message encourages top-down control – but Trudeau may have taken it to an extreme. Stéphane Dion served as Trudeau’s foreign minister for 14 months, and during that time he didn’t manage to land a single one-on-one meeting with the prime minister despite multiple requests, says Jocelyn Coulon, a former senior policy advisor to Dion. (Dion declined my request for a comment.)

“Perhaps Trudeau’s shortcomings wouldn’t have dominated public discussion in Canada for much of this year,” Ms Kassam says, “if a single large scandal hadn’t Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 07.37.15focused Canadians on the gap between Trudeau the brand and his actions while in government. In February, Trudeau was accused of trying to bully his justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, into helping SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec-based engineering and construction company, avoid a corruption trial. Wilson-Raybould testified to a parliamentary committee earlier this year that Trudeau and his staff were worried that, if prosecuted, the company would move its head offices out of Montreal, potentially killing thousands of jobs and alienating voters in Quebec, home to a large number of strategically important parliamentary seats … [and] … Alongside the suggestion that Trudeau wanted to put his electoral success ahead of the integrity of the legal process, there was another layer to the scandal. Wilson-Raybould herself had once been a potent symbol of the Trudeau brand: she was the first Indigenous person and only the third woman to hold the post of justice minister. But the way she had been pressured by Trudeau and his team included “undeniable elements of misogyny”, she told the committee. Earlier this month, Canada’s ethics commissioner concluded Trudeau had violated the country’s ethics rules when he used his office to “circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit” Wilson-Raybould.

Ashifa Kassam winds up a lengthy article by saying that: “When Canadians head to the polls in October, a central question will be whether Trudeau’s image is so badly tarnished that the Liberal party’s vision of Canada will seem less appealing, and less realistic, than the vision on offer by the parties to its right and left. As things stand, Trudeau’s main opponent is the Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer. Scheer has vowed to roll back carbon taxes, opposed UN efforts to promote global cooperation on migration and wants to move Canada’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He has also appointed a former board member of Rebel Media, a far-right website that has been described as Breitbart North, as his campaign manager … [and] … In order to hang on to votes in the diverse suburbs that ring Toronto, which have proven decisive in recent elections, Liberals have been highlighting Scheer’s divisiveness on issues of race and immigration. Trudeau has also drawn attention to the Conservative party’s poor record on the climate crisis, and there are signs that he will continue using Trump’s presidency to reinforce his own image as a champion of the just society. His government recently struck a deal with California to reduce vehicle emissions, while Trudeau has vocally criticised new restrictions on abortion access in a number of Republican-controlled US states … [and, further] … The prime minister is also trying to repair the damage done to his reputation by the SNC-Lavalin scandal, and by the fact that he subsequently forced downloadWilson-Raybould and another cabinet minister, Jane Philpott, out of the Liberal caucus. “We worked really hard to try and see if there wasn’t a way of continuing to move forward together,” Trudeau told the audience at a Liberal fundraiser in June … [but] … “That’s completely incompatible with facts,” Philpott told me. “Between 4 March when I resigned from cabinet and 2 April when I was booted out of caucus, I didn’t have a single conversation with the prime minister. And I had only one phone call from someone in his office.” She added: “There are times where the image and the narrative that the prime minister’s office wants to put out there is more important than accuracy” … [and then] … Philpott likened this to another element of Trudeau’s brand that had rung false to her as a former cabinet member: “The whole listening to women, ‘diversity is our strength’, that kind of image,” she said. “And yet I didn’t feel listened to, and my diverse views didn’t feel like they had a place – those kinds of things were disappointing.” Philpott is planning on running as an independent in the October election, and said she now had a “lovely freedom” from the message control that had coloured all aspects of her job as a Liberal MP.” But Ms Kassam says, in her final words, “In recent weeks, polls suggest the Liberals have halted their plunge, and are slowly regaining some support. Still, an extraordinary challenge lies head for Trudeau and his team as they head into the October election, says the pollster Shachi Kurl. “How do you course-correct from something that is less about an event or a policy that people disagree with, and more about a broken brand?”

I think that is a key challenge facing Justin Trudeau. He is, in fact, not much more than Screen Shot 2019-08-22 at 12.57.29just a carefully crafted image. There is, simply, no substance to the man. He is intellectually vacuous, uncurious, disinterested ~ in so many respect he is very, very much like President Donald Trump, who Prime Minister Trudeau is trying to use as a bogey-man. In fact, like Screen Shot 2019-08-22 at 12.59.13President Trump, Prime Minister Trudeau is a highly divisive leader who rekindled the fires of Western Canadian separatism and has made his “brand,” his image more important than the law of the land. He is both Canada’s Donald Trump and its Hillary Clinton, too: a pure image politician who has scant regard for honesty or principles. Justin Trudeau is, in short, just a “brand,” nothing more. But something in excess of 15% of Canadians* would vote for a dead dog if it was running for the Liberal Party. The brand is strong. In fairness, there are about the same, maybe more, who would do the same for the Conservatives and smaller numbers who are uncritically committed to the Bloc, the Greens and the NDP. My guesstimate is that almost half of Canadians vote uncritically.**  The challenge for Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer is to persuade about 40% of the remaining 50%  ~ those who can be swayed*** ~ to vote for their party.

—–

* The Liberals’ worst showing in modern history was 18.9% in 2011.

** I have voted Conservative, steadily, since 1968. I was tempted, more than once to vote for another party when they ran very good candidates in my riding, most recently I was tempted to support Paul Dewar of the NDP here in Ottawa Centre because I thought he was a really good constituency MP. I knew him slightly and while we differed on several important policy issues, I liked him. But the Conservatives ran acceptable candidates and, in the last election, for example, I thought that the Conservative party was a much better choice for Canada and I felt that my local Conservative candidate deserved my vote.

*** At a guess there are 35% of Canadians who will never be able to vote Conservative ~ the very word conservative disgusts them. There are smaller numbers who will never vote Liberal or NDP, maybe 25% in total … they are almost all Conservative voters.

3 thoughts on “Live by the image, die by the image: A portrait of Justin Trudeau

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s