The Guardian published a profile of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today which focuses on the building of Trudeau’s brand and the ways in which that brand has taken a serious hit lately. The piece suggests that the real turning point for Trudeau politically wasn’t an election it was a boxing match in 2012:
On the last night of March 2012, Justin Trudeau climbed into a boxing ring in downtown Ottawa, the Canadian capital, intent on rescuing his public image. He was clad in a lustrous red robe, the colour of the Liberal party, for which he was then a junior member of parliament. In the opposite corner, wearing Tory blue, was a young aboriginal leader and Conservative senator named Patrick Brazeau, who is a former navy reservist and a second-degree black belt in karate. Bookies had given the lanky Trudeau, a former high school teacher, three-to-one odds against.
The televised match was ostensibly a fundraiser for cancer research, but in Ottawa it became a sensation – a display of partisan pageantry rarely seen in the staid world of Canadian politics, where “bland works” had been the watchword of one long-serving provincial premier. The fight’s symbolism was lost on no one: in recent years, the Conservatives had battered the Liberals, turning a narrow lead in the 2006 election into a majority government by 2011. The Liberal party, which had governed Canada for much of the 20th century, had been reduced to a historically low number of seats…
Within seconds of the opening bell, Brazeau pinned Trudeau against the ropes with an onslaught of heavy jabs. But the Conservative senator soon exhausted himself. Early in the second round, Trudeau seized on the opening, raining down blows on Brazeau. Less than a minute into the third round, as the Liberal MP continued to pummel his opponent, the referee halted the fight and declared Trudeau the winner.
That victory was one of the first major triumphs in a branding campaign that helped to transform Trudeau from a politician widely derided as a lightweight into a global political superstar. “It wasn’t random,” Trudeau told Rolling Stone in 2017, referring to the boxing match. “I wanted someone who would be a good foil, and we stumbled upon the scrappy, tough-guy senator from an Indigenous community … I saw it as the right kind of narrative, the right story to tell.”
Trudeau’s rise from that point and his tenure as Prime Minister has been based on Obama-esque scenes delivered regularly to the public which are both carefully thought-out beforehand and designed to appear spontaneous and natural. This is how Trudeau continued to build his brand.
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.
The photo above is an example of the sort of imagery found almost daily on the PM’s social media pages. Here’s Trudeau delivering his “rehearsed explanation” of quantum computing:
The piece offers another example of Trudeau’s brand building that made news in 2017. Trudeau and his advisers were interested in finding a way to overcome President Trump’s famously grippy handshake when the two leaders met. The solution Trudeau and his people came up with was a shoulder grab. But to make sure he got it right, the PM practiced the move on his plane. And sure enough, the shoulder grab resulted in headlines like this one: “Donald Trump’s strange handshake style and how Justin Trudeau beat it.”
For a while, all of this seemed to work out pretty well for Trudeau, but things took a turn earlier this year thanks largely to the SNC-Lavalin scandal. It wasn’t just that Trudeau was caught in a genuine political scandal, it’s that the particulars of the scandal directly damaged his carefully crafted brand:
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 Wilson-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.
“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.”
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.”
Last week Canada’s Ethics Commissioner issued a report finding that Trudeau had attempted to improperly influence his Attorney General, officially marking this as a genuine scandal not just a partisan dustup.
A pollster from the Angus Reid Institute told the Guardian, “it’s turned out that Brand Trudeau is: ‘Welcome to the new politics, just like the old politics.'” That sounds like a paraphrase of the chorus from the Who’s song Won’t Get Fooled Again, i.e. meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Many Canadians seem to have come to this realization. Recent polls show Trudeau’s Liberal Party is now in a dead heat with the Conservatives heading into the October elections. It remains to be seen whether Trudeau can pull off the comeback he did in the boxing match back in 2012. For the moment, he appears to be on the ropes.