Overcoming attacks has become Trudeau's narrative this campaign

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A journalist I know who may have seen a few elections too many, was expressing aversion to Justin Trudeau early in the campaign. Trudeau's resumé was skimpy yet he seemed to feel entitled to lead the country. "What people expect is at least some narrative in a candidate's life," he said. I'm not sure Trudeau's bio merits this dismissal but if you really want narrative, you could probably find it in the plot line of the campaign itself. Meaning what?

Trudeau has withstood a pummeling that wasted the two previous Liberal leaders so badly that each broke down publicly during their campaign under the scorn and humiliation. Trudeau survived and overcame. You wanted a narrative?

For months before the formal launch, there were ads with actors mocking him and quotes or clips taken miles out of context. By the writ-drop in early August, he'd sunk nearly from contention. Then new abuses were added.

A major weapon was referring to him only as Justin, as if he was nine. Sort of first-naming and shaming. Thomas Mulcair of course was Mr. Mulcair, like your math teacher. This may have overreached. "He's 43!" barked a high school student I know, as if nothing more needed saying. Forty-three is senior enough for anyone under that age. (The same teen said Trudeau is the only leader who you can picture playing the Hugh Grant prime minister role in Love Actually.)

The accompanying jibe went, he's "just not ready." This may have backfired too when Trudeau turned out not to be nine and seemed well in control once voters saw him in debates, etc. A trope emerged in which people looked at each other after a Trudeau moment and said, "He looks ready to me." At this stage it'd be futile to rerun the ads: they're self-rebutting, which was always implicit. As another adolescent I know said, "Isn't Trudeau the most likely to beat Harper? I haven't seen any ads telling me the NDP leader is 'just not ready.'"

(To give the poor Tories their due, it's almost impossible to find a bad photo of the guy. In ads the Tories are now running, they chose the shot but he still looks adorable. The only time he looked sleazy was when he did it deliberately for a charity "fashion show," so even that counts as photogenic.)

All this created, for the NDP, a tricky subplot. Mulcair could have expressed revulsion at the scuzzy tone of the assaults on Trudeau, which I think would have been politically astute. Instead he piled on, calling Trudeau, "Justin," in the debates and running ads saying "I'm ready," which made him sound like Harper's poodle. It was a sad denouement for someone who'd made many forceful sallies against Harper during Question Period -- though it's richly dramatic in terms of plot line. It reached a nadir at the Munk debate when Mulcair said Trudeau needs others to write his lines for him -- even though Mulcair himself has clearly been coached on how to behave and which level to calibrate his smile at. Trudeau replied that we've had 10 years of personal slurs from Harper and we don't need more. He looked as close to losing control as we've seen but he got it back and it ended more in sorrow than anger. So who's the adult now?

At this point, Trudeau has earned that most precious of tributes (IMHO): grudging respect from his enemies, including quarters like the National Post. Might they even pull a Globe, producing an editorial endorsing Trudeau, which would of course then be superseded by an order from upstairs to replace the name Trudeau with Harper in their text? Harper himself reverted to Mr./Monsieur Trudeau in the final debates, saving his Justins for radio ads.

"So you've become a Liberal," said someone I know who really knows how to hurt a guy, when I expressed some of these thoughts. Not really. I fully expect the Liberals to screw us over if they win. Liberals always break your heart after the election. It's conventionally known as running from the left and governing from the right. The NDP on the other hand, at least lately, has taken to breaking our hearts before the election. It's probably a matter of personality but at this point in my life, I think I'd prefer to postpone the heartbreak awhile.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

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