November 12, 2019

Winnipeg
-17° C, A few clouds

Full Forecast

Even if he wins, Trudeau's political clock ticking

Opinion

In an election campaign that's too close to call, there is only one thing for certain: Canadians will never see Justin Trudeau quite the same.

Just one year ago, Trudeau was one of a rare breed of politician who had translated political power into celebrity personal brand. He was a darling of the international news media, profiled by journalists from around the world as a progressive force and an antidote to the Trumpian pall in the United States.

And then, it came undone.

First, it was the SNC-Lavalin affair. Concerned about his electoral fortunes in Quebec, Trudeau breached federal ethics guidelines by urging former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to help the Quebec engineering firm avoid a criminal prosecution for corruption and bribery charges.

Trudeau may have been able to survive SNC-Lavalin and the related fallout, which included the cabinet resignations of Wilson-Raybould and compatriot Jane Philpott, if it weren't for his odd and offensive penchant for theatrical makeup.

The brand Trudeau built by storming the Liberal leadership, engineering a come-from-behind victory in the 2015 election and establishing himself as an agent of progressive change is gone, and it isn't going to come back. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press files)

The brand Trudeau built by storming the Liberal leadership, engineering a come-from-behind victory in the 2015 election and establishing himself as an agent of progressive change is gone, and it isn't going to come back. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press files)

The black/brownface scandal that erupted early in the federal campaign ensured that not only was this election going to be closer than anyone thought it should be, but also that Trudeau's personal brand was profoundly and perhaps permanently damaged.

Regardless of the outcome of this election, the brand Trudeau built by storming the Liberal leadership, engineering a come-from-behind victory in the 2015 election and establishing himself as an agent of progressive change is gone, and it isn't going to come back.

In fact, if Trudeau is somehow able to capture a minority mandate and then govern with the support of another party, he will defy the odds set by other leaders who, after watching their personal brands disintegrate, met awkward and sometimes untimely political deaths.

Make no mistake about it, it's tough for an individual politician to win anything without a powerful personal brand. That does not necessarily mean charisma or good looks; instead, politicians need to establish a clear and unambiguous identity that resonates with voters.

Once that identity has been damaged or eroded, it is almost impossible for the individual politician to survive.

Once that identity has been damaged or eroded, it is almost impossible for the individual politician to survive.

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien leaned heavily on his role as the "little guy from Shawinigan," a mix of folksy charm and steely-eyed resolve that played extremely well in all regions of Canada except maybe his home province of Quebec. There, he was seen as a kind of Québécois Uncle Tom who used his tortured attempts to speak English to charm anglophone voters.

Still, it was a successful brand that helped Chrétien win three consecutive majority mandates. It was not, however, an inoculation against an all-out internal assault on his leadership that ultimately tarnished his brand forever.

Shortly after winning his third majority, current and former cabinet ministers began to organize campaigns to replace him as leader. Then, the Quebec Sponsorship scandal erupted and put the Liberal party on the defensive. Suddenly, his plan to retire gracefully in early 2004 seemed untenable.

Jean Chretien left in the fall of 2003 under a cloud of scandal and at the behest of his potential successors. (Tom Hanson / Canadian Press files)

Jean Chretien left in the fall of 2003 under a cloud of scandal and at the behest of his potential successors. (Tom Hanson / Canadian Press files)

Chretien left in the fall of 2003 under a cloud of scandal and at the behest of his potential successors. The Little Guy from Shawinigan was denied the graceful exit he had so desperately wanted.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper is another example of a politician who was driven from politics after being unable to sustain his carefully crafted personal brand.

A politician who almost no one would describe as charismatic, Harper nonetheless excelled as a calm and collected antidote to the excess and entitlement that came to define the Liberal dynasty. He successfully convinced voters that his Conservative party would not drive the national agenda to the far right of the political spectrum; Harper was clearly a fiscal conservative but promised to keep social conservatism on the shelf.

In 2015 Stephen  Harper abandoned his carefully crafted brand and tried to forge a campaign distinguished by hysterical attacks on his opponents and a full-on embrace of ethnic identity politics. (Jonathan Hayward / Canadian Press files)

In 2015 Stephen Harper abandoned his carefully crafted brand and tried to forge a campaign distinguished by hysterical attacks on his opponents and a full-on embrace of ethnic identity politics. (Jonathan Hayward / Canadian Press files)

But in 2015, Harper found himself in a desperate situation, with voters signalling strongly that it was time for a change. Faced with the most important moment in his political career, Harper abandoned his carefully crafted brand and tried to forge a campaign distinguished by hysterical attacks on his opponents and a full-on embrace of ethnic identity politics.

It wasn't just that Canada was not ready to embrace a leader who was so negative and bitter. It was also that it was such a departure from the man Canadians had come to know as a disciplined and even-keeled general.

In attempting to cling to power in any form, Trudeau is swimming against the current of the experience of other leaders. Even if he is able to remain prime minister, the clock is ticking on his political career. We know this because he is now a politician without an effective political brand.

Trudeau is now a politician without an effective political brand. (Sean Kilpatrick)

Trudeau is now a politician without an effective political brand. (Sean Kilpatrick)

Canadians now know him as a much more traditional politician than he let on, a man willing to bully cabinet colleagues to enforce an age-old power structure embraced by governing parties. We also know him to be a man who talks a good game when it comes to enlightenment and progress but who walks the walk of a man who was perhaps only playing the part of a new-age political leader.

So, goodbye to the man and the leader who captured the nation's attention just four years ago with his message of hope and change. Goodbye as well to the prime minister who vaulted Canada to new heights on the international stage.

The morning after this election, we will meet a new and not-so-improved Trudeau, a political leader who is largely unknown to Canadians and who is likely already on the downside of his political career.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

Read full biography

You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

By submitting your comment, you agree to abide by our Community Standards and Moderation Policy. These guidelines were revised effective February 27, 2019. Have a question about our comment forum? Check our frequently asked questions.