Justin Trudeau: The rise and fall of a political brand

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.

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. The company is facing charges in connection with millions of dollars in bribes allegedly paid to officials in Libya, including members of the Gaddafi regime, between 2001 and 2011.

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.

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, 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.

The Queen with Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, father of Justin, in London in 1977.

Outside the country, Trudeau has played to the world’s eagerness to imagine Canada as a northern utopia untouched by the forces of nationalism and xenophobia. Within the country, however, there are many who think that Liberal Canada has never been the progressive place that Pierre and Justin tried to make it seem. The question now is whether voters believe his son has delivered more than just a good narrative.

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.

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. In one famous attack advert, Conservatives labelled Trudeau as “just not ready”, while mockingly conceding that he has “nice hair, though”.

Eventually, he and his team decided on a combination handshake and shoulder grab. According to Politico, Trudeau and his senior aides spent part of their flight to Washington DC practising it. The rehearsal paid off: Trudeau was hailed around the world for the handshake he unleashed on Trump. Viral videos of the seconds-long power struggle overshadowed a visit in which Trudeau stood by silently – later telling reporters that it was not his place to lecture another country – as Trump unapologetically defended his controversial travel ban.

It was part of a pattern in which Trudeau and his team produced globally viral images that starved important political issues of oxygen. In 2017, at the height of an opioid epidemic that had claimed a record number of overdose victims in Vancouver, Trudeau’s official photographer took an opportunistic photo of the prime minister running past a crowd of high schoolers on their prom night. Criticisms that the Trudeau government had not done enough to address the opioid crisis were buried by viral photos of the prime minister in running shorts and a T-shirt surrounded by students in suits and floor-length gowns. In politics, however, reality has a way of catching up with you. Eventually, the scandal, instead of the photo op, is what goes viral.

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.

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.

Perhaps Trudeau’s shortcomings wouldn’t have dominated public discussion in Canada for much of this year if a single large scandal hadn’t focused 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.

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.

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.