Liberals had such high hopes for him, eh!
Justin Trudeau: the rise and fall of a political brand
Thanks to his clever use of social media, he was dubbed the first prime minister of the Instagram age – but after four years in power, cracks in his image have started to show.
by Ashifa Kassam
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.
Trudeau ranked among the best hopes for resuscitating the Liberals and leading them back into power. But his political career, which began in earnest four years earlier, had been dogged by criticisms that he lacked substance and was riding on the coattails of his father, Pierre Trudeau, one of Canada’s longest-serving prime ministers. Barbra Streisand, a former lover of Pierre’s, once described him as a blend of “Marlon Brando and Napoleon”. In contrast, one critic had memorably dubbed Justin “the Paris Hilton of Canadian politics”. A triumphant bout in the ring could help erode this perception, Trudeau figured. “Never underestimate the power of symbols in today’s world,” he told a documentary film crew chronicling the fight.
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.”
In the weeks after the fight, the Canadian media, which had previously portrayed the Liberal MP as a “reed-thin, pedigreed Dauphin”, began lauding Trudeau as a public figure of “toughness, strength, honour and courage”, noted Elise Maiolino, then a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Toronto, after analysing hundreds of news articles. That change in perception electrified Trudeau’s career, helping to set him on a path to become leader of the Liberal party the following year. Two years after that, in 2015, the Liberals made an unprecedented leap from third-party status to a majority government – and Trudeau became, like his father before him, the prime minister of Canada.
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.
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.
“Brand Trudeau was squeaky clean and fresh and new and a different kind of politics,” says Shachi Kurl, a pollster from the Angus Reid Institute. “And it’s turned out that Brand Trudeau is: ‘Welcome to the new politics, just like the old politics.’”
In an age of constant and intimate exposure to celebrities, it may seem unsurprising that the head of government of a country containing less than half of 1% of the world’s population should be so familiar. But how many other Canadian prime ministers have been profiled in the New York Times Magazine, Vogue and Rolling Stone? How many other Canadian prime ministers can most non-Canadians even name, let alone call to mind an image of?
One of the extraordinary things about Trudeau is that he is famous in part because he is Canadian – a remarkably rare kind of fame. Most Canadians who are famous outside of the country have been processed through Hollywood or the US-dominated recording industry. Part of Trudeau’s appeal within Canada, then, is that he assuaged a dual sense of cultural insecurity and superiority, especially with regard to the country’s belligerent southern neighbour. (The majority of Canadians see Trudeau’s fame as a net benefit to the country, according to the Angus Reid Institute.) On the global stage he presented a sort of ideal form – likable, handsome, virtuous – in which the country could see its best self.
Trudeau’s distinctly Canadian appeal goes even deeper. The prime minister represents a potent idea of Canada and what it means to the world. This idea is perhaps best summed up by a campaign motto of Trudeau’s father, from the late 1960s: “The just society.” The idea was sold to Canadians as encompassing the protection of civil rights, economic opportunity for all, scientific remedies to environmental problems, greater autonomy for Indigenous people in Canada, and a country in which the language rights of both French and English were enshrined.
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. Photograph: Jeff Goode/Toronto Star via Getty
The craze for Justin Trudeau during the first years of his prime ministership echoed the “Trudeaumania” of his father’s ascent to power. Pierre, too, 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. Pierre was “packaged and presented as a debonair anti-politician who drove sports cars and spent time with pretty women”, writes Alex Marland, a scholar of Canadian political branding at Memorial University. “To cultivate an image of a pop culture phenomenon” during Canada’s 1968 federal election, he adds, “Liberal strategists recruited young Liberal women to behave as obsessed fanatics” when Pierre was in the presence of reporters.
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. As Marland puts it, Trudeau is executing a “similar playbook” to his father’s, but “in different technological terrain”.
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.
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, 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.
Immediately, there was talk of the younger Trudeau entering politics, but 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.”
Trudeau finally entered politics in 2007, when he began running for parliament in the riding of Papineau, a multicultural district in Montreal, which was represented at the time by a Quebec-nationalist party. During the election in 2008, he grasped something in miniature that Obama demonstrated on a larger scale that same year: that a political brand is not sufficient in and of itself – you also need a political operation. (Trump, who may not have had much of a grassroots campaign by comparison, is proof of how far such operations have moved to social media.) Trudeau won after mounting a year-long effort to knock on doors and shake hands in the district.
It was an impressive start, but Trudeau’s subsequent four years as an MP were generally seen as insipid. It wasn’t until his rout of the Conservative senator Brazeau in the boxing match in 2012 that the larger political tide began to turn for him. Three years later, Trudeau’s fight to become prime minister made his father’s brand his own.
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”.
But 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.”
“Trudeau really built his brand in order to counter the brand of Harper,” says Vincent Raynauld, a professor at Boston’s Emerson College who studies Canadian politics. In contrast to his opponent, who was seen as icy and remote, Trudeau promised a return to “sunny ways” – the motto of a much-admired prime minister from the turn of the 20th century. While Harper mooted banning the niqab at Canadian citizenship ceremonies and launching a hotline to ferret out what his party called “barbaric cultural practices”, Trudeau made a passionate defence of multiculturalism and immigration.
