Why don’t we start with something we all can agree on: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has achieved peak smoulder on the cover of Rolling Stone. A statesman and a zaddy, he leans manfully against his desk, with the sleeves of his crisp white shirt rolled up and his grey-blue tie complimenting eyes, as the headline whimpers: “Why Can’t He Be Our President?”
Beyond that, the people are polarized about the accompanying story, written by journalist Stephen Rodrick. Canadians on the right hate it (because they say the negging of Trump will jeopardize NAFTA talks). Canadians on the left hate it (because of Trudeau’s support of the tar sands and the oil pipelines). Americans on the right are calling for a boycott of Rolling Stone (because of the Canadian government’s $10.5-million settlement to Omar Khadr). Among the fans: ride-or-die Liberals and the sort of progressive Americans who spent last year telling anyone who’d listen, “If Trump wins, I’m moving to Canada” and who’ve spent the better part of this one favouriting “Meanwhile in Canada” tweets.
Rodrick’s story is written in the panting style usually reserved for middle-aged heterosexual men interviewing buxom, 20-year-old starlets. “For Trudeau, listening is seducing,” he observes. Recognizing that Americans have a goldfish’s attention span for Canadian domestic affairs, the profile focuses on the ways in which Trudeau is not Trump: he’s articulate and cosmopolitan; he’s charming and devoted to his wife and kids; he’s pro-gay, pro-choice, pro-immigration and he’s a feminist. And all of that is accurate.
But there are two qualities the men do share: robust egos and a canny understanding of the power of celebrity. Trump used his fame to become a politician, but with Trudeau it’s the reverse. He’s become a celebrity through politics, the only Canadian leader since his father to become a global darling.
Given his pleasure in positive press, it’s not surprising that Trudeau would allow Rolling Stone generous access — but it’s a curious shift for the prime minister to so overtly participate in the trolling of Trump. To date, he’s been careful to avoid it, preferring to highlight “the great friendship” between the U.S. and Canada, to charm the president by befriending his daughter Ivanka, or to simply go around Trump and deal directly with governors, mayors and business leaders.
The prime minister can’t control what Rolling Stone chooses to print, of course, but his team is smart and media savvy — there’s no way Rodrick wouldn’t have had to first clear the general tone and scope of the article. The day the story appeared, Trudeau also made an appearance on The West Wing Weekly podcast (hosted by superfan Hrishikesh Hirway and actor Joshua Malina) where he geeked out about the TV series and alluded obliquely to Trump with faint praise about “some” things that were still working in Washington. The subtext was clear: the idealistic, government-as-a-force-for-good spirit might be on life support in America, but it’s alive and well in Canada.
The national benefit of Trudeau’s celebrity is debateable. The world may love Trudeau, but it’s rare that Canada is taken up, in a serious way, in international coverage of the prime minister. When he’s being billed by Rolling Stone as “the free world’s best hope,” it’s hard to discern whose interests are being served by the compliment.
The attention, though, seems hard to resist. Other Canadian politicians have taken their concerns to the U.S. media recently, with Conservatives condemning the Khadr settlement on Fox News and in the Wall Street Journal. But as Stephen Marche pointed out in The Walrus, these appearances have less to do with influencing Americans on policy issues than politicians wanting air time for themselves (and if they can deflate Trudeau while boosting their own profile, then all the better). It may, however, all be in vain, Marche writes: “Only someone who believes far too much in the power of the media — or somebody attempting the cheapest of political points—could worry about who gives an interview on what show in what country.” It seems some politicians have become overly dazzled by Canada’s newfound cachet.
In Trudeau’s case, Rolling Stone revealed just how deliberately he seeks the spotlight. Take the “spontaneous” pictures of him greeting Canadians while jogging with his official photographer coincidentally at hand. Or more distressingly, consider Trudeau’s characterization of his boxing match against Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau as a shrewd feat of political gamesmanship.
“It wasn’t random,” Trudeau says. “I wanted someone who would be a good foil, and we stumbled upon the scrappy tough-guy senator from an indigenous community. He fit the bill, and it was a very nice counterpoint. I saw it as the right kind of narrative, the right story to tell.”
Which narrative is that exactly? A white guy from one of the country’s most privileged families beating up an indigenous guy? For a prime minister who says reconciliation is a national priority, this was a deeply strange anecdote to share. But then Trudeau is prone to saying clueless things whenever he gets swept up by his own heroic narrative.
In a sparring match with Trump, however, over trade or the environment or other conflicts that may emerge, he’s going to have a harder time landing punches. Trump is often described as “needing a win,” no matter what the cost. He has a mafia don’s one-way understanding of loyalty. He bans Muslim travellers, threatens to take away healthcare away from millions of vulnerable people and announces his plans to throw transgender personnel out of the military, seemingly on a whim.
Trump’s supporters used to pretend there was a method to this madness. They likened him to a chess master, suggesting his lies, his outbursts and his flouting of norms were evidence of a strategic mind thinking five moves ahead. As time has passed and his administration has become increasingly chaotic and bizarre, it’s evident there is no long game, no strategy, no plan at all, just a huge ego residing in an impulse-driven lizard brain.
Trudeau’s position vis-à-vis Trump is not an enviable one. But if the prime minister’s recent U.S. media appearances are part of a new tactic to either undermine the president, or outshine him on the global stage, he should take care. When you’re up against a man for whom rules are meaningless, it’s easy to get played.