By Shachi Kurl
It is as if some siren governed by Hades is calling the prime minister to wreck his campaign ship on the jagged, rocky shores of idiotic behaviour, disingenuity and self-sabotage. For the second time this year, Justin Trudeau has picked up a sledgehammer and swung hard to severely damage, if not destroy, his own carefully crafted brand image.
In February it was ethics, and the hammer was SNC-Lavalin. This week, it was the high ground he (until Wednesday anyway) owned as the face and exemplar of what a tolerant, pro-multicultural and respectful politician should be. As multiple images – some from more than 20 years ago – show, he himself blackened and browned that face. It’s an act that is offensive, hurtful and demeaning. He did it for a night out, for dramatic effect, for a laugh.
No one is laughing now. Trudeau and the Liberals’ path to victory was dependent on two things: re-coalescing the centre-left voting base in Canada under their red banner; and motivating that base – comprised of young, urban people with a lower propensity to vote – to actually cast a ballot.
He drew up the writ having put much-needed distance between the Liberals and the NDP and Greens. Indeed, this election began looking as if it would narrow to a head-to-head contest between Trudeau and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. Having recovered a bit of swagger, it felt like a contest Trudeau could win because uncommitted voters, when it came down to it, were more inclined to lock in for the Liberals than the CPC.
Until those photos emerged. Now, a sputtering Trudeau’s campaign momentum has stalled. The story is so explosive it is making headlines internationally. That cannot be good for a politician who banks a lot of capital on being a darling on the world stage. But the world is learning, as people at home have already, that Trudeau has a special talent for letting down those who believe in him the most.
Who is likely to be most upset by these revelations? It is not Conservative-leaning older Canadians, many of whom may find this distasteful, but ultimately shrug-worthy. It is the young, “woke” left who will have the hardest time forgiving.
These are the voters the Liberals need, but they may well spread like oil on water across the left – drifting back to the NDP, back to the Greens. Obviously, that’s not good news for the Liberals, but there is a scenario that would prove even worse for them: one wherein these same swing voters become so disgusted and cynical, they simply stay home. Elections with lower turnouts benefit the Conservatives, who boast a more motivated, more frequently voting base.
Elections with lower turnouts benefit the Conservatives, who boast a more motivated, more frequently voting base.
That said, Trudeau had been sitting on a mountain of goodwill when it comes to his perception as an inclusive and compassionate leader. Polling from the Angus Reid Institute conducted before the photos came out showed more than 90 per cent of swing voters saw him as tolerant. Will this be the base on which he can recover? Or, as I have mused, will this week’s events be the political equivalent of necrotizing fasciitis that eats and rots away his better attributes?
Strategists have already opined that the photos won’t be fatal to the Liberal campaign. Maybe they’re right. But while this may not be the blunt-force trauma that ends things, it could be the blood infection that first weakens, then overpowers the patient. As is the case in both health and political crises, the next few days will be telling.
Either the voters Trudeau needs look past his profound personal failure and judge only his government’s track record on diversity or whatever, or they grow weary of a brand that has once again proved false, jumping ship and leaving the Liberals to run aground.
Shachi Kurl is Executive Director of the Angus Reid Institute, a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research foundation
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