For 55 years now, the term “Trudeaumania” has circulated Canadian politics, showcasing the true power of celebrity in electoral politics.
Trudeaumania was first used in early 1968 to describe the extreme excitement generated by Pierre Trudeau’s entry into the leadership race of the Liberal Party of Canada, but the term has lived on through Justin Trudeau, Pierre Trudeau’s son and the current Prime Minister of Canada. So what is it about Justin Trudeau that has made him so popular with the public?
Justin Trudeau’s Early Life
Justin Trudeau was quite literally born into the public eye as the son of Pierre Trudeau and Margaret Trudeau. The family’s personal lives were a regular topic of discussion in Canadian newspapers, which only worsened when rumours of Trudeau's mother having romantic relationships with Hollywood rock stars began to spread. By the age of six, Trudeau’s parents had divorced, leaving him and his brothers to be raised by Pierre.
When it came time to pick a career, it is safe to say Justin Trudeau struggled with indecisiveness. From nightclub bouncer to snowboarding instructor to secondary school teacher, Trudeau explored a multitude of career options before politics even crossed his mind. The PM even stated in the Globe and Mail in 2000:
Unlike most politicians, politics was, evidently, not something Trudeau spent much time thinking about prior to his decision to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue a career in Canada’s Liberal Party.
Trudeau Enters Politics
In 2000, Trudeau’s father Pierre passed away, leading him to deliver a moving eulogy in the national spotlight.
Shortly after delivering his father’s eulogy, the Canadian Prime Minister (at the time), Jean Chrétien, made Trudeau aware that there would always be a place for him in the Liberal Party because of his father’s everlasting reputation.
A few years later, in 2008, Trudeau finally decided to take on the opportunity and won the seat representing Papineau.
For years, Trudeau faced severe criticism from other politicians, being described as “an ill-prepared pretty face with a famous name” and “the Paris Hilton of Canada”. Nevertheless, the so-called ‘nepo baby’ won the public over with his charismatic personality and ‘celebrity’ status. “Trudeau seemed regal, yet familiar – a brand you knew and could trust” stated Huguette Young, a veteran Ottawa journalist and author of Justin Trudeau: The Natural Heir.
Trudeau’s charisma and natural instinct for political optics eventually paved the way for his victory in the 2015 federal elections, making him the youngest Prime Minister of Canada.
Trudeau as PM
As Trudeau took office, his focus on optics was on full display. 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 – reinforced Trudeau as a celebrity figure, not just a politician, in an attempt to connect the public to him.
His team was also courting international attention, prioritising interviews with the New York Times and a photoshoot for Vogue with his wife, Sophie, over interviews with Canadian media.
A vital part of Trudeau’s brand was the contrast between him and the far-right politicians gaining traction around 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 with his campaign slogan being “Real Change”. He has promised to usher in a new age of gender equality and freedom for indigenous people and even tweeted that Canada would welcome those fleeing persecution, regardless of their faith, when Trump pushed through his ban on travellers from a number of Muslim-majority countries. Creating an image that Canada is a northern utopia untouched by the forces of nationalism and xenophobia has been one of Trudeau’s primary tactics as PM.
In retrospect, it seems predictable that a brand so well-devised and symbolic would encourage idealisations that, in reality, Trudeau could not match. In 2018, three years after Trudeau took power, cracks began showing in Trudeau’s glossy facade.
The first dip involved Trudeau and his family’s trip to India. There was confusion over why he wore a gold sherwani to a meeting with Narendra Modi and other members of the Indian government when they had shown up in black suits. There was also extensive photography published on social media where the Prime Minister and his family flounced around in traditional Indian outfits with their hands clasped in prayer.
This resulted in public questions over Trudeau’s maturity and capability to represent one of the largest democracies in the world. His actions were viewed as insensitive and gimmicky.
Later that year, criticism grew, many believing Trudeau’s government was merely putting up a front, masking their political inaction with photo ops and big talk. Contradictions in policymaking and campaign were increasingly discussed.
For instance, 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 that made it harder for some migrants to seek asylum.
Despite shortcomings, Trudeau has, in several ways, lived up to his promises. For instance, lifting thousands of children out of poverty with the child-benefit programme, which provides direct funds to the country’s poorest families. Trudeau and his government have also been taking fledgling steps towards tackling climate change with legislation mandating a price on carbon in every province. Many supporters argue that Trudeau has done far more for the country than previous leaders.
In 2019, however, photos emerged of the Canadian PM wearing blackface on several different occasions. After championing minority groups during his nearly four years as PM, and making his embrace of Canada’s cultures a major part of his leadership, the emergence of these photographs brought on a strong response from the Canadian public. Many were deeply disappointed by the PM’s insensitivity and ignorance, while others argued that it was 20 years prior and that Trudeau had grown since.
Trudeau responded to the scandal by stating: “I shouldn’t have done that. I should have known better and I didn’t. I’m really sorry.” When asked if he thought the photograph was racist, he said, “Yes it was. I didn’t consider it racist at the time, but now we know better”.
Despite the lingering scandal, Trudeau and the Liberal Party were victorious in the 2019 general elections.
The Future of Trudeau
Despite numerous scandals and public backlash, Justin Trudeau’s position as a political celebrity and Pierre Trudeau’s son has allowed him to get away with a lot, and he continues to charm the public. Evidently, Trudeaumania doesn’t die. After all, how many other world leaders have been profiled in the New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and Rolling Stone?
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 Trudeau has delivered more than just a good narrative.