These were only two of the areas in which Trudeau promised to “do politics differently”. In a country where women make up just 26% of MPs, he promised to usher in a new age of gender equality – beginning by naming a cabinet comprised of as many women as men. In what would have constituted a direct challenge to his own party’s dominance, Trudeau pledged to make space for smaller political parties by reforming Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system. He vowed to reset the country’s relationship with its disproportionately disadvantaged Indigenous peoples. All in all, the Liberal manifesto made 353 specific policy promises.
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.
As Trudeau took office, his focus on optics was on full display. The often sedate swearing-in of a new government was thrown open to the public and turned into a highly stage-managed, live-streamed event. Trudeau was due to arrive by coach at the prime minister’s official residence, 24 Sussex Drive, where he spent his childhood. (The house has been under renovation since Trudeau took office, and he and his family have been living in a 22-room guest house nearby.) To avoid any inelegant photos or video – “Getting off a bus is such an ugly shot,” Trudeau told his communications director that morning, in comments captured by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – Trudeau’s team misled the media about where they should meet the new prime minister, ensuring that the first images the press got were of him strolling from 24 Sussex to the governor general’s official residence, Rideau Hall, where the ceremony would take place. At another point that morning, Trudeau and his team were preparing to respond to the question of why he was appointing a gender-balanced cabinet. “I think just calling people’s attention to the year is all you really need to say,” Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s right-hand man, told him. The advice yielded one of Trudeau’s most internationally famous lines: “Because it’s 2015.”
Around the same time, Trudeau’s team was courting international attention, prioritising interviews with the New York Times and a sultry photoshoot for Vogue with his wife, Sophie, over interviews with Canadian media. “That was very, very deliberate,” said Susan Delacourt, a journalist at the Toronto Star. “There was a sense that Canadians would like that.” Many Canadians initially did, interpreting the attention as a sign of Trudeau’s place among progressive world leaders at a time when Obama was still president and Hillary Clinton seemed poised to succeed him, Delacourt added.
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.
Trudeau posing with high school students while out jogging in Vancouver 2017. Photograph: Reuters/Instagram
A vital part of Trudeau’s brand was the contrast between him and the far-right politicians gaining ground around the world. In the US, Trump was on a journey that in some ways echoed Trudeau’s, parlaying his celebrity status into political power. When it came to optics, though, “Trump was a gift” for Trudeau, says Philippe Garneau, a corporate branding executive whose brother Marc ran against Trudeau for the Liberal leadership and is a minister in Trudeau’s cabinet. “I remember being worried. I said: ‘How can we put a man who has a degree in teaching and [who taught] drama, sit him down with Angela Merkel and across from Putin?’ And in walks Potus and upsets the whole apple cart,” Garneau went on. “So Trudeau got lucky. He was never shown to be the youngest, newest, greenest member at the table, but rather some sort of version of youthful exuberance, enthusiasm, optimism and a lack of cynicism.”
When Trump pushed through his ban on travellers from a number of Muslim-majority countries, Trudeau tweeted that Canada would welcome those fleeing persecution, regardless of their faith. As accusations of sexual misconduct piled up against Trump, Trudeau proclaimed his own feminism in the pages of Marie Claire. As Trump vowed to put America first, Trudeau said Canada was “back” as a global player.
Trudeau’s contrast with Trump was successfully memefied when the two leaders met in February 2017. Trump’s opening salvo with other world leaders had been an uncomfortably long, domineering handshake. Days earlier, Shinzō Abe, Japan’s prime minister, had been left reeling after a grip that dragged on for 19 seconds. Trudeau agonised for weeks about finding a technique that could show he was capable of holding his own, but which wouldn’t antagonise the man now at the helm of Canada’s largest trading partner.
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 retrospect, 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.
“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.
“We’ve done check box, check box, 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.
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.
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.)
Trudeau’s supporters point to the ways in which he has lived up to his promises. Since 2015, more than 44,000 Syrian refugees have been settled in Canada, compared with the 2,300 that Stephen Harper’s government took in between 2013 and 2015. Trudeau’s tenure so far has seen 278,000 children lifted out of poverty, a feat credited to the country’s buoyant economy as well as a marquee child-benefit programme that provides direct funds to the country’s poorest families. The government raised taxes on the top 1%, while cutting income tax for those in the middle bracket. And, while Canada is expected to fall short of its target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, Trudeau and his government have taken fledgling steps towards tackling climate change with legislation mandating a price on carbon in every province.
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.
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.
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.” 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.
Those behind Trudeau roundly reject the idea of the prime minister as a highly managed brand. “At the end of the day, he’s not a Nike sneaker,” says Kate Purchase, his executive director of communications and planning, whose responsibilities include vetting posts for his social media accounts. “He is a leader.”
Purchase pointed to the issues Trudeau addresses, from the anxiety of the middle class to diversity and inclusion, to explain his meteoric rise on the world stage. “Those are things that many governments are struggling with,” she said. “People will always describe what they believe the brand to be, and what their version of the brand is, but at the end of the day, I think our brand is what we’ve delivered.”
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?”